PUBLISHERS HAVE CREATED and then exploited a market for true-life accounts of maritime heroism and tragedy. Stories of ships lost at sea or ground to pulp by polar ice, sailors cast adrift and resorting to cannibalism—this is the stuff of which more than a few recent bestsellers have been made. The weirder the yarn, it seems, the better.
Fatal North: Adventure and Survival Aboard USS Polaris, the First US Expedition to the North Pole
by Bruce Henderson (New American Library, $22.95)
And few are weirder than the saga of the USS Polaris. Launched in 1871, amid an explosion of interest in Arctic researches, that twin-masted, heavily reinforced steamer and its crew were charged—by no less than President Ulysses S. Grant—with reaching the North Pole. In command was Charles Francis Hall, a former Ohio engraver and printer who, 11 years before, had gained renown by setting off for the north with barely enough supplies and a whaling sailboat, determined to shed light on the 1845 disappearance of British explorer Sir John Franklin. (Although he couldn't solve the Franklin mystery, Hall did find objects discarded by that expedition's crew as well as relics from a gold-seeking foray into Canada's Baffin Bay 300 years earlier.) Backing up Hall was a staff of Arctic veterans, including his sailing master Sidney Buddington, assistant navigator George Tyson, and a pair of skilled Eskimo guides—all of whom, the captain said confidently, would "stand by me through thick and thin." With fair winds and surprisingly ice-free waters ahead of them, there seemed no reason why the Polaris should not attain the elusive Pole.
BUT, AS AUTHOR Bruce Henderson recounts in his rewardingly suspenseful new maritime history, Fatal North, mutinous passions started brewing early among the Polaris' company. After the abstemious Hall disciplined his sailing master for raiding the ship's larder, Buddington turned angry and contemptuous of the captain and his plans to sail as far north as possible before winter's onset. Meanwhile, Hall's authority was openly challenged by the Germans comprising Polaris' scientific party—especially their leader, Dr. Emil Bessels, who believed his agenda should take precedence over Hall's. And just when it seemed conditions couldn't grow worse, they did. Returning to his now-icebound vessel after scouting a sled route north from Greenland, Hall suddenly took to his bunk complaining of a "foul stomach." Within days, he was raving about murderers in his midst, and just over two weeks later, he died, casting suspicion over both Buddington and Bessels (the latter of whom had tended Hall through his decline). In Hall's absence, the thin veneer of order on board disappeared entirely, leaving a drunken Buddington in charge and resulting in the abandonment of 18 crew members—including two Eskimo families and a resourceful Tyson—on an ice floe for six months.
Henderson, who earned his chops with an earlier best-selling account of maritime murder, 1991's And the Sea Will Tell (coauthored with Vincent Bugliosi), delivers the Polaris nightmare in tightly crafted prose and often chilling—literally—detail. "Screams cut through the night; some men were floating away on small pieces of ice," he writes of the ice breakup that left Tyson's party marooned. "Tyson hurried to launch one of the small boats, and noticed nearby a bundle of musk-ox skins stretched across a rapidly widening crack. He quickly pulled the bundle toward him, and to his astonishment he saw [Eskimo hunter Hans Hendrik's] three youngest children rolled up in the skins, sound asleep. In another moment they would have been lost." Dramatizing the government investigation that followed the rescue of Polaris' crew (a probe that whitewashed the whole affair rather than further disgrace Republican Grant's already scandalized administration), the author develops a strong case that Charles Francis Hall was poisoned. However, it would have made for greater drama had Henderson peppered his re-created scene of Hall's death with more of those telling clues instead of reserving them for the final pages of this rousing sea adventure.