The Mummies of Beechey Island, by Katie Gill

I have a favorite mummy.

I realize this is a bit odd. Most people only know one or two mummies, certainly not an entire group and certainly not enough to pick a favorite. For those who know about multiple mummies, I doubt many of them have strong mummy opinions to have an outright favorite, but I do.

My memory isn’t the best. It’s always a guess whether I’ll remember important events from my childhood, like birthdays or holidays. I’ll remember an odd childhood memory, like the time a family friend gave us a coconut cake that was slowly eaten over the course of two weeks, as I’m the only one in my family who likes the taste and texture of coconut. But it takes me a moment to remember precisely where I was and what I was doing on September 11, 2001—and even then, I’m not sure if I remember it or if this is just my brain filling in details it knows must be there. I’m not one of those people who can call up the faces of their childhood friends. I have introduced people to each other, only to have them remind me that of course they know each other, we all went to this outdoor festival before, we had a great time—and said outdoor festival was less than a year ago. I routinely live my life by a planner, knowing full well that if I do not write down something, it might not exist.

Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to mummies in general. Their memory is preserved. You can look at a mummy and get a good idea of who the person was, what they held important, what they ate, what their life was like, and so on. Their memory lasts past their lifetime. I’m especially drawn to natural mummies. Natural mummies are mummies that were accidentally created, that did not go through the traditional mummification process one associates with them—there are rarely any sarcophagi or lavish tombs here. These are mummies that are preserved due to unnatural circumstances: dying in a salt pit, preservation due to subzero temperatures, preservation after being thrown into a bog. Granted, sometimes the preservation is less than perfect. Very few mummies retain the detail of the Tollund Man, a bog body so well-preserved that it looks fake, a mummy on whom you can count the wrinkles on his forehead. Most mummies are closer to Ötzi, a man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BC, whose body looks humanoid, but is shriveled, partly deteriorated, and an interesting amber color. They’re definitely human! You can test for DNA, you can do an X-ray, you can examine what their last meal was. But they don’t look entirely human. There’s something a little off.

The bodies of the Beechey Island mummies, three mummies buried on a small island in the Arctic Circle, are some of the most well-preserved mummies I’ve ever seen pictures of. You can make out the smallest details of the mummies—hell, get close enough and you can probably see their pores. John Torrington has brown hair and delicate hands. John Hartnell is wearing a shirt with the letters “TH,” which probably belonged to his younger brother and fellow sailor on the expedition, Thomas. William Braine is over six feet tall and has a dark beard. You half expect them to climb out of the grave, waking from their eternal slumber to look at the world around them.

The Beechey Island mummies are also my favorite mummies. Not simply because they’re so well-preserved, but because of their story.

Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine were sailors in the Franklin Expedition, one of history’s most famous nautical mysteries. Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, left London in 1845, commanded by Sir John Franklin and staffed with a crew of 128 men. The goal of the Franklin Expedition was to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic, to shorten the distance of trade routes. The ships were last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay before vanishing for over a hundred years. In 2014, the wreck of HMS Erebus was found at the bottom of Wilmot and Crampton Bay in Kitikmeot Region, Nunavut, Canada. In 2016, the wreck of HMS Terror was found, appropriately enough, at the bottom of Terror Bay. But while the ships were found, another mystery remained. What happened to the men? 

Ships and rescue expeditions were sent out to try and find any survivors and then, once it became obvious to all that there wouldn’t be any survivors, to find any trace of what could have happened. Explorers searched the Arctic Circle, finding tragedy after tragedy. No living men were found, but quite a few dead men were. There were two skeletons, found in a boat, surrounded by abandoned equipment and paraphernalia, most of it useless for an overland walk on the ice. There was the skeleton of a man, clutching the papers of Terror’s captain of the foretop, Henry Peglar. The man probably wasn’t Peglar himself, as the kerchief around the man’s neck identified him as a steward. There was the grave identified as that of Lieutenant John Irving because a medal Irving had won for mathematics was placed in the grave. There were stories from the local Inuit people, stories about men so gaunt they looked like the walking dead. There were bones with knife marks on them: tell-tale evidence of cannibalism. There was a trail of death and sorrow writ large across the lands of the Arctic.

Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine missed all that. The three men died before Erebus and Terror became lost in the ice. And as the search for the missing men captivated the world, there was one very easy-to-find place where Erebus and Terror made one of their first stops: Beechey Island, an island in the Arctic Circle, where the two ships wintered over during their first winter. Early rescue missions found the detritus and garbage, empty tins that used to hold preserved food. They found the remnants of shelters. They found rock cairns, built up so that Franklin or one of the other officers, could store notes, supplies, or important documents. And they found three gravestones: one for Torrington, one for Hartnell, and one for Braine. The three men died early, spared from whatever suffering befell the rest of the men. As they died on solid land early in the expedition, their deaths could have a little dignity. Each man was buried in a coffin, sealed shut and filled with wood shavings, possibly to help offset the smell of death. Each man has a headstone, telling his full name, rank, age, and date of death, some with an accompanying Bible verse. And each man is well preserved, essentially mummified due to the below-ground burial in below-freezing temperatures.

From 1984 to 1986, anthropologist Owen Beattie and his team carefully exhumed each of the mummies. What they saw was remarkable. Each of the men was exceedingly well-preserved, with little decay. The temperatures and the rigor mortis had frozen their faces into rictus stares, as after death, the tissue of the lips dries out to show the teeth (this is the reason why for an open-casket funeral, embalmers often sew the lips of a corpse shut). Likewise, one of Hartnell’s eyes was damaged, probably due to his unearthing and reburial in 1852 by a rescue expeditions—Beattie suspects the Isabel, a privately funded schooner staffed by seventeen men and led by Commander Edward A. Inglefield. But the fact that the men’s eyes were preserved well enough for Beattie and his team to notice the damage, to see the color of each eye, was astounding. They could see the color of the men’s hair. They could know their height, their weight, what they were wearing.

A mobile laboratory was set up, allowing Beattie and his team to perform autopsies on Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine. Each of the men was carefully unfrozen as slowly as possible so as not to damage the men, their coffins, or the existing surroundings. Once the bodies were unfrozen enough to be lifted from the ground, they were taken to the mobile laboratory setup. The team carefully stripped the bodies and performed the autopsies. Tissue and bone samples were taken from the bodies, allowing more rigorous tests to be performed outside of the Arctic environment. The men were then re-dressed and reburied, again with the utmost caution, care, and respect.

Petty Officer John Torrington was the first mummy unearthed. One of the first things Beattie noted was the man’s coffin. It was impressively built, made out of mahogany, with white linen tape tacked to the front and sides of the coffin. There was a wrought iron plaque on the front of the coffin, hand-painted and securely nailed to the lid of the coffin. Torrington might not have been the first man to die on the expedition—after all, the information we have is scant at best—but his coffin shows the love and care the crew took with regards to his burial. Torrington’s body was also light: the man weighed less than a hundred pounds at death. His cause of death was listed as pneumonia. Based on the softness of his hands, it appears the disease had ravaged him for a while, preventing him from attending to his job as the stoker on Terror.

There is an interesting fact about Able Seaman John Hartnell’s body, something that Beattie only discovered when they prepared the corpse for autopsy: John Hartnell had been previously autopsied. There was a large Y incision in the man’s chest, similar to the autopsy incisions Beattie and his team would make, believed to be the work of Erebus’s assistant surgeon, Harry Goodsir. The incision was also upside down: Goodsir made a mistake while preparing the man for autopsy. One can imagine Goodsir looking on from the afterlife, blushing in shame as Beattie not only finds his mistake, but publishes details of it in his book. One can also imagine poor twenty-five-year-old Goodsir alive, under the watchful eye of Stephen Stanley, Erebus’s chief surgeon or possibly even Franklin himself, panicking, tensing up, making that simple mistake during the autopsy. Was it simply nerves? While Goodsir was licensed by the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, his job prior to signing on to the expedition was conservator of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh. Was his mistake simply due to being a young surgeon, nervous as he operated on a body for the first time in years? Or was it because he knew that outside of the surgeon’s chamber, somewhere on the boat, possibly within earshot, John Hartnell’s brother was there? What did Thomas Hartnell think as they took his brother under the knife? John Torrington, the first death, wasn’t autopsied. Why John Hartnell? What could they have possibly hoped to gain? Who comforted Thomas at his loss, knowing that he had to spend at least another year on the ship where he died, sitting with his grief, before going home to inform family and friends of John’s fate?

We don’t know these things. We’ll never know these things. But what we do know is that John Hartnell was buried in one of his brother’s shirts. Sure, the TH could be someone else. There was another TH on the ship’s expedition: Thomas Honey, Terror’s carpenter. But the simplest answer is usually the right one. No matter what, I’m sure a little part of Thomas died the day that his big brother did. Maybe he metaphorically buried that dead part of himself as he literally buried his brother, surrounded by sawdust shavings in a coffin, wearing Thomas’s shirt. It’s due to this human element, these little touches of man interacting with his fellow man, that make John Hartnell my favorite of the three Franklin Expeditions mummies—though Torrington and Braine make a very close second.

Private William Braine was the last of the Beechey Island mummies exhumed. One of the first things Beattie and his team noticed was a chipped tooth at the front of Braine’s mouth, a sign of a man who had lived a rough life. Poor Braine also seems to have suffered the most indignities during his death. Braine was buried hastily, with his arms and head not properly positioned in the coffin—indeed, Beattie’s first thought was that Braine’s left arm was amputated, instead of awkwardly bent behind his body. Braine also had lesions on his shoulders, chest, and groin, courtesy of rats that had chewed on the corpse before burial. Slight decomposition had also set in with Braine’s body before the mummification took hold. Perhaps he had died while hauling a sledge? If he had died hours from the camp, decomposition would have had time to settle in before the body had frozen. Needless to say, his body was treated with the same grace and care, though not really as much gentleness, as the other two sailors were, before being entombed back into his frozen grave.

I cannot overstate just how important it is that these bodies were found, because most of the crew’s fate remains unknown. Sure, they found skeletons, but nobody could do DNA testing back in the 1840s. Their identity had to be guessed by context clues. The steward holding the papers of Henry Peglar? He might be Terror’s gun room steward Thomas Armitage; Armitage and Peglar served together on prior ships. We don’t know for a fact that John Irving is John Irving—we only have the contextual clues of his grave and its contents. Of course, these guesses might be wrong. In the 1870s, a set of remains were inspected and declared to be the remains of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, second lieutenant on Erebus. Over a hundred years passed before a 2009 examination involving isotopic studies of the body’s tooth enamel and forensic facial reconstruction revealed that those remains are most likely of Harry Goodsir, he who messed up Hartnell’s autopsy. Some of the men have been identified through modern DNA testing: the remains of John Gregory, warrant officer on Erebus, were identified thanks to a match with a DNA sample obtained from Gregory’s great-great-great grandson. But for those whose identity has been figured out, we still don’t know how they died, or what happened in the last minutes of these men’s lives. Was it quick? Did they suffer? At least we know what happened with the Beechey Island mummies. At least their families can have a sense of closure.

William Braine was thirty when he died. John Hartnell was twenty-five. John Torrington was twenty.

But there’s one other body buried on Beechey Island.

When news started to spread that Franklin’s ships were lost, dozens of exploratory missions were launched, though it soon became apparent that the missions were less “rescue” and more “fact-finding.” Lady Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin, funded a large portion of these rescue ships herself, at first to find her husband but in the end, more to shame the Admiralty for what she deemed their inaction in providing aid to Franklin’s men. One of these ships was the HMS North Star, and on that ship, another sailor died. There is a fourth gravestone on Beechey Island: Thomas Morgan, A.B., HMS Investigator, died aboard the HMS North Star, May 22, 1854. The 1854 voyage wasn’t the North Star‘s first trip to the Arctic: in 1849, she made a trip to the Arctic, with the intent of bringing supplies to James Clark Ross, another explorer searching for traces of Franklin. Instead, she was trapped, moving at the mercy of the wind and the ice, and forced to winter over in a cove now known as North Star Bay. HMS North Star managed to survive that winter with minor casualties—only four men died, compared to Franklin’s entire crew. She deposited her supplies in caches along the shore, went back to England…and then was almost immediately sent back to the Arctic, this time to help the HMS Investigator, a ship that had left England in 1848 and had been frozen in the ice for some time.

We don’t have much information on Morgan himself. Hell, we don’t even know if he’s even there. As far as I know, no one’s unearthed his grave and examined his body. After all, he’s not part of a mystery. Robert McClure, the captain of HMS Investigator, survived the three years in the ice and returned to England to publish his memoirs. On the HMS Investigator, only six of the crew died. Songs, stories, and shows aren’t written about a ship where sure, a few things went wrong, but all in all it wasn’t that bad.

I’ve got a soft spot for Morgan anyway. Nobody would really consider him as famous as Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine. He’s not a celebrity corpse. He’s not going to be dug up and autopsied any time soon, but it seems he received that same level of care as those men before him. He had a headstone as well. His body joined the impromptu, accidental graveyard of Beechey Island, and while his story is quite tragic—the poor man essentially died after being rescued, after all—it’s also a little hopeful. Two ships and 129 men went missing in the Arctic, and people immediately started trying to help. Funds were raised, ships were sent out, and people from multiple nations came together to try to find what happened to these men. Who knows why Morgan signed up with HMS Investigator? Possibly he was just in need of a paycheck, or possibly he felt the need, like so many of his fellow crewmen and fellow sailors, to simply try and help.

The Beechey Island mummies are my favorite mummies. Not because they’re so wonderfully preserved—though I’ll admit, that does help, but because their story lives on. Their story, their lives, even a little bit of their personality lives on in their bodies. And as their story lives on, so does the story of the Franklin Expedition itself. Through John Torrington, we learn about the care the crew took in his burial. Through John Hartnell, we can speculate about the other men, about a devoted brother and a nervous surgeon. Through William Braine, we learn about the hard life he must have lived through before his equally hard death. Through Thomas Morgan, we learn about the helpers, the people who heard news of a missing ship, of 129 missing men, and immediately thought “what can I do, how can I help.” Through all of those men, we learn a little bit more about the rest of the Franklin Expedition, those remaining 126 men whose fates are still unknown.


Katie Gill is a librarian by day, essayist and podcaster by night. She has previously published at The Singles Jukebox, Anime Feminist, and Manor Vellum. Hear her voice on various podcasts including PseudoPod and Stacks and Stories. Twitter: @katiebeluga

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