John Torrington: Ice Mummy Of The Lost Franklin Expedition

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Who Was John Torrington?

John Torrington (1825-1846) was a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy who was assigned to the catastrophic Franklin Expedition as stoker in 1845. John Torrington died 7 months into the expedition and was buried on Beechey Island, Canada. His barely decomposed body shocked scientists who exhumed his body in 1984. Torrington was in perfectly preserved and his eyes were open, looking straight at crew.

Franklin Expedition

In 1845, two Royal Navy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, sailed from Greenhithe, England under Sir John Franklin’s command. The ships were the best in all of British Navy, provisioned with 3 years worth of food and modern equipment.

The goal of the expedition was to explore the unknown sections of the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Northern Canadian Archipelago.

Scientists found the wrecks of Erebus and Terror ships in 2014 and 2016 (canadianmysteries.ca)

The expedition commenced with many problems, even some early fatalities. In 1847, two ships ran aground on ice near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. After a year of being stuck among the ice sheets and icebergs, the crew decided to abandon the ships in an attempt to find settlements or a ship passing by. Captain Sir John Franklin died with more than 20 of his men. Therefore, the rest of the crew set sail in hope of reaching mainland Canada. No one ever heard from them again.

Depiction of the Franklin party stuck in ice (npr.org)

Finding John Torrington’s Grave

Demanded by Sir Franklin’s wife, Royal Navy sent search parties to find out what happened to the expedition crew. In 1850, a search party discovered a stone hut, rusty food cans and three graves on Beechey Island. The graves contained the remains of John Torrington and two of his crewmen, William Braine and John Hartnell. In 1974, the Canadian authorities rediscovered the graves which started a period of scientific studies on Beechy Island.

Torrington’s Original Tombstone

“Sacred To The Memory Of John Torrington Who Departed This Life January 1st A.D. 1846 On Board Of HM Ship Terror Aged 20 Year”

Facial reconstructions and preserved mummies of Jogn Torrington, William Braine and John Hartnell

What Happened To John Torrington?

In 1984, with the consent of Torrington’s descendants in England, a crew led by the archeologist Owen Beattie commenced their work on Torrington’s grave. They dug 1.5 meters deep into the frozen ground to reach the coffin. Upon opening the coffin, they were struck by how well the body was preserved.

Scientists melted the ice sheet covering Torrington in slow pace to avoid damaging the body / secretsoftheice.com

Further scientific studies suggested that John Torrington had been very sick and weighed only 38.5 kilograms at the time of his death. His cause of death was determimed as pneumonia.

Moreover, toxicology tests showed high levels of lead in Torrington’s hair and fingernails. Scientists concluded that canned food was the prime source of lead and a major factor in the decline of Torrington’s and crew’s health. Upon examining the cans used by Franklin’s expedition crew, scientists figured out that the lids of the cans were poorly soldered with lead which possibly put the food into direct contact with lead.

Cannibalism and Starvation

Human bones were subsequently found on King James island. They also contained high levels of lead. They are thought to be the bones of Torrington’s fellow crewmen. Through the analysis of the bones, Owen Beattie’s crew disclosed a gruesome fact about Franklin’s Expedition. There were marks and signs on the bones suggesting that the surviving members of Franklin’s crew ate their deceased companions.

The cold weather, starvation and diseases, worsened by the exposure to high levels of lead, killed everybody in the Franklin Expedition crew.

The Victory Point Note

In 1857, during the McClintock Artctic Exhibition, William Hobson found two pieces of paper with notes written by Franklin’s Exhibition party on King William Island. The finding of these papers illuminate the appalling cirsumstances of the Franklin party.

First message May 28th, 1847: H.M.S ships Erebu and Terror wintered in the Ice in lat. 70 05′ N., long. 98 23′ W. Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island, in lat. 74 43′ 28″ N., long. 91 39′ 15″ W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77°, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.

Second message April 25, 1848: H.M. ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37′ 42″ N., long. 98˚ 41′ W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.

Torrington Became A Celebrity After He Was Exhumed

John Torrington became a celebrity of sorts after his exhumation. His remarkable state of preservation inspired many artists. Iron Maiden wrote a song named “Stranger In A Strange Land”, inspired by Torrington’s discovery. People’s Magazine named him “one of the most intriguing personalities” in 1984. In addition to these, many poems, short stories and books were written about Torrington.

An informative podcast I found about John Torrington Franklin Expedition

Argun Konuk
Argun Konuk

A 24-year-old travel & history enthusiast who has been sharing his travel experiences and introducing the unpopular unique places in the world!

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