What happened to the Polaris Expedition and did it lead to Murder?

It began as a quest to reach the North Pole. It ended in a suspicious death. But what happened on the doomed Polaris Expedition? Follow your compasses true north, as we go in search of the answers.

3 January 2023

The Polaris Expedition was a doomed quest to reach the North Pole. It was the first ever Arctic mission of its kind to be funded in its entirety by the US government. And it was dogged by power struggles and conflict culminating in the death of its ship captain, Charles Francis Hall.

The question that has divided opinion for over a century since is, was his death natural? Or was what happened on the Polaris murder? Let’s lay out the details.

The Race for the North Pole

A bank note engraving of the Polaris ship. (Photo: Archive Photos via Getty Images)

The nineteenth century was a time of pioneering Arctic exploration. Countries and private individuals vied to be the first to find fabled places in the icy north. At one point, there was a race for the Northwest Passage, which famously resulted in the tragic Franklin Expedition in 1845.

At some point, the popular fixation transferred away from finding the Northwest Passage and settled firmly on reaching the North Pole. In the US, Charles Francis Hall singlemindedly and successfully lobbied the US government to sponsor such a mission. The Polaris Expedition was allotted $50,000, the first such enterprise wholly financed by the US government.

Who Was Charles Francis Hall?

Charles Francis Hall (1821 - 8 November 1871) (Photo: UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images)

So, who was the man behind the funding of the expedition? Charles Francis Hall had, at one time or another, been an apprentice blacksmith, owned an engraving business and become a newspaper publisher. He was obsessed with the Franklin Expedition, even spending eight months living among the Inuit people in the Arctic in an attempt to solve the mystery.

Thus, at the time of the Polaris Expedition, he was an experienced polar explorer. However, the man who would captain the Polaris ship lacked any naval or scientific training. What’s more he held no military or naval rank and had no experience of running a ship.

The Polaris Expedition

Illustration U.S.S. Polaris (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

The Polaris Expedition left New London, Connecticut on 3 July 1871, led by Charles Francis Hall. The Polaris ship, officially the U.S.S. Polaris, was a former Civil War vessel, aboard which were its passengers, officers, scientific personnel and crew totalling 33. There was a mix of Americans, Germans, Scandinavians and Inuit on board. Problems arose almost immediately.

No Master, No Commander

Antique world map illustration. Salvaged from an 1871 geography book (Photo: ideabug via Getty Images)

Hall’s inexperience in navigation and command were an immediate and pressing problem. It meant dividing the role of captain into three. Thus, alongside Hall, crewmen Sidney Ozias Budington and George Emory Tyson, both veteran whaling boat captains, acted as navigator and assistant navigator respectively. In effect, the ship had no single captain. And, to make matters worse, Budington and Hall had come to blows on a previous trip.

An International Divide

Portraits of Emil Bessels in fur parka, 1880 (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In addition to this, a split emerged between the German scientific team and the American crew, with particular animosity towards Hall. In particular, chief scientist and ship’s surgeon Emil Bessels was hostile towards the captain from the start, openly rejecting the ‘uneducated’ Hall’s control over the scientific research being undertaken in the ship.

Crew began to openly defy Hall’s command, seeing him as an ineffective leader and rendering him captain in name only. This resulted in chaos, with threats of charges of insubordination, in-fighting and even someone throwing the Polaris ship’s specially-fitted boilers overboard.

To Boldly Go…Or Not?

Charles Francis Hall, Arctic explorer at base camp (Photo: Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, the Polaris ship reached 82° 29’ N, the furthest north any ship had ever been. Yet even this led to conflict, with a split between those who wanted to go further and those bent on going home. Hall wanted to continue their North Pole mission using sleds and dogs. Others argued that continuing the journey by ship would put the vessel at risk from the ice.

The Death of Charles Francis Hall

Vintage engraving from 1878 of the Funeral of Captain Hall (Photo: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

Hall won out, embarking on a two-week dog-and-sled trip north. He returned on 24 October 1871 and, after drinking a cup of coffee, became gravely ill. In addition to being in great pain and vomiting, Hall suffered partial paralysis and delirium. As the ship’s doctor, Bessels diagnosed a stroke. But Hall immediately accused Bessels and navigator Budington of poisoning him.

While accounts vary, it is said that Hall barred Bessels from visiting him for a time, during which he improved, only to deteriorate again soon after Bessels was permitted to return. On 8 November 1871, Charles Hall died.

An Unsettling Conclusion

Vintage bottle of Arsenic (Photo: Thom Lang via Getty Images)

An official investigation was held upon the return of the Polaris ship. It concluded that Hall died from apoplexy, better known as a stroke. But many believed it was anything but natural. And the prime suspect was Emil Bessels.

In 1968, almost a century later, Professor Chauncey C. Loomis of Dartmouth College exhumed Hall’s body from its grave in Greenland. After studying hair, bone and fingernail samples he found lethal doses of arsenic were administered in the last two weeks of Hall’s life.

This discovery seemed to some to call the death of Hall aboard the Polaris murder. For his part, Loomis believed that the captain had been poisoned and that Bessels was probably responsible. Others argued it raises more questions than it answers. Whatever one’s position, further revelations are unlikely, ensuring the mystery surrounding the Polaris Expedition remains firmly unsolved.


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