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A Horribly British Way To Die
on 13 September 2005
In 1845 Sir John Franklin and 128 men aboard the vessels Erebus and Terror set sail to navigate a course through the fabled (and unbeknownst to them, utterly useless) North-West Passage. After stopping briefly at Greenland they disappeared literally off the map. The years passed and as concern grew several rescue missions were launched at the urging of Lady Franklin. Gradually macabre details began to filter back. One of the first discoveries was of three gravestones of Franklin crewmen in the permafrost of the tiny Beechey Island, then further south on King William island more relics were unearthed including a note in a cairn detailing Franklin's death in 1847. Gruesome accounts from local Inuit tribes described shambling groups of insane gibbering white men, in some cases resorting to cannibalism in a desperate and futile attempt to survive.
Frozen in Time is a book of two halves. In the first part the authors describe the history of the search for the North West Passage, mention the debilitating effects of polar exploration and also provide an account of the doomed Franklin expedition. The second part of the book is essentially CSI North West Territories. King William island is searched first but reveals only some fragmented skeletons and a few small artefacts. The human remains provide tantalising but inconclusive information. The researchers then decide to exhume the three graves on Beechey Island.
This book has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Few other books have fired up my imagination to the same extent. The descriptions of the exhumations and then the autopsies of the perfectly preserved bodies of John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine are absolutely gripping and the resulting conclusions are as horrific as they are fascinating. This has been said before but I'll say it again, I envy anybody who has yet to read this book. I would also urge any readers to resist the temptation to look ahead at the pictures; they are all the more shocking in the context of the appropriate passages. Buy it now.