John Torrington: The Frozen Mummy of the Franklin Expedition

An artist's depiction of what John Torrington looked like the year of his death in 1846
An artist's depiction of what John Torrington looked like the year of his death in 1846 | Source

A Century Frozen.

Thousands of miles from civilization, on the frozen Canadian arctic island of Beechley, lies a tiny European graveyard: The last remains of Sir John Franklin's failed expedition of the arctic. Three of Franklin's sailors—John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine—were early casualties in a sad opera of starvation and death. They were buried by their comrades in 1846, all of whom would eventually succumb to the very same elements in a death walk of cannibalism and madness.

138 years later, anthropologist Owen Beattie led an expedition to exhume these bodies to ascertain the true cause of the expedition's failure. Upon opening the graves, the scientists were simply baffled by what they found: three perfectly preserved bodies who stared back at time, literally.

The Man

If it weren't for the fact that his body was preserved by freezing temperatures, John Torrington would have simply disappeared to history. He was merely a stoker aboard the HMS Terror, one of Sir John Franklin's two ill-fated ships.

Like Rosalita Lombardo, John Torrington became famous in death rather than in life. In fact, virtually nothing is known about John as a man: Who he was, where he lived, or how he ended up on the Franklin Expedition. Any records of him disappeared in the Canadian Arctic when the voyage failed.

The graves on Beechley Island of William Braine, John Hartnell and John Torrington.
The graves on Beechley Island of William Braine, John Hartnell and John Torrington.

Exhumation Permits

Beattie was required to obtain permits from the following Canadian and British Government organizations in order to exhume the buried Franklin men (Beattie 146.)

  • Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre of the Northwest Territories.
  • Science Advisory Board of the Northwest Territories.
  • British Admiralty of the Ministry of Defense.
  • Dept. of Vital Statistics of the Northwest Territories.
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
  • Settlement Council of the Resolute Bay.


After spending several seasons searching for skeletal remains on Beechey Island, Beattie began planning an expedition to exhume and examine the three Franklin bodies that had been interred for nearly two centuries. After a lengthy permit process, which included attempting to contact any living descendants of the deceased, the Beattie Expedition began the exhumations in August 1984.

The first day of the expedition consisted of a visual inspection of the Franklin graveyard and the surrounding beach. Torrington's grave was carefully staked, mapped, sketched, and photographed for restoration upon completion of the mission. Nobody would ever be able to tell that anyone had disturbed the gravesite once they were finished. Every stone would be returned to the exact same position it was before they arrived.

The decision was made to exhume Torrington because it was widely believed that he was the very first casualty of Franklin's ill-fated voyage. Interred beside him were crewman John Hartnell and Marine William Braine. A fourth person is buried alongside the Franklin men. This man was Thomas Morgan of the HMS Investigator, a ship sent by the British to search for Franklin in 1854. His body wasn't exhumed.


After beginning the dig, it didn't take long for the scientists to encounter a problem. Less than four inches down, the ground was frozen solid. The permafrost had all but locked Torrington's coffin into a frozen tomb of earth and ice. Progress slowed to a crawl as the scientists mined their way through the permafrost. Eventually their efforts paid off when a strange smell began to emit from the ground. Five feet down, the researchers hit the coffin.

Believe it or not, the presence of a coffin within the grave was significant enough. In the century since the expedition's disappearance, the graves had been subject to intense debate and even controversy. Some skeptics even claimed the graves were empty, either by design or by removal.

One of the Franklin Coffins exhumed in 1984.
One of the Franklin Coffins exhumed in 1984. | Source
John Torrington's coffin once all the permafrost around it is cleared away.
John Torrington's coffin once all the permafrost around it is cleared away.

Opening the Casket

"JOHN TORRINGTON - DIED JANUARY 1st 1846 AGED 20 YEARS," the letters of a hand-painted plaque read. The plaque was nailed to the lid of Torrington's coffin. These few short words are one of only two records of John Torrington. The other, the tombstone that stood above it.

Built of mahogany and covered in blue fabric with white linen trim, Torrington's coffin was very well-crafted. As the team chipped away the permafrost around it, the team noticed that the coffin itself was frozen solid and opening it would take a great deal of time and ingenuity. First the team had to remove dozens of nails from around the lid's edge. Then there was the problem with the ice underneath, which had virtually cemented it into place. Once the lid was removed, and the ice underneath melted with hot water, John Torrington's body came into view.

Dressed in a grey button up shirt, his limbs were tied with linen strips, remnants of how his body was placed in the coffin. Toes and hands were perfectly preserved. The skin had a leathery appearance but overall were completely void of decay even after over 130 years in the ground. As the team continued to thaw the ice in the coffin it became apparent that Torrington's face was covered in fabric. When this fabric was removed, the team got the most unexpected fright of their lives. John Torrington was starring back at them, literally. It would be a moment they would never forget.

The face of John Torrington after 130 years frozen in the permafrost of Canada.
The face of John Torrington after 130 years frozen in the permafrost of Canada.

Do you remember when the news broke about the exhumations of the Franklin Sailors?

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The Examination

Except for his clothes, there were no personal belongings. Torrington was resting atop a bed of wood shavings, his hands and feet bound by cloth straps. The team determined he was 5' 4" tall and weighed only 88 pounds. The most vivid memory Owen Beattie had of this experience was lifting Torrington from his coffin. With all his limbs still perfectly flexible, Beattie would describe it as moving someone who was unconscious rather than dead.

A complete medical autopsy would be performed over the next four hours and the team would find some interesting things about the Franklin man. John Torrington suffered from extreme malnutrition in his final days. The emaciated appearance of the body and the absence of calluses or dirt on his hands suggested that John was ill for quite some time before his death. Bone and tissue samples would be taken for lab study which would later confirm a fatal dose of lead in his system. This would ultimately lend credence to the theory that the entire Franklin expedition suffered from lead poisoning as a result of a poorly canned food supply. Effectively dooming the expedition before it ever left England.

After the completion of the autopsy, John Torrington was returned into the frozen ground. A note was placed inside Torrington's coffin naming the seven researchers who exhumed him. Afterwards all the dirt and rocks were restored and there would be little evidence remaining of the team's presence once they left the island.

Owen Beattie's Book

There is no better account of John Torrington than the book 'Frozen in Time' written by Owen Beattie, the researcher who performed the exhumations on him and his shipmates John Hartnell and William Braine. With details not found anywhere else, it is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Franklin Expedition.

Complete NOVA Documentary

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Paul-a 2 weeks ago

I was moved when I saw this in one of the i-witnesses books when I was a teen... This voyage was tragic... It took me years to remember the name of the ship and few of her crews' name... The only thing I could remember was the face and the corpse of John Torrington... It never left me uninterested all these years... I'm glad I was Rob Dyke's video and lead me to remember everything... I'll be sure to watch the full documentary about this tragic expedition...

Lilah 23 months ago

You said that no one knows where he lived. That's not true. He was from Manchester. He was christened at Manchester Cathedral in December 1825, along with his sister Esther. His parents were William Torrington, who was a coachman, and Sarah Shaw Torrington. His mother later died and his father eventually remarried during the 1830s, and there is no record of children resulting from the second marriage.

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chowchowgrl 2 years ago from Ohio

I saw the tv special. Your article was very moving and interesting. I never thought about whom one had to contact for permission to exhume people. Thanks.

Darla Dollman 2 years ago

Such a terrible way to die. So sad.

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lions44 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

I remember when this first hit the news in the 1980s. I was fascinated. Great story. Voted up.

Kristina Gehrmann 2 years ago

A well-written article, good work! Thank you for crediting me with my website address ;)

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