Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.
A Century Frozen
Thousands of miles from civilization, on the frozen Canadian arctic island of Beechley, lies a tiny European graveyard. Here lie the last remains of Sir John Franklin's failed expedition to 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 them, literally.
The Mummy Man
If it weren't for the fact that his body was preserved by freezing temperatures, John Torrington would have simply disappeared into 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.
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.
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.
The Exhumation Begins
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.
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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.
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 was 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 staring back at them. It would be a moment they would never forget.
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 had been ill for quite some time before his death. Bone and tissue samples would be taken for a 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. This little detail effectively doomed the expedition before it ever left England.
Official Autopsy Report of John Torrington
Filed at the University of Alberta by Dr. Roger Amy, Beattie Expedition Member.
Where Are the Franklin Expedition Mummies Now?
After the completion of the autopsy, John Torrington was returned to the frozen ground. A note was placed inside Torrington's coffin naming the seven researchers who exhumed him. Afterward, all the dirt and rocks were restored, and there would be little evidence remaining of the team's presence once they left the island. The bodies remain there today.
In 2019, The Anchorage Museum of History and Art had a traveling exhibit of the Franklin Expedition. This exhibit did not include the bodies of the men, but instead shared information about the entirety of the Franklin Expedition, as well as what life is presumed to have been like for the crew. Also in 2019, Adventure Canada took a group of travelers to the wreck site of the Erebus, one of two wrecked ships from the 1875 voyage. This ship wrecked just south of Beechey Island, where Torrington and other members of the crew were found. You can read one traveler's account of the adventure here.
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 interested in the Franklin Expedition.
Sources and Further Reading
- “John Torrington.” Mummipedia Wiki, https://mummipedia.fandom.com/wiki/John_Torrington.
- Rosen, Yereth. “Traveling Exhibit Offers Clues to How the Franklin Expedition Was Lost.” ArcticToday, 20 June 2019, https://www.arctictoday.com/traveling-exhibit-offers-clues-to-how-the-franklin-expedition-was-lost/.
- Rowan, Lily. “The Arctic Mummification of John Torrington and the Franklin Expedition.” History Daily, 29 Nov. 2016, https://historydaily.org/john-torrington-and-the-franklin-expedition.
Martin Soukup on October 07, 2019:
He was same age like me , very sad how he did died , he had whole life before him ... i hope he now found inner peace :(
John Torrington on September 26, 2019:
I m going to return!
From John Torrington.
John Hummer on April 06, 2019:
Hard to phantom these men, delirious from lead poisoning themselves, n likely frost bitten as well, were able to give these other men a decent burial, in the dead of winter, under horrific weather conditions, no less.....it unimaginable!!
Jacqueline Stamp from UK on September 02, 2018:
This is such a fascinating topic, and there is so much more we can hope to discover now that the ships have been found. I saw the reproductions of these bodies in the 'Death in the Ice' exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, in July last year, and they were scarily realistic. I'm glad the 'originals' are safely resting at peace in the place they were first laid to rest. God bless them and all their colleagues.
kevin hoffman on July 07, 2018:
to the person wondering how they dug a grave in the permafrost , it is most likely they built a fire to soften it
Juan Antonio González Castro on April 06, 2018:
Lisa, Erebus and Terror were wooden ships, and there were carpenters on those ships...
Fed Flintstone on April 03, 2018:
I remember the exhumations from Nat Geographic in around 1984. It has remained in my Memory..
Catherine Breitfeller on March 17, 2018:
This expedition has always fascinated me and always will.
Jason Ponic (author) from Albuquerque on March 11, 2018:
It was so common in those days for expeditions to loose men that an assortment of prefabricated coffins and/or coffin making materials were carried onboard.
Lisa on March 11, 2018:
Where did the coffins come from in the first place for the men to be buried in before they were exhumed?
Barley on December 04, 2017:
So in 1846 when he was buried, did they blast a grave? Or had global warming not yet encased the resting place in solid ice?
Pirate Squirrel on November 04, 2017:
Hopefully these men will rest in peace from now on. They deserve it.
corners on June 14, 2017:
" 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."
Leaving a note in his coffin kind of reminds me of people scratching their initials into ancient monuments.
Paul-a on September 30, 2016:
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 on November 29, 2014:
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.
Randi Simon-Serey from Ohio on September 20, 2014:
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 on July 13, 2014:
Such a terrible way to die. So sad.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on July 09, 2014:
I remember when this first hit the news in the 1980s. I was fascinated. Great story. Voted up.
Kristina Gehrmann on June 24, 2014:
A well-written article, good work! Thank you for crediting me with my website address ;)