Last thing I remember was the freezing cold …

His name was John Shaw Torrington, a Royal Navy Petty Officer, and a member of Sir John Franklin’s “lost expedition” sent to gather magnetic data in the Canadian Arctic and navigate the Northwest Passage.  At the age of 22, he was the first to perish.

Buried on Nunavut’s Beechey Island for 138 years, the last thing startled forensic scientists expected when they dug down into the permafrost and peered into his grave, was for John Shaw Torrington to be staring back at them!  With eyes and facial features completely preserved, and his thawed limbs fully flexible, anthropologist Owen Beattie later reported that lifting the diminutive engine-stoker from his coffin was like moving someone who was unconscious rather than dead.

Setting out from England (far from any permafrost) in May of 1845, it had been a promising start for the 129-member crew.  Provisions were ample, including 33,000 pounds of tinned meat and vegetables, while the expedition’s two sturdy ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus featured such cutting-edge technology as steam engines, screw propellers, reinforced beams, and internal steam heating. Yet within months all would be lost.

After the Admiralty posted a £20,000 reward, a massive search began, both by sea and land, and in 1850 a stone hut, tins of food and three graves were discovered on Beechey Island, containing the remains of Torrington and two others who had died early in the voyage.

But that was pretty much it, and it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Beattie and his team were dispatched, that one of modern history’s great anthropological cold cases would be resolved. The culprit? A lack of quality control.

Awarded the contract a few weeks before departure, the food provisioner was known to have cut corners during the rudimentary canning process and haphazard lead soldering contaminated everything with the tins as a result, as evidenced by those near the graves. Although an autopsy revealed that Torrington had died from pneumonia, the severe physical and mental symptoms of lead poisoning proved to be a significant contributing factor.

Pressed for time, Beattie’s team was only able to briefly examine another of the bodies, but combined with other evidence it was firmly concluded that although the expedition continued on, lead poisoning – and eventually tuberculosis, starvation, and hypothermia – ultimately spelled the demise of all.

Hailed as heroes in Victorian times, the Franklin Expedition inspired a multitude of artistic, musical, and literary works (for example, Terror and Erebus are referenced in both Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), a trend that would be reborn after pictures of Torrington’s remarkably preserved remains were widely circulated in the 1980s.

Sheenagh Pugh’s Envying Owen Beattie, Margaret Atwood’s The Age of Lead, and Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, all find there genesis with the story as does Iron Maiden’s Stranger in a Strange Land … and this whimsical track for a cold winter’s day, as featured on James Taylor 13th album, New Moon Shine in 1991.

The Frozen Man

 Last thing I remember is the freezing cold

Water reaching up just to swallow me whole

Ice in the rigging and howling wind

Shock to my body as we tumbled in

Then my brothers and the others are lost at sea

I alone am returned to tell thee

Hidden in ice for a century

To walk the world again

Lord have mercy on the frozen man

Next words that were spoken to me

Nurse asked me what my name might be

She was all in white at the foot of my bed

I said Angel of Mercy, I’m alive! Or am I dead?

My name is William James McPhee

I was born in 1843

Raised in Liverpool by the sea

But that ain’t who I am

Lord have mercy I’m the frozen man

 It took a lot of money to start my heart

To peg my leg and buy my eyes

The newspapers call me “state of the art”

And the children, when they see me, cry

 I thought it would be nice just to visit my grave

See what kind of tombstone I might have

I saw my wife and my daughter and it seemed so strange

Both of them dead and gone from extreme old age

See here, when I die make sure I’m gone

Don’t leave ‘em nothin’ to work on

You can raise your arm, you can wiggle your hand (not unlike myself)

And you can wave goodbye to the frozen man

 I know what it means to freeze to death

To lose a little life with every breath

To say goodbye to life on earth

And come around again

Lord have mercy on the frozen man

Lord have mercy on the frozen man

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