Fatal North

Murder and Survival on the First North Pole Expedition

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Title: Fatal North: Murder and Survival on the First North Pole Expedition
Published by: RosettaBooks


It began as President Ulysses S. Grant’s bid for international glory after the Civil War — America’s first attempt to reach the North Pole. It ended with Captain Charles Hall’s death under suspicious circumstances, dissension among sailors, scientists, and explorers, the ship’s evacuation and eventual sinking. Then came a brutal struggle for survival by thirty-three men, women and children, stranded on the polar ice — and two dramatic rescues by whaling ships. When news of the disastrous expedition and accusations of murder reached Washington D.C., it led to a nationwide scandal, an official investigation, and a government cover-up.

The mystery of the captain’s death remained unsolved for nearly 100 years. But when Charles Hall’s frozen grave in northern Greenland was opened, and hair and fingernail samples were retrieved, forensic scientists were finally able to reach a shocking conclusion.

Now, telling the complete story for the first time, acclaimed researcher and bestselling writer Bruce Henderson — whose works have been praised as “compelling” (Los Angeles Times Book Review) and “compulsively readable” (San Francisco Examiner) — has researched original transcripts of the U.S. Navy inquests, personal papers of Captain Hall, autopsy and forensic reports relating to the century-old crime, the ship’s original log, personal journals kept by crewmen, and hero-survivor George Tyson’s diary and family papers to bring to life one of the most mysterious tragedies of American exploration.


“The Polaris expedition, the failed first U.S. expedition to the North Pole, is one of the strangest in the history of Arctic misadventure. It was marked by the mysterious death of its leader, Capt. Charles Francis Hall, and by bickering between different factions of the crew, both before and after their leader’s death. After marooning 18 of its members, including officer George Tyson, on an ice floe (where they drifted for six months until rescued by another ship), the expedition ended when the vessel was abandoned by the remainder of the crew. In clean, fast-paced prose, Henderson (coauthor of And the Sea Will Tell) aptly conveys daily life on the ship and reconstructs its mood and politics vividly. He succeeds, too, at re-creating characters from among the crew, interspersing the thoughts of various men with dialogue, thereby immersing the reader in the story. In the final chapter, Henderson explores the possibility of foul play and the dying captain’s suspicions that he was being poisoned. He handles the story of the group that gets separated from the ship smoothly, having wisely focused on George Tyson, the leader of the stranded men, throughout the book. With narrative and descriptive skill, he chronicles the group’s attempt to survive the Arctic winter and one another’s treachery. In the end, Henderson casts significant doubt on the official inquiry into Hall’s death, citing the inquiry’s transcripts and drawing on the results of an autopsy performed on Hall’s exhumed body in 1968 that revealed high levels of arsenic. Fans of adventure writing will appreciate this fine book.”
—Publishers Weekly

“In June 1871, prominent Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall set sail for the North Pole aboard the USS Polaris, never to return. After struggling for years to fund an expedition to the Pole, Congress had finally appropriated the funds to purchase a wooden ‘screw tug’ that was later rechristened Polaris after the North Star. From the outset there was trouble between Hall, his scientists, and the crew. Upon his return from a two-week sledge journey, the seemingly healthy and vibrant Hall became violently ill and suddenly died. The captain thought the Polaris was sinking and jettisoned half of the ship’s supplies onto the ice. Then, a fierce storm separated the ship from the shore and left half of the crew stranded on the ice for 197 Arctic winter days. Best-selling author Henderson (And the Sea Will Tell), who served in the navy, spent many weeks researching primary source materials in the National Archives. To solve the mystery surrounding Hall’s death, he uses testimony from the Congressional inquest as well as a 1968 autopsy utilizing DNA evidence. A factual historical mystery written by a gifted storyteller.”
—Library Journal