The mystery of the dead on Pim Island

When his name was given to a small island off Ellesmere Island in the far North of Canada, Lieutenant Bedford Pim was probably honored for the rescue of the crew of the HMS Investigator, the explorers of the Northwest Passage. He would not have been delighted to hear this because 18 members of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of Lieutenant Adolphus Greely had died in tragic circumstances on and near Pim Island in 1884.

Display Greely Exp Midwinter Fair 1894
Midwinter Fair, Greely Expedition, 1884, I.W. Taber

On this unfortunate expedition, many publications exist which are more or less intensively approaching three topics: the incompetence of the Army to lead a scientific expedition (which had resulted in the tragic starvation of most participants); the attempt to hide that cannibalism had emerged in the struggle for survival; and the execution of one participant because of theft of food.

Wir erreichen Pim Island
We reach Pim Island

We reach Pim Island, in the Smith Sound between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, in mid-September, the same season as the team of Greely in the year 1883. The low hanging clouds hinder the view of the island. It has snowed; more than 20 cm of fresh snow are giving the landscape a depressing monotony, only broken by few darksome rocks. The sky is grey, all colors have almost completely disappeared, and the omnipresent gloom gives a notion of the terrible events of 1884. But, in contrast to the men then, weakened by months of hunger, we are well saturated, the temperatures today are mild, and with our Arctic-proven ship close by we are feeling safe.

Camp Clay zwischen See und Bucht
Camp Clay between lake und bay

We trudge through the snow to the ruins of Camp Clay, which Greely and his people had built from surrounding stones. One of the boats, completed with canvas, served as a roof. There is no sod on this island, which would have been favored as sealing material by the Inuit. It’s hard to imagine that this tiny camp had had enough space to host 25 men! The only illuminant during the polar night was a dim light fed with seal oil. After four months, the first man died, and nearly three months later one after the other of the remaining crew died, until suddenly an unexpected rescue team arrived at June 22, 1884. Of the 25 men, only seven were alive then, and only six made it home.

Szenerie am Camp Clay - Metallrest im Schnee
Scenery at Camp Clay

On June 6, 1884, the soldier Charles Henry who had repeatedly been caught stealing food was executed on command of Greely. It was an unusual judgment and probably unique in the exploration of the Arctic. Unusual especially because Henry was not the only thief and normally petty larceny of food is inducing extenuating circumstances. But the most unusual was the attempt to conceal this execution, which led to much speculation later.

Greely-Expedition: die Gedenktafel
Plaque to remember the Greely expedition

Charles Henry, an immigrant from Hannover, Germany, whose real name was Karl Heinrich Buck, was even given a funeral with full military honors, after the repatriation of the corpses. Only very slowly, news about the real cause of Henry’s death leaked out, as well as reports of cannibalism. An investigation by the rescue team concluded that meat was taken from six of the bodies.

Die Ueberlebenden der Greely Expedition
The survivors of the Greely expedition

The former events were not fully investigated until today, due to the fact that Greely himself as well as the three soldiers involved in the execution of Henry (among them two more Germans) belonged to the survivors of the expedition. They had sworn to maintain silence about the course of the execution. Documents and evidence disappeared in the years after the rescue of the six. David Legge Brainard, the last who was involved in the execution of Henry, died as a highly decorated Brigadier General as late as 1946. He took the truth about the circumstances of the execution of Henry and about the cannibalism cases to the grave.

posted by Wolfgang Opel

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