Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers discovered knife marks on skeletal remains found on King William Island. This all but confirmed that the final days of the Franklin expedition saw crew members dismember their peers — before eating them and extracting their bone marrow.
When anthropologist Owen Beattie exhumed one of the bodies buried on Beechey Island in 1984, he found a pristinely preserved member of the expedition named John Torrington frozen stiff.
The 20-year-old died on Jan. 1, 1846, and was buried in five feet of permafrost for nearly 140 years.
Body of John Torrington, crew member on the Franklin Expedition, found perfectly preserved in the Arctic ice in 1984.
Torrington’s milky-blue eyes are still open and an autopsy revealed neither wounds nor trauma. Experts found that his body was kept warm after he died, likely by a crew still capable enough to conduct a proper burial.
His 88-pound body suggests he was extremely malnourished in the weeks before his death.
More importantly, the autopsy showed deadly levels of lead in his system which likely killed him before a lack of food did. Researchers believe the poorly canned food supply to be at fault, which likely affected all 129 of Franklin’s men on some level.
The three corpses on Beechey Island — John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine — remain buried there to this day.
The Research Continues
The Erebus was discovered in 36 feet of water off King William Island in 2014, while the H.M.S. Terror was located two years later in a bay 45 miles away in 80 feet of water.
Why the ships sank or why they were found in such disparate locations is a riddle modern-day researchers hope to solve.
“There’s no obvious reason for Terror to have sunk,” said Ryan. “It wasn’t crushed by ice, and there’s no breach in the hull. Yet it appears to have sunk swiftly and suddenly and settled gently to the bottom. What happened?”
According to a note dated April 1848 which was found under a cairn, the two ships had been locked in ice for a year and a half.
Written by Francis Crozier who had taken command of the Terror by then, the note stated that 24 men were already dead, including Franklin, and that all survivors planned to walk to a remote fur-trading outpost hundreds of miles away. None of them made it.
For Ryan, though there’s an abundance of confusing evidence and a frustrating lack of data, the mystery of the H.M.S. Terror‘s sinking — and what exactly occurred before then — is one that can and will be answered.
“One way or another, I feel confident we’ll get to the bottom of the story.”
Frozen in time, the bowels of the H.M.S. Terror appear as if untouched by nearly two centuries in the dark depths of the Arctic Archipelago.
Plates and glasses are still shelved. Beds and desks are in position. Scientific instruments remain in their proper cases.
While it’s too early to tell, the team did encounter evidence in the form of sediment covering much of the interior that objects such as journals, charts, and photographs might be miraculously preserved.
“Those blankets of sediment, together with the cold water and darkness, create a near-perfect anaerobic environment that’s ideal for preserving delicate organics such as textiles or paper,” said Harris.
Cutlery, journals, and scientific instruments, all seem to be perfectly intact after nearly two centuries underwater.
“There is a very high probability of finding clothing or documents, some of them possibly even still legible. Rolled or folded charts in the captain’s map cupboard, for example, could well have survived.”
As if peering into the mysterious centuries-old shipwreck wasn’t itself eerie enough, the team noticed that the only closed door on the ship was the captain’s room.
“I’d love to know what’s in there,” mused Harris.
After learning about the exploration aboard the H.M.S. Terror, read about the oldest-ever bracelet found alongside an extinct human species. Then, learn these ancient South American combs that were used for a pretty disgusting purpose.