It might be said of Sir John Franklin, as of the unlucky Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, that "nothing became his life like the leaving of it." Had Franklin succeeded in finding a navigable Northwest Passage, he would have gone down in history as a notable dullard; instead, by vanishing, he has ascended to the firmament of Arctic mythology, as much a fixture of that sky as the Aurora Borealis. His death, and the mystery surrounding it, has inspired dozens of poems and novels, attracting writers from Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to Joseph Conrad and Margaret Atwood; any number of poignant ballads (among them Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage,' which has become almost a second Canadian national anthem), and (to date) four plays, six documentary films, and an Australian musical. A feature film, based on the Canadian novelist Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, is in the works from the director of The Young Victoria.
The search to rescue, and then to discern the fate of, Sir John Franklin and his men was the very first mass-media disaster. For more than a decade, it dominated the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic; writers such as Dickens, Collins, Swinburne, Thoreau, Eliot, Verne, and Conrad were enthralled by its dark mysteries; clairvoyants from Scotland to India had visions of Franklin's ships, and more than thirty vessels were dispatched, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in today's money, to seek him out. Stage plays, moving panoramas, and lantern shows depicted the wild loneliness of the "Frozen Zone"; lecturers equipped with maps, charts, and Esquimaux artifacts opined on his likely location, and his wife/widow Lady Jane Franklin became a dominating figure of the day, lauded by The Times of London as "Our English Penelope." Alas, for her, there would be no returning Odysseus! But loss and death draw down to deeper springs of human feeling, perhaps, than happy returns and loving embraces. And when, finally, the specter of the "last dread alternative" -- cannibalism -- was cast over the affair, it drove its tincture of admiration and revulsion deep down into the British psyche.
Even after the recovery of the "Victory Point Record" by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859, there was continued interest in discovering anything further about his final fate. The American eccentric and erstwhile newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall led two search expeditions in the 1860's; in the 1870's, the U.S. Army dispatched Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on a new seach for paper records or artifacts that might help clarify the last days of the Franklin exedition. Individual searchers returned to the area periodically from the 1880's through to the 1980's, among them the great explorer Knud Rasmussen, who in the 1902's heard stories of Franklin's ships from the grandsons of the men who had seen them perish, stories almost exactly the same as those collected by Hall more than half a century earlier. Forensic expeditions -- Owen Beattie in the mid-1980's, and Anne Keenleyside in the early 1990's -- collected the bones, and analyzed the bodies, of known Franklin remains, finding evidence of lead poisoning, scurvy, and tuberculosis. Most significantly, historians such as David C. Woodman and Dorothy Harlan Eber have collected and gathered Inuit testimony, comparing numerous accounts with the hope that a common narrative thread could be found. Woodman has traveled to the Arctic numerous times, searching for the ships in the places the Inuit described.
In the summer of 2010, Parks Canada archaeologists re-located HMS Investigator, the ship commanded by Captain Robert McClure during the early years of the Franklin search. McClure and his men had steered their vessel into a sheltered cove, "Mercy Bay," which came very close to being their tomb. It was only after a second, terrible winter, when his men were dying of scurvy and McClure was preparing to leave his ship on a blind search for help which would surely have ended in disaster, when one Lieutenant Pim, of the ship HMS "Resolute," found him and led his men to rescue. The Resolute herself was later frozen in and ordered abandoned, although the ship miraculously freed herself from the ice a season later, and drifted down the Davis Straits to where she was spotted by an American whaler. Restored to pristine condition at public expense, she was sailed back to England and presented to Queen Victoria. Years later, when it was slated to be broken up at a shipyard, Queen Victoria returned the favor, ordering a large panel desk -- the 'Resolute Desk' -- and three smaller ones to be made from its timbers. The first desk she gave to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes; it sits today in the Oval Office of the White House. The second she gave to the widow of Henry Grinnell, patron of several Franklin searches; it's now on display at the New Bedford Whaling museum.