Book Review:
Ghosts of Cape Sabine

by Leonard F. Guttridge

Putnam Publishing Group, Jan. 2000, 320 pages, hardcover,

ISBN 0399145893 ($24.95/$19.50)

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It's not a chilling story,

it's a blood-freezing nightmare


In May 1884, huddled in a tent on the barren coast of Ellesmere island, Private Roderick R. Schneider looked around at his companions and wrote in his journal, "It is horrible to see eighteen men dying by inches." One month later, Schneider was dead, a victim of starvation. He was one of 25 men sent to establish a scientific base in Lady Franklin Bay in 1881. A combination of poor planning, bad weather, weak leadership, and a lack of support from the government that had sent them north caused all but 6 men to perish. Historian Leonard F. Guttridge tells the story of the illfated Greely expedition in Ghosts of Cape Sabine.

The expedition got of to a rocky start, under provisioned and manned with soldiers who had never been to the Arctic. Still, once established at Lady Franklin Bay, the team performed its scientific studies and even made a foray north, breaking the British record. Personality conflicts between Lieutenant Adolphus Greely and several of his men were intensified by the fact that the ships supposed to resupply, and after two years to relieve them, never came.

In July 1883, Greely following written orders, left his comfortable quarters at Fort Conger to meet an anticipated supply ship at Cape Sabine. After weeks of travel, much of it spent drifting on the ice pack in Kane Basin, the party arrived at Cape Sabine and made camp. As the weeks passed and the food ran out, the men subsisted on leather from their boots, minuscule shrimp, bits of moss scraped from the rocks, and as the days grew longer and the party grew smaller the bodies of their fallen comrades. "In the wan light of an unsetting sun during those early Arctic summer weeks, one or more of the desperate men at Cape Sabine had been up on the ridge of the dead, busy with scalpel or hunting knife."

Those harrowing tales would be repeated for several decades by the six lonely survivors of the illfated Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, including Lieutenant (later General) Adolphus Greely, its commander, and Sergeant (later General) David Brainard. Through the 1930s, the two veterans of the Arctic ice would meet in a monthly routine at Washington's Army & Navy Club on Farragut Square.

Ghosts reads like a suspenseful novel, with an exhaustive mass of sources used to reconstruct the story. Greely died a true and authentic American hero despite the allegations of mutiny, cannibalism, the execution of one soldier and the loss of most of the expedition.

Greely, it may be recalled, was anything but a fan of Robert Peary, having taken exception to the latter's characterization of his expedition as a "blot on American polar exploration." Peary was still smarting from Greely's 1896 written rebuke that forced publicity-hungry Peary to stop using the unmerited title, "Delineator of Greenland." As the second president of the Explorers Club, Greely passed the gavel to Cook and initially supported him in the controversy with Peary. His Handbook of Polar Exploration was full of praise for Cook's 190709 expedition.

This is an excellent piece of historical research, and like the author's previous volume on the De Long Expedition, adds new insight into Arctic expeditions of the 1880's.

Ted Heckathorn

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society