Cover image for Fatal north : adventure and survival aboard USS Polaris, the first U.S. expedition to the North Pole
Fatal north : adventure and survival aboard USS Polaris, the first U.S. expedition to the North Pole
Henderson, Bruce B., 1946-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New American Library, [2001]

Physical Description:
viii, 306 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 23 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
G635.H55 H46 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



From #1 New York Times bestselling author Bruce Henderson comes the harrowing true story of USS Polaris: a voyage of discovery that became a fight forsurvival--and a search for the truth….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, dissention between sailors and scientists, the ship's evacuation and eventual sinking. Then came a brutal struggle for survival on the polar ice--and two dramatic rescues by whaling ships. Ultimately, the expedition led to a nationwide scandal, charges of murder, an official investigation and a government cover-up.The mystery of the Captain's death remained unsolved for nearly 100 years. But when scientists opened Charles Hall's frozen grave in northern Greenland, and retrieved hair and fingernail samples, they reached 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 Navy inquests, personal papers of Captain Hall, autopsy and forensic reports relating to the century-old crime, the ship's original log and personal journals kept by crewmen, hero-survivor George Tyson's diary and family papers to bring to life one of the most mysterious tragedies of American exploration.

Author Notes

Bruce Henderson is a journalist and author, born in 1946. His career has included newspaper reporter, magazine editor, private investigator, and field producer for television. He taught reporting and writing courses at Stanford University and USC School of Journalism.

He is the author (or co-author) of over twenty nonfiction books. His recent work includes And the Sea Will Tell (co-authored by Vincent Bugliosi and was adapted for a CBS miniseries), Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, Trace Evidence: The Hunt for the I-5 Serial Killer, Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, and Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In 1871, the U.S. sent a navy steamer, the Polaris, on a quest to discover the North Pole. Like all the countries that had tried before, the U.S. would soon face a disaster. Although numerous flaws in the plan jeopardized the mission before the Polaris ever set sail, Henderson jumps right into the expedition without going into much detail about the brewing conflicts that would soon erupt and threaten the lives of the explorers and the pride of the country. The book's quick start makes it easy to delve into, and after telling the story, Henderson does go back and offer some additional detail and analysis of the events. However, the narrow perspective from which he recounts the actual voyage and struggle for survival may limit the extent to which the reader can appreciate the breadth of the disaster, without rereading the book in the context of the new information. Nevertheless, there is value in this perspective, and Fatal North is well worth reading. Henderson's coverage and scrutiny of the navy's investigation especially merits much praise. See also the review of Richard Parry's Trial by Ice [BKL Ja 1 & 15 01]. --Gavin Quinn

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. Perhaps Henderson could have extracted more drama from the captain's death: in the final chapter, he explores in detail the possibility of foul play and the dying captain's suspicions that he was being poisoned, well after the description of the death itself. But 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 reveal high levels of arsenic. Fans of adventure writing will appreciate this fine book. (Feb.) Forecast: Once again, two titles on the same subject will be released within shelving dates of one another; in this case, the rival, due out a week earlier, is Trial by Ice, by Richard Parry. Both are worthy books, though the Henderson is the worthier, but which the public flocks to remains to be seen. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In June 1871, prominent Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall set sail for the North Pole aboard the U.S.S. 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. The captain turned out to be a drunkard, and the scientists were reluctant to obey orders. 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 and former journalism professor Henderson (And the Sea Will Tell), who served in the Arctic while 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, this book should be popular in public libraries. John Kenny, San Francisco P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One "North Star!" July 2, 1870 Washington, D.C. A solitary figure had been pacing the corridors in the Capitol all day, the heels of his boots clicking on the marble floors and his black coat flapping behind him. He looked to anyone who didn't know him as if he had nothing to do and no place to go. Nothing was further from the truth.     Charles Francis Hall did have somewhere to go: back to the Far North, which he had come to consider more his true spiritual home than any place he had ever lived.     He stood about five feet eight inches tall and weighed close to two hundred pounds. His was a firmly knit, muscular frame that suggested power in the broad shoulders, and beyond--an inward strength. His head was large, with a profusion of coarse brown hair and heavy beard, both graying and inclining to curl at the ends. The effect was bearlike. His forehead was ample, and his small but expressive blue eyes often reflected the bemused twinkle of a dreamer. As he strode back and forth, the expression of his countenance was firm but not unpleasant. His erect posture and robust movements suggested a man of boundless vigor who knew his course in life.     For the past ten years the Arctic had been his life. Back home in Cincinnati he had a wife, Mary, and a ten-year-old son, Charley, who hardly knew his father, since he had spent only a few months of the past decade at home. The rest of the time he was either on long trips to the north or traveling the country on speaking circuits, telling folks about his experiences and raising money for new expeditions. When he had first left for the Arctic ten years earlier, he had been ill-equipped and virtually alone. A small-time, only half-educated Midwest businessman who had been no farther north than New Hampshire, he had prepared himself for the Arctic by camping in a pup tent on Cincinnati's Mt. Adams and reading everything he could find on celestial navigation and astronomy. During his earlier Arctic trips--beginning with his first, in 1860, which he had undertaken in search of survivors of the ill-fated 1845 British expedition (two ships and 129 men lost) led by Sir John Franklin--Hall had learned the hardy ways of the Eskimos and adapted to the severe conditions found in the Arctic region. Partly, he had done so out of necessity, as his total budget for his first trip had been just $980. His second expedition--lasting five years--cost only about twice as much, and he embarked upon it during the middle of the Civil War when most of the country had more pressing matters at hand. His meager bankroll had served him well, however. During his stay on Baffin Island and, in the area of Repulse Bay, Isloolik, and King William Island on his second trip, he lived as few white men before him. He had traveled more than three thousand miles by dog sledge, hunted with Eskimos, learned to build an igloo, and developed a taste for seal blubber--believed by the Arctic natives to provide strength and recuperative powers in subzero temperatures. He came to genuinely like Eskimos as well, which could not be said of many Arctic explorers of his time; British, German, or American.     In promoting his latest and most ambitious expedition to the Arctic, Hall had solicited the support of the U.S. government at the highest levels. A consummate letter writer, he wrote acquaintances and strangers alike, and used introductions from well-connected friends in Washington, New York, and back home in Ohio to wangle meetings with members of Congress and the Administration so as to lobby his cause. Four days after arriving in Washington, he called on President Ulysses S. Grant, the popular Army general who, at the age of forty-six, had won the 1868 election in a landslide as the youngest president in history. Grant showed genuine interest in Hall's bold plan for reaching the North Pole, for he himself had an impressive knowledge of the history of Arctic exploration. A smaller man than Hall, Grant offered the explorer one of his custom-made cigars, and they had both lit up and had a grand talk about the best route for the expedition, the determination that would be needed to reach the Pole, and the physical deprivation that would be faced. These were engrossing topics to Grant, a born fighting general who never lost his tough edge. In Hall, Grant immediately saw someone of vision worth backing, and the President would never waver in his support, publicly or privately, for the man who regaled him that day with stories of the Arctic.     Hall's energetic one-man campaign generated sufficient interest that he was invited to lecture in the nation's capital on his Arctic experiences at Lincoln Hall. Numerous dignitaries were present that night, including President Grant and Vice President Schuyler Colfax. Both sat in the first row in front of the podium, smiling and nodding their approval throughout Hall's animated talk. Although at heart a modest man, Hall knew how to captivate an audience with Arctic facts and folklore. At a dramatic moment, he presented a married Eskimo couple, Ebierbing ("Joe") and Tookoolito ("Hannah"), whom he'd brought back with him from his last trip. Joe and Hannah, sweating profusely in their sealskin outfits, mesmerized the crowd simply by their appearance. The short-of-stature, chestnut-brown people of the Far North who called themselves Inuits were a great oddity at the time. For Hall's traveling show they had brought with them authentic bows and arrows, fish spears, dog harnesses, and other articles of Eskimo paraphernalia. When Hall announced that he was asking Congress for $100,000 to outfit a new expedition to discover the North Pole, the house erupted in applause, led by the President and Vice President.     What he did not tell the audience that night was that if his planned expedition failed to win government backing for a full-scale effort, then he was prepared to try for the North Pole on his own, by foot and by sledge with his trusted Eskimo couple, Joe and Hannah, as his guides. In the worst-case scenario, he told friends, he would ask the navy to transport him by ship and drop him, with whatever supplies he could manage, as far north as they possibly could. It was a plan based more on determination and stubbornness than good sense.     On March 8, 1870, the day after Hall's spellbinding appearance at Lincoln Hall, a joint resolution was introduced in the Senate and House to appropriate $100,000 for a "voyage of exploration and discovery under the authority and for the benefit of the United States." It authorized the President to provide "a naval or other steamer and, if necessary, a supply tender, for a voyage into the Arctic regions under the control of Captain C. F. Hall."     Hall, having never served in the Navy or commanded a vessel of any type, had no claim to the title "Captain." Though honorary at best, the title stuck, and overnight the former Cincinnati print shop owner became known as Captain Hall.     The resolution was assigned to committees in both chambers. In a long, impassioned letter to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hall struck a dual theme of patriotism cleverly combined with commercialism. "To whom are we indebted for all our Arctic whaling grounds, from which our country is getting millions of dollars worth of whalebone and oil every year? The answer is to the English !"     In truth, Hall didn't give a whit about the commercial whaling industry, except that it was expedient to his ultimate mission in life: being the discoverer of the North Pole and planting Old Glory at the top of the world. To that end, Hall, with the fiery righteousness and rhetoric of a Baptist missionary converting heathens, was convinced that he had been ordained by a "call from heaven" for the task by a higher authority than mortal man or mere politicians. Yet to succeed, he understood he needed the support of both.     "Neither glory nor money has caused me to devote my very life and soul to Arctic Exploration," his letter went on. "My desire is to promote the welfare of mankind in general under this glorious ensign--the stars and stripes." He bemoaned how few, ill-planned, and under-equipped the previous American ventures (privately financed projects seeking commercial opportunities) in the Arctic region had been, while "time and time again" the English and "other governments of the Old World" had sent out national "expeditions for discovery, for enriching science, and for the promotion of commerce."     Hall wanted nothing less than for the U.S. government, in a bid for international glory, to finance an expedition to discover the North Pole. This quest had already lured and killed scores of mariners and adventurers, and yet the goal seemed tantalizingly close. The feeling was that with the right ship, the right commander, enough money, and a little luck, man would finally set foot at the top of the Earth. As one newspaper claimed: "The solution of the Northern mystery would be the event of the nineteenth century." And in a heroic age, the discoverer would be the hero. Hall, of course, believed fervently that he should be that hero--the American who would put an end to more than two hundred years of British polar record setting. Who else, after all, had the vision, determination, and experience to lead such a historic mission?     Unexpectedly, another candidate stepped forward, a man with whom Hall had previously tangled over the Arctic. Dr. Isaac Hayes, a well-known scientist and author who had ten years earlier headed a well-publicized expedition in search of the open polar sea, appeared before the Foreign Relations committee to argue that an expedition he was planning deserved the government's backing more than Hall's.     It was blasphemy to Hall's ears. This same man, Dr. Hayes, had nearly cost Hall his first expedition to the Arctic region the same ten years earlier by stealing his ship's captain. Worse yet, in Hall's eyes, was that Hayes had sat with him and listened to his plans for that expedition, feigning support while conspiring behind his back. Hall had been forced at the last moment to find another ship's master. Not one to forget such "cowardice," "trickery," and "deviltry," Hall was aghast that Hayes would have the temerity to come forward now and try to ruin his hopes once again.     When Hall appeared before the committee, he defended himself as best he could against Hayes' main line of attack: his lack of formal scientific credentials. Hall had, on his earlier trips, made detailed maps and charts that were surprisingly accurate considering his lack of formal training in navigation and cartography. (Although he had found no Franklin survivors on his trips, he added much to the knowledge of what happened to the expedition through stories collected from Eskimos, and he returned with relics of the disastrous English voyage including silver spoons, a fork, a pair of scissors, and a mahogany barometer case.) Hall lacked even what could be called a liberal education. He was self-taught to a considerable extent, having finished with his formal education before graduating from high school. But he knew Bowditch's Navigator by heart and was perfectly competent to navigate a vessel. He excelled in the exactness and precision of his field work, in the determining of latitude and longitude, and in his careful, conscientious record of magnetic, astronomical, and geographical observations. For these accomplishments, as well as for his accurate and reliable charting of newly discovered coastlines, Hall had been complimented by the British Admiralty, and his work in the Arctic had stood the severest tests of both the U.S. Coast Survey Office and the Smithsonian Institution. He did not pretend to be a scientific naturalist, but he was thoroughly competent to make and record geographical discoveries, and that was the object of the proposed expedition.     "No, I am not a scientific man," Hall admitted before the Senate committee. "Discoverers seldom have been. Arctic discoverers--all except Dr. Hayes--have not been scientific men. Neither Sir John Franklin nor Sir Edward Parry were of this class, and yet they loved science and did much to enlarge her fruitful fields. Frobisher, Davis, Baffin, Bylot, Hudson, Fox, James, Kane, Back, McClintock, Osborn, Dease and Simpson, Rae, Ross and a host of other Arctic explorers were not scientific men."     Nevertheless, Dr. Hayes succeeded in convincing the legislators to strike Hall's name from the resolution, leaving the commander of the U.S. expedition nameless.     Even with such powerful senatorial champions as Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, John Sherman of Ohio (brother of William Tecumseh Sherman), and Reuben Fenton of New York, when the Senate--wrangling over larger issues such as reconstruction of the South--voted on the Arctic resolution it passed only when a tie was dramatically broken by the yea vote of Vice President Colfax.     Assured privately by legislative supporters that he was still the prime candidate for the command, Hall considered the vote a triumph. Then he waited for the bill to wend its way through the House of Representatives. Key to House approval, he was advised, was getting the bill through the influential House Appropriations Committee. Hall understood that even politicians who supported Arctic exploration might not always consider themselves at liberty to vote appropriations of public money for carrying it out. During the wait Hall looked, according to one of his supporters, Senator J. W. Patterson of New Hampshire, like a man "watching with a sick friend who hangs between life and death."     That was the man who had paced all day outside the Appropriations Committee.     Shortly before five o'clock, Hall spotted the clerk of the committee leaving the conference room. He pounced quickly, hoping for some word. The clerk said nothing, but handed him a folded piece of paper before heading through another doorway.     Hall unfolded the note. It read: "North Pole $50,000."     The sum was half as much as he had requested, but the $100,000 was to finance a two-ship expedition. He knew it could be done with one good ship, and the right crew.     Of course, there was still the matter of the unnamed commander, but Hall would not let that ruin the day. His fate, as he had been telling friends, was in God's hands.     Having powerful political allies also helped. The appropriation would be affirmed with dispatch by the Senate and House, and within days signed by President Grant, who a week later would send Hall his official appointment as commander of the expedition.     That day in the corridor of the Capitol, Charles Francis Hall trusted his fate.     He stretched to full height, raised an arm straight over his head, index finger pointed skyward, and dramatically announced to no one in particular and to everyone within earshot:     "North Star!" Copyright © 2001 Bruce Henderson. All rights reserved.