New Study Sheds Light On Infamously Mysterious 19th-Century Cannibal Shipwreck

Published August 28, 2018
Updated March 12, 2024

The cause of death for all 128 crew members on the Franklin Expedition has long baffled archaeologists, but a new study brings them one step closer to finding the truth.

Torrington Mummy Ice Grave

Seriously Creepy Stuff/YouTubeBody of John Torrington, crew member on the Franklin Expedition, found perfectly preserved in the Arctic ice in 1984.

New research into the infamous and deadly Franklin Expedition shipwreck is shining light on how the 128 crewmen lost their lives more than 170 years ago.

A new study published on Aug. 23 in PLOS One revealed that lead poisoning, one of the previously and most popularly believed causes, did not play a pivotal role in the deaths of the sailors. Over the years a few discoveries have helped researchers to begin to piece together how the crew members may have met their untimely ends, however much of this fateful voyage remains unknown.

Background On The Franklin Expedition

In the Summer of 1845, two British ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, left Greenhithe, England for North America hoping to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Led by experienced explorer Sir John Franklin, the two ships and the 134 men were known as the Franklin Expedition.

Franklin Expedition Crew

Pub. in Illustrated London News, Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesPortraits of Arctic explorer John Franklin and his crew, circa 1845.

They began their journey stocked with three years’ worth of provisions for the team, however, in spite of their preparation, the ships’ voyage would prove fatal.

Clues Following The Franklin Expedition Shipwreck

A few months into the journey some of the men were discharged and sent home on sick leave. Exactly what happened to the remaining men still remains a mystery almost 175 years later.

Lost Franklin Expedition
History Uncovered Podcast
Episode 3: The Lost Franklin Expedition And The Ice Mummies Left Behind
More than a century after two British ships vanished during their quest to find the Northwest Passage, a series of icy corpses discovered on a remote Canadian island revealed the fate of the missing crews.

The ship eventually stranded in ice in Victoria Sound, located in the mid-Canadian Arctic, and the crew members all eventually perished.

Some clues were found shortly following the disaster. In 1850, three graves of Franklin Expedition sailors were found and in 1854 Scottish explorer John Rae met Inuit residents who possessed some items that belonged to members of the crew. They also informed Rae of piles of human bones found in the area, which lead to rumors that the Franklin men probably turned to cannibalism in their desperate final days.

John Torrington John Franklin

Wikimedia CommonsJohn Franklin.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking find in the case of the Franklin Expedition was the discovery of the exceptionally well-preserved crew member, John Torrington.

Found in 1984, Torrington’s perfectly mummified body was examined for clues. After analyzing bone and tissue samples they found that fatal levels of lead were in his system, possibly due to the crews poorly canned food supply.

According to Gizmodo, previous studies of bone, hair and tissue samples from the recovered bodies of the ships’ crew members revealed that they died from a large range of causes, but lead poisoning, in particular, seemed to be one of the top causes.

Torrington Mummy Corpse

Ben Brochu/YouTubeBody of John Torrington, crew member on the Franklin Expedition, found perfectly preserved in the Arctic ice in 1984.

New Findings Disprove Past Hypotheses

However, the recently published study has proven that this long-believed theory is mostly false. The team of researchers formed three hypotheses to test the lead poisoning theory.

The three hypothesis all posited that if lead poisoning truly was the main cause of death, then those sailors who lived longer would have larger amounts of lead in their systems, bones, tissue, and in in generally higher amounts than other sailors of that time, than those on the expedition who died sooner.

In order to test this, researchers used high tech X-ray image scans of the bones and found that the levels of lead in them did not ultimately support the first and third hypotheses, and only partially supported the second. Therefore, lead poisoning cannot be confidently considered the main cause of death in the Franklin Expedition sailors.

Tamara Varney, a member of Lakehead University’s anthropology department and part of the study’s research team, told CBC News that even though the second theory had some support, it was not definite. Varney reported:

“…It wasn’t really consistent. There were bone structure that near the time of death that definitely showed lead exposure. But then, there was an equal number that didn’t show lead exposure. So even that doesn’t completely support the idea that they were absorbing a lot of lead toward the end of their lives.”

But even though lead poisoning has been ruled out, researchers still aren’t positive as to what did kill those remaining sailors.

“I would suspect that their problems probably multiplied as time went by,” Varney told CBC. “Their food would have been limited, so they would have been starving. They would have had nutritional deficiencies. And any health problems individuals would have had going into the expedition that maybe weren’t a problem at the time, I imagine as time when on those would have become more magnified and manifest.”

Researchers are slowly inching towards finding an answer about how the members of the Franklin Expedition lost their lives, but for now, the deaths of the 128 men remains shrouded in mystery, and we’ll stay tuned for more info.

Next, read about a new discovery which has brought archaeologists one step closer to uncovering the mystery of the Roanoke Colony. Then check out the five greatest mysteries of human history.

Caroline Redmond
Caroline is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's in science from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in People, Yahoo, Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, and The Boston Herald.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Redmond, Caroline. "New Study Sheds Light On Infamously Mysterious 19th-Century Cannibal Shipwreck.", August 28, 2018, Accessed June 24, 2024.