Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer.

Excellent account of the life of the most eccentric of Arctic explorers who essentially abandoned his family in Cincinnati to pursue his Arctic dreams. Uneducated and inexperienced in Arctic ways, he adopted to and adapted Eskimo ways of living and survival by living with them for long periods and learning from them their secrets of survival. Both his origins and demise are clouded in mystery.

Loomis makes no definitive judgment on how Hall died and whether was killed by Bessels. The following passage is from Russell Potter’s blog on the subject:

Loomis could be bold — but he was also, when he felt it right, cautious. Despite his discovery of arsenic in tissue samples taken, at his behest on an expedition he’d organized, from the grave of Charles Francis Hall, he refused to jump to the conclusion that Hall had been murdered, or say who was to blame, without more than what he considered, at best, circumstantial evidence. In that case, I once thought he was a bit too cautious, but having had the experience of seeing a few of my own bold conclusions founder upon the sands of presupposition, I see his views in a somewhat different light. When it came to the important things — bringing a character such as Hall to vivid life — there was no one better than Loomis. The Hall papers offer a daunting cart-load of contradictions, the remains of a life he never lived to set in order; that Loomis was able from such jumbled materials the narrative he did is an exemplary work of humane scholarship, and a book which to this day my students find among the most readable and engaging on my list of texts. Weird and Tragic Shores has been re-issued by the Modern Library, although I’ve found that, year to year, it seems to go in and out of stock at the publisher’s. If for some reason any of you who are reading these words have not read it, you owe it to yourself to obtain a copy, and head directly to a comfy chair to read it. It is a book which, as Cervantes once said of Tirant lo Blanc, deserves to be kept in print forever. [Russell Potter blog, “Chauncey Loomis, 1930-2009,” Visions of the North, Sept. 10, 2009.]

p. 41-42, discusses Hall’s notebooks describing his reading which were quite random until Kane’s death in 1857 when Hall begins to focus on the Arctic: For several years he had been in the habit of taking notes on whatever reading he was doing, and of jotting down random thoughts, quotations, and statistics in innumerable little notebooks. These notebooks are a fantastic hodgepodge. On a few pages of one are the following items: a letter to a newspaper from Baron Humboldt on slavery (he was against it); a quotation of Lord John Russell on prose style (advising imitation of Defoe’s simplicity); a fact recorded apparently for its own sake (“85,000,000£ national debt of Grt. Britain after Russian War”); a list of articles Hall intended to read; several scriptural quotations, Latin tags, and newspaper “fillers” (“ important experiment— On Saturday Drs. Contaret, practical chemists from France, succeeded in deodorizing the contents of a privy under the direction of the contents of a privy under the direction of the New York City Inspector. The sink contained 312 cubic feet of fecal matter.”) Hall’s notebooks are relics of an unfocused but energetic effort in self-education.

In 1857 the notebooks began to take on focus, becoming less haphazard as Hall concerned himself with the Arctic. In the past he had read about the Arctic with casual interest, but now he began to study with intensity of purpose. He went regularly to the Young Men’s Mercantile Association Library to comb the latest magazines and newspapers for articles about recent Arctic activities and to study back files of periodicals. He purchases and borrowed all the books he could find that in any way concerned the North; he read Humboldt, Scoresby, Barrow, Parry, Ross, Franklin, Richardson, Beechey, Back, McClure, and, of course, Kane. He wanted to inform himself about Arctic History, Arctic Navigation, Arctic geography, Arctic flora and fauna. Painstakingly he read; painstakingly he recorded and remembered what he recorded and remembered what he read. The notebooks reveal a particular concern with the problems of Arctic survival. Hall recorded Kane’s opinion that fresh meat was the “only specific” for scurvy, and he listed the food supplies of several expeditions….

Something of Hall’s personal thought also emerges from the notebooks of this period: whenever was not jotting down facts and statistics about the Arctic, he was quoting little messages of moral uplift. He espoused the positive and the assertive, possibly because he was stiffening his sinews to make a decision that would change the course of his life. From the 1857 Annual of Scientific Discovery he quoted “all obstacles yield to a resolute man.”

p. 62, on Hall’s reading of Arctic books in preparation for his first expedition that would be sponsored by Henry Grinnell who offered Hall the use of his library.

p. 74, reads from “Masonic Manual” in funeral rites for Kudlago aboard George Henry. Hall like Kane was a Freemason, as were many of the British and American explorers.

p. 87: On Hall’s missionary instincts among the natives of Greenland: Let working colonies be established as in Greenland, with three or four Tookolitos and Ebierbings in residence, and civilization would soon spread throughout the Arctic. He immediately began to give Tookoolito reading and writing lessons, and when Christmas came he gave her the Bible that had been presented to him by the Young Men’s Christian Union of Cincinnati.

p. 112, speaks of native memory of the Frobisher voyages three hundred years earlier: Hall checked Barrow’s Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions, which he had brought with him: on Frobisher’s first voyage he had arrived with only two ships, on his second with three, and on his third with a fleet of fifteen [although some sank enroute]. Oral tradition appeared to agree with recorded history.