Family of Scots doctor killed on doomed Arctic voyage mired in death, mystery and cannibalism speaks out

He lay buried in the Arctic ice for more than 25 years following the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition which left 129 men missing in the deep, white, frozen north until they succumbed to starvation, sickness and - almost certainly - cannibalism.

Dr Harry Goodsir was among the 129-strong crew who disappeared on the 1845 Franklin voyage to the Arctic, with mystery still surrounding the deaths of the men. PIC: Contributed/CC.
Dr Harry Goodsir was among the 129-strong crew who disappeared on the 1845 Franklin voyage to the Arctic, with mystery still surrounding the deaths of the men. PIC: Contributed/CC.

Now, the last living relative of Dr Harry Goodsir, of Largo, Fife, has spoken of his pride and sorrow for his distant cousin and the ongoing hopes that answers over the tragic voyage will one day finally emerge.

Michael Tracy, from Chicago, has spent 10 years researching the expedition and the crew who vanished on the Royal Navy's voyage to find the North West Passage that cuts between Canada and Greenland and joins the Arctic Ocean with the Pacific.

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Part of a reward poster offering 20,000 - around 2.3m in today's values - for the discovery of the two missing ships. PIC: Creative Commons.

It was hailed as one of the great 19th Century voyages of discovery but ended in death, darkness and an ongoing mystery surrounding the circumstances of what remains the Royal Navy's greatest loss of life in the polar region.

Evidence gathered over the last 150 years show that the expedition ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846.

For two years, the crew wintered off the coast and those who survived this spell decided to begin walking in April 1848 towards the Back River on the Canadian mainland.

The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus before they set sail from Kent in 1845. The ships made their last stop in British waters at Stromness, Orkney, before heading for Greenland. PIC: Getty

This final leg became known as the Death March with Harry Goodsir among these last men standing.

Mr Tracy said: "The Death March in particular arouses deep emotions for me. No one knew where exactly they were, a fact that no doubt was on each crew member’s mind.

"They were on their own and did the very best they could in these many extremes.

"Each member of the crew began their slow, painful, march in extreme temperatures moving ever so closely in death’s icy grip.

Dr Harry Goodsir, bottom row, second from right, pictured among other crew members on the doomed Franklin voyage. PIC: Getty.

"I would think that death was surely welcomed at that point. As for my family member, he was one of the last to perish near the Peffer River in the southernmost part of the island, one of the last to survive.

"I cannot overstate that this unparalleled loss of life had far-reaching consequences as a result of Harry’s disappearance and eventual demise. This family would never be the same again."

Goodsir, a medical graduate from Edinburgh University who served as the assistant surgeon on the Erebus, was one of several Scots on the expedition along with Able Seaman David Leys, from Montrose, William Shanks from Dundee and William Sinclair from Galloway.

The ships left Kent in May 1845 and stopped at Stromness, Orkney for water and restoration before heading first to Greenland. The ships were last seen in Baffin Bay three months later before vanishing into the white void. For two years, there was no word.

As search vessels were dispatched, Harry's brother Robert, also an assistant surgeon, was among those looking for the missing men.

Mr Tracy said the family never recovered from the loss of their boy, who was around 28 when he left Scotland.

He added: "The eventual never-ending waiting for a letter or an answer from the Admiralty never came, and this grief-stricken family never fully recovered- ever.

"The tragedy of the Goodsir family was shared equally by the one-hundred-twenty-eight families of the lost crews of the Erebus and Terror."

Mr Tracy is satisfied that his distant cousin's remains were discovered in 1869 after an American explorer was taken by a local Inuit to a shallow grave containing well-preserved skeletal remains and fragments of clothing. The contents of the grave were then interred beneath the Franklin Memorial at Greenwich Old Royal Naval College.

Forensic analysis carried out in 2009 suggested that they belonged to Goodsir.

Many theories have existed over the causes of death of the Franklin crew, including lead poisoning which some thought may have been caused by exposure to the element in the 8,000 or so food tins on board.

However, recent analysis has broadly discounted this theory with a general view that it was the sheer physical impact of the expedition that was most likely to have killed the men.

Of Goodsir, a new theory that an infected tooth may have caused his death has emerged.

Mr Tracy said: "Personally, I think it was a combination of things, more specifically, malnutrition, scurvy, and of course the possibility of an infected tooth, not to mention exposure to the elements which played a big factor in my mind. This is one of the mysteries of the island. I believe that we will never know the exact cause of his death, ever."

Much progress has been made in unravelling the mystery surrounding the voyage, not least the discovery of the Erebus wreck in 2014 and the Terror in 2016, both which hold many documents and maps.

Earlier, analysis of bone marks found on Franklin crew members found on King William Island apparently confirmed the Inuit stories about cannibalism among the crew members.

Mr Tracy said: "I believe that cannibalism was a last resort further on in the Death March on King William Island. There was no choice.

"One has to remember, that island was desolate. There was nothing there. To Victorian England that was unheard of, unspeakable, a lie.

"But to the men walking on the island, the choice was evident. I further believe that they did everything in their power to avoid that but hunger; pure hunger will drive many into madness.

"This of course, does not sit well with me but I believe enough concrete facts have been presented over the years to concur that in fact cannibalism was evident."

Excavations of the graves of some of the first men to die on the voyage have revealed remarkably preserved remains and clothing preserved in Arctic permafrost the men appearing as if they have just fallen in the snow.

Today, almost 170 years after Harry Goodsir perished near the mouth of the Peffer River, a commemorative plaque to the Fife doctor can now be found.

Mr Tracy worked with explorer Tom Gross to get the memorial for the young assistant surgeon and naturalist close to the place where he fell on the Death March.

A metal canister was buried near the plaque containing a letter written by Mr Tracy.

The letter said: “I am reassured that Dr. Goodsir was courageous in helping as many of the crew as humanly possible and at times was a beacon of hope and light in those many months of perpetual darkness of fear and desolation.”

Mr Tracy added: "The plaque is very important to me. It still is and will always be. I thought it vital that a commemorative plaque be set into place on that island near the exact spot where he perished.

"It is my strongest conviction that Dr. Harry Goodsir was true to the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, simply put, to help all of the officers and crew that he possibly could.

"This one attribute was embodied by Goodsir as he travelled in his own Death March. He put the interests of his fellow crew members first and foremost and provided them with the encouragement and yes, the hope to keep going, to keep pointing forward."

Mr Tracy said he hoped that Harry Goodsir's diaries will be among the documents found on the sunken Erebus.