Arctic Autopsy: The Immortal John Torrington

James Dziezynski January 17, 2011 9

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John Torrington’s tombstone on Beechey Island.

The mummy of John Torrington rests far, far away from the sweltering catacombs of Egyptian pharaohs. But as Ramessess II or Yoda might say, “When 186 years old you reach, look as good you will not, hmm?” For a guy born in 1825, old John is in better shape then most of his contemporaries.

John’s unintentional journey to immortality began on May 19th, 1845 as a member of Englishman Sir John Franklin’s audacious expedition to discover a way through the Northwest Passage in the high Canadian Arctic. If boldness and tenacity were the sole keys to successful Arctic exploration, Franklin would have mastered the Passage on his first attempt in 1819. He barely survived that disastrous endeavor by “eating his shoes” and by “shoes” I mean the bodies of his deceased comrades. And that was Franklin’s best expedition.

When Franklin, Torrington and company set off in 1845, Franklin was 59-years-old. He had shown throughout his life an uncommon ability to remain immune to common sense; to make a long and likely miserable story short, the entire crew was lost. To this day, little is known of the fate of Franklin’s men, or his two ships the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror as very little documentation has been found to chronicle the doomed voyage.

Knowing the ultimate end the Franklin crew met, perhaps John Torrington was relatively lucky. Before the expedition reached the mouth of the assumed entrance of the Northwest Passage, he had fallen ill with pneumonia, a bad enough condition when not aggravated by lead poisoning. In fact, most of Franklin’s crew was likely affected by the unforeseen effects of the newfangled tinned meats they brought along to stave off scurvy. Because the “tins” weren’t made of tin but rather lead, the Brits were in for a world of hurt.

When Torrington died he was one of three sailors to succumb before the Franklin expedition disappeared into the vapors of time. His icy tomb was chiseled into nearly five feet of frozen permafrost on Beechey Island. Investigators still searching for clues to the Franklin mystery exhumed Torrington’s body in 1984 (with his family’s blessing).

John Torrington, age 139 years old.

John Torrington, age 139 years old.

What they found was a corpse that likely looked almost exactly as it had when he had been laid to rest over a century before. The lifeless eyes remained bright and milky blue, the skin was yellowed and bruised but barely decomposed. If anything else, John looked more sleepy and cold than dead. Fellow sailor John Hartnell was buried nearby and showed equally good signs of preservation, still sporting a long shock of black hair and chin stubble.

After extracting tissue samples, the bodies were returned to the frozen Earth of Beechey Island where they remain to this day. The medical findings from the autopsy helped support the case of lead poisoning and contributed a few more pieces of evidence to the Franklin tragedy.

I got to visit Torrington’s grave in 2004 and there’s no reason to believe his body was not well preserved under the ground I stood. Immortality eludes nearly all men and for those who somehow achieve this elevated status mostly live on through their art, music, military prowess, cruelty or inventiveness. John Torrington has defied conventional immortality and lives on physically in tact, preserved in Mother Nature’s freezer. Perhaps global warming will soon thaw the Earth and macabre bacteria will assimilate John into the proper skeleton he should have transformed into some 150 years ago. Until that day, John’s weary and vapid eyes remained locked in an expression of quiet agony, suspended between the dry decay of death and the fleshy, organic face of life.

9 Comments »

  1. Pat Melsted December 5, 2016 at 1:43 am - Reply

    With DNA being what it is today, wouldn’t it be interesting to submit John’s DNA into Ancestry DNA search?
    Quite possibly you would find some relatives and learn more about him. There certainly has to be records.

  2. Anny T. Kearney November 20, 2016 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    Hi,

    The first time I saw the image of John it was by pure chance by surfing the web in search of unusual or paranormal sites, it was in 2004 and I was still a novice on the internet. I can tell you that I had quite a surprise and I was so impressed that I frantically began to search further on him and Franklin, I spent my whole days and nights on the subject, Had this in mind and especially the image of John who never left me !!!! I was fascinated by this young man and yes !! I found him(John)very beautiful me too !!! I spent almost 3 years doing research and buying all the books on Franklin’s expediton and on Torrington !! And the day before yesterday on social networks, I saw a post on John Torrington and I fell back in full passion and I start my research again and found a lot of new facts and explanations! Wow! I still have this dream of going to see the exact place of the tombstones. I live in northwestern Quebec and I love the Canadian winters and the great north.I’m truly a passionate explorer of the Arctic and the Antarctic and discoveries on John Torrington !!

    Anny T.Kearney

  3. James Dziezynski February 25, 2011 at 10:30 am - Reply

    @ Rebecca: you’re not alone! One of my female co-workers commented,”I hope this doesn’t sound weird, but he must have been a hottie when he was alive.” Another thought he looked like Elijah Woods. In any case, he looks a lot better than the other guys they unburied!

  4. Rebecca Rose Hirschfield February 25, 2011 at 12:54 am - Reply

    No one ever seems to mention how incredibly good-looking the poor young lad was, with his fantastic mane of curly blond hair and his lovely face. Is that because we’re all spooked or because female necrophilacs haven’t been involved with the research? Sorry – I shouldn’t joke about the dead. I keep expecting the poor bloke to sit up and groan myself!

  5. Russell Potter January 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    Hi James,

    Belated thanks for your reply to my comment, and the link to my blog!

    I arrived at Beechey via a chartered helicopter from the Resolute airport, so didn’t come via the water route. I well remember when the helicopter pilot, asked whether the passengers (myself, the director, sound man, and the director of photography, along with a 16mm camera and heavy tripod and extra reels of film) might exceed the chopper’s weight limit, remarked laconically, “well, if it goes up, it goes up!”

    Torrington certainly looked the best on the outside of the 3 Beechey crewmembers — still, I was, like you, very glad that he remained firmly in the ground while I was there …

    Cheers,

    R U S S E L L

  6. James Dziezynski January 19, 2011 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Amongst mountaineers, a burial on the mountain is considered a fitting memorial. Several times on the Eiger in Switzerland, climbers have died mid-mountain and left to hang for years — in clear view of the town below. Sometimes there’s just no safe way to get bodies down…

  7. John January 19, 2011 at 7:51 am - Reply

    This reminds me of the tales I have heard around high altitude hiking and the casualties they claim. Intrepid explorers who leave this world near the tops of Everest or McKinley are sometimes left just off path, their comrades too weak with oxygen-deprived exertion to bring them further down for a proper burial.

    Great read!

  8. James Dziezynski January 18, 2011 at 10:34 am - Reply

    Hi Russell,

    Thanks for posting, it’s great to have an Arctic expert visit our humble blog! out of curiosity, which ship were you aboard when you visited Beechey Island? I was on the Kapitain Khlebnikov; there was also a film crew on board from I think either NOVA or the BBC that was working on a Northwest Passage documentary (I was onboard as a journalist for travel magazine).

    So it seems poor John was rotting from the inside — he still looked better than most! That’s interesting about James Taylor’s song, I’ll have to give it a listen with Franklin’s crew in mind.

    By the way, for fellow Arctic enthusiasts check out Russell’s website: http://visionsnorth.blogspot.com/
    Very cool stuff! Thanks again for posting!

  9. Dr. Russell A. Poter January 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm - Reply

    Hi James,

    A great story, and well-told. I too visited the grave in April of 2004, while we were filming a NOVA program, “Arctic Passage”

    However, though Torrington certainly looked well enough on the outside, the autopsy — a copy of which I have in my files — shows that substantial decay and tissue degradation had taken place, despite the cold. Nothing was left of his brain but a puddle of “yellow granular fluid”; heart and lung tissue, under the microscope, showed “complete loss of cellular detail,” and all the tissues were scattered with cellular debris. Much of the damage was caused by call autolysis — the cell’s enzymes literally digesting the cells themselves. This may be, the pathologist speculated, because Torrington’s body was kept warm on the ship while the grave was dug, but it may also have gone on, albeit at a very slow rate, during those brief periods when the temperature around the grave were higher in the summer.

    But we can always imagine! Do you know James Taylor’s song “The Frozen Man”> It was inspired by a photograph of Torrington.

    Russell Potter

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