Trial by Ice

Suggested by Brad Nelson • In the dark years following the Civil War, America’s foremost Arctic explorer, Charles Francis Hall, became a figure of national pride when he embarked on a harrowing, landmark expedition to be the first to reach the North Pole. Neither the ship nor its captain would ever return.
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20 Responses to Trial by Ice

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I found this to be an eminently readable and well-organized book, much more so than the patchy The Endurance which told the tale of Shackleton’s disaster and eventual triumph-of-survival.

    The story begins with the scene of the burying of Captain Hall in the icy confines of some place cold and far north. The ground was so hard they could not dig down far enough to properly bury his coffin. And his death was in very mysterious circumstances.

    The story then unfolds in regards to how this disaster came about. And you should be left with the impression that even the most well-planned and financed journey by sea (with sled dog excursions on the side) to the North Pole is an extremely hazardous undertakiing. This book does a splendid job of describing the dangers of the ice. A channel can be clear one moment and the next you can have building-sized icebergs threatening to sink you. Or your ship could become entrapped or frozen in the ice and then squeezed to death.

    Hall’s expedition was not well financed nor was it well-planned. Hall, however, was arguably the world’s expert (certainly America’s expert) at what it took to live in, and thus explore, the arctic wilderness. He had the skills of a true Inuit. But the bureaucrats weighed down his expedition with competing goals and just some very dicey men.

    I won’t spoil the ending for you because one half of this story is following this story and the various conflicting relationships and wondering how it all turns out — who lives and who dies, if anyone does, in fact, survive. But what deepens this book are the various facts you glean about the arctic, the ice, the ships and technology of the time, the habits and mindset of the time, and the skills (and sometimes shockingly bizarre culture) of the natives.

    You’ll also likely come away with an appreciation for why the Captain Blighs of the world had to be so harsh. The men who sailed to sea on these ships were not Boy Scouts, generally speaking. Hall was not a particularly strong leader (his authority having been undermined by the bureaucrats), but he was respected by the men because they knew that he knew his way around the arctic. When Hall died, all bets were off. And the divided authority contributed much to their hardship.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Here is the most bizarre part of this story. It’s a bit of a spoiler so read at your own risk.

    It seems fairly obvious from the evidence that the Prussian doctor poisoned Captain Hall. Whether or not he was there as a spy in order to sabotage the expedition and forward the interests of the Kaiser, no one can be sure. But this was a bad egg.

    Hall drank a cup of coffee and immediately got sick. Immediate events thereafter suggested to him that not only had the doctor poisoned him but was continuing to do so in the guise of his beside “treatment” which included highly suspicious injections. Hall stopped taking the “medicines” given to him by the Prussian doctor and immediately got better.

    Now here’s where the story gets truly bizarre. The doctor (obviously intent on killing Hall) persuaded the ship’s chaplain to try to convince Hall to continue on with his “treatments.” Hall at the time was doing just fine. Incredibly, Hall was persuaded by the chaplain and began taking “medicine” from the Prussian doctor again and immediately got ill and soon died.

    I can’t begin to comprehend how and why Hall decided to take the treatments again. And who knows if this story is accurate, but apparently the chaplain was one of the few men of good character on the ship and likely told the truth about this in his later testimony (yes….not everyone died).

    In a recent book that I read, The Devil’s Gentleman, I thought it extraordinary that anyone would ingest medicines sent to them unsolicited and with no return address. But Hall’s bizarre behavior bests even this. It’s inexplicable.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I would assume the doctor persuaded the chaplain that the suspicious pattern of illness was purely coincidental. This was before someone came up with “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.” (Ian Fleming used this in organizing Goldfinger, but I don’t know if the saying is original to him.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Your guess is as good as any. This book seems very well researched so I’m going to assume that the chaplain didn’t get into the details of how in his journals (if they survived…I don’t offhand remember…or his testimony). But I want it to be known that in the book that Hall was strongly suspicious of the doctor who was already openly at odds with the captain. There is absolutely no suggestion by the author that the chaplain is lying. But something is very strange about this episode. But that Hall was poisoned by the brazen doctor is not in doubt. There’s an epilogue wherein they returned to the grave and found high concentrations of poison in Hall’s fingernails.

        And the Inuit are both astonishingly skilled at living in the arctic as well as brutally oriented toward doing so. Some of their customs are rather harsh. I wonder if they have an Eskimo word for “hospital.”

        Many of the Europeans and Americans are shown as arrogant and naive. And they are. But this is in no way a multiculturalist screed on the badness of white people and the eternal goodness of “people of color.” There was a documentary on last night about the British Empire and I had to turn it off when it turned into an “Excuse me for being English” type of thing.

        But I wouldn’t recommend any book if it were of this type. The facts are the facts (apparently…I’m certainly no expert) that show good and bad traits on both sides. I think the guys here, in particular, would like this book. But especially thought Annie would as well because of her love of The Endurance.

        I’m currently reading In the Heart of the Sea which is, of course, about the incident that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. I’m 36% into it and I can very strongly recommend this historical page-turner, at least so far.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Was the poison arsenic (aka inheritance powder)? That does accumulate in hair and nails, and its symptoms mainly involve digestive upset, which can easily be mistaken for natural causes (especially in such harsh conditions). No one was likely to have the equipment for a Marsh test on an Arctic voyage (and if there had been, it probably would have been the doctor anyway).

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Yes, I’m pretty sure it was arsenic.

            • Anniel says:


              I’m going to read this one, if only to get back to real life after reading a “true” story about some bloke, who taught writing at Princeton, and works as a writer for National Geographic, on finding the “City of the Monkey God,” in Honduras. The writing was so bad, and the conjecture was even worse. I need some refreshing before going forward. Besides, it’s still snowing, and snowing, and . . .

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Annie, I think you will enjoy this book.

                I’m not sure why I enjoy reading seafaring stories. Certainly, perhaps like you, the chilly weather outside has us readers inside imagining how really bitterly cold and miserable it would be to be on one of these failed polar expeditions. Twenty-nine degrees then does not seem so cold. It’s even snug, although lately we’ve been hitting the upper forties for our highs.

                I’ve read several novels by Jack London (everyone should read “The Sea-Wolf”), most of the Hornblower series (I burned out at the time he became an admiral), Moby Dick, Treasure Island, a couple by Joseph Conrad, Robinson Crusoe, one or two by James Fenimore Cooper (The Red Rover), Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” A Brave Vessel (the incident that Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is based upon), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (which also works as a very good seafaring adventure), Captain Blood (the movie…I don’t think I’ve read the book), half of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (stick to the movie…this one gets boring fast), and I may take up the Master and Commander series one of these days. Here’s somebody’s list of The 25 Great Seafaring Books and I’m not sure that I’ve read a single book on that list. There’s certainly a lot more material out there. The book on the top of that list, The Riddle of the Sands, can be found for free at

                Here’s another one I need to put high on my list: Sea of Glory. His “Mayflower” (reviewed here) was an extraordinary book.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:


                In addition to those you recommend, I would add my favorite, “Captains Courageous.” I even liked the 1937 movie of the same name. Nobody writes like Kipling.

                And no list of great seafaring books should neglect the greatest seafaring piece of all time, “The Odyssey.” This is one of the foundations of Western Literature. I am reading Pope’s (I believe) translation, off and on.

                “The Riddle of the Sands” is about the search for a channel through the sands offshore of Northwest Germany through which a British naval expedition could sail should a war break out with Germany. Interestingly, the author was later executed for his part in the Irish uprising of 1921, I believe.

                Of the Master and Commander series, I have only read “Post Captain.” It was enjoyable, but not a patch on Kipling. I enjoyed the one movie made of the series starring Russell Crowe.

                For some years, I have been playing with the idea of writing a nautical novel. The time period would be the early/middle 1780’s and the story would be built around the first trade between the infant U.S.A. and China. I even have a title, but I will keep that to myself.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                “Captains Courageous” sounds vaguely in the vein of “The Sea-Wolf.” Maybe I’ll give Kipling a shot someday. I’ve certainly enjoyed some of his other books and short stories.

                I so enjoyed the movie, Captain Blood, that this is one case I don’t want to ruin it by reading the novel. But I’m certainly impressed by the attention to detail given by the authors of these types of novels. One aspect of seafaring adventures is that they were the rocket ships before space travel became a possibility.

                The analogy isn’t perfect. But the great seas were, for all intents and purposes, a vast outer space which offered up many unexplored and strange things. And you had to bring along with you everything you needed. And you had to also bring along the skills to make things that you didn’t know you were going to need.

                The adventures were usually aligned around commercial, military, or exploration interests. But there was something crudely ennobling about making a living on the sea. Conditions were harsh, the men tended to be violent and vulgar, but it was living on the edge as you could do almost nowhere else.

                For your own novel or short story (I’d start with a short story), keep in mind the attention to small details which helps place a person into a universe foreign to them. That’s part of the fun of reading seafaring novels. It’s certainly the attraction of good science fiction novels. A good author, at least in my opinion, gives an answer to the question, “What was it like to live in that time and place?” Obviously there are other necessities of good prose including villains, heroes, and well-described characters of various sorts. And certainly what makes a novel or short story special are those pictures painted by an imaginative mind, noticing and describing that which often does not enter conscious thought but brings to life, both directly and symbolically, human experiences and common themes. Melville in “Moby Dick” obviously hit the jackpot in this regard.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I can see Kung Fu Zu’s point about The Odyssey, though only a small part of it actually deals with the travels (and travails) of Odysseus. Life at sea could be harsh; Two Years Before the Mast is not a pleasant read, and may well have inspired The Sea Wolf.

                George Macdonald Fraser, in his Hollywood History of the World, praises Captain Bloood not only as a movie but for accuracy — particularly mentioning their agreement over how to share out the wealth.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              My reading of sea adventures is similar, though not as extensive (I haven’t read anything by Jack London, for example). I’ve read all the Hornblower books (including The Hornblower Companion) as well as several of the Aubrey-Maturin books. I suspect O’Brian is more accurate, but Forester more enjoyable (though the latter is rather subjective, of course).

              I’ve seen Captain Blood and several versions of Treasure Island (including the one with Charlton Heston as Silver), and read the book as a child (along with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was included in the same volume). I’ve read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as well as seeing the movie (and, for that matter, read a novelization of the movie when I was a child). Verne has suffered from a lot of bad translators.

              I’ve read all the Narnia books except The Horse and His Boy, and I see what you mean about Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I read Two Years Before the Mast as a kid, and have read an extensive array of historical books on submarine warfare, the Titanic, and merchant raiders (including Raphael Semmes’s account of the Alabama and Bernhard Rogge’s of the Atlantis, as well as other books on raiding) and regular naval warfare. (This includes a number of biographies and autobiographies as well as first-hand accounts.)

              Most of the books on that top 25 list I’ve never even heard of, though we did have The Old Man and the Sea in high school. The Knox-Johnston book is unfamilar, but I have read A Voyage for Madmen about the race and The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst about the most notorious participant. Riddle of the Sands is a fairly famous novel about a German invasion of Britain (part of a subgenre of such books written to urge Britain to arm over a century ago).

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                You might enjoy London’s Sea Wolf (available here free at Gutenberg). It’s the story of an intellectual man who is victim of ferry accident due to fog and finds himself in the waters of San Francisco bay and is rescued by an outward-bound fishing vessel. The captain is in a hurry and says he has no time to transfer the man to another vessel or land him on shore. It may have been (I forget) that he needed an extra hand or just was, by nature, nasty. Conditions on the ship are brutal. The brutality expressed from above, starting with the captain, is passed down the pecking order. The man has no choice but to adapt as best he can. Eventually, (slight spoiler) you get the theme of “buck it up, buttercup” and the captain, by hook and by crook, makes a man out of this otherwise somewhat pansified intellectual.

                Other London options include The Cruise of the Snark and a particular favorite of mine is The Cruise of The Dazzler. His Tales of the Fish Patrol is a collection of short stories. Perhaps not high literature but many are a fun read. And because they are short stories, you don’t have too much invested in them. South Sea Tales is a collection of light, but generally enjoyable, short stories as well.

                It’s funny how these “top” lists sometimes are really “out there.” But I’ll bookmark this guy’s top 25 and perhaps refer to it again.

        • Rosalys says:

          I second that recommendation. “In the Heart of the Sea” is indeed a page turner, and much better than the movie.

          “Mayflower” is a good one, too.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            By happenstance, Rosalys, I found mention of that 2015 movie the other day. I saw that it was lowly rated 6.9 at (not definitive since modern crowds give higher ratings to the most recent comic book movie than they do to Casablanca). I thought I might check it out but then thought, Nyaaa. I’m enjoying the book. Why ruin it by watching probably yet another poor adaption of a novel?

            Some light spoilers as you read along. This really is a book worth reading for those who have not. The environmental destruction these guys in the Essex wrought was truly heart-breaking. At one point, one of the heathens on the Essex set fire to one of the Galapagos islands, perhaps killing hundreds of tortoises.

            So by the time Moby Dick takes out the Essex, you’re not feeling too sorry for these guys. And the curse continues because at one point, the captain’s whaleboat (the crew had departed for the coast of South America in Essex’s three whaleboats) was later attacked and damaged (but not sunk) by a killer whale.

            What’s amazing once again is just the lack of good judgment. It would have been a relative breeze (quite literally) to sail west with the prevailing winds to Tahiti. Thoughts of cannibalistic tribes clouded their judgment (the British were firmly ensconced in Tahiti and reports of cannibalism in some of the other possible western destinations were apparently exaggerated). Instead, they tried to sail east back to South America. But they would have to travel quite a bit south first in order to get to favorable winds.

            I’m at the point in the (spoiler alert) where they have reached one of the Pitcairn islands, Henderson island, in particular, which they think is Ducie island. Henderson is but a flat slap of obsidian and not very hospitable, although they find a fresh-water spring and enough food to refresh themselves for a few days. Three of the men decide to stay there. I haven’t read yet what happens to them, but I imagine they don’t last long, but don’t spoil it for me. 🙂

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    George Macdonald Fraser, in his Hollywood History of the World, praises Captain Bloood not only as a movie but for accuracy — particularly mentioning their agreement over how to share out the wealth.

    Glad to hear that Captain Blood is highly-rated by others, Timothy.

    The novel I’m reading right now is “In the Heart of the Sea” about the disastrous voyage of the Essex. I think it reads as a fair history, not a scold. It doesn’t flinch from telling the harsh realities of killing whales, the sheer waste of it, etc. I especially found compelling the story that the Nantucketers were primarily, or largely, Quakers.

    Quakers are known for being a peaceful sort. So how did they come to grips with the savagery and blood of whaling? Well, although the author doesn’t use the word, they definitely “compartmentalized.” The Friends’ love for mankind and God was never apparently made to be an impediment to industry and profit. One gets the impression that their religion, as is so often the case, was but a gloss.

    For instance, the owners of the Essex vastly under-supplied the ship in terms of food needed by the crew…in order to save a few bucks. Their Quaker “love of mankind” shtick did not prevent them from being the harshest taskmaskers as captains and officers of their fleets. Philbrick writes:

    According to William Comstock, who penned an account of a whaling cruise from Nantucket in the 1820s, “Unfortunately, the anger which [the Quakers] are forbidden to express by outward actions, finding no vent, stagnates the heart, and, while they make professions of love and good will . . . , the rancor and intense malevolence of their feelings poisons every generous spring of human kindness.”

    Whether that bit of psychoanalyzing is apt or not, I do not know, but it’s as good a guess as any.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      You may recall that Richard Nixon was a Quaker. So was General Smedley Butler, a Marine officer who later turned Communist and “confessed” to having been, under government orders, a racketeer for various businesses in his service in 3 different campaigns (none of them a declared war) — in none of which he was involved in making the decision to intervene.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        They make damn good oats, though. And they gave us Benjamin Franklin.

        But seriously, the author does a tremendous job (certainly he read Moby Dick) of describing the effect that all that blood, carnage, killing, slaughtering and boiling-up these huge beasts had on the men. It was a particularly foul task that left the sea stained in blood, the ship’s deck covered in a mixture of ejecta, and the boiling process had them gagging (a particularly foul smell apparently). The rendering process was so dirty that the men engaged in it would sleep in the same set of clothes so that they did not foul all of their clothing. The rendering process would take several days.

        Men turned dark via dark chores. There’s even much fascinating information on the process and effects of starvation which plagued the men when they had to abandon ship and set off in the whaleboats. Philbrick writes about an experiment done by the U.S. military during WWII to study the effects of starvation on some volunteers:

        “Many of the socalled American characteristics,” a chronicler of the experiment wrote, “—abounding energy, generosity, optimism—become intelligible as the expected behavior response of a well-fed people.”

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Franklin was born and raised in Boston. He moved to Philly as a young adult (in my 11th grade English, we read that part of his autobiography), arriving with enough money to buy 2 loaves of bread.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I started reading his autobiography last year. I got through his early years and it was good reading. But I eventually god bored with it. He was too damn polite and careful for his bio to hold much interest, at least beyond these early years. Maybe it got better. I don’t know.

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