The 3 Ice Mummies of the Franklin Expedition on Beechey Island

Disclaimer: This article contains images of deceased people.

History enthusiasts will be familiar with the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition. 129 British sailors, under the command of The Royal Navy, were sent for an expedition to explore the Northwest Passage which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans in the Northern Canadian Archipelago.

The two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, with the crew onboard ended up getting stuck in the ice for 2 years. In 1847, the crew abandoned the ships in hopes of finding settlements nearby and reaching mainland Canada. No one ever heard from these sailors again and, except for 3, none of the other sailors’ bodies were ever found.

These 3 seamen mentioned above were John Torrington, William Braine and John Hartnell. They died at the start of the expedition and were buried in Beechey Island, Canada. Besides their historical significance, these 3 British sailors are considered to be among the most well-preserved mummies ever found.

The graves of John Torrington, William Braine, John Hartnell on Beechey Island, Canada / Photo by: Gordon Leggett – Wikimedia Commons

John Torrington

John Torrington was born in Manchester, England in 1825. He was a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy who was assigned to the catastrophic Franklin Expedition as stoker at the age of 19. John Torrington died 7 months into the expedition and was buried on Beechey Island, Canada. His barely decomposed body shocked scientists who exhumed it in 1984, more than a century later. Torrington was perfectly preserved and his eyes were open, looking straight at excavation crew.

In 1984, with the consent of Torrington’s descendants in England, a crew, led by archeologist Owen Beattie, commenced their work on Torrington’s grave. They dug 1.5 meters deep into the frozen ground to reach the coffin. Upon opening the coffin, they were struck by how well the body was preserved. Scientists melted the ice covering Torrington slowly to avoid damaging the body.

Further scientific research suggested that John Torrington had been very sick and weighed only 38.5 kilograms at the time of his death. His cause of death was determined to be pneumonia.

John Torrington’s facial reconstruction and his exhumed body

John Torrington’s Original Tombstone

Sacred to the memory of John Torrington who departed this life January 18 AD 1846, on board of HMS Ship Terror. Aged 20 years.

William Braine

William Braine was a British explorer who was born in Oakhill, Somerset, in England in 1814. He was enlisted in the Royal Marines during the 1830s. Subsequently, Braine was assigned to HMS Erebus during Franklin’s Lost Expedition.

His corpse was found to be in the worst condition among the Beechey Island bodies, having been gnawed at by rats before burial. Recent scientific research has suggested that Braine’s body showed symptoms of tuberculosis and lead poisoning prior to his death.

William Braine’s facial reconstruction and his exhumed body

John Hartnell

John Hartnell was born in Gillingham, Kent, in England, to a family of shipbuilders. He was assigned to HMS Erebus with his brother, Thomas, as able seamen on the Franklin Northwest Passage expedition. He was one of the first casualties of the expedition, dying of suspected zinc deficiency and malnourishment during the expedition’s first year.

Hartnell’s incredibly well-preserved, mummified remains surprised the archeologists who exhumed his grave. When Hartnell’s cap was removed, they found his hair completely intact, which was later used to determine that his body contained large amounts of lead at the time of his death.

John Hartnell’s facial reconstruction and his exhumed body

Argun Konuk
Argun Konuk

A travel & history enthusiast who has been writing articles about the world.

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