When the 1845 Arctic expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin went missing, the British Admiralty launched a hunt for their men and ships: the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In 1848, British ships departed for the frigid coasts where the vessels had last been seen. They found scarce evidence of where Franklin had gone, or if he and his crew were alive.
To overcome the insurmountable distance between England and the Arctic, and make contact with the vanished explorers, some parties turned to a more supernatural source. In the wake of the Franklin expedition’s disappearance, several clairvoyants crossed the seas and ice in a trance. Scientific American reported in 1849 that a “clairvoyant in Boston and another in England, have been paying a visit to Sir John Franklin at the North Pole. They both prophecy that Sir John will yet come home safe and snug. We have our doubts about this: we view Sir John’s case on the darkest side.” But others took them seriously.
In the 2018 book Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, cultural historian Shane McCorristine examines this curious moment in history:
These clairvoyant reports about Franklin were taken not as factual narratives, but as pieces of information that, like the port town reports, were always potentially worthwhile, requiring the passage of time for their confirmation or rebuttal. Clairvoyants described the condition of the men, their emotions and even their location — sometimes in the form of geographic coordinates.
Franklin clairvoyants became especially prominent in 1849, when the lack of news, and the knowledge that the expedition’s 1845 food supplies would be nearly depleted, spelled a dire situation. Psychic communications were a source of hope, which was increasingly in short supply. Lady Jane Franklin lent the last letter she’d received from her husband to a clairvoyant known as Emma, a.k.a. the “‘Seeress of Bolton,” so his words could act as a medium for contact.
Often these clairvoyants were women with little education about the Arctic. So why did anyone listen? “In an informational context, Jane Franklin, the Admiralty Board and other Arctic authorities could no more dismiss clairvoyance a priori than refuse to investigate other unsolicited sources of information that floated around Britain,” McCorristine notes. “In Jane Franklin’s own words, the communications were ‘too remarkable to be disregarded’.”
These trances could be powerful, as the clairvoyants narrated their incredible journeys to a crowd desperate for answers. At one séance, the medium Emma was sent in search of the Franklin expedition by Dr. Joseph W. Haddock — for whom she had worked as a domestic servant. Haddock had regularly experimented on his patients with mesmerism. (It was almost always a man acting as an “operator” for a woman in these séances, and the pseudoscience of mesmerism was already fairly well-accepted.) As Emma set out “into the Arctic,” her breathing became heavy. She described “how cold and slippery” it was to move across the terrain. In several séances she found Franklin himself, once witnessing him and a number of his crewmen “clothed in rough skins.” Her precise details about such a remote place, about which an uneducated woman would supposedly have no knowledge, made the visions all the more convincing.
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The clairvoyants were sometimes given even more credence than Inuit first-hand reports relayed to whalers. Captain Alexander Maconochie, a friend of the Franklins and a former professor of geography at the University of London, dismissed an Inuit sketch of the ships’ location in the ice and instead told the Admiralty that Emma’s clairvoyance was “the most detailed, coherent, and even probable, that I have received.”
Inuit oral history would be confirmed when the HMS Erebus was finally found by divers in 2014. The Terror was found in 2016. But although the ninenteenth-century clairvoyants never discovered the expedition’s final destination, they offered some comfort in their psychic location of the doomed crew. As McCorristine writes, “Like the common postbereavement experience of sensing a loved one’s presence, the expedition was no longer lost: it was located, made part of everyday space, and thereby invested with life.”