Trial by Ice: The True Story of Murder and Survival on the 1871 Polaris Expedition

Parry, Richard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Willms, Janice
  • Date of entry: Feb-08-2002


In 1871 the Polaris, a rebuilt tugboat commissioned by the U.S. Navy, set sail with a dual mission: planting the stars and stripes on the North Pole and providing scientific data and specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. A number of poor decisions were made early on in the planning and initiation of the expedition, including an inadequately structured vessel, a vague power distribution lacking a clear absolute authority, and a sailing captain with a significant alcohol problem.

The power struggles begin early. By the third month of the voyage the ship is in physical trouble and the designated expedition head (Charles Francis Hall) has died suddenly of an unexplained illness. There is no leader and the struggle for control erupts between the German scientist/physician who is responsible for the scientific mission and the drunken whaleboat captain who is responsible for keeping his ship and crew safe.

Bad weather, terrible luck, and lack of discipline result in the loss of the Polaris, the splitting of the crew onto separate ice floes, and several months of harrowing experience trying to survive the Arctic winter and hope for rescue. The good news is that everyone except Mr. Hall miraculously survives the ordeal. The subsequent Naval inquiry into the failed endeavor ends without resolution as to the cause of Hall’s death despite hints from crew members that it was not natural. In 1968, long after all crew members had expired, Hall’s grave was located and forensic samples proved that he had died of arsenic poisoning.


This is a gripping and extremely well written account of a failed experiment. The physician author relies on prior documentation of the venture and on the published journals, private diaries, and logs. Unfortunately, many of the critical pages in t e log had been cut from it and never made it back to the States.

Using his extensive reading about the voyage and his special knowledge as surgeon, the author guides the reader through some of the physiology of the extreme conditions the voyagers experienced and helps to interpret the detailed observations by certain crew members of their leader’s last days of life. Not only is there a great deal of science and of human behavior under multiple stresses to be learned from this work, but it is a splendid and exciting read.



Place Published

New York



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