The Franklin Conspiracy - Cover-up, Betrayal, and the Astonishing Secret Behind the Lost Arctic Expedition
By Jeffrey Blair Latta
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001
Reviewed by David Owen
Jeffrey Blair Latta's The Franklin Conspiracy - Cover-up, Betrayal, and the Astonishing Secret Behind the Lost Arctic Expedition is the latest in the small number of books that occupy the territory one might call the Franklin Lunatic Fringe.
The Franklin Conspiracy is Latta's first book, but he has a web site -- pulpand paper.com -- which is a library of free downloadable genre fiction, including some of Latta's previous work. Among Latta's downloadables are The Ship Eaters - ("a nine chapter Swashbuckler"), The Monster on the Tundra, and Night of the Mind Tyrants. He even shills for the Franklin book on his site, writing that it's "Like Roswell, the Bermuda Triangle & JFK combined!"
With background like this it's easy to see The Franklin Conspiracy as just another of Latta's pulp exercises only in the genre of conspiracy. A slice of Arctic history served up as a series of supermarket tabloid headlines, a sensationalizing of the already remarkable.
Yet a case can be made for a visit to the Fringe. For many readers there is a guilty pleasure in the alternate histories and unintended fictions to be found there. The safe reconstructions of academic historians and archaeologists are, appropriately, wed to the known facts. Writers of the Lunatic Fringe have no such restrictions. Here's the land where the wild thoughts roam, eliciting fascination at the expense of reason or likelihood. But sometimes, in this freedom from restrictions, unlikely insights emerge.
The book's thesis is summed up in an email quoted by John Robert Colombo in his Foreword. Latta writes "that the Franklin expedition was dispatched, not to find a Northwest Passage , but to make a scientific study of a previously discovered, but secret, phenomenon; and, second, when the expedition didn't return, the Royal Navy did everything in its power to keep the lost expedition from being found. " And so Latta begins rewriting the history of British Arctic exploration.
Inspired by an Inuit story of a wreck near Matty Island recorded by Franklinist M.T.Burwash, Latta has Parry sailing the Fury down Peel Sound in 1825 and being wrecked on the shoals near Matty Island. It's a preposterous assumption contrary to recorded history for which he has not a whit of evidence. No letters of Parry's, no hidden manuscript found in some relatives' trunk -- purely because it suits his thesis that Parry discovered the 'mysterious phenomenon' on King William's Island. But what about the offloaded stores of the Fury's visited by a number of other expeditions (e.g. John Ross & William Kennedy) on the east coast of Boothia? If the Fury never went to Fury beach how did the stores get there? Latta doesn't explain this.
Consider Latta's handling of what is, perhaps, the 'ground zero' of the Franklin Lunatic Fringe, the case of Weesy Coppin. Weesy Coppin was the daughter of one Captain Coppin, a merchant sailor in Londonderry. When she died at the age of four in 1849 her siblings especially her sister, continued to see Weesy around the house. After the 'spirit' successfully predicted the death of a family friend she was asked the whereabouts of the Franklin Expedition. A map appeared which pointed to Victory Point where McClintock was to find the famous Franklin record ten years later.
But what does Latta do with this story? He concludes that since Captain Coppin was right he must have had inside information, Captain Coppin, who was not in the Royal Navy, nevertheless somehow knew that there was a mystery being concealed at Victory Point. Latta writes " if Captain Coppin was not possessed of special knowledge, then how else are we to explain his daughter's vision? Ghosts?"
Latta must have no sense of irony. He asks the reader for the suspension of disbelief on his own behalf but will grant none to his predecessor. Latta's bombast dissolves when confronted with fact. Consider this proclamation:
"As we will see, it is difficult not to see a darker intent behind the Admiralty's inability to find the lost expedition. How else to explain the astonishing fact that in the eleven years of searching virtually every single island was explored in the Arctic except for the right one?"
Exactly why is there 'a darker intent'? The bureaucracy of the British Navy confronted by one of the world's harshest environments, vast and largely unexplored is reason enough for the failure to find the ships. As for the claim that "every single island was explored" there's nothing 'astonishing' about it since it's simply not true. A vast number of sizable islands were yet to be discovered even after McClintock's voyage. Has Latta never heard of Borden or MacKenzie King Island? They were hardly 'explored' since they weren't even discovered until sixty years later.
Latta regularly gets something wrong and then insists his obvious wrongness is a revelation. In a discussion of the ship's boat on a sledge containing two skeletons found by McClintock Latta asks "If they perished of starvation why did they leave forty pounds of chocolate behind ?" McClintock himself in his description of its discovery says "The only provisions we could find were tea or chocolate; of the former very little remained , but there were nearly forty pounds of the latter. These articles alone could never support life."
Why doesn't Latta know that chocolate isn't food?
A good example of what one hopes to find in a revisionist history from the Fringe comes when Latta begins his discussion of the Victory Point note. He asks the obvious but never asked question. What if the Victory Point records, (the only surviving written record of the Franklin Expedition) reference to the Terror and Erebus spending the winter of 1846-7 on Beechey Island is actually right, is actually what it says it is, instead of the error it is always assumed to be? The standard reconstruction has the expedition leaving Beechey at breakup in 1846 and being frozen-in off King William's Island. But Latta suggests they actually had returned to Beechey and from there the next year drifted to their position above King William's Island where the ships were ultimately abandoned.
This brings a new reading to the issue of that always irksome date. Intriguingly Latta notes a story of Adam Beck who was John Ross's interpreter. Beck claimed to have found an Elm wood post on Beechey Island with the date September 3 1846. The note reports that they had been beset since September 12, 1846 and so Latta's notion of a return provides a substantiating link between these two bits of fact. Of course it raises as many questions as it answers - for example the drift from Beechey Island would push them out towards Baffin Bay not down Peel Strait to King William's Island. and Adam Beck was also denounced as a liar for claiming he had been told the expedition had been massacred by natives in Greenland. But it's one example that provides some moments of interesting musing.
Clearly if the Royal Navy had masterminded a conspiracy to conceal some strange lighting phenomena on King William's Island the revelation of this phenomenon is at the core of this book. In the book's final chapters before the epilogue one would expect to find the final answer Latta promised in the introduction when he wrote "in this case the final answer is a final story that explains all the facts, answers all the questions, and incorporates all the details into a satisfying whole."
But instead he simply suggests things that might have happened. There are hallucinatory lighting phenomenon in the Arctic, there was once a race of giants called the Tunnit who were said to live on King William's Island, Franklin's men might have had radiation sickness, there is a mysterious force called the Shaman Light possibly capable of making people vanish or transporting them great distances. But he never actually does say what he believed happened just a constant and ultimately annoying 'what if,?'
At the heart if the Franklin fascination is a simple question: what happened? How did the expedition so certain of triumph descend in the despair of the final march to nowhere? Without new evidence there can be no final answer. But a reconstruction is expected, the catharsis of an explanation that the book had presumably being building towards. But when you get to the Epilogue where you'd expect some summary of a cogent argument you get :
"This book is all about conjecture, about theorizing and wondering Where does that leave our story? Without hope of proof, without predictive value, all our conjecture can be no more than a fairy tale, a scary story told by the lambent light of a midnight campfire"
When it comes time to give up the goods Latta has no goods and just gives up.
The book further has a careless feel. One might hope, for example, that some editor at the press knew that the pre-eminent Franklin historian was David and not 'Donald' C. Woodman as he is called by John Robert Colombo in the Foreword. Also the books' maps all look like the work of some crude electronic EtchASketch. In a book where maps are crucial their execution couldn't be worse.
To give Latta what little credit he's due, he does keep the story rattling along. The Franklin material is rich and fascinating on its own and Latta provides a magpie's selection of the brightest bits. He rummages through the material, inventing holus bolus Arctic histories so full of loose threads that to grab at any one is to quickly unravel his 'conspiracy'. The result is a book which only a reader completely unaware of the facts could enjoy, and which would only infuriate those who know them.
The Franklin Mystery is not the passionate work of a man obsessed, its the result of someone needing material to apply to a proven marketing plan. Ultimately it's Latta's bald-faced attempt to cash in on the legend of the Lost Franklin Expedition that's the real entertainment in this charade. Jeffrey Blair Latta is not a man with a revelation about the Franklin Expedition he must share. He's someone who saw in the Franklin material the stuff of a good conspiracy book. Too bad he didn't write it.