Immortal beloveds: the “ice mummies” of Beechey Island, Canada.

torrington

One look at the above photograph and you can instantly tell this man is dead. However, would you believe that he’s been dead for 167 years?

His name is John Torrington, and he was a British sailor on the exploration mission of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus to find the fabled “Northwest Passage” (which, in fact, does not exist). This famous expedition, which set out in 1845, met with disaster in the frozen Arctic Ocean, and eventually both ships were lost–their remains have never been found. Torrington and two other sailors died while the ships were wintering at Beechey Island, in northern Canada, before the Terror and the Erebus met whatever fate ultimately befell them. Because records exist of the expedition up until that point, historians and archaeologists knew where these three were buried. A group of researchers set out to find their remains in 1984.

Because the graves were dug into permafrost, the researchers thought it likely that the bodies themselves would be frozen and largely preserved. They were right. When the cover was taken off Torrington’s coffin, revealing the horrifying but strangely fascinating face you see above, they were amazed at how well-preserved the bodies were. These “ice mummies” had decayed very little in nearly 150 years. Once thawed out, Torrington and his companions were autopsied with modern procedures, then re-buried. The researchers were hoping to find a clue from their bodies as to what might have happened to the Terror and the Erebus.

They did. It turns out John Torrington had extremely elevated levels of lead in his body–he may well have died of lead poisoning, in fact. The researchers hypothesized that the expedition members’ own food supply probably killed them. On a voyage to the Arctic, the British outfitted their ships with tinned provisions–tinned food being relatively new in 1846–and the company that supplied the food, who put in the cheapest contract, used lead solder to seal the cans. The solder came in contact with the food (bright idea, guys) and poisoned it with lead. A person suffering from gradual repeated lead exposure will begin to suffer impaired judgment as well as various physical ailments. If the captain of the expedition was compromised, he may have made a fatal mistake that claimed his ships–if his men were not, like Torrington, already dead of lead poisoning.

This is all documented in a really fascinating book called Frozen in Time, written by Owen Beattie, one of the researchers who exhumed Torrington.

So far as I know the “ice mummies” remain buried in the icy soil of Beechey Island to this day. Although nearly 30 more years has passed since Torrington’s 1984 autopsy, he probably looks very much the same today. If his grave his not disturbed, he could remain like this essentially forever.

If you’d like to see an artist’s conception of what Torrington and his shipmates may have looked like during life, click here. Or go here to read more about the expedition itself.

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