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How clairvoyants and spiritual fads followed 19th century British Arctic expeditions

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: December 9, 2019
  • Published December 7, 2019

The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration

Shane McCorristine, UCL Press, 326 pages, 2018. $45 or free in PDF form from the UCL website,

’The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration ’ by Shane McCorristine

As we move into the deepest days of the northern winter, it’s tempting to allow thoughts to turn to ghosts and spirits and other unseen things that one could easily imagine sliding past us in the long nights when the world around us becomes shrouded in darkness. The North has long been the target of hauntings and spectral rumination in the minds of Europeans and those descended from European stock. From Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to the recent television series “The Terror,” the Arctic has been a well-suited setting for the supernatural. It also haunts real life thanks to the Franklin Expedition. The loss of both ships and the deaths of all the men is a story still plagued by unanswered questions and the very real horror of the cannibalism some engaged in before all perished. If things that go bump in the night tickle your fancy, there’s plenty of material to work with.

Into this morass steps British cultural historian Shane McCorristine of Newcastle University, who has set to work placing the Franklin Expedition and the 19th century British experience in the Arctic into its spiritualist context of the times in which it was taking place.

“The Spectral Arctic” is a meandering, often unfocused, and overly academic work that will leave some readers confused, but that still manages to open up new ways of viewing how the search for the Northwest Passage and the loss of Franklin and his men had profound spiritual impacts on British society, and which goes into greater detail than most books of the ways that spiritualist fads during an era of rapid modernization affected the search for the missing ships. It’s a far from perfect book, and one that will be of little interest to those with limited or no knowledge of Arctic exploration — to be blunt, readers lacking such background knowledge will be hopelessly lost since McCorristine provides little information on the journeys themselves. But for diehards beset by Franklin Fever, it’s yet another book that should be added to the list.

The search for the Northwest Passage coincided with the full flowering of both the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution. It was a time of confidence in man’s ability to overcome nature even at its most extreme. It was also the dawn of scientific rationalism, when long-entrenched beliefs in magic, spiritual presences, ghosts and such were being dismissed. While Christianity remained a strong element of British culture, folk spiritual traditions were falling by the wayside.

McCorristine shows how new innovations in spectral beliefs nonetheless emerged, and how they were employed, often covertly, by Franklin’s wife Jane and some of the more superstitious men and women who played roles in the more than decade-long effort to find the fate of the crew, who had departed England to great fanfare in 1845 and were swallowed whole in the maze of channels between the Canadian mainland and the Arctic Archipelago.

During this same period, clairvoyants were quite the rage in England. Usually illiterate women from lower classes, they would be guided by wealthy men who would send them into trances where they would “travel” to faraway places on the globe and bring back messages. In a time when communications even from Europe could take weeks or months, these women were often consulted by those wondering how relatives and loved ones were faring.

So it’s unsurprising that some clairvoyants would turn their attention to the lost ships. This phenomenon as part of the Franklin story has been explored before, but nowhere as deeply as McCorristine has. He looks at it from both socio-economic and spiritual viewpoints, showing how their claims of having found their ways to the ships and spoken with the men were greeted with everything from extreme skepticism to full embrace.

Somewhere in between was Lady Franklin. A highly manipulative and socially self-conscious woman driven to find her husband, she carefully controlled her public image in order to maintain respect in the highest circles. McCorristine notes that she didn’t want to be seen as too easily taken in, but quietly she listened to clairvoyants, as well as the father of a dead girl who claimed his daughter had come back as a ghost, had been in contact with both Franklin and his men, and had pinpointed their location. McCorristine provides evidence that Lady Franklin directed Leopold McClintock’s 1859 excursion toward the western coast of King William Island, where a note found in a cairn confirmed the abandonment of the ships, based on this information. It appears unlikely, however, that she told him so.

McCorristine delves deeply into the claims of a couple of clairvoyants, and seems at least somewhat convinced of their abilities. This is troubling from an academic standpoint. Countless mesmerists, clairvoyants, ghost-talkers, and others claimed to have been in direct contact with Franklin and his men, and thus it’s inevitable that one or two would stumble on the right ideas. But many more others made no end of nonsensical claims, and most, including those who Lady Franklin trusted, were insisting well into the 1850s that Franklin himself was still alive, even though the note later found by McClintock placed his death in 1847.

McCorristine goes so far as to describe clairvoyants as a medium of communication, a ridiculous assertion. They provided succor, but not connection. The author would have been on more solid ground to explore the clairvoyant aspect of the search as a manifestation of the grief experienced by Lady Franklin and British society.

McCorristine discusses other aspects of the spectral in relation to the Arctic in less-blinkered fashion, and his book is valuable if approached cautiously. He does, however, achieve his primary goal, which is, he writes, to “examine how spectral experiences such as dreaming, clairvoyant travel, reverie, spiritualism and ghost-seeing informed ideas of the Arctic and the searches for a Northwest Passage through the Arctic.” And on a long dark northern night in December, it’s worth coming along for the ride.