CLOSE
Original image
Luke Spencer

Crocker Land: The Legendary Arctic Island That Didn't Actually Exist

Original image
Luke Spencer

In the archives of the American Geographical Society in Milwaukee lies a century-old map with a peculiar secret. Just north of Greenland, the map shows a small, hook-shaped island labeled “Crocker Land” with the words “Seen By Peary, 1906” printed just below.

The Peary in question is Robert Peary, one of the most famous polar explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the man who claimed to have been the first to step foot on the North Pole. But what makes this map remarkable is that Crocker Land was all but a phantom. It wasn't “seen by Peary”—as later expeditions would prove, the explorer had invented it out of the thin Arctic air.

Explorer Robert Peary aboard the Roosevelt.

Robert Peary aboard the Roosevelt.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By 1906, Peary was the hardened veteran of five expeditions to the Arctic Circle. Desperate to be the first to the North Pole, he left New York in the summer of 1905 in a state-of-the-art ice-breaking vessel, the Roosevelt—named in honor of one of the principal backers of the expedition, President Theodore Roosevelt. The mission to set foot on the top of the world ended in failure, however: Peary said he sledged to within 175 miles of the pole (a claim others would later question), but was forced to turn back by storms and dwindling supplies.

Peary immediately began planning another attempt, but found himself short of cash. He apparently tried to coax funds from one of his previous backers, San Francisco financier George Crocker—who had donated $50,000 to the 1905-'06 mission—by naming a previously undiscovered landmass after him. In his 1907 book Nearest the Pole, Peary claimed that during his 1906 mission he'd spotted “the faint white summits” of previously undiscovered land 130 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard, one of the most northerly parts of Canada. Peary named this newfound island “Crocker Land” in his benefactor’s honor, hoping to secure another $50,000 for the next expedition.

His efforts were for naught: Crocker diverted much of his resources to helping San Francisco rebuild after the 1906 earthquake, with little apparently free for funding Arctic exploration. But Peary did make another attempt at the North Pole after securing backing from the National Geographic Society, and on April 6, 1909, he stood on the roof of the planet—at least by his own account. “The Pole at last!!!" the explorer wrote in his journal. "The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last."

Peary wouldn't celebrate his achievement for long, though: When the explorer returned home, he discovered that Frederick Cook—who had served under Peary on his 1891 North Greenland expedition—was claiming he'd been the first to reach the pole a full year earlier. For a time, a debate over the two men's claims raged—and Crocker Land became part of the fight. Cook claimed that on his way to the North Pole he’d traveled to the area where the island was supposed to be, but had seen nothing there. Crocker Land, he said, didn't exist.

Peary’s supporters began to counter-attack, and one of his assistants on the 1909 trip, Donald MacMillan, announced that he would lead an expedition to prove the existence of Crocker Land, vindicating Peary and forever ruining the reputation of Cook.

There was also, of course, the glory of being the first to set foot on the previously unexplored island. Historian David Welky, author of A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, recently explained to National Geographic that with both poles conquered, Crocker Land was “the last great unknown place in the world.”

A report from the Crocker Land expedition.
American Geographical Society Library. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

After receiving backing from the American Museum of Natural History, the University of Illinois, and the American Geographical Society, the MacMillan expedition departed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in July 1913. MacMillan and his team took provisions, dogs, a cook, “a moving picture machine,” and wireless equipment, with the grand plan of making a radio broadcast live to the United States from the island.

But almost immediately, the expedition was met with misfortune: MacMillan’s ship, the Diana, was wrecked on the voyage to Greenland by her allegedly drunken captain, so MacMillan transferred to another ship, the Erik, to continue his journey. By early 1914, with the seas frozen, MacMillan set out to attempt a 1200-mile long sled journey from Etah, Greenland, through one of the most inhospitable and harshest landscapes on Earth, in search of Peary’s phantom island.

Though initially inspired by their mission to find Crocker Land, MacMillan’s team grew disheartened as they sledged through the Arctic landscape without finding it. “You can imagine how earnestly we scanned every foot of that horizon—not a thing in sight,” MacMillan wrote in his 1918 book, Four Years In The White North.

But a discovery one April day by Fitzhugh Green, a 25-year-old ensign in the US Navy, gave them hope. As MacMillan later recounted, Green was “no sooner out of the igloo than he came running back, calling in through the door, ‘We have it!’ Following Green, we ran to the top of the highest mound. There could be no doubt about it. Great heavens! What a land! Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.”

But visions of the fame brought by being the first to step foot on Crocker Land quickly evaporated. “I turned to Pee-a-wah-to,” wrote MacMillan of his Inuit guide (also referred to by some explorers as Piugaattog). “After critically examining the supposed landfall for a few minutes, he astounded me by replying that he thought it was a ‘poo-jok' (mist).”

Indeed, MacMillan recorded that “the landscape gradually changed its appearance and varied in extent with the swinging around of the Sun; finally at night it disappeared altogether.” For five more days, the explorers pressed on, until it became clear that what Green had seen was a mirage, a polar fata morgana. Named for the sorceress Morgana le Fay in the legends of King Arthur, these powerful illusions are produced when light bends as it passes through the freezing air, leading to mysterious images of apparent mountains, islands, and sometimes even floating ships.

Fata morganas are a common occurrence in polar regions, but would a man like Peary have been fooled? “As we drank our hot tea and gnawed the pemmican, we did a good deal of thinking,” MacMillan wrote. “Could Peary with all his experience have been mistaken? Was this mirage which had deceived us the very thing which had deceived him eight years before? If he did see Crocker Land, then it was considerably more than 120 miles away, for we were now at least 100 miles from shore, with nothing in sight.”

MacMillan’s mission was forced to accept the unthinkable and turn back. “My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment,” MacMillan wrote. But the despair at realizing that Crocker Land didn’t exist was merely the beginning of the ordeal.

Donald MacMillan in seal skin coat on the Crocker Land Expedition.
Donald MacMillan in seal skin coat on the Crocker Land Expedition.
American Geographical Society Library. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

MacMillan sent Fitzhugh Green and the Inuit guide Piugaattog west to explore a possible route back to their base camp in Etah. The two became trapped in the ice, and one of their dog teams died. Fighting over the remaining dogs, Green—with alarming lack of remorse—explained in his diary what happened next: “I shot once in the air ... I then killed [Piugaattog] with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head.” Green returned to the main party and confessed to MacMillan. Rather than reveal the murder, the expedition leader told the Inuit members of the mission that Piugaattog had perished in the blizzard.

Several members of the MacMillan mission would remain trapped in the ice for another three years, victims of the Arctic weather. Two attempts by the American Museum of Natural History to rescue them met with failure, and it wasn’t until 1917 that MacMillan and his party were finally saved by the steamer Neptune, captained by seasoned Arctic sailor Robert Bartlett.

While stranded in the ice, the men put their time to good use; they studied glaciers, astronomy, the tides, Inuit culture, and anything else that attracted their curiosity. They eventually returned with over 5000 photographs, thousands of specimens, and some of the earliest film taken of the Arctic (much of which can be seen today in the repositories of the American Geographical Society at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee).

It’s unclear whether MacMillan ever confronted Peary about Crocker Land—about what exactly the explorer had seen in 1906, and perhaps what his motives were. When MacMillan’s news about not having found Crocker Land reached the United States, Peary defended himself to the press by noting how difficult spotting land in the Arctic could be, telling reporters, “Seen from a distance ... an iceberg with earth and stones may be taken for a rock, a cliff-walled valley filled with fog for a fjord, and the dense low clouds above a patch of open water for land.” (He maintained, however, that "physical indications and theory" still pointed to land somewhere in the area.) Yet later researchers have noted that Peary’s notes from his 1905-'06 expedition don’t mention Crocker Land at all. As Welky told National Geographic, “He talks about a hunting trip that day, climbing the hills to get this view, but says absolutely nothing about seeing Crocker Land. Several crewmembers also kept diaries, and according to those he never mentioned anything about seeing a new continent.”

There’s no mention of Crocker Land in early drafts of Nearest the Pole, either—it's only mentioned in the final manuscript. That suggests Peary had a deliberate reason for the the inclusion of the island.

Crocker, meanwhile, wouldn’t live to see if he was immortalized by this mysterious new land mass: He died in December 1909 of stomach cancer, a year after Peary had set out in the Roosevelt again in search of the Pole, and before MacMillan’s expedition.

Any remnants of the legend of Crocker Land were put to bed in 1938, when Isaac Schlossbach flew over where the mysterious island was supposed to be, looked down from his cockpit, and saw nothing.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
Original image
iStock

The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

Original image
iStock
arrow
History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
Original image
iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios