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

Luke Spencer
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.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

9 People Who Have Been Called America's Sweetheart

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The term “America’s Sweetheart” first appeared in the early 1900s, back when motion pictures were still a novelty. Over the years, it’s been applied to a vast number of celebrities—largely young, bubbly, wholesome-seeming ladies who women want to be and men want to introduce to their mothers. (The occasional man has been dubbed America's sweetheart, too, but the moniker has never quite defined famous men the way it has defined a certain genre of female celebrity.) Here are nine people who have been called "America's sweetheart" in the past.

1. THE ORIGINAL: MARY PICKFORD

Mary Pickford circa 1910
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Mary Pickford—perhaps the most iconic actress of the Silent Era and a founder of Hollywood institutions like the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—was the first to hold the unofficial title of "America's Sweetheart," a nickname reportedly given to her by influential theater owner David Grauman. The title would later be used in ad copy for her films and by magazines writing about her work. In a 1918 feature in Photoplay magazine called "Women I Have Loved," actor Elliott Dexter, in enumerating all of the actresses who had served as his on-screen love interests, wrote that "Mary Pickford absolutely captivated me as she does everyone who goes near her. Her genius, her brilliancy, her charm, her beauty—oh, what's the use? All of that has only been said two or three thousand times more or less and all of it is true." Dexter played opposite Pickford in A Romance of the Redwoods, a 1917 silent Western. (To give you an idea of her comparative clout, she received top billing, while his name didn't appear on the film's poster at all.)

"In more than 200 films, including 52 full-length features, she was the brave little girl whose hair hung down in golden ringlets," The Washington Post described in her obituary in 1979. "She was scarcely 5 feet tall, but she never gave up when times got bad. She was funny and sad, tough and vulnerable, innocent and ingenious, and she always won out in the end."

Oddly enough, Pickford proved that you didn't need to be from the U.S. to become America’s sweetheart—she was Canadian.

2. SHIRLEY TEMPLE

Shirley Temple, circa 1934.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Several decades after Pickford pioneered the name, Shirley Temple took over as "America’s Sweetheart," so effectively embodying the title that many have mistakenly called her America's first sweetheart. The dimpled, ringlet-sporting Depression-era child actor was famous by the time she was 6, singing and tap-dancing her way through more than 40 films before she retired from the pictures at the ripe age of 22 and selling millions of dolls in her likeness to American children in the process. As an adult, she went on to become a U.S. delegate to the U.N. and ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

The title of America's sweetheart stuck with Temple throughout her life. When Fox released box sets of her complete works on DVD in the early 2000s, the studio called them the America's Sweetheart collection.

3. DEBBIE REYNOLDS

Debbie Reynolds circa 1955
Keystone, Getty Images

Debbie Reynolds became America's latest sweetheart in the 1950s, starting with her star turn in Singin’ in the Rain, which debuted in 1952 when she was 20 years old. She went on to appear in multiple movies a year throughout the 1950s and had several hit songs on the Billboard charts. "Her girl-next-door looks, bouncy personality and energy in a string of comedies and musicals quickly earned her the title of America's Sweetheart," The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana explained in 1988.

Unfortunately, Reynolds's position as America's sweetheart was often juxtaposed with the sex-symbol status of her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds's husband Eddie Fisher (himself an American sweetheart) divorced her to marry Taylor in 1959, a scandal that garnered tremendous media coverage at the time and still appears in headlines today. Reynolds died in late 2016, and nearly every obituary referenced her years as America's sweetheart.

4. MARY TYLER MOORE

Mary Tyler Moore, circa 1969
E Milsom, Getty Images

In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore took over the title of America's sweetheart—though there was often a caveat. "Just as surely as Mary Pickford was America's sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore is the viewers' sweetheart," a UPI newswire story about The Mary Tyler Moore Show declared in 1972, not quite giving her the full title. Moore became a household name in the early 1960s while playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and went on to star in her own eponymous show between 1970 and 1977. In 1977, the New York Daily News called her "America's TV sweetheart." But in other publications, there was no descriptor required. Both Esquire and Rolling Stone labeled her "America's sweetheart' in cover stories in 1977 and 1980, respectively.

And yet, America can't focus on one sweetheart for too long. Already, her title was already at risk of being passed off to someone else. In 1979, The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Donna Pescow of Saturday Night Fever, who was then starring in the ABC show Angie, "may replace Mary Tyler Moore as America's sweetheart." (That one didn't quite come to fruition.)

5. MARY LOU RETTON … AND NUMEROUS OTHER FEMALE OLYMPIANS OF THE 1980s

Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics.
STAFF/AFP, GettyImages

Not all of America's sweethearts have been actresses. Walter Cronkite bestowed the honorary on gymnast Mary Lou Retton following her wins at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Olympic runner Mary Decker occasionally donned the label in the 1980s, too, as did tennis star Chris Evert and swimmer Janet Evans. Just about every successful female athlete of the 1980s was at one point deemed to be America's sweetheart. The trope continues today, too—more recent Olympic gymnasts like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman have all been called America's sweethearts, too.

6. MEG RYAN

Meg Ryan circa 1993.
MYCHELE DANIAU, AFP/Getty Images

Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart thanks to roles in a string of romantic comedies, starting with When Harry Met Sally… in 1989 and continuing throughout the 1990s. In one typical article of the time, a Detroit Free Press story in 1996 called Ryan "she of the giggle in the voice and the sparkle in the eye." Another, published by The Age in Australia, called her "cinema's intoxicating, decent-hearted sprite." But she fell out of Hollywood favor in the early 2000s after an affair with Russell Crowe brought about the end of her marriage to Dennis Quaid, a scandal that captivated the tabloids. If there's one rule to being America's sweetheart, it's that you have to keep your image scandal free—extramarital affairs are definitely not allowed.

Though she has been out of the spotlight for several years, Ryan recently discussed her time as America's sweetheart with Gwyneth Paltrow at a Goop conference, saying she never liked the title. "When you get labeled anything, like America's sweetheart—I didn't even know what that meant," she told Paltrow. "I remember thinking, 'Is that good?'" She went on to say, "It doesn't necessarily imply that you're smart or sexual or complicated or anything. It's a label. And what can a label do but guess at you?"

7. JULIA ROBERTS

Julia Roberts in ‘Runaway Bride,’ 1999
Getty Images

Julia Roberts got her start in Hollywood with films like Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989) and became a true international star when Pretty Woman came out in 1990. In 1993, The Boston Globe called her "the closest thing there is to America's Sweetheart." Throughout the '90s, both she and fellow sweetheart Meg Ryan regularly made the top of lists like Harlequin's Top 10 Most Desirable Women and Men's Health's list of the top stars to "take home to Mom." And yet by the mid-1990s, some writers were already moving on to someone else. "Sandra Bullock emerged as the likely successor to the fading Julia Roberts as America's Sweetheart," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel announced in its end-of-year coverage for 1995. But she was soon back on top—after My Best Friend's Wedding came out in 1997, the Orlando Sentinel wrote that she "hardly seems ready to relinquish her title as America's Sweetheart." In 2003, National Enquirer released a biography of the star called Julia Roberts: America's Sweetheart.

8. SANDRA BULLOCK

Sandra Bullock talks on a cell phone while shopping for laundry detergent in 1999’s ’Forces of Nature.'
Getty Images

Anyone with a few hit romantic comedies under their belt is sure to become America's sweetheart, and Sandra Bullock was no exception. Bullock made her name starring as the plucky heroine in movies like While You Were Sleeping (1995), but when she tried to stretch her dramatic legs, she wasn't quite so beloved. "Sandra Bullock and Clint Eastwood are popular because of their personalities and looks, not necessarily because we want to see them perform," a Knight Ridder newspaper critic snarked in 1999. Bullock wasn't particularly invested in being America's sweetheart, however, and she certainly understood the rules of the game. "There's a different 'America's Sweetheart' every time they have to promote another romantic comedy," she told The Orange County Register in 2005.

9. JENNIFER ANISTON

A promotional image of Jennifer Aniston with her arms crossed, 1995
NBC Television/Getty Images

Even more fool-proof than romantic comedies, the quickest way to become America's sweetheart is to link up with another all-American celebrity. While Jennifer Aniston hit sweetheart status thanks to the massive popularity of her character on Friends—one Entertainment Weekly labeled as a Top 10 greatest pop-culture characters of the last 20 years in 2010—her romance with noted Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt definitely sealed the deal. When that ended in 2005, she got to keep the title, except she became "America's jilted sweetheart" (compared to the "superhumanly sensual" Angelina Jolie), as a writer from The Arizona Republic called her in 2005. (Another rule for these superfluous titles? Women must be pitted against each other, whether they like it or not.)

Even though Aniston no longer appears in our homes every Thursday night as she did during her run on Friends, she'll always be the country's sweetheart for many. "Look at Jennifer Aniston: she's America's sweetheart for a reason," fellow actress Allison Williams observed while talking about red carpet styles in Elle's 2014 Women in TV issue. "You know what she's going to look like when she shows up to something, and there's something so comfortable in that."

Maybe that's the key. If America's sweetheart is anything, it's comforting.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER