19 Facts About the Franklin Expedition, the Real-Life Inspiration for The Terror

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The last Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin began in 1845 with the hope of discovering the northwest passage, but it turned into a grim fight for survival. As seen in AMC's supernatural series The Terror, the story of the Franklin expedition still has the power to fascinate historians more than a century and a half later. (Spoiler alert: Though the expedition happened in real life, this list also mentions key scenes in The Terror—so if you haven't seen the show and plan to, read at your own risk!)

1. ITS COMMANDER WAS DESTINED FOR NAVAL SERVICE.

John Franklin was born in Spilsby, a village in the English county of Lincolnshire, in 1786. By marriage, he was a step-cousin of Royal Navy captain Matthew Flinders, who inspired Franklin to join its ranks when he was only 14. Franklin circumnavigated Australia with Flinders in 1802-1803, served in the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, and fought in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. His brave actions caught the eye of the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, who had big plans for the young lieutenant.

2. FRANKLIN'S FIRST ARCTIC EXPEDITION WAS UNSUCCESSFUL …

From a report from whaling captain William Scoresby, Jr. relayed by Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society, Barrow learned that the Arctic appeared to be relatively ice-free in the summer of 1817. The time seemed ripe for a voyage to find a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, which would give England a lucrative trade route to Asia. In spring 1818, Barrow organized an expedition of four navy ships—the Isabella and Alexander would explore the eastern Canadian Arctic, and the Dorothea and Trent would attempt to sail over the North Pole by way of eastern Greenland and Spitsbergen. Franklin commanded the Trent but both vessels were stopped by violent storms and pack ice. (The Isabella and Alexander also turned back for an entirely different reason.)

3. … AND HIS SECOND WAS MUCH, MUCH WORSE.

Despite that failure, Franklin was appointed to lead an overland expedition to explore subarctic Canada in 1819. His route would take his party—which included physician/naturalist Sir John Richardson, three naval personnel, and a crew of voyageurs—from Hudson Bay to the Coppermine River delta on the Arctic Ocean. Disaster struck quickly: The party failed to return to their base camp before cold weather set in, their canoes fell apart, and they ran out of food. A voyageur allegedly killed and ate several men. Franklin and the others survived by nibbling shoe leather. On the brink of death, they were saved by Yellowknife guides who brought food and supplies. When he returned to England after this three-year calamity, Franklin was hailed as a hero—the "man who ate his boots."

4. THE ADMIRALTY PLANNED A HISTORIC ATTEMPT AT THE PASSAGE.

By 1843, just a few blank spaces remained on the map of the North American Arctic, and the discovery of the passage seemed entirely within Britain's reach. In spring 1845, the Admiralty would send HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, freshly returned from a grueling four-year voyage in Antarctica under the command of Sir James Clark Ross, back to previously charted Lancaster Sound, which most navigators believed was the main channel leading west. From there, the men were expected to be through the Bering Strait and in Hawaii by the following year.

5. FRANKLIN WASN'T THE FIRST CHOICE TO LEAD THE EXPEDITION.

Illustration of members of the Franklin Expedition
Portraits of the officers on the 1845 expedition, based on Daguerrotypes taken prior to the voyage.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By this point, Franklin was a decorated naval officer and experienced explorer—but he was also 59 years old and out of shape. So when Sir John Barrow began considering commanders for the 1845 voyage, Franklin was not at the top of the list. Veteran Arctic hands Sir William Edward Parry and Ross were Barrow's first choices, but both declined. Parry hinted that Franklin desperately needed the validation of a final, triumphant voyage to crown his naval career after his disappointing stint as the lieutenant-governor of Tasmania (where Franklin and his wife Lady Jane served from 1837 to 1843). Franklin lobbied hard and convinced the Admiralty that he was the best man for the job.

6. IT WAS THE BEST-PROVISIONED ARCTIC EXPEDITION IN HISTORY.

Franklin commanded the flagship Erebus, which was helmed by an up-and-coming captain, James Fitzjames. On the Terror, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was the expedition's second-in-command. Both ships had been reinforced to withstand the pummeling of Arctic ice and stocked with supplies, including scientific instruments, navigational tools, one hand-organ per ship, daguerreotype cameras, and a pet monkey named Jacko (a gift from Lady Jane). A huge library was stocked with accounts of previous polar expeditions, devotional books, volumes of Punch magazine, and novels like Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. The ships also took an immense amount of provisions to feed 134 men for three years, including 32,224 pounds of salt beef, 36,487 pounds of ship's biscuit, 3684 gallons of concentrated spirits, and around 4980 gallons of ale and porter.

7. THE VOYAGE WENT ACCORDING TO PLAN …

On May 19, 1845, Erebus and Terror left Greenhithe, England, and sailed for the west coast of Greenland. At Disko Bay, five men were discharged due to illness, bringing the total number of expedition crew to 129. On July 26, en route to Lancaster Sound, Franklin met two British whaleships [PDF], the Enterprise and the Prince of Wales—the last Europeans to see the Franklin expedition alive.

The Erebus and Terror continued west in the summer of 1845 and circumnavigated Cornwallis Island via Wellington Channel. The crew overwintered on tiny Beechey Island, where three crewmembers died and were buried in the permafrost. If Franklin followed the Admiralty's orders, in the spring and summer of 1846 the Erebus and Terror would have continued west to Cape Walker at 98-degree west longitude, then proceeded south [PDF] and west down Peel Sound.

8. … UNTIL THE SHIPS GOT STUCK IN ICE.

On September 12, 1846, the sea froze around Erebus and Terror just north of King William Island, signaling the start of winter. The following May, a party of two officers and six men led by Lieutenant Graham Gore left a note in a cairn (tall piles of stones used as information kiosks in the treeless terrain) on the northwestern coast of King William Island. After noting the date and position where the two ships were beset in the ice, Gore wrote,

"Having wintered in 1846-7 [this was an error, the true period was 1845-1846] at Beechey Island, in lat. 74° 43' 28" N., long. 91° 39' 15" W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77°, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island.
Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition.
All well."

Explorers knew that the sea usually froze in late August or early September, and then broke up the following spring—but in 1847, spring and summer never arrived in their corner of the Arctic. Erebus and Terror drifted slowly and helplessly with the pack ice down the west coast of King William Island.

9. SOMETHING MAY HAVE BEEN WRONG WITH THE PROVISIONS.

The Admiralty had provided Erebus and Terror with three years' worth of canned foods, including 33,289 pounds of meat, 20,463 pints of soup, and 8900 pounds of preserved vegetables.

The provider of the canned goods was Stephan (or Stephen) Goldner, who a few years later would be caught in a scandal regarding his canned foods going off rapidly—one report from 1853 said a ship needed to throw 1570 pounds of horrifically putrid canned meat overboard. Whether the Franklin expedition’s provisions suffered the same fate is debated, with one 1920s study concluding their canned meat was in perfect condition. In The Terror, assistant surgeon Henry Goodsir, who suspects there's a problem with the food, encourages poor Jacko to test the contents of one of the cans—and it doesn't end well for the monkey.

10. THEY ABANDONED SHIP.

Franklin expedition note found in the cairn at Point Victory
A facsimile of the note found in the cairn published in Carl Petersen's Den sidste Franklin-Expedition med "Fox," Capt. McClintock, 1860
British Library, Flickr // Public Domain

By spring 1848, the ships were still beset, the men were approaching the end of their original food supply, and they were without their captain: Franklin and several officers and crew had died of still-unknown causes. Crozier was now leading the expedition, with Fitzjames as his second-in-command. They decided to abandon Erebus and Terror in a last-ditch attempt at survival. The men hoisted two boats on sledges and packed them full of provisions and items refashioned for survival, such as a table knife with a sharpened blade inside a sheath made from a marine's bayonet scabbard [PDF].

Then they set off in search of rescue, returning to the cairn where Gore had left his note a year before. Now, Fitzjames and Crozier wrote:

April 25, 1848—H.M. ship Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69° 37' 42" N., long. 98° 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men. And start to-morrow, 26th for Back's Fish River."

The 605-mile Back's Fish River (now more commonly referred to as the Back River), navigated by Sir George Back in 1834, led toward Hudson's Bay Company trading posts in the interior. But they were hundreds of miles away from King William Island.

11. THE MEN'S FATE WAS A MYSTERY FOR ALMOST 10 YEARS.

No one outside of King William Island had the faintest idea what had happened to the Franklin expedition when it didn't show up in the Bering Strait by 1846. The Admiralty resisted sending a rescue mission, since the Erebus and Terror had been provisioned for three years; some thought the food supply could be stretched to five years (to 1850). But Lady Jane Franklin launched a relentless campaign to force the Admiralty to act. Beginning in spring 1848—at exactly the same time that the 105 survivors abandoned ship—a series of massive search-and-rescue expeditions began combing the Arctic for clues. On August 27, 1850, a ship discovered the three graves on Beechey Island, the first tangible clue of Franklin's route, but found no letters or records. Despite that important find, subsequent expeditions in 1852 came up empty-handed.

12. THE TRUTH ABOUT THE EREBUS AND TERROR SHOCKED VICTORIAN ENGLAND.

In April 1854, Hudson's Bay Company surveyor John Rae met with several Inuit a few hundred miles east of King William Island. Rae asked if they'd seen white men or ships. One man said some families had encountered about 40 survivors marching south along the west coast of the island, dragging a boat on a sledge. Franklin's men, appearing thin and low on provisions, intimated that their ships had been crushed and that they were headed toward the mainland, where they hoped to find game. Rae relayed the Inuits' next observations to the Admiralty:

"At a later date the same season [1850], but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some 30 persons and some graves were discovered on the continent, and five dead bodies on an island near it, about a long day's journey to the north-west of the mouth of a large stream, which can be no other than Back's Great Fish River … Some of the bodies were in a tent or tents, others were under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions. Of those seen on the island it was supposed that one was that of an officer (chief), as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barreled gun lay underneath him.

"From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life. A few of the unfortunate men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl (say until the end of May), as shots were heard and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event."

To support the oral history, Rae purchased artifacts from the Inuit that were clearly tied to the expedition: silver spoons and forks, a star-shaped medal, and a silver plate engraved with "Sir John Franklin, K.C.H." In England, the public reacted with shock and disbelief when his account was published in newspapers.

13. CHARLES DICKENS BLAMED THE INUIT.

Though research in the 1990s [PDF] and in 2016 strongly supported the cannibalism account, most Victorians thought it inconceivable that Royal Navy men would resort to "the last dread alternative." Charles Dickens captured the racist sentiment of the time when he wrote in his magazine Household Words, "No man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves … We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel." Yet physical evidence collected over the past 160 years has consistently proven the accuracy of Inuit oral histories of the expedition's final days.

14. THE EXPEDITION'S OFFICIAL RECORDS WERE NEVER FOUND.

In 1859, Lieutenant William Hobson, part of a search expedition led by Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, found a trail of bones and other evidence along the southwestern coast of King William Island. Along with a boat with two skeletons and piles of supplies, Hobson located the cairn and retrieved Fitzjames and Crozier's note, the sole piece of written evidence from the Franklin expedition. According to searchers, some Inuit families had found papers and books—possibly the expedition's log books and official charts—but they had been given to children to play with and had blown away.

15. SOMEONE ACTUALLY DISCOVERED THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.

Back in England, Franklin was again hailed as a hero. His old friend Sir John Richardson wrote that Franklin had accomplished the mission: "They forged the last link of the Northwest Passage with their lives." Though there's no evidence of Franklin ever completing the passage, one of the rescuers, Captain Robert McClure, had a more likely claim. In 1853, his ship Investigator, approaching from the west, got stuck in ice north of Banks Island and McClure's men were forced to march to another ship that had approached from the east. They traversed the Northwest Passage in the process. But the first explorer to navigate the passage by ship, the original goal of the Franklin expedition, was Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906.

16. THE CREW MIGHT HAVE SUFFERED FROM LEAD POISONING.

Map showing the locations of Franklin expedition relics
A map based on a 1927 Admiralty chart showing the locations of Franklin expedition relics found by search parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
Canada Department of the Interior, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early 1980s, Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie and his research team exhumed the three bodies on Beechey Island and conducted forensic testing. He found very high levels of lead in all three, as well as in bones previously collected on King William Island. In his 1987 bestseller co-written with John Geiger, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, Beattie suggested the lead solder used to seal the expedition's canned provisions had leached into the food, resulting in neurological impairment that could have contributed to the men's deaths. More recently, historians have moved away from the lead-in-the-cans theory. Researchers now believe the men probably succumbed to a combination of exposure, starvation, scurvy, tuberculosis, Addison's disease, and even severe zinc deficiency. The Terror gives a nod to the lead-cans hypothesis when Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) bites into some meat and spits out a metal blob; later, the Inuit woman named Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) has laid out a collection of lead bits on an overturned bowl—perhaps meant as a warning to the crew.

17. AFTER 166 YEARS, ARCHAEOLOGISTS FOUND THE EREBUS AND TERROR.

Multiple search efforts and scientific research projects tied to Franklin's last voyage continued in the late-19th and 20th centuries. They collected relics and bones, located graves, and partnered with Inuit communities to conduct long-term searches for more clues to the expedition's fate. Yet two significant artifacts remained missing for more than 165 years: the ships themselves. Many researchers believed that the Erebus and Terror could hold a trove of clues to the men's final activities, but the brutal climate and brief research season on King William Island stymied progress. In 2014, with funding from the Canadian government and new sonar technology, archaeologists and Inuit historians, including Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak, finally found the HMS Erebus in Victoria Strait. Two years later, a report from an Inuit hunter, Sammy Kogvik, pointed archaeologists to Terror Bay, on the southwestern coast of King William Island, where they found HMS Terror.

18. SOME QUESTIONS MIGHT NEVER BE ANSWERED.

Without the journals from the expedition, we may never know some key facts about its fate. Historians still wonder what killed Franklin and so many of the officers and men before the Erebus and Terror were abandoned. Why did Crozier decide to march toward Back's Fish River, where possible help was hundreds of miles away, when he could have marched north to a depot of supplies and food left by an 1825 shipwreck, and where rescuers or passing whalers could have rescued them? Were the men's judgments really impaired by lead poisoning? How long did they survive? Archaeologists and Inuit oral historians continue to search for answers.

19. YOU CAN SEE THE ARTIFACTS IN PERSON.

Books, tools, boots, buttons, spoons, combs, pocket watches, food tins, Crozier and Fitzjames's note, and even a piece of canned meat from Franklin's last expedition are stored in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Artifacts retrieved from the Erebus and Terror, including the ships' bells, and other relics are part of the critically acclaimed exhibit, Death in the Ice, currently on display in the Canadian Museum of History through September 30, 2018.

10 Fascinating Facts About Davy Crockett

By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on August 17, 1786, backwoods statesman Davy Crockett's life has often been obscured by myth. Even during his lifetime, fanciful stories about his adventures were transforming him into a buck-skinned superhero. And after his death, the tales kept growing taller. So let’s separate fact from fiction.

1. HE RAN AWAY FROM HOME AT AGE 13.

When Davy was 13, his father paid for him to go to a school. But just four days in, Davy was bullied by a bigger and older boy. Never one to back down from a fight, one day Crockett waited in a bush along the road home until evening. When the boy and his gang walked up the road, Crockett leaped from the bush and, as he later wrote in his autobiography, set on him like a wild cat.” Terrified that the schoolmaster would whip him for beating one of the boys so severely, he decided to start playing hooky.

His father, John, was furious when a letter inquiring about his son's poor attendance showed up. Grabbing a stick, he chased after Davy, who fled. The teen spent the next few years traveling from his native Tennessee to Maryland, performing odd jobs. When he returned, Crockett’s parents didn’t recognize him at first. Following an emotional reunion, it was agreed that Davy would stick around long enough to help work off some family debts. About a year later, all these were satisfied, and Crockett left for good not long after.

2. HE NEARLY DIED IN A BOATING ACCIDENT.

After serving under General Andrew Jackson in the Tennessee militia, Crockett got into politics. Elected as a state legislator, he served two terms between 1821 and 1823. After losing his seat in 1825, Crockett chose an unlikely new profession for himself: barrel manufacturing. The entrepreneur hired a team to cut staves (the boards with which barrels are constructed) that he planned on selling in New Orleans. Once 30,000 were prepared, Crockett and his team loaded the shipment onto a pair of flatboats and traveled down the Mississippi River. There was just one problem: The shoddy vessels proved impossible to steer.

With no means of redirecting them, the one carrying Crockett ran into a mass of driftwood and began to capsize, with Crockett trapped below deck. Springing to action, his mates on the other boat pulled him out through a small opening. The next day, a traveling merchant rescued them all.

3. HE CLAIMED TO HAVE KILLED 105 BEARS IN ONE YEAR.

If his autobiography can be believed, the expert marksman and his dogs managed to kill 105 bears during a seven-month stretch from 1825 to 1826. Back then, bear flesh and pelts were highly profitable items, as were the oils yielded by their fat—and Crockett’s family often relied on ursid meat to last through the winter.

4. A SUCCESSFUL PLAY HELPED MAKE HIM A CELEBRITY.


By Painted by A.L. De Rose; engraved by Asher B Durand - Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Crockett ran for Congress in 1827, winning the right to represent western Tennessee. Four years later, a new show titled The Lion of the West wowed New York theatergoers. The hit production revolved around a fictitious Kentucky congressman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, whose folksy persona was clearly based on Crockett. Before long, the public grew curious about the flesh-and-blood man behind this character. So, in 1833, an unauthorized Crockett biography was published.

Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee became a bestseller—much to its subject’s chagrin. Feeling that Sketches distorted his life’s story (although, to be fair, it began, “No one, at this early age, could have foretold that he was ever to ride upon a streak of lightning, receive a commission to quiet the fears of the world, by wringing off the tail of a comet,” so it's unlikely anyone thought it was a straight biography), the politician retaliated with an even more successful autobiography the very next year.

When The Lion of the West came to Washington, Crockett finally watched the play that started it all. That night, actor David Hackett was playing Col. Wildfire. As the curtain rose, he locked eyes with Crockett. They ceremoniously bowed to each other and the crowd went wild.

5. HE RECEIVED A FEW RIFLES AS POLITICAL THANK YOU GIFTS.

Over the course of his life, Crockett wielded plenty of firearms; two of the most significant were named “Betsy.” Midway through his state assembly career, he received “Old Betsy,” a .40-caliber flintlock presented to him by his Lawrence county constituents in 1822 (today, it can be found at the Alamo Museum in San Antonio). At some point during the 1830s, Crockett’s congressional tenure was rewarded with a gorgeous gold-and-silver-coated gun by the Whig Society of Philadelphia. Her name? “Fancy Betsy.”

If you’re curious, the mysterious woman after whom these weapons were christened was either his oldest sister or his second wife, Elizabeth Patton.

6. HE PUT A LOT OF EFFORT INTO MAINTAINING HIS WILD IMAGE.


By John Gadsby Chapman - Art Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For somebody who once called fashion “a thing I care mighty little about,” Crockett gave really detailed instructions to portraitists. Most likenesses, the politician complained, made him look like “a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist preacher.” For the portrait above—arguably the world’s most dynamic painting of Crockett, as rendered by the esteemed John Gadsby Chapman—Crockett asked the artist to portray him rallying dogs during a bear hunt. Crockett purchased all manner of outdoorsy props and insisted that he be shown holding up his cap, ready to give “a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”

7. HE COMMITTED POLITICAL SUICIDE BY SPEAKING OUT AGAINST ANDREW JACKSON'S NATIVE AMERICAN POLICY.

Andrew Jackson was a beloved figure in Tennessee, and Crockett’s vocal condemnation of the President’s 1830 Indian Removal Act didn’t win him many friends back home. “I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure,” the congressman later asserted, “and that I should go against it, let the cost against me be what it might.” He then narrowly lost his 1831 reelection bid to William Fitzgerald, who was supported by Jackson. In 1833, Crockett secured a one-term congressional stint as an anti-Jacksonian, after which he bid Tennessee farewell, famously saying, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

8. HE REALLY DID WEAR A COONSKIN HAT (SOMETIMES).


Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett TV serial triggered a national coonskin hat craze in the 1950s. Suiting up for the title role was square-jawed Fess Parker, who was seldom seen on-camera without his trusty coonskin cap. Children adored Davy’s rustic hat and, at the peak of the show's popularity, an average of 5000 replicas were sold every day.

But did the historical Crockett own one? Yes, although we don’t know how often he actually wore it. Some historians argue that, later in life, he started donning the accessory more often so as to capitalize on The Lion of the West (Col. Wildfire rocked this kind of headgear). One autumn morning in 1835, the frontiersman embarked upon his journey to Texas, confident that the whole Crockett clan would reunite there soon. As his daughter Matilda later recalled, he rode off while “wearing a coonskin cap.” She’d never see him again.

9. THERE'S SOME DEBATE ABOUT HIS FALL AT THE ALAMO.

It's clear that Crockett was killed during or just after the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—but the details surrounding his death are both murky and hotly-contested. A slave named Joe claimed to have spotted Crockett’s body lying among a pile of deceased Mexican soldiers. Mrs. Suzannah Dickinson (whose husband had also been slain in the melee) told a similar story, as did San Antonio mayor Francisco Ruiz.

On the flip side, The New Orleans True American and a few other newspapers reported that Crockett was actually captured and—once the fighting stopped—executed by General Santa Anna’s men. In 1955, more evidence apparently surfaced when a long-lost diary written by Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña saw publication. The author writes of witnessing “the naturalist David Crockett” and six other Americans being presented to Santa Anna, who promptly had them killed.

Some historians dismiss the document as a forgery, but others claim that it’s authentic. Since 2000, two separate forensics teams have taken the latter position. However, even if de la Peña really did write this account, the famous Tennessean still might have died in combat beforehand—perhaps the Mexican officer mistook a random prisoner for Crockett on the day in question.

10. DURING SPORTING EVENTS, A STUDENT DRESSED LIKE CROCKETT RALLIES UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE FANS.


Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Smokey the hound dog might get all the attention, but the school has another mascot up its sleeve. On game days, a student known simply as “the Volunteer” charges out in Crockett-esque regalia, complete with buck leather clothes, a coonskin cap, and—occasionally—a prop musket.

7 Human Body Parts That Were Once Used as Medicine

A 2300-year-old mummy from Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex
A 2300-year-old mummy from Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex
AFP/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, from at least the Renaissance through the Victorian era, medicine in England, Italy, France, and other European countries routinely involved the use of the dead human body. Bones, brains, blood, and more were believed to be able to cure everything from gout to epilepsy, thanks to the life-giving spirit imparted by the deceased. Although today the use of corpses is still an integral part of our healthcare—from tissue transplants to blood transfusions—the bulk of the practice of "medical cannibalism" has, thankfully, died out.

1. ANY PART OF A MUMMY

Arguably the most popular and the most difficult to find of the bunch, mummy was considered practically a panacea during the golden age of corpse medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brought back from plundered Egyptian tombs, it was added to tinctures or plasters used to combat bleeding, venomous bites, bruising, and joint pain. Unfortunately, demand far outweighed the ill-gotten supply, and clever entrepreneurs cashed in on the craze by preparing fake mummies from the bodies of lepers, beggars, and even camels.

2. SKULLS

A 1633 image of skull moss from "The herball or, generall historie of plantes" by John Gerarde
A 1633 image of skull moss from The herball or, generall historie of plantes by John Gerarde

If powdered corpse was powerful, powdered corpse with chocolate was doubly so—at least according to Thomas Willis, a 17th-century scientist who combined skulls and cocoa in a cure for bleeding. Human skulls were also soaked in alcohol, creating a tincture called “the King’s drops,” since King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe. The tincture was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments.

Nosebleeds and epilepsy were also treated with a powder made from moss growing on human skulls. Richard Sugg, the author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, says that this cure actually did work—but only because powder stimulated coagulation.

3. BRAINS

A photolithograph of brains of dissected heads, after a 1543 woodcut
A photolithograph of brains of dissected heads, after a 1543 woodcut

Brains were also used to cure epilepsy. Physician John French describes the process for making a tincture of brains in his 1651 book The Art of Distillation: “[T]ake the brains of a young man that hath died a violent death,” mash in a stone mortar, steep in wine, and “digest it half a year in horse dung” before distilling.

This remedy was supposed to work under the "like cures like" theory of medicine popular at the time, in which skulls and brains were seen as especially useful for curing illnesses thought to stem from the head. Cures taken from corpses that had died horribly were often thought to be extra powerful, because violence was seen to somehow concentrate the life force.

4. FAT

Human fat was a sought-after remedy for bleeding, bruising, muscle cramps, nerve damage, joint pain, and a variety of other afflictions. It was especially popular in Germany, and was delivered to Munich’s doctors by enterprising executioners until the mid-18th century. Others sought to bypass the apothecary entirely and went straight to the executioner for their medicinal supplies. Often the fat was made into a salve (sometimes known as "hangman's salve"), but one physician to several English and French kings combined the ingredient with hemlock and opium and administered it as a pain-reducing plaster.

5. BLOOD

A crowd of spectators wait as Tom Idle is driven in a cart with his coffin to his place of execution and the gallows. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1747
Engraving of an execution by William Hogarth, 1747

Like fat and brains, blood was also often procured directly from the executioner. People who were too poor to afford the fine wares of their local apothecary went instead to the gallows, where they paid a few coins to drink the fresh blood of the recently executed. Though usually drunk straight, blood was also dried and powdered (to cure nosebleeds), sprinkled on wounds (to stop bleeding), or even made into a kind of human marmalade.

6. HAIR

According to Sugg, a tonic called “liquor of hair” was regularly used to encourage hair growth in those who were balding. Under the like cures like theory, the hair of a deceased person was believed to help with the hair of the living. However, powdered hair was also administered for complaints that had nothing to do with heads—including jaundice.

7. TEETH

Engraving of a tooth-drawer by D.J. Pound after G. Dou, 1672
Engraving of a tooth-drawer by D.J. Pound after G. Dou, 1672

Teeth, too, were an example of "like cures like." In North Hampshire, England, and other areas, people wore teeth taken from corpses in a bag around their neck as a remedy for toothache, an ailment that could also be treated by touching a cadaver’s tooth to your own. In Ireland, people went even further, and believed that toothache could be cured by rubbing the afflicted gum with the finger of a corpse, or even washing it with some water that had also been used to wash the dead body. (Makes you thankful for modern mouthwash.)

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios