Cold case heats up as re­mains iden­ti­fied, again

Nat­u­ral­ist Harry Good­sir’s bones in­di­cate nei­ther scurvy nor TB doomed the ad­ven­tur­ers

Vancouver Sun - - CANADA & WORLD - By Randy Boswell

It’s per­haps the cold­est of Cana­dian cold cases: Whose skele­ton was re­cov­ered from a High Arc­tic is­land in 1869 and en­tombed in a Bri­tish me­mo­rial ded­i­cated to the lost Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion?

For more than 140 years, the re­mains found on Nu­navut’s King Wil­liam Is­land by an Amer­i­can ad­ven­turer have been iden­ti­fied as those of Lt. Henry Le Vesconte, one of the of­fi­cers who died with Sir John Franklin and all 127 other crew­men aboard the ex­plo­ration ships Ter­ror and Ere­bus dur­ing their fa­mously ill-fated voy­age to North­ern Canada in the 1840s.

Now, the first mod­ern sci­en­tific study of the bones and teeth of the sailor who per­ished while help­ing Bri­tain — and, in turn, Canada — es­tab­lish its Arc­tic sovereignty has shown that the re­mains prob­a­bly be­long to an­other of Franklin’s of­fi­cers: ex­pe­di­tion nat­u­ral­ist and as­sis­tant sur­geon Harry Good­sir.

Re­mark­ably, the mys­tery was un­locked thanks to a re­con­struc­tion of the dead man’s face and a chem­i­cal probe of his teeth — mod­ern-day sci­en­tific tech­niques that evolved, in part, from the dis­cov­er­ies of a pi­o­neer­ing 19th-cen­tury anatomist named John Good­sir: Harry’s own brother.

The study has also shed fresh light on the the­ory that a dis­as­trous ill­ness, per­haps scurvy or tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, doomed Franklin and his men. “ No ev­i­dence of these dis­eases was found on the bones, and DNA tests proved neg­a­tive for tu­ber­cu­lo­sis,” English Her­itage, a Bri­tish gov­ern­ment ad­vi­sory agency, stated in a sum­mary of find­ings from the long-de­layed au­topsy.

An­other prom­i­nent the­ory about the tragedy re­mains to be tested us­ing the bones.

“ Work is still on­go­ing on sam­ples from the re­mains,” English Her­itage noted, “ to an­a­lyze for lead to see if lead poi­son­ing from the ex­pe­di­tion’s canned food or from their wa­ter sup­ply was a fac­tor.”

The bones were gath­ered orig­i­nally from the south­ern tip of King Wil­liam Is­land and shipped to Bri­tain by ec­cen­tric Amer­i­can ex­plorer Charles Fran­cis Hall, one of many 19thcen­tury searchers who scoured Arc­tic Canada for signs of Franklin’s lost ships — a quest re­vived in re­cent years by Parks Canada arche­ol­o­gists.

The re­mains, one of only two sets of bones from the Franklin voy­ages ever repa­tri­ated to Bri­tain, were ex­am­ined by English doc­tors in the 1870s and de­ter­mined to be­long to Le Vesconte de­spite doubts ex­pressed at the time by the of­fi­cer’s fam­ily.

Placed be­neath the or­nate Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion me­mo­rial at the Royal Naval Col­lege in Green­wich, Eng­land, the re­mains were briefly re­moved in 2009 while re­pairs were car­ried out on the mon­u­ment.

Re­searchers led by English Her­itage skele­tal bi­ol­o­gist Si­mon Mays were per­mit­ted to study the bones and teeth of the en­tombed in­di­vid­ual, and their find­ings — pub­lished in the lat­est is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Science — led to the ten­ta­tive re-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the re­mains as those of H. D. S. ( Harry) Good­sir.

“ We do know from letter ev­i­dence that Le Vesconte’s sis­ter was not con­vinced” about the ini­tial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the re­mains, Mays told Post­media News. “ It was nice to vin­di­cate her af­ter 140 years.”

Two key pieces of ev­i­dence pointed to Good­sir, May’s team con­cluded. The un­usual shape of the skele­ton’s fa­cial bones sug­gested the in­di­vid­ual would have had, in life, a dis­tinc­tive “ groove” be­low his pro­trud­ing lower lip — a fea­ture made ap­par­ent in a fa­cial re­con­struc­tion com­pleted by the re­search team and which closely matched a da­guerreo­type pho­to­graph of Good­sir from the 1840s.

Fur­ther­more, an iso­tope anal­y­sis of one of the sub­ject’s teeth — the same tech­nique used re­cently by Cana­dian sci­en­tists to iden­tify the re­mains of a First World War sol­dier un­earthed at a con­struc­tion site in France — in­di­cated that the man whose bones were found on King Wil­liam Is­land grew up near Edinburgh, Scot­land ( as Good­sir did) or else­where on the east coast of Bri­tain.

That find­ing also ruled out Le Vesconte — who grew up in the south­west English county of Devon — as the source of the re­mains now at Green­wich.

Be­cause the sci­en­tific re­sults were not avail­able when the bones were re­turned to their tomb in Oc­to­ber 2009, it was Le Vesconte who was hon­oured in a spe­cial cer­e­mony at­tended by Canada’s High Com­mis­sioner to Bri­tain, James Wright, and Parks Canada arche­ol­o­gist Robert Gre­nier, who led a 2008 search near King Wil­liam Is­land for the Ter­ror and Ere­bus.

While Mays stated that the Good­sir iden­ti­fi­ca­tion “ is not 100 per cent cer­tain,” ge­netic sam­ples from the bones have been re­tained “ so at­tempts at a DNA match” can be made if a liv­ing rel­a­tive comes for­ward in the fu­ture.

Dur­ing his life­time, Good­sir’s older brother John emerged as one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing fig­ures in the anatom­i­cal sci­ences and the study of den­tistry. His writ­ings on the de­vel­op­ment and struc­ture of hu­man teeth are among the foun­da­tions of a dis­ci­pline that — in the 21st cen­tury — in­cludes such high-tech re­search as the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of in­di­vid­u­als’ geo­graphic ori­gins from the chem­i­cal traces trapped in their teeth.

Harry Good­sir him­self con­trib­uted to sci­en­tific re­search in anatomy, pub­lish­ing pa­pers in the field and serv­ing as a con­ser­va­tor at a med­i­cal mu­seum in Edinburgh from 1843 un­til 1845. That was the year he made his fate­ful de­ci­sion to join the Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion, ac­cept­ing an ap­point­ment as a science of­fi­cer on HMS Ere­bus as its crew searched for the North­west Pas­sage and gath­ered knowl­edge about Canada’s cold, des­o­late — and some­times deadly — po­lar fron­tier.

The fa­cial re­con­struc­tion of Harry Good­sir ( right) su­per­im­posed on a high-res­o­lu­tion copy of a pho­to­graph that shows, as pre­dicted, a deep groove be­low his lower lip.

The pi­o­neer­ing work of John Good­sir, Harry Good­sir’s brother, helped un­lock the case.

For years, the world thought the bones be­longed to Lt. Henry Le Vesconte.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.