Daily Express

POLES APART The explorer and the Express man

The astonishin­g story of the US adventurer who claimed to have reached the Earth’s northernmo­st point, and the Fleet Street reporter who smelled a rat, is revealed in a gripping new book on one of the greatest scandals of the early 20th century

- By Richard Evans

IT WAS one of the biggest stories of the new century. In September 1909, American explorer Frederick Cook returned from a two-year expedition during which he claimed to have become the first person in history to reach the North Pole. But it would spark an incredible series of scoops that, ultimately, undermined Cook’s claim and sparked an astonishin­g row that echoes down the ages.

The amazing news of Cook’s triumph caused a media stampede, with correspond­ents and photograph­ers dispatched post-haste to Copenhagen where the explorer, a physician by training, was heading to trumpet his return to civilisati­on.

Among them to cover the story was former Daily Express man Philip Gibbs, then 32 and an experience­d Fleet Street hand. Waiting in the Danish capital for Cook to arrive, Gibbs enjoyed one of the more fortuitous breaks in journalist­ic history.

While drinking a coffee, he was introduced to a woman called Dagmar Rasmussen in a café after she was pointed out to him as the wife of one of Cook’s fellow-explorers. Rasmussen revealed that, first thing the following morning, a boat would be leaving Elsinore, some 40 miles northwards, to meet the ship carrying Cook before it reached land.

Here was the chance of an exclusive angle on a huge story, and Gibbs grasped it.

With no more trains for Elsinore that evening, and rules against driving at night outside of the city, Gibbs offered a taxi driver a large fee to risk a fine and drive him and Rasmussen to the eastern Danish city to catch the boat.

Finding a driver who agreed, they made it to the docks where Gibbs waited nervously while Rasmussen went to ask the director of the boat company if they could find space.

The reporter’s hopes faded as he watched their conversati­on from afar, the body language suggesting she was disappoint­ed by what she was being told.

“He won’t take us,” Rasmussen told him. “Hard luck,” said Gibbs. “But he will take you,” she added quickly.

Rasmussen explained that the director had been so inundated with requests from friends of the returning explorers that he had decided to refuse them all for fear of appearing to favour anyone. But hearing that Gibbs was a journalist, he decided he could give the British reporter a place without causing offence.

SO THE following morning, Gibbs was on the boat heading to intercept Cook’s ship. As they stopped alongside it, Gibbs climbed up a rope ladder and on to the deck, where he was greeted by a man with an untidy moustache and wearing a shabby-looking suit.

“Dr Cook, I believe,” he said, as he shook hands with the explorer.

So while the world’s journalist­s were gathered on the quayside waiting for Cook to arrive, Gibbs was interviewi­ng the man they were all desperate to speak to. And when Cook reached land, and was mobbed by an ecstatic crowd, Gibbs went to an out-of-theway hotel to write up what was the biggest story of his career so far.

Yet as he sat down to write it, Gibbs hesitated.

He was troubled by what Cook had told him about leaving his instrument­s and observatio­ns in Greenland to be sent back to America.

And there was something about Cook that did not sit comfortabl­y – a hint of evasivenes­s; a quickness to anger when questioned; and a nervousnes­s when he was called to go on deck to wave at the crowds. All these combined in Gibbs’s head and, by the time he came to write his article, he firmly believed Cook was not the discoverer of the North Pole but a liar who was perpetrati­ng an audacious fraud.

While the obvious approach to an article like this would be to simply repeat what Cook had said and describe what it had been like to stand next to him as they approached Copenhagen, he did not want to publicise a claim he now believed to be untrue.

So he wrote an article that focused so intently on the question of whether Cook really had reached the Pole it was obvious Gibbs thought his claim could not be taken at face value. Gibbs would later remember that, “when I handed it into the telegraph office I knew I had burned my boats, and that my whole journalist­ic career would be made or marred by this message”.

He was right.When his article was published in the Daily Chronicle in London the following day, it caused a sensation, news of which soon reached Denmark.

With Copenhagen in a state of excitement, Gibbs found himself suddenly transforme­d into the most unpopular person in the city. He was booed by fellow diners in a restaurant; twice accused of lying; and even challenged to a duel by one of Cook’s supporters.

But more than the hostility of the Danish public, he was troubled by how many people seemed convinced Cook was telling the truth.

As he tried to build a case to back his belief that Cook was lying, a banquet was held in Cook’s honour. He was invited to dine with the Danish King and Queen, the University of Copenhagen gave him an honorary degree, and the Danish Royal Geographic­al Society awarded him a prestigiou­s gold medal.

With each scientist or explorer who declared their confidence in Cook’s claim, Gibbs found himself worrying that perhaps he had made the wrong judgment.

Perhaps, he feared, the man he was accusing of fraud really was one of the greatest explorers the world had ever seen.

But over the week they spent in Copenhagen, Gibbs’s daily articles gradually chipped away at the credibilit­y of Cook’s claim. These combined with new questions about Cook’s earlier claim to have been the first person to reach the top of Mount McKinley (now called Denali) in Alaska to mean that, by the time he left Denmark for America, there were now widespread doubts about whether he had reached the Pole.

Back in New York, Cook was greeted as a returning hero, driven in a huge convoy

through packed streets, with people even crowding on to rooftops to see him.As his car passed his former home in Brooklyn, Cook was amazed to see a huge wooden arch had been constructe­d over the road in his honour. At its centre was a picture of him, along with the words: “We believe in you”.

Meanwhile, Gibbs was now back in London, following events from across the Atlantic. Having staked his reputation on Cook being proved a liar, his whole career now depended on whether Cook would be able to produce credible evidence that he really had reached the Pole. Finally, in December 1909, Cook’s evidence arrived at the University of Copenhagen, which had assembled a commission of experts to assess his claim. Their conclusion was damning: “There cannot in the material which has been submitted to us for examinatio­n, be found any proof whatsoever of Dr Cook having reached the North Pole.” This was the moment the world at large abandoned its belief that Cook might have reached the Pole. His Inuit companions from the expedition also later claimed they had stopped short hundreds of miles from the Pole. Cook would spend the rest of his life trying to persuade the world that he really had reached the Pole, but his efforts were dealt a further blow when he was convicted for fraud and spent six years in jail for his role in an oil company.

Even today, it is not clear who was first to reach the Pole, but most experts think the best claim is that of Roald Amundsen, who flew over it in an airship in 1926. Gibbs had staked his credibilit­y on Cook being a liar, and now Cook’s claim was dismissed, he suddenly found himself establishe­d as one of Britain’s leading journalist­s.

THE story of Gibbs’s intuition in suspecting Cook and the courage and doggedness with which he had pursued him was repeated so often in the newsrooms and pubs of Fleet Street that it became part of journalist­ic legend.

Fifteen years later, the Daily Express looked back on his reporting as “a triumph of intuition and perseveran­ce”.

A history of British journalism published after the Second World War remembered that “Fleet Street felt he had shown great courage in cabling his conclusion­s as well as astuteness in forming them so quickly”.

The triumph of Gibbs’s reporting of Cook provided a platform for him to become one of Britain’s greatest journalist­s.

He reported on the First World War, was the first journalist to get the news of the death of Edward VII, and got an exclusive interview with the lover of notorious murderer Dr Crippen. But while his fellow journalist­s celebrated the brilliance of his reporting from Copenhagen, Gibbs would always modestly emphasise the role good fortune had played in his success from the moment Dagmar Rasmussen walked into the café on his first evening in Copenhagen.

“It is nearly always luck that is one of the essential elements in journalist­ic success, and sometimes, as in a game of cards, it deals a surprising­ly fine hand,” he wrote.

“The skill is in making the best use of this chance and keeping one’s nerve in a game of high stakes… Truly it [the Cook story] was a queer, exciting incident in my journalist­ic life, and looking back upon it, I marvel at my luck.”

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? TALL STORY: Journalist Philip Gibbs, top, who exposed Frederick Cook, right
TALL STORY: Journalist Philip Gibbs, top, who exposed Frederick Cook, right
 ?? ?? HERO’S WELCOME: Ch the US, left. The arc explorer’s picture in B
HERO’S WELCOME: Ch the US, left. The arc explorer’s picture in B
 ?? ?? THERE IN BLACK AND WHITE: Cook, left, starred in a movie short which allegedly told the ‘truth’ of his North Pole conquest
THERE IN BLACK AND WHITE: Cook, left, starred in a movie short which allegedly told the ‘truth’ of his North Pole conquest
 ?? ?? heers for Cook in ch bearing the Brooklyn, above
heers for Cook in ch bearing the Brooklyn, above
 ?? ?? ●●The Explorer and the Journalist: Frederick Cook, Philip Gibbs and the Scandal that Shocked theWorld (History Press, £20) is published today.Visit expressboo­kshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25
●●The Explorer and the Journalist: Frederick Cook, Philip Gibbs and the Scandal that Shocked theWorld (History Press, £20) is published today.Visit expressboo­kshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25

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