On 18 May 1847, U.S. Navy Lieutenant William Lynch wrote to the Secretary of the Navy and proposed leading an expedition “to circumnavigate Lake Asphalties or the Dead Sea, and its entire coast.” Lynch assured the Secretary that “the expense will be trifling and the object easy of attainment.” Despite the region’s fearsome reputation, Secretary John Y. Mason approved the proposal, and Lynch spent the summer preparing for the adventure to come. His transport, recently back from her station in the Gulf supporting the U.S. blockade of Mexico, would be the store ship Supply.
In an age before stop watches, the Supply carefully loaded on board two half-hour sand glasses, three 28-second glasses, and three more 14-second glasses, all stored in sawdust packing. The fragile timers were to measure short intervals accurately. The half-hour glasses would set the rhythm of life on board ship. Each 30-minutes’ passing was marked by the chime of a bell, paired chimes to signal the end of every hour. At eight bells, the count would start over, day after day at sea. The 28-second sand glasses were to measure the Supply’s speed through the water. The number of knots in a line spaced 47 feet apart paid out over the side during 28 seconds equaled the ship’s speed in “knots,” or nautical miles per hour. . . .
The expedition’s all-important scientific instruments were secured in the safest place below, perhaps somewhere in Lieutenant Lynch’s cabin at the stern in officers’ country. (Prudently, Lynch would stow away two of everything essential to the mission’s success.) They included: a tripod-mounted surveyor’s level, slender as a telescope it resembled, that Lieutenant John Dale would use to establish the relative elevation of the Dead Sea’s surface; a theodolite, for angular measurement; barometers and thermometers to measure elevation, air pressure, and temperature; “self-registering thermometers” to record subsurface water temperatures; compasses and fine sextants by the French instrument manufacturer, Gambey; artificial horizons for celestial navigation on land; glass sample jars and heaving lines; and an apparatus to infer elevation from the precise temperature at which water was observed to boil. . . .
The Supply usually carried a captain’s gig and two cutters on her deck, small boats to do ship’s work in port or for emergencies at sea, and she would carry all three to the Mediterranean on this cruise, too. For this trip, however, the yard’s carpenters stowed two additional boats on board the Supply, lashing them in place upside down above the quarterdeck like a roof atop generally open space. The unusual pair, the Fanny Mason and Fanny Skinner, was intended to carry the party over the Sea of Galilee, down the River Jordan, and across the Dead Sea.
The Supply left the navy yard in Brooklyn, New York, on 20 November 1847 and finally got a fair wind through the New Jersey narrows a week later. She arrived in Gibraltar on 20 December and cleared the fortress’s anchorage a few days later for Port Mahon, Minorca, until recently the U.S. Mediterranean Squadron’s base.
Among the Navy’s six squadrons at sea, the one in the Mediterranean (the ancestor of today’s Sixth Fleet) was the most coveted assignment. Coveted in part because of good living at the squadron’s depot on Minorca, easternmost of the Balearic Islands. Port Mahon’s harbor, hospital, and British-built navy yard were among the best facilities in Southern Europe, and life ashore in the town of 15,000 could be as refined or dissipated as desired. (Mahon was not uniquely debauched: tiny Gibraltar boasted nearly 100 taverns as far back as the turn of the century, each one paying license fees to the royal governor.)
The ends of the spectrum on Minorca were represented by Port Mahon’s municipal opera house and a cathedral famous for its organ music, and by private gambling parlors, taverns, and whorehouses of almost certainly greater popularity. Sadly, the most elevated entertainment apparently failed to meet cosmopolitan standards. “The amusements usually indulged in here,” sniffed one officer, “are secured, in a measure, from abuse by the mediocrity of their splendor and attractions.” The less particular among the men ashore seem to have been better satisfied. “Sailors here are allowed to go upon shore on leave, and on such occasions, they are apt to float widely from salutary restraint,” noted one observer. “They make merry, pass round their social circles the wild glass; promenade the streets, break out in the jovial song, or address the passers by with as much familiarity as if they were all shipmates . . . bound to the same delightful haven.”
Barely concealed behind that vocabulary of the day is an image of drunken liberty parties carousing from tavern to tavern on narrow streets, of sailors and whores swapping their fleas in dark corners. Among the regular foreign liberty ports of the world, including such exotic stops as Manila, Hong Kong, Macao, and Shanghai, Mahon took pride of place as “perhaps the most notorious for shoreside indiscipline and deteriorated relationships between the residents and [U.S. Navy men.]”
Lynch knew Port Mahon, but he loathed it. “This port,” he wrote, “has with few exceptions been the winter rendezvous of our squadrons stationed in that sea. Why it should be so, with the security of the anchorage its only recommendation, is difficult to conceive. Other places there are . . . far superior to Port Mahon. A place famed for the facilities it presents for acquiring, and the cheapness of indulging low and vicious habits:—famed for the circumstance that the senior officers, and all who can be spared from watch, abandon their ships and reside for months on shore; while many of the young and the inexperienced, and some of their superiors, spend much of their time and all their money in the haunts of the dissipated and the vile.”
The Supply would spend a full month there, from 3 January through 4 February.
Lynch survived a bout with smallpox, and after three weeks in Constantinople managed to get the Turkish Sultan’s permission for his men to travel through Ottoman Syria. On 3 April the expedition left the coastal city of St. Jean D’Acre in a colorful procession of U.S. sailors, Arab chiefs, warriors, horses, and camels, all escorting their two boats on carriages and heading for Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. The Supply was to remain in the Mediterranean on squadron business until the expedition’s work ashore was complete.
Five months after being loaded on board the Supply in Brooklyn, the Fanny Mason and Fanny Skinner were finally in their element. With canvas awnings rigged as sunshades and U.S. flags flying in brave display, the two boats skimmed across the shallow waters of the lake’s southwestern quadrant quickly, under a blue sky and in warm (82˚ Fahrenheit) weather. No inexperienced landsmen sat at any of the Fannys’ oars. Lynch had been careful to select only seamen for his boat crews, all the men’s arms pulling and pushing in unison, as smoothly as steam pistons. The buoyant metallic boats moved along smartly, speeding purposefully along the lake’s calm surface like striding water bugs. Pushed across the water by the equivalent of a little more than one horsepower, they paused only for a few bottom soundings. This bathymetric mapping, soundings hastily snatched as Lynch’s boats rowed for the Jordan, would much later be described as “the earliest forerunner of systematic investigations in the Jordan Valley”. . . .
The Uncle Sam, a frail wooden rowboat Lynch purchased on the Sea of Galilee to carry the expedition’s tents and other heavy equipment—the only other boat on the lake, and almost certainly distinguished by a name for the first time—trailed gamely behind the Fannys, its Arab oarsmen stroking hard to keep up with the young U.S. sailors. It had been used until then by Tiberias’s “misgoverned and listless inhabitants” to carry firewood from the eastern shore to their town on the western side. Lynch’s discovery in 1848 that there was no longer any fishing on the Sea of Galilee, the biblical profession par excellence, is an expression of his surprise at how different the Holy Land of fact was from the land of his imagination.
The expedition spent eight days moving down the River Jordan to the Dead Sea through dangerous rapids and past Bedouin tribal lands thick with marauders. The Uncle Sam was lost, but the two battered Fannys survived to arrive at the mouth of the Dead Sea on 18 April.
Finally . . . the Navy’s expedition had arrived at its mysterious destination, down on salt water in the great, hot trench between the Judean Hills to the west and the Mountains of Moab to the east. It was a practically unknown place, cauterized by the sun during many millennia. While his crews rowed the dented Fannys in waning daylight toward a stony beach that first night on the sea, Lynch glanced around their intended landing site: “The fretted mountains, sharp and incinerated, loomed terrific on either side, and salt and ashes mingled with its [the sea’s] sands, and foetid sulphurous springs trickled down its ravines, we did not despair: awe-struck, but not terrified; fearing the worst yet hoping for the best, we prepared to spend a dreary night upon the dreariest waste we had ever seen.”
Once again, nothing in Lynch’s experience prepared him for what he was now seeing, a great lake in a desert basin surrounded by rubble and bare rock and enlivened only in those very few places where a freshwater spring managed to bubble out along the ground before being lost in salt water. . . . The Fannys’ crews would spend an arduous 17 days on the Dead Sea, from 19 April to 6 May. During that time Lynch supervised them in a full scientific program—soundings of the sea, astronomical and barometric observations, specimen collection, and topographical sketches—while he worried about rations and fresh water and their health, and occasionally about the curious, impoverished Arabs clustered about the U.S. camp in growing numbers like displaced drones around a beehive in autumn. . . .
Their arduous work in the heat must have reminded Lynch, no stranger to drinking water shortages and tongue-thickening thirst, of his worst moments at sea in those mid-latitudes where it was possible to float becalmed, slack sails hanging limp from the yards, for days at a time with thirst a constant companion. Even this early in the year, before the inferno of midsummer, days in the Ghor [Valley] could be hellishly hot. By midafternoon Tuesday the air temperature was 97˚. An hour later “a hot, blistering hurricane” (the khamseen) had raised the air temperature to 102˚. The frame of a metal pair of spectacles became too hot to wear, coat buttons and gun barrels too hot to touch. Shortly after 1700 Lynch looked up. “The red and rayless sun, in the bronzed clouds, had the appearance it presents when looked upon through smoked glass. Thus may the heavens have appeared when the Almighty in his wrath rained down fire upon the cities of the plain. Behind were the rugged crags of the mountains of Moab, the land of incest, enveloped in a cloud of dust, swept by the simoom [hot wind] from the great desert of Arabia.”
By 2000 it was 106˚; at 2100, they were out of drinking water. “When the water was exhausted, all too weary to go for more, even if there were no danger of a surprise, we threw ourselves upon the ground, eyes smarting, skin burning, lips and tongue parched and dry; and wrapped the first garment we could find around our heads to keep off the stifling blast”. . . .
The night was little better. At midnight, it was 98˚, up one degree since 1530 the afternoon before.
The fate of the “guilty cities” of the plain—Sodom, Gomorrah, and their three neighbors—incinerated and destroyed by holy vengeance for terrible crimes, fascinated citizens of the 19th century. Intrepid travelers before and after Lynch searched for evidence of the destroyed cities and confirmation of their denizen’s crimes. Lynch’s expedition, too, was drawn into the mystery.
On Sunday, 23 April 1848, Master’s Mate Joseph Thomas . . . stood on the shore of the Dead Sea. Looking out to where he believed the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah sank beneath its surface 3,945 years ago, Thomas imagined . . . that dreadful destruction:
The day when the ground quaked beneath their feet, terrific thunders rent the air and torrents of liquid fire came down upon their heads, in the midst of their gaiety and pleasure they had become acquainted with the progressing catastrophe; but, alas! too late. How were they prepared for the demolishing effect, not only of falling walls around their ears, but for the opening earth, which, with the flashing lightning and falling torrents of fire, was charged with the execution of the vengeance of heaven? Thick darkness prevails; shouts, groans, and cries, have all died away. The temples have fallen, and with their gods, are buried with the entombed multitude. Yes, the temple, the idols, the worshippers, the gay, the old and young, rich and poor, master and servant, mistress and maid, mother and child; are all, all, in one promiscuous throng, engulfed in the lake burning with brimstone and with fire.
The expedition narrowly escaped a deadly assault by the tribe that dominated ancient Kerak in the Mountains of Moab, then finished the soundings of the Dead Sea and completed work by establishing its elevation compared to that of the Mediterranean. The overland return to Beirut and the planned reunion with Supply was through Acre, Tiberias, and Damascus, past the ruins of Baalbek and then across the mountains to the coast.
The expedition abandoned Baalbek that morning in a departure that resembled an evacuation more than it did a late stage in a circuit ride. Just before noon, after five hours spent riding up the eastern face of the Lebanon range, Lynch dispatched his interpreter to the destination on their best horse. His urgent mission was to find quarters and medical care in Beirut for the trailing and ailing Americans. While the dragoman rode off swiftly, the rest of the expedition stumbled along behind him, finally cresting the peaks through a “keen, cold wind” before making an uncomfortable camp at 4,000 feet elevation on the mountains’ western flank. . . . Their early stop gave up the last few hours of daylight on the march in exchange for a weary crawl into worn bedrolls laid out atop ragged India rubber groundsheets. Somewhere in front of them, Lynch would learn later, the dragoman’s exhausted horse collapsed and died, putting their advance man on foot. . . .
At sunrise on Friday, Dale and Henry Bedloe were sent ahead also. Dale had sickened further overnight, and Lynch hoped the two would be able to find medical help for him quickly. The rest of the men followed, strung out along a “most execrable” road that connected the province’s principal city with its major seaport but in places was nothing more than steps crudely cut into hard rock. . . . Lynch rode on. Although drooping atop his horse, he still paid attention enough to observe that they are passing by deposits of petrified shells and ammonites, and later, by a geological series that includes successively “ferruginous sandstone. . . carbonate of lime . . . calcareous limestone.” As they proceeded downhill, he catalogued the flora: figs, apricots, grapes, beans, cucumbers (dismissed as “washy and unwholesome”), and melons, carob trees, and many mulberry bushes. The bushes were everywhere, their leaves food for industrious Syrian silkworms.
Almost everyone was sick by the time the party came in sight of Beirut’s harbor just before noon. Lynch rose in his stirrups and peered out over the rectangle of the city’s walls below him, past the harbor’s mole and quay and into the anchorage, eagerly searching for the Supply. . . .
Lynch’s heart sank, for “after many alternations of hope and fear, the only three-masted vessel in the port proved not to be the Supply. The end who could foresee!” At their quarters near the shore hours later some will practically drop from the saddle, others will need help to dismount. Lynch, Dale—dreadfully ill overnight and fast declining—and two unnamed seamen needed immediate medical care.
Weeks later, the surviving men of the expedition rejoined the Supply, and weeks after that, the ship, her crew, and the expedition’s odd collection of artifacts arrived in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Lynch had left the Dead Sea persuaded that Holy Scripture had been verified. “After twenty-two days’ close investigation,” he wrote, “if I am not mistaken, we are unanimous in the conviction of the truth of the Scriptural account of the destruction of the cities of the plain.”
The U.S. expedition did good science. Its levels taken were remarkably accurate and its soundings of the Dead Sea were as precise as the available technology permitted. Lynch’s careful scientific observations debunked many of the myths and legends that had enshrouded the sea since medieval times and his accurate descriptions of the geology and topography of the Ghor—this portion of the great rift valley—were helpful to scientists for years to come. Little, however, seems to have been done with the miscellaneous durable specimens Lynch collected, and the perishable specimens seem to have decayed and been of little use, too. Like the two Fannys, his souvenirs disappeared.