A generation jaded by astronauts walking in space and vowing to walk on the moon took little note when four men riding gasoline-powered Snowmobiles arrived at the North Pole at 4 p.m. on 19 April 1968. The expedition’s leader, Ralph Plaisted, an insurance executive from St. Paul, Minnesota, had led three companions on a 44-day Arctic trek covering a bee-line distance of over 400 miles (plus 300 more owing to detours and drift). It was, the news media noted, only the second “overland” attainment ever of the legendary North Pole. The first, as any school child knows, was accomplished by Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary, U. S. Navy, in 1909.
Yet, a shadow has always loomed over Peary’s claim. A bitter debate raged between supporters of another contemporary explorer. Dr. Frederick A. Cook, and those of Peary as to which man truly discovered the Pole. Even the eventual repudiation of Cook by the University of Copenhagen in 1909 did not completely vindicate Peary.
In April 1959, the PROCEEDINGS published an article entitled “Peary at the North Pole.” It was written by Hugh C. Mitchell, a member of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, whose computations and chart had convinced the U. S. Congress that Peary had, indeed, reached the Pole.
It may seem presumptuous at first sight to ask U. S. Navy men to read, in their own magazine, an entirely opposite point of view from that espoused by author Mitchell; however, the Naval Institute’s motto demands it. For unless Institute members are willing scrupulously to probe into the still-smoldering ashes of a 60-year-old geographical controversy, then “. . . the advancement of. . . scientific knowledge in the Navy” will not be more than mere words.
The public doubting of Peary has for so long been largely a prerogative of pro-Cook amateurs that many have come, by acquired reflex, to prejudge all such efforts as crackpot—unaware of the fact that the majority of the professionals of Peary’s day were privately dubious of his claim, e.g.: Sir Ernest Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, Roald Amundsen, A. W. Greely, Albert Markham, Sir Clements Markham, Joseph Bernier, Ejnar Mikkelsen, and Anthony Fiala. Doubt, of course, does not necessarily mean disbelief, though some of those listed completely rejected Peary’s story. (Agnostic moderns include Sir Edward Shackleton and Sir Vivian Fuchs—not to mention the utterly skeptical Ralph Plaisted.)
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s doubts were so great that he even planned an Arctic expedition on their basis. Nansen and Sverdrup maintained total silence, along with the entire Norwegian and Swedish geographical community, during Peary’s triumphal 1910 European tour, as well as during the 1926 furor following Amundsen’s public declaration of his doubts. The meaning of an explorer’s silence was obvious in a matter where support of orthodoxy was virtually obligatory etiquette. Furthermore, such a reading is supported by reference to the statements of Shackleton and Nansen at the time of the Danish rejection of Cook’s claim, which each then said he had been unable to support—and hence had preferred to say nothing.
Greely and the Markhams openly and unqualifiedly disbelieved. Mikkelsen and Fiala were tactful but obviously skeptical. Some of the above may be laid to prejudice, though many of those mentioned originally supported Peary.
Why such unusually widespread doubt? The answer is not hard to come by: Peary’s account is, first, peculiarly devoid of even the most elementary and customary evidential substantiation, and, second, it is the sheerest navigational nonsense in one of its most crucial parts.
Like Cook, Peary went to his northernmost camp (Jesup) unaccompanied by anyone who knew navigation. His sextant readings of the sun’s altitude at Camp Jesup were unshared with anyone (Shackleton, Amundsen, and Robert Falcon Scott all shared theirs), despite the little-known fact that Peary’s only civilized companion there, Matthew Henson, was an ex-seaman who could use a sextant, though he could not calculate position from the raw data. Henson was not invited to do so, nor even to initial, or so much as look at, the data sheets. Henson had been informed of the results of all previous sextant positionings and had entered them in his diary, but the results of the all-important “Pole” (Camp Jesup) observations were not vouchsafed him. In an earlier and curiously contrasting eagerness for corroboration of lesser latitudes en route, Peary had, at 86°2/3 North and 87°¾ North, demanded that expedition members Ross Marvin and Bob Bartlett, both navigators, take observations and write out detailed certificates of attainment of these points, probably for use in the already-anticipated fight with Cook. Both men were then, successively, ordered to return south.
The solar altitude data from Camp Jesup, then, is worthless as evidence. Like so many other celestial matters, the altitude of the sun at a chosen place and time is precisely calculable anywhere, by anyone with the requisite mathematical ability. Even the bungling Dr. Cook produced in support of his own hoax a photo of an adequate example of a recorded (and reduced) solar altitude “proving” he was near the Pole.
Peary’s computations were especially easy and would be no less so in reverse. (The poles are, in fact, the easiest places on earth for which to invent celestial data.) The mathematics involved was mere arithmetic—not even plane trigonometry (much less spherical), since his “data” was given only at quarter-day intervals.
Only two trustworthy Sumner lines of position are offered to locate Camp Jesup (7 April, 6 a.m. and noon—both approximately 70° West time); thus no internal contradiction is possible (It takes more than two lines to have more than one intersection.) and nothing is learned of refraction or drift.
Compare this to Amundsen’s South Pole data—taken hourly during long periods, which is more nearly the way one would take them if actually using the observations for positioning and evidential support.
But, while Peary’s astronomical data allegedly taken at the North Pole are merely valueless, his stated means of navigation to the goal are absolutely ludicrous. A number of scientists (e.g., astronomer Sir David Gill) were quoted in the early days of the controversy as saying that a whole string of observations (consistent with a journal) taken in finding one’s way to the Pole could not easily be faked, owing to the complexity of the mathematics involved. It is noteworthy, therefore, that neither Cook nor Peary ever produced any such thing. To his University of Copenhagen examiners, Cook sent only positions, not altitudes. Peary simply produced no data en route beyond the genuine shots by Marvin and Bartlett (at approximately 70° West noon—not thorough culmination sets, which would have taken a good deal of time). Thus, he never even claimed to have found his way to the Pole by observations.
Peary’s writings, it is noted, uniformly avoid this matter; but, when finally pressed about it by members of a Congressional subcommittee which, in 1910-1911, examined him and others at the Peary Hearings (before his promotion to rear admiral, with official citation as polar attainer), he was forced to state explicitly and defend this incredible folly.
Although travelling from the north tip of Ellesmere Island across hundreds of miles of the unpredictably drifting pack ice of the Arctic Ocean, Peary seriously claimed not to have needed or taken (or had others take) a single sextant check of his wanderings to the left or right of his alleged 413-mile bee-line to the “Pole” Camp (Camp Jesup). Indeed, he said he had not bothered to check his forward motion, either, for the last 135 miles.
Incidentally, this last figure may appear, to a superficial reviewer, to be off by 100 miles, since every Peary biography records (and even anti-Peary accounts include) a latitude sight by Peary 35 miles short of the Pole. No one could be expected to know, however, from a slight familiarity with the literature, that Henson consistently denied the existence of this most crucial of the journey’s observations, as finally did Peary himself (though it is in all his printed accounts—and his handwritten diary, so this is not the slip of a ghost writer, a favorite apology), repeatedly, when under official investigation. In addition, this observation alone was missing from the supposedly complete data turned over to computer Hugh Mitchell.
To give Bartlett’s turnback point as being 135 miles from the Pole may seem wrong at first glance, since the distance is usually given as 133 miles; but Bartlett’s calculation contains a 2-mile error arising from his unfamiliarity as a sailor with data obtained via artificial horizon. And, even 135 is merely a lower limit, since the observation determined only one Sumner line.
The way Peary finally told it, then, he just drove ahead roughly northward for the Pole until 10 a.m., 6 April, when he opined he was about there, and then pulled out his sextant to check and, sure enough, he was!
Only about one mile short and barely four miles to the left—by all odds the most astounding dead-reckoning feat in the history of exploring. Yet, curiously, Peary—who was not known for his modesty—later had to have the admission of this nonpareil achievement dragged out of him by skeptical Congressional inquisitors.
It is not so much that such a longshot could not happen perhaps one time in a hundred, it is rather that no experienced Arctic explorer, especially one as careful as Peary—whose every hour out on the ice meant an added mortal risk—would ever depend on such luck to keep him from veering far off the ideal bee-line or overshooting the mark, thus requiring days of extra travel to compensate.
Another point needs explanation. By using only the noon sun’s direction—“noon” refers to 70° West time, not necessarily local—to determine south, Peary would not necessarily travel north on the 70° West meridian. If (as always) drift, detouring, or whatever took him off it, only non-noon observations could indicate how far off. By the uncorrected noon-sun method, he would only aim (nearly) parallel to his intended ideal path, which could prove unwise toward the end of the outward trip. For example, if a noon altitude told him that he was 50 miles short of the forward distance needed to reach the Pole, he would have to learn (via a non-noon altitude) his lateral displacement from the 70° West meridian, in order to turn his path directly toward the Pole—since he might well be, say conservatively, 50 miles leftward, at point “A” of Figure 1.
If, instead, he went on ahead without attempting correction until completing the full forward distance (as Peary says he did), his first non-noon observations (6:00 a.m., 7 April) might show that Camp Jesup was at point “B” and 50 rightward miles would remain to be covered. Thus, the path from “A” to the Pole would end up being the right-angle route shown—a needless 30 miles longer than the direct diagonal.
Every previous polar explorer, Peary included, had found straight travel over the rough, evermoving Arctic pack to be absolutely impossible. They had, therefore, made periodic sextant determinations of position to permit left-right changes of course en route. Even the Antarctic explorers, Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott, traveling over a fixed and mostly smooth surface, took the same precautions.
For good reason. Peary’s aim would have been thrown off (for example): (1) by about 5 miles just due to the second order error in Aldrich’s 1876 chronometer (the accepted basis of the longitude of Cape Columbia in 1909)—so Peary started farther off laterally, than he is supposed to have ended up; (2) by about 10 miles from the equation of time; and (3) by about 18 miles from the (later-supposed) error in the ship’s chronometer.
Aside from such systematic errors, there were, in addition, the more random effects of detouring around ice-ridges and open water (note Plaisted’s above-quoted detour distance), the flutter of the compass needle, the instability factor due to the diverging of the magnetic field in Peary’s general direction, simple human aiming uncertainties, and especially the drift of the floating ice floes (over which the entire trip was made) usually a few miles a day, a major factor on a 36-day trip. There is also a nearly negligible cumulative error due to the fact that an off-meridian path directed away from the 70° West apparent-noon-sun is not parallel to the 70° West meridian, but diverges slightly. The error would be about, for low sun—second order accuracy—equal to the sun’s altitude times one’s lateral displacement off the meridian, divided by the earth’s radius, using consistent units.
These difficulties were not just academic; for instance, Peary’s previous expedition was off over 30 miles to the left after traveling only about 100 miles from land. That similar uncertainties plagued his final journey’ is evident from the fact that the only map Peary’ ever drew of its path put him about 20 miles left of the Cape Columbia meridian after only 50 miles northward, whereas he told the U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey to map his soundings on that meridian.
It should be added that two of the figures given earlier for systematic errors assume that the sun was used (as Peary-examiner Gannett stated) to determine direction on the 1909 trip. They are thus rather hypothetical, as Peary never told how he did so. But, if the compass was used over a stretch where the compass variation changes by about 13° without occasional reference to the sun, then it is a little hard to believe in 0° .6 accuracy of aim. The figures (total: about 30 miles) serve the purpose, in any case, of dramatizing how sensitive course-direction aiming would be, even to seemingly insignificant factors, and thus help illustrate how preposterous Peary’s claim on aiming (i.e., to have hit within about 4 miles) really was. Even Donald MacMillan, when describing the process of aiming, which he participated in for part of the trip, could only call it “fairly accurate . . . .” It is doubtful that MacMillan ever took in the fact that his and others’ errors en route went completely unchecked, and thus uncorrected, all the way to Camp Jesup.
But the crowning joker of the whole story is Peary’s claim to have actually gone for ten hours, from 8:00 p.m., 6 April (when the sky cleared, for the rest of the stay at or near Camp Jesup) all the way to 6:00 a.m., 7 April, without bothering to determine his lateral position (distance off the 70° West meridian). He reports having checked his forward progress through mist (unsatisfactory for great precision) at noon on 6 April, but the only observations he gives from the entire 10-hour period up to 6:00 a.m. were for midnight 6-7 April—the one time when observations would not tell him his still unchecked (since leaving Cape Columbia) lateral position and thus whether or not he was actually at his goal of 23 years.
The error in the pocket chronometer’s rate was stated (no figures given) to have been less than that of the ship’s instrument, amazingly. The latter was checked only on leaving the United States and returning, and a 10-minute error for April 1909 was interpolated from internally contradictory data taken at those two points. No occultations were observed; disappearing eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites could have been used in February since the expedition was supplied with a telescope, but nothing of the sort was reported.
Harris’ later tidal analysis provided, quite incidentally, the only further check on the chronometers, rough though it necessarily was. And although the path of the 17 June total solar eclipse passed only a couple of marches West of Conger, and though the ship’s doctor, J. W. Goodsell, had, on a private field trip, crossed the eventual path of the eclipse early in the month, no attempt was made to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity for a time-check. All of which gives one some idea of the scientific level of the expedition. Another example: Peary actually gauged tidal force in proportion to the moon’s phase, fretting strictly about the full moon’s effect on the polar pack’s stability—oblivious to the fact that, in the spring of 1909, the new moon tides were more dangerous than the full moon’s.
Let us now ask a few elementary navigational questions. How did Peary suddenly manage in 1909 to overcome all aiming difficulties and so hit within approximately 4 miles of the bulls-eye in over 400 miles of forward travel? How, too, did he manage to impart this new-found ability to his less-experienced companions, who, after all, actually kept the course for him for most (the first two-thirds) of the northward trip?
The answers? There are none; Peary never offered any novel explanation at all; his method of aiming north was just the very one that had always previously had to be corrected by sextant-checks: namely, ordinary steering-by-compass. Of course, in the region north of Ellesmere, the compass points somewhat south of west, and precise knowledge of the “variation” of the compass (from true north) is thus absolutely essential to steering north by compass. The variation differs from place to place, naturally (shifting approximately 13° over the line from Cape Columbia to the Pole), and thus ought to be redetermined by solar observations whenever possible.
Though Peary had been careful on earlier trips, for this one—the most extended, difficult, dangerous, and vital of them all—no compass figures were determined and no written record even of estimates or (beyond 84° North latitude) daily course-setting figures survives, despite the fact that this uniquely sextant-less steering feat was done entirely by compass. Peary said he could not determine variation because the sun was too low for using a theodolite—an excuse that should amuse those familiar with surveying instruments. The only information about the behavior of the compass at the Pole that Peary would give to the Congressmen’s repeated inquiries on the matter was: “The direction of the compass was fairly constant there.” Also, when asked, as a general question, whether the needle pointed to the magnetic pole, he replied, “It does point near it . . . .” whereas, in fact, we now know that in 1909 the compass needle at the north geographic pole pointed over 30° to the right of the north magnetic pole.
(All magnetic figures given herein as standard are extrapolated back from the U.S.N.O. Chart, H.O. 1706-N, Magnetic Variation, Epoch 1965.0, Arctic Regions.)
An earlier letter in late 1909 from his secretary in response to a private inquiry as to what the compass direction was at the Pole, evidences how rigorously Peary kept track of the compass that supposedly aimed him to the mark with 0° .6 accuracy:
For more on the North Pole question, plus a listing of Mr. Rawlins’ sources, see issue 910 of Polar Notes—available imminently via the Stefansson Collection, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N. H. 03755
The Commander . . . explained that the needle from Cape Columbia to the Pole pointed in the direction of Behring [sic] Strait, increasing its northwesterly angle a little as the northing increased.
Except for Cook’s, other polar expeditions, including Peary’s own, had always brought back magnetic figures, not only as an incidental aspect of the records of their practical navigation, but also as a valuable and previously unknowable part of the scientific yield of the trip. The much-discussed solar altitudes were of no subsequent value at all, as given.
The scientific results were not just of abstract interest; they would form the eventual means of checking his story. Peary knew from 1907-1908 that a dispute with Cook was probable, and vice-versa; thus, he and Cook should have collected evidence especially avidly. Yet, oddly enough, each explorer returned without a single previously unknowable specific datum peculiar to the North Pole.
The depth of the ocean? The direction of the current? The compass direction? Peaty couldn’t give any of these. Both explorers correctly reported what had long been suspected, that the Pole was over an ocean. Peary’s own sounding near Camp Jesup, 1,500 fathoms with no bottom, along with Nansen’s well-known Fram soundings, strongly suggested that most of the Arctic Ocean was deeper than this. Peary reported 1,500 fathoms and no bottom near the Pole, which is indeed correct, as far as it goes. He was “sorry” that he did not have enough wire to hit bottom, while soft-peddling the fact that his expedition was supplied with 4,000 fathoms of line, 2,000 of which he had left ashore (500 more were broken off accidentally en route). This was more than enough for a complete sounding.
Thus, the sum total of Peary’s claim to the North Pole is: no witnesses, no specific scientific yield, and a “method” of aiming which no one familiar with Arctic Ocean ice conditions can possibly take seriously.
This last point is perhaps best illustrated to the non-specialist by the fact that pro-Peary explorers Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Henry G. Bryant, and Richard E. Byrd all remark innocently on Peary’s skillful conquest of the moving ice over which he navigated. Biographers Fitzhugh Green and William Hobbs both speak with naive admiration of Peary’s careful navigational methods. Clearly, none of these men ever read the Peary Hearings; they merely assumed a sane approach to the problem of steering and guessed that Peary must have followed it.
How, then, did Peary come to be almost universally accepted?
First of all, he returned to a scientific world that believed in him for and from his great achievements in the past. Peary had spent over 20 years working patiently and generally well at probing Arctic mysteries. He was (and is) the undisputed discoverer of the northernmost coast on earth and had previously won gold medals from the National Geographic Society, the American Geographical Society, (two) the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and the Paris Société de Géographie. He had been President of the A. G. S. for some years, and, as the capstone to all his scientific honors, had been the president of the Eighth International Geographical Congress (1904), presiding over some of the world’s most eminent geoscientists and a host of ambassadors.
The chauvinism of those polar experts who backed Peary’s claim is well illustrated by Arctic veteran Rear Admiral George W. Melville, U. S. Navy, who disbelieved Cook right away for reporting speeds such as 14 miles per day over the pack ice. Yet Melville then accepted Peary’s account which told of an average of 25 miles a day for the last five marches up to Camp Jesup (after leaving Bartlett’s sight)—versus approximately 13 miles a day on the previous five marches—and an average of virtually 50 miles per day for part of the return. (These last were record marches over the central Arctic pack, yet Peary modestly never gave their length explicitly except under questioning.) British Vice Admiral Sir George Strong Nares made similar criticisms of Cook, and then wired Peary, before hearing his story, that he would surely be believed on the strength of his “well-known arctic veracity.”
The irony here is, of course, that their original basis for scepticism [sic] was quite invalid as applied to Cook—whose claimed speeds were reasonable—whereas Peary’s reported 50 miles per day over pack ice was incredible, even over a pre-broken trail. Sledges have gone faster, but under very different conditions. Defensive Peary-biographer Hobbs gives a few particularly high pack ice records, but they do not bear examination well: a claimed 57-mile march by an Eskimo named Seegloo was actually 47 and took two long days’ runs, over a pre-broken trail, half with a light sledge; a 90-mile march by Bartlett took an undetermined number of days and was over a relatively smooth coastal ice-foot. By contrast, Bartlett’s 1909 return to land (after departing from Peary) only averaged 16½ miles per day, as compared with 20 miles per day for Peary, over the same largely pre-broken trail.
In 1968, over about the same route (and thus presumably somewhat similar ice), even Plaisted’s lightly-loaded motor-driven speed-sleds could not match Peary’s claimed 1909 pace. To help explain Peary’s amazing April speeds, it was argued for many years that the pack ice gets easier way out from land, but this made no sense physically, and is now known to be false (Gilbert Grosvenor’s fine 1953 air-photos of the Pole show about five high pressure-ridges per mile). Henson had said so, anyway, if anyone had chosen to listen.
Though most influential experts—whatever they thought of Cook—were predisposed to Peary, still, the formality of official approval was required. But, when the President of the Paris Société de Géographie, among others, suggested publicly that the explorers both submit their data to an international committee, neither Cook nor Peary showed the slightest interest in such an unimpeachably fair and open arrangement.
Cook preferred instead the University of Copenhagen, which had already granted him an honorary degree for the very feat on which they were to examine him. Peary asked for strictly American scientists to decide between Cook and himself, knowing perfectly well the likelihood of a decision in his favor in a U. S. arena. The American Museum of Natural History owed many of its best exhibits to Peary, not to mention millions of dollars contributed to them by the Peary Arctic Club, and the American Geographic Society was actually a listed “member” of the Club. The National Geographic Society, where Peary had been a star lecturer since the organization’s inception, was effectively a stockholder in the 1908-1909 expedition by virtue of a $1,000 gift—an investment which presumably explains the tone of Peary’s cable to the National Geographic on 7 September 1909: “Have won out at last. The Pole is ours.” [Emphasis added.]
The National Geographic Society was the group that volunteered to judge Peary, appointing for this purpose a three-man subcommittee: Henry Gannett, Rear Admiral Colby Chester, U. S. Navy, and Otto Tittmann (who later admitted he had left the details to the other two). Gannett and Chester were both good friends of Peary; Gannett later stated openly that he believed Peary’s claim before seeing the evidence. These judges were indeed respected scientists, but it must be added that they were socialites as well. (For example: When the National Geographic Society had awarded Peary his 1906 gold medal, all three men had been on the dinner committee.)
Peary, like Cook, stalled around much of the autumn of 1909, arranging his records, which he would not show to anyone at the time. On National Geographic’s invitation to submit, by 20 October, sufficient material for a final decision, Peary accepted by wire—but then sent matter relating strictly to the period up to Bartlett’s departure. When National Geographic asked for the rest, Peary delayed until 1 November before delivering it. Despite the strangeness of this performance, it had a remarkably successful effect: both Gannett and Tittmann, before the inquiring Congressmen, fell back on the same basic reason for their faith in Peary. (Chester was abroad at the time.) Gannett stated: “It is hardly believable that a man would sit down within 130 miles of the North Pole and fake observations after he had undertaken the uncertainties, the dangers, the risks to life, leaving outside the question of Peary’s personality.” In short, the first installment had quite convinced them.
Thus, it was men with predisposed minds who received the rest of Peary’s records—the vital “Pole” part and diary—on 1 November in Washington, and reached a favorable verdict the same day. It was announced as quickly as possible that the returning hero’s first public lecture had been granted (contrary to earlier announcement) to the National Geographic Society for 12 November. Peary’s first official award was also from National Geographic at a grand affair in December.
The brevity of the review of the post-Bartlett material is attested to by Gannett’s attempt to recount for the Congressmen the number of Peary’s Eskimos, number of sledges, and number of days from leaving Bartlett to arrival at Camp Jesup. He missed on every guess.
That Peary would welcome such an obviously biased decision shows something in itself. When the scientists at the University of Copenhagen rejected Cook’s records in December, National Geographic officially commended their courage and honesty; Rear Admiral Winfield S. Schley, U. S. Navy, also a noted Arctic explorer, went further and publicly challenged Peary to submit his records to the same tribunal. Peary’s reply: no comment. At his 1911 hearing, there was the same challenge and the same response.
The National Geographic Society presumably was sincerely convinced of Peary’s success. But the N.G.S. judges seem to have permitted their trust and sympathy—and, perhaps, eagerness to get on with the lecture and ceremonies—to influence their better judgment. Anyone who believes Peary would not turn back when so “near” the Pole (270 miles, round trip, between the point at which Bartlett was sent south, and the Pole) is not likely to examine a journal or calculation-sheets closely. No members of the expedition were queried as corroborative witnesses. The three examiners were thus unaware of some extraordinary things when they put their prestige behind the approval of Peary.
For instance, Gannett (and presumably the other two judges) was actually unaware that Peary, on his return to the base ship, the Roosevelt, on 27 April, had told no one about any of the details of his achievement- nothing beyond the bare claim itself.
But the key witness who should have been called was Matthew Henson, who could have informed the judges of what actually went on at Camp Jesup. Instead, Henson’s eyewitness account went virtually unnoticed at the time and subsequently has been lost to history for over half a century. Today’s less-racist public may be inclined to give it more weight than 1910 America could have.
Henson recounts that, as the party arrived and prepared camp, mists hung overhead preventing sextant observations. (Peary said he took one observation on arrival at Jesup.) Meanwhile, one of the Eskimos told Henson that Peary “had quietly planned with him and one other Eskimo boy to leave me in camp the following morning and go off. . . by himself” to the precise Pole, Henson thought. The first “Pole” observations were thus made, not only out of Bartlett’s sight, as is well known, but out of Henson’s, as well. On his return from the place where he made these observations, Peary’s face was “long and serious.” An Eskimo privately told Henson of witnessing Peary’s “disappointment” when the data had been reduced on the spot to indicate position. “‘Well, Mr. Peary,’ I [Henson] spoke up cheerfully enough, ‘we are now at the Pole are we not?’
“‘I do not suppose that we can swear that we are exactly at the Pole,’ was his evasive answer.”
At this point. Peary clammed up. “From the time we knew we were at the Pole,” says Henson—who apparently really believed they were there and misinterpreted all oddities as indicating Peary’s wish to trick him out of a share in the honors—“Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me. Probably he did not speak to me four times on the whole return journey to the ship.” Peary continued this strange behavior all the way back to civilization. For five months he did not say a word to Henson, or anyone else, about the North Pole.
Indeed, Peary’s reticence did not even cease on his return. While he complained throughout the autumn of 1909—unjustly, as it turned out—that Cook had put no authorized account over his signature for him to attack, Peary himself put nothing in writing. His September New York Times stories were simply cables sent personally from the Indian Harbor telegraph key and material dictated to a secretary, like his later publications on the trip. No written paper, such as Cook had deposited at Lerwick, was left anywhere. As he was officially on duty with the U. S. Navy and the U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, he was fully expected by all parties—even the Peary Arctic Club—to submit a full written report to both of these institutions. He never sent a written report to the Navy. To the Coast & Geodetic Survey he sent, after a month’s repeated requests, a brief account of the soundings and, of course, the tidal records taken ashore—the latter not related to the northward dash. When the survey asked for his observational data to place the soundings, in order to add them to the U. S. Hydrographic Chart of the area, he simply would not send them.
The longstanding apologist view—that substantiation of Peary’s claim was somehow difficult to come by—was always patent nonsense (even without Henson’s direct testimony), besides representing a naively lax general policy. To excuse such evidential lacunae as being merely lamentable, unfortunate matters of technical detail would seem a tempting invitation to fraud.
Now, a half-century too late, we learn that there was nothing at all “unfortunate” about Peary’s lack of corroboration.
The last revelation of the long-lost 1910 Henson account is another item with exceedingly obvious implications. Peary adherents are fond of quoting Rear Admiral Chester’s letter relating that he had (after the National Geographic verdict) analyzed the shadows in Cook’s and Peary’s photos to check solar altitudes. He found the former inconsistent with the accompanying story, but the latter checked out approximately. But did Chester see all the photos? (Only certain ones would be clearly indicative, depending on weather, surface smoothness, and the like. This would be especially true of any taken at the Pole, where the sun’s height is independent of local time, because there is no local time there.)
Henson further stated: “Besides those I am now exhibiting, I exposed 110 films about the Pole which, upon his request, I loaned to Commander Peary. . . . He borrowed the films saying he would use some and then return them to me. He has never done this . . . .”
Though repeatedly requested in writing, Peary would not release the pictures, and Henson, in his lectures, had to make do with one or two fuzzy would-be rejects of Camp Jesup.
Clearly, Peary had a very strange evidential case for his achievement, but none of this was known to the three National Geographic judges. They assumed that an honorable man required no overseeing, and so they performed a superficial examination. The official N.G.S. report to Congress and the public states that their review of Peary’s “Pole” data had covered from 20 October to early November (over 2 weeks), whereas it had taken only a few hours at most.
On the day of the official approval, National Geographic’s President Willis L. Moore stated publicly that Peary’s proofs were “absolutely conclusive.” The next step in the chain-reaction of acceptance was similar to the initial one; honorable men would not deceive the public, so the National Geographic’s decision must be correct. Thus, explorational and geographical societies throughout the Western world (virtually without exception outside of Scandinavia) eagerly awarded Peary medals on this basis. However, the Royal Geographic Society (London) showed a little refreshing independence. The Society invited Peary to accept a special gold medal, but asked if he would bring his records along to be reviewed by them. He could hardly refuse point-blank, so he accepted and took his material and copies to London with him for the event of 4 May 1910. However, he waited until after the presentation and then submitted only the copies.
It was the endorsement of the National Geographic and the Royal Geographical Society that won wide initial professional approval for Peary. In 1911, before a partly-skeptical Congressional subcommittee, the blessings of both those Societies and all the resulting medals were parlayed (to the accompaniment of much newspaper criticism of certain Congressmen’s stubborn ingratitude to an American hero), along with testimony from mathematicians who were paid by Peary—unbeknownst to the subcommittee—into official sanctification by the U. S. government.
Peary also paid a lobbyist to assure that he had the majority of the Congressmen with him from the start. This seems to have been a worthwhile investment: for example, the impartiality of the Chairman of the Peary Hearings may be gauged from his having introduced one of the several bills that recommended Peary’s promotion to rear admiral, 11 months before he had examined its beneficiary.
Peary’s official awards, the strong devotion of his admirers, the tact and uncertainty of important skeptics—all these factors contributed to produce the present overwhelming public consensus in favor of his claim.
Yet, even without (for the moment) presenting any hypothesis to clear up its oddities, we can see that this claim must be totally unacceptable to a sober examiner, particularly to a scientist, who especially requires precision, verifiability, productive results, believability, and frank volunteering of evidence.
As we have seen, over a half-dozen different tests might have been possible: shared observations, witness to data, compass variation, ocean depth, current, photo shadows, internally consistent observations at the Pole, or consistent data and journal en route (for a real path, not a bee-line). Somehow, not one of these can be applied to the 1909 trip.
The kindest and most conservative possible conclusion, then, is that Peary’s claim is completely unsubstantiated and thus should be discreetly dropped (à la University of Copenhagen re Cook), for, even if he did achieve the Pole, he might as well not have; and acceptance could later encourage those less upright than the admiral to take advantage of the loose precedent set by official allowance of the lights-out conditions under which the feat was supposedly performed.
A graduate of Harvard College (B.A.) and Boston University (M.A.), Mr. Rawlins has recently published a number of papers on planetary motion and related historical topics. He is the only living recoverer of a pre-discovery observation of a major planet. In a 1970 paper appearing in the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, he presents his discovery of the relation of longitudinal planetary perturbation amplitude to relative distance from the sun and incidentally demonstrates how it vindicates the validity of the oft-doubted 1846 Adams-Leverrier predictive discovery of Neptune.
 All mileages refer to nautical miles, 15 per cent longer than statute miles.
 Participants in Peary’s 1909 sledge-journey, other than Eskimos, were: Dr. J. W. Goodsell, surgeon; Ross G. Marvin, Cornell University; Robert A. Bartlett, Master of the Roosevelt; George Borup, Donald MacMillan; and Matthew Henson.
 On his way back to the Roosevelt, Marvin broke through the ice and was drowned, or so it was reported. In 1926, however, one of the Eskimos baptized a Christian and confessed that he had shot and killed Marvin over a disagreement.
 Dr. Frederick Cook had been surgeon and anthropologist on Peary’s First North Greenland Expedition; he also had been a member of other Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. In 1906, on his second attempt to climb Mt. McKinley, he claimed to have made the ascent. Two members of the Explorers’ Club, who were also on the expedition, studied his photos and doubted that he had really reached the top.
 At one point on the journey, when Marvin and Borup were unable to keep their rendezvous with Peary, Seegloo volunteered to rush a note to Peary. On this lone, daring double march, Peary picked him for the final dash.