Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven


  They buried Lorne Knight on August 21. A simple wooden cross, bearing his name and the date of his death, was erected over his grave. Ada gave Knight’s diary to Noice and he also collected some notes Galle had kept, along with Galle’s typewriter. There was a large box of ivory that the men had gathered, as well as some walrus and mastodon tusks they had found. Noice confiscated these, along with the four sacks of furs they had managed to save. Ada herself had collected sixteen furs, which she kept tucked in a flour sack, and she sold fifteen of these to Noice at $28.00 each, which made her feel quite rich afterward. She didn’t know—and no one bothered to tell her—that she could have sold them for $100 apiece in Nome or Seattle.

  She did keep a few items from Noice—specifically Knight’s field glasses and the Bible he had given her, the one that had belonged to his grandfather, which she wanted to return to his parents herself. She was desperate to keep the book, more than anything she had ever wanted to possess in her life, but she knew the right thing was to return it to Knight’s family.

  Ada and Noice remained on the island for several days while the crew and Eskimos unloaded supplies from the ship and Charles Wells organized his camp. Then they collected Ada’s few belongings and Vic and returned to the ship. Ada took a last, lingering look at the island that had been her home for two years, and then turned away. She would never go back there because Wrangel Island meant only death and disaster, just as the shaman had predicted. She intended to live the rest of her days at home with Bennett and her family, away from bears and guns and death.

  Once on the boat, Ada recognized some of the Eskimos from Nome and asked them about her son. How was he, she wanted to know. Was he happy and well? Did he miss her? Did he think of her? Did he know she was coming back for him? They told her he was doing fine. There was only one letter waiting for her, from a friend, and Ada felt her heart sink. She had hoped for and expected letters from her sister, telling her about her family and about Bennett.

  The Eskimos aboard ship told Ada that if Mr. Noice were captain instead of first mate Hans Olson, they would have mutinied before reaching Wrangel Island. It was an odd comment and one Ada shrugged away. Noice had, after all, saved her life, and she would be forever indebted to him for rescuing her and bringing her home. She would always remember him for what he had done for her, and she believed that she would not be alive, if not for him.

  Noice, meanwhile, sat in his cabin and pored over the diary of Lorne Knight. He was startled by what he saw to be the incompetence of Knight, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle—the stores they took to the island, the methods of hunting, decisions made. Noice felt he could have done much better. But the most shocking part of it all was Ada. Throwing herself at Crawford, tied to a flagpole, sent to bed without supper, made to sleep in the cold. Noice had heard rumors in Nome about the woman—that she was a prostitute—and the fact that she had been taken along as the only female with four young men seemed to him disturbingly suspicious. If the wrong people should get hold of Knight’s diary, it would be humiliating for the expedition and everyone involved, himself included. A foolish woman; primitive punishments. It was indecent and the information contained therein could discredit the men and mar their reputations, he believed, as well as the reputation of Stefansson, should word of it ever leak out.

  They sailed for Nome on August 23 and reached its harbor on August 31. As soon as he landed, Noice wrote out a telegram and wired it to Stefansson:

  Nome, Alaska, Aug. 31–Sept. 4, 1923. Arrival last night Wednesday, Blackjack only survivor stop buried Knight August twentieth stop Crawford, Galle, Maurer left Wrangel January twenty eighth nineteen twenty three stop believe entire party perished you notify relatives of boys as you think best stop have left colony of two Eskimo families two unmarried Eskimo men, in charge of Wells stop equipped party for two years sojourn stop game conditions Wrangel apparently excellent stop failure of last expedition due to combination poor equipment and inexperience.

  Ada was anxious to leave the ship so that she could be reunited with her family and her son. But she was told by Noice and the other men aboard that she must wait. Ada did not understand this at first, but it soon became clear that the men held her under suspicion in the death of Lorne Knight. Ada knew she had done the best she could to look after Knight and to heal him, but now these men were asking her questions and telling her she must convince them that she did not murder him. Ada grew increasingly frantic and frightened. She had come so far and she was ill and tired. She wanted only to see Bennett and to know that he was safe. But now these men were asking her about poor Mr. Knight again and again, forcing her to relive the nightmare. At last, her sister Fina was allowed to come aboard with her family and stand by Ada.

  Finally, after Noice and his comrades were satisfied, Ada was allowed to gather her few belongings—including Vic—and leave the ship. She enjoyed a tearful reunion with her sister Rita, who told her that the party of Wrangel Island had long ago been reported dead, and that they had given up hope of ever seeing her again.

  For Ada, setting foot on the dirty streets of Nome felt like a wonderful dream. But she barely had time to enjoy the feeling of home and the familiar faces of family before she must face the reality that it was a changed world she had returned to. The first female U.S. senator had been elected in 1922; the first birth control clinic had opened in New York; Lenin had formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); the first transcontinental airplane flight was made from New York to San Diego in twenty-sixhours and fifty minutes; and President Harding had died while in office. But Ada’s personal world had changed just as drastically. Jack Blackjack had died while she was away, drowned in a river. Her stepfather had also passed away, and her sister had had a baby. She had named the child Ada, in honor of her brave sister, who was lost in the Arctic.

  Ada blamed no one for the disaster of the trip. She felt no animosity or resentment toward Mr. Stefansson or Marshal Jordan, the Nome chief of police who had encouraged her to go, or anyone else. “It was no one’s fault but my own that I went up there,” Ada said, “for no one would have forced me to go, but I wanted to go and thought I would never have another chance to go so I took it.”

  Noice, meanwhile, was detained by the Nome marshal, E. R. Jordan, and escorted to the U.S. revenue cutter Bear. The charge: He was warned before sailing for Wrangel Island by the captain of the Bear not to take any Eskimos to the island and leave them. After an intense two-hour session, Noice was released and free to go on his way.

  One of the first things he did was to look up Frances Allison—the intriguing lady he had met on his trip to Alaska—who was still in Nome. Ada had given Noice her own diary as well, and he asked Frances to help him decipher it. Then he tracked down Carl Lomen of Lomen Brothers, the local businessman who had helped to outfit both the original and the relief expeditions, to show him the diary kept by Lorne Knight. He wanted Lomen to see for himself what Noice was up against and to ask his opinion about what he thought Noice should do.

  Stefansson was in England when he received the telegram on September 1. Publicly, he reacted with shock. “Crawford’s death is terribly tragic news,” he told the Twin Falls News. “I knew the situation of the party was critical, but I did not expect this sudden end.”

  There should have been enough game to sustain the men, he told the papers. “One good hunter can provide food for ten dependents so long as his ammunition holds out,” and his party had had plenty of ammunition.

  In private, he felt it enormously important to “prevent, as far as possible, the ordinary distortions which the press is accustomed to give to any events that happen in remote regions under conditions not familiar to the average reader.” In other words, Stefansson wanted to keep the whole matter as quiet as possible in the papers, which would surely paint his Friendly Arctic as a most unfriendly place. “I knew even before the details came out that freezing or starvation was not likely to have played an important part,” he conjectured, “but I knew equally tha
t the press always assigns any polar tragedy to the routine reasons of hunger and frost. Their doing so now would go a long way towards making fruitless the work for which our young men had died.”

  Their doing so would also go a long way toward surrounding Stefansson with the sort of controversy to which he had grown all too accustomed—his responsibility for the loss of young, inexperienced men who embarked upon Arctic expeditions under his command, or at his prompting, without proper training, equipment, or supplies. The last thing Stefansson wanted was to be embroiled in another scandal, and if the papers started printing the words starvation, hunger, frostbite, he would be in for disgrace and humiliation.

  He telegraphed his business associates in the United States immediately to make sure they negotiated with the North American Newspaper Alliance for Allan Crawford’s story and to inquire about the sale of possible movie rights. He also wanted letters sent to each family requesting the rights to the Wrangel Island diaries for publication. He sent word to Noice to secure Ada Blackjack’s personal story and keep her from talking to interviewers. And he told his people to tell Noice to “minimize the starvation theory. Emphasize possibility breaking through ice both because less painful to relatives and favorable my success raising money to pay Noice’s bills. Noice story yesterday has hurt our cause badly.”

  Then Stefansson wrote Noice directly to try to straighten him out about the reports he was giving before he did too much damage, and to discuss the issue of rights to the island documents. “We must keep our eyes on whatever silver lining there is to the Wrangel Island cloud,” he said. “For one thing the tragedy has removed some of the previous apathy. The public interest has created a market value for the story. The things the boys believed in, worked for and eventually died for, can certainly gain nothing by being now abandoned. Both the publications and the lecturing will help.”

  Helen Crawford had a premonition that she would never see her son again. She fell into a deep melancholy in the winter of 1922, after the first relief attempt had failed, and had been inconsolable ever since. When the telephone rang at the Crawford house on Walmer Road some time after midnight on September 1, Mrs. Crawford knew that something was wrong.

  The Toronto Star newspaper office had received word by cablegram from Harold Noice in Nome. Allan Crawford and his three male companions were dead. The conversation between one of the reporters from the newspaper and Professor Crawford was brief and to the point, and when the professor hung up the phone, he did not need to tell his wife what had happened. She knew by the ring of the phone, by the look on his face. Her eldest child was never again coming home.

  One hour later, there was a knock at the front door, and a member of the newspaper staff stood on the step, bearing an eighty-word summation of the tragedy. Professor Crawford snatched it away, but before he could read it, Helen called out to him. She wanted to see the words for herself, to read them before anyone else, so that she could really know it was true.

  Afterward, she gave herself up to grief. Unlike his wife, Professor Crawford had been confident Allan would survive. He had never been plagued by doubts or dark premonitions, and had been sure he would see Allan back at school in the fall, finishing his studies, resuming his vibrant, busy life at home. Allan was an athlete, scholar, friend, son, brother, model citizen. “Life looked so bright for him,” his father lamented.

  It would be hardest on Allan’s mother. “He was her first born and her chum,” the Professor told the Toronto Star that night. “Much as he meant to me, he meant more to her.” He was reluctant to send the reporter away, afraid to be shut inside the house with his grief. It was easier to stand there, talking to a stranger.

  The telegram from Stefansson came the next day, reading simply, “Deepest sympathy over terrible news.” There was nothing more. No mention of the details, no information on Allan’s death. All they were told was that he had died going for help.

  The answers, they hoped, would be revealed in the days to come. They would have to comfort themselves with their remaining two children, Marjorie and Johnnie, and honor the memory of their fallen son with love and respect and pride. “He was a public figure, and his death is not merely our private grief but also a public matter,” Professor Crawford told the press. “He was more than just our son and we must share him even in death.”

  And, thought Professor Crawford, they would get to the bottom of things, to find out just what had happened to Allan Crawford and why he had not come home.

  All of the Maurers, including Delphine, anxiously awaited a telegram from Fred. The rescue ship, they knew, should be sailing into Nome’s harbor any day now, and that meant there would be word from him. There had been no news of the ship turning back this year, as it had been forced to do last summer, and no reports of bad ice conditions on the sea.

  Delphine had moved in with her parents in Niles, Ohio, ninety-one miles away from New Philadelphia. The last word she had heard from her husband came shortly after he landed on the island in the fall of 1921. He had sent a letter to her with the ship that had left him there. She had known Fred such a short time, and only enjoyed a handful of days with him as his wife before being separated from him for two long years. But she had remained faithful and true, and she wrote him regularly, even though she knew there was no way of sending the letters.

  The waiting was the hardest part. Fred’s parents, David and Mary, seemed to have aged considerably, and certainly their son’s time in the Arctic took its toll on the health of each parent. But they were excited now, eager to see him, eager to welcome him home again.

  Word came from Nome on September 1, but it wasn’t the word they had expected or hoped for. Fred and the other men, dead on Wrangel Island. Only Ada Blackjack had survived.

  Stefansson’s telegram arrived shortly afterward: “Deepest sympathy to you all and Fred’s wife.”

  All of Tuscarawas County was consumed with the devastating news. Fred had been a local hero, ever since returning from the Arctic in 1914 with the Karluk’s cat tucked under his arm, and the Maurers were well-loved in the community.

  More information came later on the afternoon of September 1 from a United Press report. Something about Fred heading for Siberia with Crawford and Galle because of a shortage of food. Knight left behind, dead of scurvy. The other boys, missing.

  Fred’s brother John, who was now running the tailor shop for his father, told reporters that he, for one, did not believe Fred was dead. In his opinion, Fred and the others were merely lost somewhere up there. Perhaps they had taken the wrong direction. It was even possible they had been picked up by the Russians or that they were stranded somewhere on the Siberian coast, too ill or injured or lost to move. The papers were always full of news of Arctic explorers who disappeared into the frozen North, given up for dead, only to return a year or two later, unharmed. There were other possibilities, of course, he theorized. They might have eaten spoiled food and perished, or one of them might have become insane and killed the others and then himself. The last thing he was going to accept was that they had just vanished.

  Meanwhile, Delphine prepared to come to New Philadelphia to be with Fred’s family, and Mr. and Mrs. Maurer tried to comfort each other and their remaining children. “The Arctic has claimed a kind man,” wrote the newspapers, while Nicki, the Karluk cat and Fred’s prize souvenir from his time in the Arctic, was petted and pampered by her family.

  In the early hours of September 1, Joe Abrahams opened the front door to his home on Academy Street in New Braunfels, Texas, and walked down the steps to fetch the morning paper. He picked it up, shook it open, and there, on the front page, was the headline. Local Boy Missing in Arctic.

  There had been no word from Milton’s parents, even though Joe was family, and so he rushed down the street, paper in hand, and knocked on the door of the Galle house.

  Both of Milton’s siblings, Alfred and Elsie, were away at college in Austin. With Milton expected back in the fall, the family had figured it was a good t
ime for Elsie to leave home and follow her brother and her friends to school. So it was that Joe Abrahams found Harry and Alma at home alone that morning, and broke the news to them that Milton was dead.

  There was no telegram from Stefansson, no word at all from the explorer. Instead, a wire arrived from A. J. T. Taylor and John Anderson on September 3. “We deeply regret to learn of the loss of the Wrangel Island party and your son Milton,” it read. “Please accept our sincere sympathy stop cabled Stefansson to see if anything can be done through Siberian government to find trace of your son and party.”

  A telegram from Professor Crawford followed. “Deepest sympathy cabled Stefansson to request Siberian government to make inquiries for missing parties.”

  The telephone rang at four o’clock in the morning. Joseph Knight was the first to hear it, and when he picked it up, he heard the voice of the night officer for McMinnville on the other end. The man wanted to know if Joseph had heard the news, but when Joseph replied that he hadn’t, the officer announced that he was coming to the house.

  By the time he arrived, the Knights—Joseph and his parents—were awake, dressed, and fully assembled. The night officer clutched an early morning paper in his hand, which contained the first report of the relief expedition. The report was vague and brief, but it was enough to break the hearts of Lorne Knight’s family.

  Lorne was dead. While they had been eating and sleeping and enjoying every comfort of modern life, he had been dying just like a dog on a faraway island.

 
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