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


  A later issue of the paper gave more details: Lorne, ill for months with scurvy, with only Ada Blackjack to care for him. The other boys gone to Siberia to find food and help.

  Although they had understood—perhaps better than any of the other families—the dangers, the Knights had never really expected anything to happen to their boy. Mrs. Knight took it the hardest. She alone had fostered reservations about Lorne returning to the Arctic, and now she berated herself for not having stopped him.

  John Knight thought of young Milton Galle, so full of promise and enthusiasm as he embarked on his first true adventure, and he felt tremendous guilt because he had assured the Galles all along that their son would be safe. He hoped they would not be angry with him or resent him, especially now when the families needed to pull together.

  At least he knew what had happened to his son, as wretched as it was to know so much. But the Galles knew nothing and they might never know how their son died. He supposed there was a possibility— a slight one—that the three young men could have survived and were living somewhere, and he hoped the Galles would live on that and let it keep them optimistic through the upcoming days. He would hope and pray for them that Milton would turn up somewhere, and Allan Crawford and Fred Maurer, too.

  The only comfort John Knight could find in it all—and it was much too soon to look for any deeper comfort—was that “they died in the discharge of their duty, they died with their faces to the front, that they did not show any white feathers, that they were no quitters, that they (if we could know) never complained...but carried on like real men.”

  Now he felt compelled to write to the Galles and try somehow to summon some words of comfort. And then he would wire Noice to find out if he had brought the body home so that they could look upon Lorne’s face one last time and give him a proper burial. There was so much Mr. Knight wanted and needed to know, for himself and for his family—what Noice had seen out there and what the conditions of the camp and the island had been, whether Lorne left a letter or a diary or papers of any kind, and where his belongings were. Most important, he needed to know about Lorne’s body. He was surprised Noice had not contacted him about it yet so that he could start making arrangements.

  He would, he knew, always resent Captain Bernard for not being able to reach the island the year before. He wanted someone to blame right now, and Bernard seemed the best candidate. He should have tried harder, put forth more effort. But “this does me no good now,” Mr. Knight wrote, “and does not restore our beloved boys nor can we ever right the wrong he has done them and us by his miserable failure.”

  He didn’t know how he would ever again be able to think of his business. As words of sympathy flooded in from all over the country, he tried to take care of all that needed to be done for Mrs. Knight and Joseph and himself. First to write to the Galles, then to Mrs. Maurer. Lorne’s fiancée, Doris Jones, must be told. And he must write to the Crawfords in Canada. The four families were now, after all, partners in grief and perhaps they could help each other.

  His friends shook his hand or opened their arms and looked into his eyes with tears in their own, but they were speechless and there were no words to comfort such a loss. Stefansson’s telegram, brief but sympathetic, did nothing to soothe their wounds. Mr. Knight couldn’t even bear the thought that Joseph had nearly followed Lorne’s path into the Arctic. He did not know what he would do without his other child.

  On September 3, the Knights read in the paper that the ship Victoria was unloading cargo in Nome, which meant that she would soon be making her way down the coast to Seattle. They would be there to meet her at the dock so that they could talk to Noice and get the facts and collect their son’s belongings and his remains. Mrs. Knight had been prostrate with grief, ever since the news broke, but still she insisted on collecting Lorne’s body. “The ordeal is going to be awful for Mrs. Knight,” her husband noted, “but...to refuse her would be worse than to take her.”

  Two days later, Mr. Knight still had heard nothing from Noice about Lorne’s remains. Noice simply refused to answer his inquiries, and John Knight knew the Victoria was due in any day. He still had no idea if Lorne’s body was on the boat or buried at sea or at rest on Wrangel Island. All of the old prejudices and resentments toward Noice arose once more. His grief over Lorne’s death was painful enough. He should, at the very least, be treated with consideration over his son’s remains.

  “It seems to me,” he wrote Stefansson, “that, all the glory this man Noice has gained in his expedition which he is making as spectacular and sensational as he possibly can, has gone glimmering in his failure to be the man equal to the occasion at a time when common decency should prompt him to lay aside his damnable greed for a few paltry dollars for column inches and been humanitarian about the matter.”

  Lorne’s fiancée, Doris, was distraught over Lorne’s death, and asked to make the trip to Seattle to meet the ship. Mr. Knight had to admit that, even given his reservations about her as a match for Lorne, she had been as true to his son “as steel,” and so they would take her along, and keep her close to them.

  There was just one thought that cheered John Knight in the midst of his personal heartbreak. The brave Eskimo woman who had taken care of his son. “How I wish I could make some suitable reward for Ada Blackjack,” he wrote Stefansson. “She is the Heroine of the whole expedition. If it is ever in my power to suitably reward her, I hope I may not overlook the opportunity.”

  In Toronto, Noice consulted with A. J. T. Taylor about the diaries— Knight’s and Ada’s. He asked Taylor for permission to copy them and use them in his writings. As for Lorne Knight’s diary, Noice wouldn’t allow Taylor to look at the document, but he did hint at the objectionable material it contained. He made it seem more sensational, more shocking than it actually was because he wanted Taylor to think he had uncovered a scandal. Noice told Taylor that he planned to remove any offensive and questionable parts before he shared the diary with anyone. The newspapers would eventually find a way to get hold of it, and then there were the memories of the young men and the families to think of, Noice said, not to mention Ada herself.

  Noice took it upon himself to fix the contents of the diary. There were two reasons, both urgent to him. The first was that Stefansson should not be allowed the chance to shift blame from himself to the four young men, and some of the information in the diary just might let him do that. There were certain passages that might enable Stefansson to twist the wording and reinterpret actions so as to deflect any fingers pointed in his direction toward the four well-meaning but incompetent men he had entrusted with his mission. It was just the sort of thing, thought Noice, that Stefansson would do. And, if Noice had his way, he would keep Stefansson from doing anything of the kind.

  Secondly—and most pressing—he knew with a reporter’s instinct that an edited journal would cause a sensation. No one should look upon this journal and see these things written, especially because they were not nearly as shocking as he was leading everyone to believe. The more people wondered about the sections he removed, the more Noice would receive for telling the “true story.” He was, first and foremost, an opportunist, and right now he smelled a huge opportunity, not only to make money but to gain the notoriety he craved.

  Using a good eraser, he rubbed away numerous passages. Then he picked up a soft lead pencil and carefully drew hard black lines through the slanted impressions that remained on the paper, at times blacking out entire, lengthy sections. Whoever read the diary next would wonder what had been so shameful, so shocking that it had had to be destroyed. There would be a great scandal and plenty of press and only Noice and Noice alone would be able to answer questions about what the journal had actually contained.

  Then, he ripped out pages 9–14, 19–22, 27–40, and 45–46 of Knight’s diary, sealing them into an envelope. And he tore out the last ten pages and threw them away. He kept no record of them, made no notes of their content. Only Harold Noice would ever know what th
ey had said. He would publicly vow never to speak of their contents to anyone.

  Ada Blackjack could not go anywhere without drawing attention. She hated the crowds, the whispers, the stares as she walked down the street, the insistent way strangers called her name and reporters tried to trick her into talking to them. They tried to snap her picture, but she turned away and refused to speak. They were everywhere and they wouldn’t let her alone, and all she wanted was to be with Bennett, to be left in peace, so that she could rest and recover.

  She was a hero. The newspapers said so. She was the hero of the Arctic. The hero of Wrangel Island. They compared her to Joan of Arc and to Madame Butterfly, women she had never heard of. During her time on the island, she had dreamed of coming home, of the peace it would afford her, of returning to her simple, quiet life, which would be a comfort after all she had seen and endured.

  She was constantly cold and tired and her feet still ached. There was a hunger in her gut which would not subside and she could not chase out of her head the image of Lorne Knight’s lifeless body. She missed Crawford, and she missed her friend Galle, who had promised he would come back for her. She missed Maurer, too, with his kind manner and gentle voice, and she missed Knight.

  Now she must make another life for herself and for Bennett. She would take the money set aside for her in the bank at Nome and she and Bennett would go to Seattle, where he could be cured in a hospital. Then she would make a nice life for them somewhere while she worked at her sewing or housework. She had done it before and she could do it again, and it would be easy now because she had lived to come home again, just as she had promised Bennett she would.

  It was time to remake herself, to start afresh, and to give Bennett all the opportunities for a better life that she could afford with the money she had earned. Had it been worth it? A great deal of money had accumulated in her bank account while she was away as deposits were made each month from Stefansson’s company. She was a rich woman now, or so she felt. But, like the girl in her favorite Eskimo story, she had come back home only to find her legs bent and broken, her body old and feeble, and nothing the way it used to be.

  * * *

  MONTREAL STANDARD

  September 9, 1923

  Mr. Stefansson Shows Results

  As we pointed out in these columns some time ago, Mr. Stefansson’s ambition to keep in the limelight was hardly worth risking the lives of three young men on a desolate Arctic island.

  Since then, the three young men have died of hunger and disease, and Mr. Stefansson...is busy with the crocodile tears. The misadventure has obliged Mr. Stefansson to explain that he alone was responsible for the unfortunate expedition, and that Canadian Government had nothing to do with it. That it had not was no fault of Mr. Stefansson’s, who begged hard enough that they relieved him of the expense.

  The plain truth is, that the blood of these three young men is on the head of Mr. Stefansson. While they were starving to death on a frozen island to prove the Stefansson theory that an explorer could live off the country, Mr. Stefansson himself was prancing about from one luxurious spot of civilization to another, lecturing and telling what a hero he was. Meanwhile the three young men went on short rations, then on no rations at all, the food supply Mr. Stefansson had left behind being about one year short of the demand upon it.

  For some time past Mr. Stefansson has been trying to wish himself and his plans on the Canadian Government. Not being successful in that he went north and discovered an island that had been discovered several times before— Wrangel Island, to wit—and tried to wish that on the Government. Failing again, he betook himself to England, and tried to wish this island, with which he had no business whatever, on the British Government. He failed in that also, but meanwhile, as we said before, the three young men on the island died.

  After this it would be advisable for Mr. Stefansson to hold down his own islands.

  * * *

  PART V

  FALLOUT

  There was nothing for her to do but drop, and she did, trying to keep her legs straight so she would be young as she was when she left the earth.

  —ADA BLACKJACK

  “The Lady in the Moon”

  Chapter Sixteen

  THREE MEN WERE SPOTTED on the Siberian coast in September 1923. The report was telegraphed in from various Siberian coastal ships. Word of the sightings was sent to Nome, and from there wired to the Maurers in Ohio, the Crawfords in Toronto, and the Galles in Texas.

  Until now, the question posed by all the newspapers was: What had happened to Crawford, Maurer, and Galle? In interviews, Stefansson stated that one of two scenarios must have occurred. The first was that they broke through the rough and tumultuous ice and drowned. Because the ice north of Alaska and Siberia was in constant motion, young, fragile ice grew between the heavier, more solid floes, making it dangerous for travelers. The fresh ice, when covered by snow, was hard to detect, especially in a storm such as the one the men encountered their second day out.

  The second possibility was that they died during the long, cold Arctic night, taken by surprise by the unpredictable ice pack, which could split apart with no warning. There was the storm Knight had noted in his journal and that Ada had described—a blistering gale that sprang up just a day after they left camp, and which could have swept them away unexpectedly. This, Stefansson suggested, was the most logical conclusion.

  But before there was ever a sighting of three men walking on the Siberian coast, rumors of a different nature began circulating. Fred Maurer’s brothers John and Thomas believed them, as did Delphine, the Galles, and Professor Crawford. Maurer, Galle, and Crawford could still be alive. The threats from the Russian government must be taken into consideration. They had vowed to capture anyone who landed on the island. They had ordered outsiders to stay away from the island. Was it a stretch of the imagination to suppose that the Russians might have captured the boys, either on the ice or on the Siberian coast, and taken them prisoner?

  No, Stefansson conceded to the press, it wasn’t. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle might very well have made it across to Siberia and their loved ones might hear from them yet. The newspapers buzzed with the suggestion. “In view of the Soviet attitude, it is even possible that Crawford and his companions are prisoners.”

  “Is Allan Crawford still alive?” asked the Toronto Star on September 4. “Stefansson thinks so. If they succeeded, it would be nothing out of the ordinary in that region of slow travel for the news of their arrival in Siberia to be delayed up to the present. Trading vessels which visit that remote region, from American and Russian ports, will soon be returning. It is from these that Stefansson hopes to get any news that Siberia may have of the Crawford party. Until that time the whole world clings to the hope that the heroic explorer is still alive.”

  Sir Edmund Walker, president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, told the Toronto Star, “The first thing for us to do is to cable Stefansson and Noice to ask their advice and their help and then send a party immediately to find Allan Crawford and his companions.”

  Stefansson, for his part, said he would defer to Noice on the matter. Noice alone knew how thoroughly he had searched the surrounding area for the missing men. With Wells’s party now situated on Wrangel, Crawford and the others would be in fine shape should they return to the island from Siberia, where, perhaps, they had voluntarily spent the winter.

  The disturbing thing, of course, was the friction between Russia and America. There were some unfortunate incidents in the past that had blackened the American image for the Siberian natives, such as when a Cossack officer was shot by an American captain, and when Russian police were taken prisoner and sent to Alaska. The latest tension, of course, now came from the claim on Russia’s own Wrangel Island. Therefore, it was not without reason that the men from the Wrangel Island Expedition could have been captured and held against their will. Perhaps they were rotting in a Siberian prison even now.

  Numerous trading ships had sailed from
the Bering Strait toward the north coast of eastern Siberia and were expected to return by October 1923. If Crawford and the others were alive and safe, they would most likely return on one of those ships. Until then, Stefansson and the families would have to wait and not give up hope.

  And then the reports came in of the sightings. Three white men walking along the northern Siberian shore. As soon as the cable from Nome was received, Thomas Maurer fired off a telegram to Stefansson: “Maurer’s family believe Fred is alive in Russia. Request you investigate. Three men reported seen off Siberian coast.”

  Immediately, the three families rallied together. John Maurer had been gathering all the information he could on the fate of his brother, Crawford, and Galle, and he and Thomas shared the opinion that the men could very well have made it across the ice to Russia. Hadn’t Captain Bob Bartlett made that same trip safely in 1914, after the ship Karluk had sunk? Why, then, was it so impossible to believe that these three young men could have done the same? It was some seven hundred miles from Wrangel Island to the nearest wireless station. The men could be wandering somewhere in northeastern Siberia, lost in a wilderness populated by only the most remote Eskimo villages. It could be months before they would reach anything resembling civilization.

  The Maurer brothers appealed to their congressman and to the president of the Red Cross, who promised to send word to the Red Cross outposts in Russia. They also sent a request to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, asking him to appropriate sufficient money to send a party in search of the men. In Toronto, Professor Crawford contacted British government officials, who promised to do everything in their power to find the men. And in Texas, Alma Galle’s brother Benjamin Nebergall also sent a letter to Secretary of State Hughes to ask, on “behalf of Milton Galle’s grief-stricken parents,” if the State Department was in the position to launch an inquiry into young Milton’s fate.

 
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