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


  Afterward, Mr. Nebergall wrote letters to the Honorable Morris Sheppard, U.S. Senator, as well as to the Honorable Harry M. Wurzbach, U.S. Representative from Texas. “If you can do anything to help this investigation along,” he said, “it will certainly be greatly appreciated.” An appeal was also made to Congressman C. B. Hudspeth.

  The responses were quick. “I wish to assure you that I will do everything in my power to aid you and Mr. and Mrs. Galle in securing some information about their son,” wrote Harry M. Wurzbach.

  “I am at once transmitting your letter and the copy to my secretary at Washington,” replied C. B. Hudspeth, “with instructions to her to at once call on the Secretary of State and render every assistance.”

  “I shall be glad to take up with the Secretary the matter of the investigation you refer to,” penned Morris Sheppard, “and will advise you further.”

  The Knights and Miss Jones met Noice at the dock in Seattle on September 17. There were questions to ask about Lorne’s illness, the Eskimo woman, Crawford’s trip to the mainland, Lorne’s diary, and any last letters home.

  They followed Noice to his room at the Hotel Frye, where Mr. and Mrs. Knight and Joseph collected Lorne’s possessions. Noice gave Mrs. Knight her letter from Lorne—the last one he had written, in case of his death. She was reduced to tears when she reached the line “all the love any boy could have for his Mother.” When they inquired about Lorne’s diary, Noice said that it would need to be photographed first by the expedition corporation, and once that was done the original would be sent to them.

  But there was no body. Lorne, Noice told them, had been buried on Wrangel Island, just as the dead men of the Karluk had been gallantly laid to rest there, and Robert Scott had been buried a hero in the Antarctic. Noice had felt it a fitting tribute to Knight, to bury him where he fell, like a soldier in battle.

  This news left Mr. and Mrs. Knight with an unspeakable emptiness, reaching even beyond all they had felt before. They knew Lorne was dead, and bringing his body home would not have done anything to change that. But it should have been their decision to make. They had yearned to rest their eyes on him once more, to have the sense that he had come home, at last, from his long expedition. And now they must face the fact that they would never see their son again.

  On September 19, Senator Morris Sheppard received a letter from the Department of State about the Milton Galle case. The Department, it said, did not have any additional information regarding the members of the Wrangel Island Expedition beyond what was currently appearing in the press. However, the Department assured him that it would be certain to pass along any new information that might come to its attention.

  There was no mention of the sightings off the Siberian coast, but William Phillips, the acting Secretary of State, did say that, “No information which would indicate that members of the expedition succeeded in reaching the Siberian mainland has been received by the Department from these sources.” Furthermore, it was, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, impractical if not impossible for any ship to conduct an investigation for the men so late in the season.

  There was also a discouraging reply from the office of Congressman Hudspeth. After an interview with the assistant to the Secretary of State, Hudspeth’s secretary, Kate George, was told that American trading ships and a government vessel—the U.S. revenue cutter Bear— had called at every port on the Siberian coast in the vicinity of Wrangel Island, without finding any trace of the missing men. “He further stated that it would not be possible under any circumstances to send a relief expedition until about the first of June, next, as every port in that region is ice-bound from the first of October until that time. He did not state that it would be the intention of the Department to send any expedition even then, as they feel the cause to be about hopeless.”

  One week later, Sir Robert Falconer formally opened the University of Toronto 1923–1924 school session and paid tribute to former student Allan Crawford. Earlier, he had told reporters, “Certainly we cannot let an event like this pass by without some sort of tribute being made to his memory. Some sort of permanent memorial should be erected, something fitting to keep his deeds before the students of future years. Allan Crawford was a young hero, that is what he was, a young hero.”

  To the crowd gathered in the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall he said, “It is hard to abandon hope, but Canadians will always remember that this young man went forward with faith and that he deserves a place alongside the youth that fell in the Great War.”

  Stefansson arrived in the United States five weeks after the news of the tragedy broke. A. J. T. Taylor had written him with great concern to alert him to the bad feeling among the people of the press and the people of Canada. There was a great deal of ill will building toward Stefansson, and Taylor suggested they find someone to write something on his behalf before all hell broke loose.

  Stefansson was sick of reading what he considered to be Noice’s twisted words in the newspapers—words of hunger and starvation, words of Crawford and the others being desperately in need of food or help. Stefansson had not yet read any of the documents Noice had collected from the island—not Knight’s diary nor Galle’s notes nor Ada’s journal—but he resented the implication that these men died of anything that could have been prevented. He believed that the truth would only come out after the diaries had been sorted through and read.

  He reached New York on October 15 and was met by his associates, A. J. T. Taylor and John Anderson, who had traveled from Toronto to brief him on the latest goings-on. Noice had Knight’s diary in his possession, they told him, and it contained controversial material, which could darken the news reports and make an already bad situation worse for everyone. Something about Ada Blackjack’s conduct and the treatment of her by Knight and the others. Noice had destroyed the objectionable material, they said, without showing it to them first.

  Stefansson met with Noice in New York the day after he arrived from England. Noice mentioned that he had taken time to sit down with Ada Blackjack and go over the lesser-known details of her story, since there were holes in the diary accounts. He then made it clear to Stefansson that, after having reviewed all the documents, he believed the men would be alive today if it weren’t for their own incompetence. The outfitting of the party had been insufficient and inadequate, and he felt Stefansson should have traveled to the island himself to remain in command of the party. Noice also believed it was his right—given the contract he had signed with the Newspaper Alliance—to state this in his articles.

  Stefansson was livid. He was already being condemned from Britain to Canada to the States over this fiasco, and he blamed it all on Noice for suggesting incompetence and inexperience to the public through the press. “Grotesque fallacy,” one periodical had called Stefansson’s leadership. “Neglect.” “Lack of means and precautions.” “Novices led away by a false lure and with little real knowledge of the problems with which they had to deal.” “Needlessly perish.” “Difficult to forgive.”

  “Could a land, from which comes so sad a tale, possibly be ‘The Friendly Arctic’ described by Stefansson?” wrote one newspaper.

  “Wrangel Island is not worth the brave lives it has cost,” stated another. “Mr. Stefansson, with his legend of ‘The Friendly Arctic,’ placed an estimate on Wrangel Island much above that of the Canadian people. He was not officially authorized to dispatch an expedition to the island to proclaim it British or Canadian territory. The value of the island, present or potential, is not to be weighed against the precious lives of Allan Crawford and his companions.”

  “No one can read the tale unfolded by Harold Noice who headed the relief expedition, so long delayed that it failed of its object by many months, without experiencing the deepest pain and anger at the tragic folly of the whole Stefansson enterprise,” read an article entitled “The Un-Friendly Arctic,” in Saturday Night on September 15, 1923. “Noice without openly censuring anybody makes it clear that the lives of all
these victims would probably have been saved had there been any clear plan or adequate preparations in connection with Stefansson’s Wrangel expedition. Thus they perished while the author of the wild enterprise was far away talking nonsense about the supposed strategical importance of Wrangel.”

  J. B. Tyrrell, Toronto mining engineer and geologist and a former member of the Dominion Geological Survey, also publicly condemned Stefansson. “We have no business at all on Wrangel Island,” he told reporters. “The parents of Allan Crawford have my deepest sympathy in the loss of their son. It was a crime for Stefansson to send a young man like that to Wrangel Island. It would have been different if he had sent some old Norwegian or someone who had spent all his life in the Arctic. But instead he sent a youth who knew nothing about Arctic regions.”

  And one newspaper headline read simply, Canada Humiliated. “There have been two victims of this ill-starred adventure,” the article declared, “Allan Crawford, a patriotic Canadian, who found death among the ice floes of the Arctic, and a humiliated Canada.”

  Obviously, Stefansson believed, it had been a mistake to entrust Noice with the delicate and vital matter of reporting the news to the papers. Stefansson thought it was slanderous to say the men had been starving, so desperate for food that they had been forced to hike across the ice to Siberia. He was determined to keep Noice from continuing to say these things. Otherwise, everything Stefansson had worked for— his reputation and, in particular, his championing of the cause of the Friendly Arctic—was at risk of being obliterated.

  Starvation as a motive for their fatal crossing to Siberia was highly unlikely, Stefansson told the press. “Crawford crossed to the mainland of Siberia because of the monotony of staying on the island,” was his reasoning. He would say it again and again, for as long as the papers continued printing Noice’s descriptions of a starving expedition, desperate for help.

  By the beginning of October, there had been no more word about the sighting of three white men along the Siberian coast. Harold Noice told the Toronto Star that he, for one, felt there was no hope of ever seeing Crawford, Maurer, and Galle alive again. The Belinda, the Blue Sea, and the Silver Wave had all made inquiries while trading up north and had individually scoured the Russian shore, but no one had seen or heard of the men. “As to the utility of sending a searching party to Siberia,” Noice concluded, “I do not think that anything could be gained by it, otherwise I would have gone myself.”

  Stefansson wrote to Maurer’s insurance company to convince them to release to the Maurer family the money from their son’s claim, and both John and Thomas Maurer felt ready to give up hope of seeing their brother alive again. They were unable to find out any more information about the sighting—were unable to locate the persons who had actually spotted the men—and all of the avenues they had explored had led only to dead ends. John received word from their congressman, telling them that the Siberian coast was now officially closed for the season. All boats had returned without reporting any further sightings of the three men. “So we must be patient until ice freezes over,” John wrote to Harry Galle, “and we may hear something good later.” For now, they must be satisfied—if one could be satisfied in such a grim situation—that Fred had never made it to the Siberian coast, but had, most likely, drowned on his way across.

  Fred had worshipped Stefansson, and because of this the Maurers felt kindly toward the man. Fred had known the dangers of what he was getting into. “Don’t you know that freezing is the easiest death there is,” he had once remarked to a friend, “why do you worry about us?” The Maurer family could not blame Stefansson for a choice Fred made willingly. Instead, they reached out to the explorer, inviting him to their home in Ohio. Delphine wrote him frequently because it made her feel better and more connected to her husband in some small way. She had read all of Noice’s damning accounts in the newspapers, but she refused to feel any ill will toward the man who had sent her husband on his last mission. “I am sincerely sorry for you,” she wrote Stefansson, “and no matter what the outcome of all this may be, regardless of any other opinion concerning you please remember that Delphine is your friend among many others who are standing with you now.”

  Delphine was living with the Maurers, at least temporarily, and her zealous faith and belief that all would work out well in the end was a consolation to the family. Her enthusiasm and refusal to give up hope were a striking contrast to the denial that Mr. Maurer was experiencing. Both he and his wife were old and feeble, and he refused to accept the fact that Fred was never coming home. He expected to see him at the door some time in the near future, whenever he found his way back, but it was a stubborn, almost angry conviction that fueled his belief. Mary Maurer, meanwhile, tried to keep herself as busy as possible, so that she wouldn’t worry and think about her child, lying dead on some ice floe.

  Stefansson was due in Cleveland, Ohio, on a lecture tour sometime in early November. For the family, his upcoming visit gave them just what they needed—something to look forward to. Stefansson was their last link to Fred and each of them was eager to shake his hand and sit down with him for a few minutes and talk to him of the tragedy and of the beloved young man they had lost.

  But when Stefansson arrived in Cleveland, he wired them to say he had become tied up and would not be able to visit them in New Philadelphia after all. Delphine was so desperate to see him that she prepared to travel to Cleveland on her own to try to gain an interview. But before she arrived, he sent her a telegram to say he must return to New York on urgent business and would not be able to see her.

  Stefansson’s urgent business was Noice. He refused to return Lorne Knight’s diary to the Knight family, and was now claiming he owned the rights to it. What was even more infuriating, he also claimed ownership of Ada Blackjack’s diary. She was the only survivor and the only eyewitness to all that had happened, which made her extremely valuable. Stefansson would fight Noice for her story because Stefansson believed strongly that it belonged to him. Noice planned to sell it for his own private profit, but Stefansson asked his people to investigate at once and to secure Ada’s release first.

  Letters flew back and forth between Stefansson and his business partners. There was some confusion over who owned the rights to the two diaries. Noice had found them and he was the one writing the newspaper accounts of the story. But, Stefansson argued, Noice had signed the contract with the North American Newspaper Alliance as a writer under Stefansson’s own employment.

  One thing was clear—Noice was not planning to give up the diaries—not to the families, and certainly not to Stefansson. The Knights were frantic for Lorne’s journal, and the Galles insisted on knowing if Milton had left anything intended for them—a last letter or note. The Crawfords, too, were anxious to read Lorne’s journal for any news of their son, and Stefansson began thinking he might need to resort to legal action to restrain Noice from publishing the diaries.

  On October 22, 1923, Stefansson telegraphed the Knights: “Unfortunately you were right about Noice trying to make money for himself from Wrangell tragedy our company probably owns diaries anyway but will you assign any rights you may have to me so I can legally restrain Noice from his attempt sell your son’s diary to newspapers for his private gain.”

  From what they could tell, Noice was in hiding. Calls came in and telegrams were sent to him daily but were never answered. He was living at the Waldorf Hotel in New York, and had left explicit instructions with the desk to tell all callers that he wasn’t in. He had apparently married wealthy musician and traveler Frances Allison, the woman he had met on his trip from New York to Nome, but had cut himself off from all of the friends he had in common with Stefansson, and he refused to answer the pleas from the families of the men who had died.

  When Noice sold the Wrangel Island story to the London Daily News in mid-October, he violated his contract with the Alliance. In answer, Stefansson sold a similar story to Whitelaw Amalgamated Press. He would simply fight fire with fire, answering
Noice’s claims that the men died from their own incompetence and inexperience, not to mention Stefansson’s poor planning and greed, with his own statements that the men had not been starving, that there had been no shortage of food, and that Crawford and the other two had simply gone to Siberia to send news to him. Furthermore, Stefansson stated, the idea for the expedition had not been his alone. “The expedition did not grow out of my mind only,” he wrote, “but was really a composite product of the ideas of Lorne, Fred Maurer and myself— their eagerness, altruism and desire for adventure.”

  As Noice and Stefansson warred in the press, the families of the dead men sat at home in Canada, Texas, Ohio, and Oregon, not knowing what or whom to believe, and only wanting peace. While in Alaska, Ada Blackjack avoided reporters and prayed that all the fuss would be over soon.

  Mrs. Knight had always been strong and logical, but ever since the news had come in about Lorne’s death, she had been distracted, weepy, and walked around as if in a daze. Mr. Knight was similarly affected, and often found himself weeping in his office. “I do not try to conceal my tears,” he wrote to the Galles, “for they are the safety valve to a pressure of grief which would cause my too full heart to explode unless they are allowed to flow.” But he worried about his wife. She was unable to sleep, even when he and Joseph and Miss Jones bundled her up and took her away in the car to eastern Oregon and Washington to visit the country and to see some friends. He was afraid it would be a long time until she was her old self, and he missed her almost as much as he missed his son.

  The Lodge of Elks had asked him to speak to them of the expedition, to tell the people of McMinnville all he knew of what happened out there. Friends and neighbors were naturally curious about the details, and although Mr. Knight dreaded having to relive his grief before a large group of curiosity seekers, he felt it was important and necessary to do so. There had been an overwhelming outpouring of sympathy from people around the country and he was trying to answer every letter or telegram or postcard. Now, at least, he would have the opportunity to address a group of well-wishers at one time.

 
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