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

  The tenor of the piece, the flagrant exploitation of his son’s words and life, made Mr. Knight regret that he hadn’t thrown Noice to the floor of his hotel room and sat on top of him while Joseph confiscated all evidence of Lorne Knight.

  Not for one minute had Mr. Knight imagined that Noice—even Noice—could stoop so low as to use the words of a dead man against himself. Lorne’s journal was a sacred document to the Knights, and this man, if he could be called that, had taken it and twisted it and “prostituted it as a pirate would violate the chastity of a captive.”

  Imagine a person who would call another man a friend and then publicly ridicule him and call him stupid to all the world, using the man’s own words to back up his argument. Mr. Knight was glad Lorne had thrashed Noice all those years ago in the Arctic. He just wished his son were alive to thrash him again.

  “You are playing for notoriety as an explorer,” Mr. Knight concluded in a letter to him, “for fame as an author but, in view of your unmanly, dishonest, and altogether despicable conduct in this matter, I hope that the filthy lucre you acquire from this matter will choke you.”

  Mrs. Knight and Joseph both discouraged him from sending the letter, and reluctantly he sent a much tamer one in its place and presented a copy of the first to Stefansson for his opinion.

  Mrs. Knight, for her part, wanted nothing to do with the explorer. She had been hearing whispers from friends and neighbors and people about town. There were criticisms of Stefansson and many fingers pointed in his direction. She decided she did not want to see him, as she had planned to do, when he passed through Portland on a speaking engagement.

  But when Stefansson sent a copy of Lorne’s last letter to him, Mrs. Knight relented. There, in her boy’s hand, were words of loyalty and admiration for the man who had sent him north. In the face of death, Lorne had still believed in Stefansson and stood firmly by him. The Crawfords were making a bitter case against the explorer. The Knights’ mailbox was cluttered with letters from Helen Crawford, accompanied by offensive newspaper clippings underlined and marked. But Mr. Knight kept these from his wife and, remembering the words of her son, loyal and steadfast till the end, Georgia Knight decided that when Stefansson came to town she would like to see him after all.

  Professor Crawford did not want to hear of Charles Wells and the second colony of settlers sent up to take his dead son’s place. He did not ever want to hear the name Wrangel Island again. And he hoped Stefansson would stay away from Toronto. He had too many enemies there and there were too many people—the professor and his family included—who never wanted to see him again. If Stefansson insisted on coming to Canada and speaking to the Canadian Club, as he was threatening to do, Professor Crawford vowed to go to the newspapers beforehand and charge Stefansson with criminal negligence in the outfitting of the expedition. If Stefansson stayed put where he was and stopped talking of plentiful game and the necessity of a skin boat to newspapers and lecture audiences, Professor Crawford would drop the matter entirely. But if Stefansson insisted on repeating these lies, Mr. Crawford would have no choice but to come forward with charges of his own. All of this he communicated to a lawyer friend named Mr. Spence, who relayed everything to Stefansson.

  When word of the Wrangel Island tragedy first reached Britain, the government felt great relief that it had not been officially involved with Stefansson’s enterprise. The Canadian government, however, soon found itself drawn into the controversy because Crawford’s parents made it clear that they held both Canada and Stefansson jointly responsible for the loss of their son.

  The Crawfords read the published excerpts of Lorne Knight’s diary, poring over every word, every sentence mentioning Allan. When they finished, they read them again, focusing this time on the conditions of life on the island. In his interview with the Times, Stefansson had said there was plenty of game. But Knight’s diary and Allan’s last letter home clearly said game was scarce.

  Stefansson did nothing to endear himself to the Crawfords by granting an interview, just weeks after news of the Wrangel Island tragedy was released to the world, in which he once again sang the praises of the far North. It seemed he was carrying on with his mission to prove to the world that the Arctic was a Friendly Place, to dispel what he still saw as the myth of that particular polar region—that it was dangerous, that it was inhospitable—and to convince the world that Wrangel Island was a desirable commodity.

  Mrs. Crawford was becoming increasingly distraught, and Allan was all she could think about. Her daughter Marjorie and son Johnnie desperately needed her attention, and her husband worried about her, but the only distraction she found from her grief was a correspondence with the wife of one of Stefansson’s former colleagues, Dr. Rudolph Martin Anderson.

  Anderson and Stefansson had served together on two prior expeditions, most notably the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1918. While Stefansson had commanded the northern party of the venture, Dr. Anderson had directed the southern division. With the tragedy of the ship Karluk and the loss of so many expedition members, not to mention Stefansson’s poor and questionable handling of the entire situation, there was a general loss of respect for Stefansson, and Dr. Anderson distanced himself professionally. When Stefansson published his book The Friendly Arctic (1921), in which he publicly accused Anderson and some of the other scientists of mutiny, Anderson angrily severed all ties with him.

  Now his wife, Mae Belle Anderson, found herself in the role of counselor and confidante to Helen Crawford. The more Stefansson told the newspapers, and the more that was revealed about the Wrangel Island Expedition, the more the Crawfords grew increasingly disillusioned, hurt, angry, and resentful. Mrs. Anderson and her husband both had been ill treated by Stefansson over the years, and now Mrs. Crawford reached out to people who knew him far better than she to ask more about this man who had led her son to his death.

  Mrs. Crawford wrote weekly to the Andersons’ home in Ottawa, pouring out her heart to the kind and sympathetic woman on the other end. Mrs. Anderson was feisty, smart, and direct. Her words did much both to soothe and ignite Mrs. Crawford. “For some years,” Belle wrote Helen about Stefansson, “I think he has been a neurastenic monomaniac, but that he would become such a dangerous liar I never dreamed.”

  “He will almost shed tears over the loss of your boy especially if you are around to see the tears,” she wrote on another occasion, “but he will lie about him and his comrades the next minute if it suits the great ends that he has in view and feel himself a second Napolean [sic] in doing it.”

  And, she wrote, “He could have at least gone to Nome, to be sure that the best efforts were being made to rescue the boys, but he did not worry about that—all he could think of was his political schemes re. Wrangell. He never worried about any responsibility on any expedition. That is quite characteristic of him.”

  Ever since the London Times article had been released on October 9, Professor and Mrs. Crawford had been pondering a response to Stefansson’s comments with an interview or article of their own. Belle encouraged Helen to do so. “I am glad that you are a woman of spirit and intelligence as well, and can see the advisability of defending your son’s reputation. It should be done for the sake of historical accuracy if there were not another reason—to keep V. Stefansson from luring away other boys to his friendly Arctic.”

  In the Andersons’ opinion, Stefansson, as usual, was trying to brush off any responsibility or blame and “make out that Wrangell is a fine place and it was not his fault that the men perished.” He had sent them to a place where he himself would never have set foot, to live off the land, something, according to them, that he himself had never done. In their opinion, he would have starved to death in the time he spent in the Arctic, if not for the Eskimos who sustained him.

  Professor and Mrs. Crawford, meanwhile, could not understand how the Maurers and the Knights could remain so passive, so blindly and openly supportive of the man who had killed their sons. Mr. Knight answered Mrs. Crawf
ord’s impassioned, embittered letters— the ones she wrote, as she herself admitted, in the heat of anger and against the wishes of her husband—with words beseeching her to lay aside her rage and resentment, which he believed only served to make her loss more difficult to bear. The families should bind together now, not divide. “Let us devote our strength, not to hatred and resentment,” he wrote, “but to loving memory of our true and brave boys and we will be better off in the end.”

  Mr. Knight felt he had forged a bond of friendship with the families of the other men. He looked forward to their letters and to writing his letters in return to them. “They all bring to us a sound assurance,” he wrote, “that, although we have never met, we are friends.”

  He also believed the four families should set aside one day out of each year to pay tribute to the ones they had lost. “To commemorate their lives together,” he suggested to the other parents, “and on this day, each one of us write to all the others and renew our love and devotion to our heroes. We have a day that we should celebrate with a pause in our work and a tender thought for those who loved us so much and whose love we can not express except in tears.”

  They would decide together the day for the commemoration, but Mrs. Galle asked that it not be January 28, which was the day before Milton and the others had left for Siberia, and the birthday of her husband and daughter. Whichever day they chose, they would, promised Mr. Knight, “gather flowers and revel in their fragrance, imagining, if we can, that we are presenting them to our boys, never marring the occasion with resentment or hatred toward any one, and see if we can not all become better men and better women for the lives that have been given for duty.”

  The Galles continued to feel like outsiders. To them, the Arctic was and always would be a strange, remote unknown. No one had responded to Mrs. Galle’s letters regarding the mysterious article, dated August 28, which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. She had sent copies of the article to all the families involved, and had written to the Monitor herself.

  Stefansson alone dismissed the article as inconsequential, concluding that the reporter, when talking of the vanished expedition, was clearly referring to the fact that the men had not been heard from by the outside world in two years. He had absolutely no interest in pursuing the matter further.

  Eventually, an editor from the Monitor responded to the Galles with the opinion that the published date must have been a misprint. The magazine had hired a freelance reporter for the article and, the editor suggested, if Mrs. Galle had any further questions, she should address them to him.

  It was another bitter disappointment, and Alma attempted to distract herself by directing the church choir, teaching her piano students, and keeping up with her various club activities. She tried to turn her sorrow into sympathy for the other families who had lost so much, thereby lessening her pain a little. But she knew that she would never fully recover. “We regret that he went as young as he was, and therefore reproach ourselves,” she wrote Stefansson. “I do realize I could have prevented him from going, but it is such a tedious matter to write and say what we wished to express on him, as a boy of his age is often very apt to misunderstand what is really meant for his welfare. But he went and he worked and he realized and therefore I have longed more than I ever admitted to have a letter from him.”

  As he contemplated the aftermath of the Wrangel Island Expedition, Stefansson was most interested in securing Ada’s story. He was anxious to prevent Noice from feeding a sensationalized version of her account to the papers, and he sent out word to various contacts, asking them to snoop about, without mentioning his name, to determine if Ada had been approached by anyone to sell or give away the rights to her story. He even consulted the Alaska division of the U.S. Bureau of Education, which acted as the official guardian of all Eskimos, who were considered wards of the U.S. government.

  Stefansson first wrote to the Bureau at its Seattle office, asking if Ada had arrived in the city and the status of her situation. Yes, they replied, she was in Seattle. She sent a message through the Bureau thanking Stefansson for his interest in her, but saying that she had no need of any assistance at present. Stefansson fired off another telegram to the Bureau, alerting them that Ada’s personal story had potential monetary value, and that they must protect her from being exploited by Noice or anyone else. Her story should be sold for her own benefit—not Noice’s—through a good New York literary agent since New York was the literary hub of the world. Otherwise he feared that someone might influence her to sign away her rights for nothing. He believed her tale was worth several thousand dollars at least.

  Gertrude Andrus, his contact in Seattle, wired Stefansson to let him know she had tried three times to see Ada Blackjack, and had waited four hours without a glimpse of her. A man named Harvey had told her that Ada had turned her diaries over to Noice without any sort of agreement, but that she still hoped to be paid for them.

  The Alaska Division of Education wrote Stefansson shortly afterward to let him know that a series of articles by Noice in the Seattle Times included excerpts from the Ada Blackjack diary. Ada had refused the help of the Division, remaining enigmatic and elusive, but they were still planning to put forth every effort to protect her rights. In the eyes of the chief of the Division, Ada was heavily under the influence of a man named Harvey, who had worked as a waiter on the steamship Victoria, on which she had traveled to Seattle. They knew little about the man and so could not predict, at this point, whether he was working for or against Ada.

  On November 28, John Knight left McMinnville and headed to Seattle to search for Ada Blackjack. He had heard the rumors that she was in hiding, that she had retreated from the world, and that she was under bad influences there and might not be cooperative.

  The first person he met was Carl Lomen of Lomen Brothers in Nome. Carl and his brother Ralph Lomen were well respected in both Nome and Seattle, their father being the federal judge at Nome, and the brothers prominent businessmen and reindeer farmers. For Mr. Knight, it was a great pleasure to meet this man who had known his son. They sat down together and spent several hours talking of Wrangel Island and the tragedy. John Knight was invited to Lomen’s home to meet his mother and sister and to spend the evening hearing their stories about the days they had spent with Lorne, Allan, Milton, and Fred. Mother Lomen said there had never been four finer men to travel into the Arctic, and she began to cry when she spoke of them.

  They talked till well past midnight, and it felt good to Mr. Knight to speak of his son with people who had known him in the context of Arctic explorer. It was one thing to receive condolences and good wishes from neighbors and friends who had known Lorne as motorcycle policeman, chief of police, or the son of John and Georgia Knight. It was another to speak with those who recognized him as an experienced and savvy Arctic explorer and who had appreciated the qualities in him that Stefansson had acknowledged—vigor, unflappable calm, and levelheadedness.

  Carl Lomen warned Mr. Knight that Ada was refusing to see anyone, even her most trusted friends. She had placed Bennett in a local hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. She did not want advice or assistance and seemed to want to be left alone, except for the company of the mysterious W. Harvey. Lomen wished Mr. Knight luck getting an interview with her, but thought it unlikely. Others had tried to talk to her, but she “closed up like a clam and refused to answer questions and became like a wooden Indian.”

  He would look for this Harvey person first, Mr. Knight decided, since he seemed to have Ada under a sort of hold. He went to the address he had been given, posing as a representative from a publishing company, but Harvey wasn’t there. Nor was he in the neighborhood. No one he asked had even heard of Harvey.

  Next he went to the Bureau of Education, where he was given the same address for Ada that Lomen had given him, and told by a man named Sinclair that he would be happy to have Harvey picked up by the police if they could come up with a reason. The man was bad news, Sinclair s
aid, and a friend of Ada’s brother-in-law. They were bootlegging and everyone knew about it, Sinclair claimed, adding that he had found Ada drunk on more than one occasion.

  Mr. Knight began his search for her at a run-down shack on Eighth Avenue, where he’d heard she was living. For two days, he hovered around the filthy place, waiting for someone to come home. On the second day, he ran into a Swedish man who said he had lived in the shack for the past five years and had never heard of Ada Blackjack.

  Mr. Knight returned to his room and called the hospital where Bennett was staying. The people on the other end passed him from one person to another until, at last, someone cooperated and gave him a telephone number and an address. When he called, the landlady who answered announced that Ada was not there and hung up on him. Not trusting her tone, he headed down to the place in person and banged on the landlady’s door. When she didn’t answer, he barged in and said he needed Ada’s correct address or he would have the woman arrested, and so she relented.

  He raced to the rooming house where Ada was living and knocked loudly on her door. No answer. The landlord stood watching and promised to talk to Ada when she came in and to give her the message that Mr. Knight had been to see her. He would call at the Savoy Hotel, where Mr. Knight was staying, to let him know when Ada would be available to see him.

  When the landlord hadn’t called by Sunday, Mr. Knight again went to Ada’s rooming house and rapped on her door. When there was again no answer, he roused the landlord and made him call to Ada through the door, to tell her he needed to talk to her. From inside the room, there was a muffled sound and then a faint voice. She would not get up, she said. Through the wood of the door, Mr. Knight shouted to her that he was Lorne’s father, come all the way from McMinnville, Oregon, to see her and to thank her for doing all she could for his boy.

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