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


  Explorers counted on selling books and stories about their travels and adventures. Theyearned their money—sometimes thousands of dollars— from publishing diaries, giving lectures and slide shows, and traveling about, talking to anyone who would pay them to hear about their exploits. Stefansson was no different in relying upon this option, but Noice had taken it away from him. Noice may have cornered and won the newspaper market, but Stefansson would win the race in the book world.

  Stefansson wrote to Mr. Knight to let him know he would soon be sending him a copy of his son’s journal, which was written in two volumes and which Noice indeed did finally send him. And then Stefansson began to read through it—only to find much of it obliterated. Thirty-eight pages in all from Volume I were missing, and an additional ten pages were missing from Volume II. Dark, angry pencil scratches slashed through the text, blackening whole passages here and there, and the last entry, dated March 23, 1923, was torn off in mid-sentence. Stefansson immediately wrote another letter to Mr. Knight, warning him of the diary’s condition.

  The Knights received a typed copy in early January of 1924 and immediately sat down to read it. It was at once heartbreaking and comforting to read Lorne’s words. But the erasures, the torn pages, the obliterations were shocking, even though Stefansson had given them notice. It was such a betrayal and desecration of their elder son. Why would anyone have done this?

  On February 4, Mr. Knight received an envelope in the mail from Noice. Inside were pages 9–14, 19–22, 27–40, and 45–46 of Volume I, most of which dealt with Ada’s refusal to work and attempts made by the men to punish her. No mention was made of why Noice had originally removed the pages or why, after taking such time and care to destroy them, he had decided to reunite them with the diary. And no mention at all was made of the last ten pages of Volume II, which were still missing.

  The parents of Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle set aside September 1 as the day to commemorate the memory of the four young men. Since it was the anniversary of the day they had learned about the loss of their sons, it seemed the most appropriate date for a memorial. On January 1, 1924, Mr. Knight typed up the document and then he and Georgia and Joseph signed their names to it. He sent it on to the Crawfords next, and then to the Maurers, and finally to the Galles.

  “We hereby designate the First day of September of each year,” the agreement stated, “and we dedicate it as a day on which we shall commemorate the lives and deeds of our heroes, Allan Crawford, E. Lorne Knight, Frederick Maurer, and Milton Galle by each writing, on that day, letters to the others and, when possible, bestowing flowers upon some invalid in their names, thus keeping alive, in a fitting manner, the loving memory of those who perished doing their dutyin the interest of the advancement of civilization.”

  J. T., Helen, and Marjorie Crawford, David and Mary Maurer, their children John, Joseph, and Kate, as well as Delphine Maurer, and Harry, Alma, Alfred, and Elsie Galle each added their names to the list.

  Ada Blackjack met Vilhjalmur Stefansson for the first time in January 1924, when he passed through Seattle. August Masik and Aarnout Castel, former members of his 1913–1918 expedition, escorted her, along with Bennett, to Stefansson’s hotel. The first thing she asked him was whether he believed that Crawford, Galle, and Maurer were safe somewhere in Siberia. When he told her it was unlikely, Ada fell silent. She still could not accept the fact that they were dead.

  Ada and Stefansson met again over the next several days, and each time she was more adamant. Crawford and the others were prisoners in Siberia. She was sure of it. Or else they had been murdered upon setting foot on land.

  Mr. Knight had warned Stefansson about Ada’s reticence. Stefansson now told her of a book he was writing about Wrangel Island and the expedition, but she was wary about being interviewed. He offered her a share of his royalties, should the book do as well as he expected, but this still didn’t sway her. It was only after she had spent some time with him and felt more secure and safe with him that she began to talk more freely. She did better on a one-on-one basis, he noticed. She resisted anything that seemed like a direct interrogation, so Stefansson soon learned to sit very silent so that she would open up.

  The point Stefansson was most interested in was whether or not Ada knew anything about the missing and mutilated pages in Lorne Knight’s diary. Noice had claimed, at first, that Ada was responsible, even though he had told both Carl Lomen and A. J. T. Taylor in September that he planned to censor the journal. When Noice was reminded of this, he retracted his story and said, instead, that while he was responsible for a portion of the diary’s mutilation, it was Ada who had removed the ten missing pages. He had blacked out select passages, but she had destroyed the rest to hide her guilt from the world.

  When Stefansson asked Ada about the journal, she looked up at him quizzically through solemn brown eyes. There were no missing pages when she gave the book to Mr. Noice, she was sure of it.

  Was it possible that Knight could have torn the pages out himself?

  “I will tell you I’m sure that Mr. Knight did not torn the leafs off his diary,” she answered. “I don’t know what the people are doing against me anyway. I’m just telling all I know and all I seed and I cannot do more than that.”

  * * *

  January 1924

  Dear Ada:

  I have had a great desire to meet and speak to you. Mr. Knight has written us about ...what you told him about the boys and some of the things that happened while on Wrangell Island, and he was so good as to mention to us that you thought Milton was such a jolly and considerate fellow. I could ask you a lot of questions could I speak to you, for I am longing to know a great many more things of him. Do you know if he wrote home often? Was he always happy or did you sometimes notice that he was quiet and thoughtful? What do you remember about the day they left for the ice trip? Do you suppose they really believed it was safe for them to make the trip? Were they strong and healthy when they left or were they weakened from lack of proper food? Did Milton say nothing to you as a message to us, should he not return? And do you know if Milton really did not have a letter for us?

  I know I am asking a lot of you, to answer all these questions, but I am as homesick as ever for him.

  Mr. Galle, our daughter Elsie, and son Alfred and I wish to extend to you our thanks for all you did for the boys and for Milton and for what you may write and say to us about him.I am sending you under separate cover a little remembrance for yourself and son. We hope you will always remember Milton and his mother who sent it.

  Mrs. Galle

  Seattle

  Jan 30 1924

  606 Columbia St

  Dear Mrs. Galle

  I received your nice presents to me yesterday and Bennetts presents Oh my Bennett was very glad about his cup that you sent to him And he ask me who sent me this cup Ma and I told him that Mrs Galle and he said I thank her very much And as soon as I got my presents I went over to my sister and saw it to her and she was very thank for many nice presents from people

  I thank you very much for the presents I didn’t have much to say Close with best wishes

  Very truly

  Mrs. Ada Blackjack.

  * * *

  Chapter Eighteen

  FRANCES ALLISON NOICE, “Fanny” to family and friends, was at least ten years older than her husband and had already been married four times. Her own brother, John Allison, thought her mentally and emotionally unstable, but Noice couldn’t see past his love for her. She was sophisticated and smart and beautiful, a talented writer and musician. She had taken an enormous interest in the Wrangel Island Expedition and had helped him sort through the diaries of Lorne Knight and Ada Blackjack.

  Yet as soon as she became involved in her husband’s work, Frances began to resent his initial heroic depiction of Ada Blackjack. Ada was no hero, in Frances’s opinion, especially considering her shadyreputation in Nome before joining up with the expedition, and her efforts to throw herself at Crawford and the o
thers. The more Noice glowed about Ada in print, the more jealous Frances became. She decided that Ada was an evil person and that she had been taken to Wrangel Island for depraved, immoral purposes by those four young men. Frances even suspected her husband and Ada had been involved romantically and sexually on the voyage home.

  At first, Frances asked her brother to contact Thomas Dibble, the city editor of the New York Evening Journal, to write a derogatory piece on Ada Blackjack and her own husband. When Dibble refused, Frances turned to her father, millionaire banker William O. Allison, asking him to do a bit of detective work for her. She wanted a background check and character report on Noice.

  The strain took its toll on their young marriage, and Noice and Frances separated briefly. It was not the first time Noice had dealt with Fanny’s unreasonable jealousy or paranoid imaginings about other people, but he loved her and simply decided she was not well. He told himself she would get over it.

  When Noice proposed an exploratory trip down to South America, Frances agreed to reconcile and they planned excitedlyfor the expedition. She would write while Noice took moving pictures. Noice asked John Allison to accompany him to the Fort Lee Processing Labs in New Jersey, where he tried out a camera and purchased it. While they viewed their projected test images, Noice told John that Fanny’s ideas about Ada Blackjack were all in her head and “her statements concerning the matter sheer poppycock.”

  There was apparently an awful scene as Noice and Frances boarded the ship for South America, and not long after, John Allison received a hastily scrawled statement in the mail. It was from Noice—or so it said—and in it he withdrew everything he had said at the processing lab about Ada Blackjack and Wrangel Island and changed his story to suit Fanny’s. “Knowing my sister well,” John Allison wrote, “this note bore the signs of having been dictated by her. A case of ‘you do what I say and write this, or else.’ ” Allison gave no heed to the note, but he did pity Noice. All who knew Fanny realized she needed to dominate everyone and do her best to control their every thought, feeling, or action.

  She was determined that Noice should not celebrate a woman who, in her estimation, had so shamelessly chased those four tragic young men and who had done nothing to save Lorne Knight as he lay dying. He should not persist in writing words of praise about such a barbarian. Frances made it clear to her husband that either he must tell the world what she considered the real story of Ada Blackjack, or she would go public with it herself—from the protestations of passion for Crawford to the shameful punishments inflicted upon her by the men.

  Noice knew his wife had worked up an irrational jealousy of Ada. He knew it was silly for her to be jealous, but there was no wayof explaining that to Frances and making her understand. He also knew that she was serious in her threats.

  Noice was showing promise as an explorer and writer, but Frances was determined that he should have no chance at either. Even during their temporary separations, she did everything she could to ruin him and his career. And so she wrote to Stefansson, who, it was widely known, was having problems of his own with Noice.

  Frances arranged a meeting with Stefansson and invited her brother John to join them. Sitting at the luncheon, it was hard for John to believe that anyone could take his sister’s wild, unfounded accusations and ideas seriously, but Stefansson seemed to accept them readily and willingly. “I sensed,” John wrote afterward, “a kind of conspiracy between Frances and Stefansson to ruin Noice’s career.”

  There were still painful tubercular lesions on Bennett’s chest and neck, and he was drawn, pale, and weak. The doctors had released him from the hospital, unable to do anything more for him. Ada had hoped for a miracle, but instead the progress was slow, the prognosis uncertain.

  There was a friend of Stefansson’s who was living in Seattle but who planned to travel to California and had invited Ada and Bennett to join her. Her name was Inglis Fletcher, but everyone called her Peggy, and she was a novelist and a great, exuberant, laughing woman. Peggy had met Stefansson in Washington during World War I while she was working for the Red Cross. He had encouraged her to write and she had never forgotten his friendship. She even became his lecture agent at his request.

  Ada usually did not care much for women, but she liked this one. Mrs. Fletcher was forty-four years old and had a son who was nearly Bennett’s age and who had also been seriously ill. When Mrs. Fletcher showed a true and deep interest in Bennett’s health, Ada couldn’t help but like her. Bennett was the most important part of Ada’s life, and being a good mother was, to her, the most important work.

  At first, however, Ada turned down the invitation. She did not want to make another long trip to yet another strange and unfamiliar place, and she was anxious to return to Alaska. In Seattle, at least, she knew her sister and her brother-in-law, and the Lomens, and Harvey, but in California she would only have Peggy Fletcher. So Ada said no. But when Bennett’s doctors assured her that it would be good for the boy to have sunshine in February and a fresh change of scenery, and that it would help him to heal, she reconsidered.

  Mrs. Fletcher was planning to visit some friends in Los Angeles who were the owners of Bennett’s favorite canine movie hero, Strongheart. They lived on a farm outside Hollywood, where Bennett could run and walk and play in the sunshine. Stefansson was anxious for Peggy to befriend Ada, to interview her, to get her story down on paper. He had already commissioned Ada’s old friend Marshal Jordan, Nome’s chief of police, to talk to her and to type up the account, and this he did when he came down to Seattle. Afterward, Jordan managed to convince Ada, on Stefansson’s behalf, to sell the rights to her diary and papers to Stefansson for $500. Ada wasn’t sure what it was she was selling, but there was such pressure to do it and there was money being offered—quite a lot all at once—and so it was hard to refuse. She was told simply that she must sign here and here and then money would be hers, and so she did. Peggy Fletcher asked an attorney friend of hers in Spokane to draw up a document to make it official.

  Mrs. Fletcher had arranged with Stefansson to pay for Ada’s trip, but Ada changed her mind about traveling a dozen or so times before she and Mrs. Fletcher actually left, deciding alternately that she would go and that it was “too much trouble to go on trip.” When she had once again determined to accept the invitation, she went with Bennett to the New Washington Hotel in Seattle to see Mrs. Fletcher and talk about what she should pack. There was much Ada needed for herself and for Bennett. She wanted a new dress and some shoes, and she thought Bennett should have a suit. She and Peggy Fletcher talked about the kind of clothes Ada would need in the warm California climate, but when Peggy pulled on her coat so that they could go shopping, Ada said again that it was too much trouble to go on the trip. She would need too many clothes and was afraid of looking shabby and destitute.

  When Peggy assured her that the dress she was wearing would be just perfect for the boat, Ada was disappointed. She was painfully self-conscious about the fact that her clothes were tatty and that she believed she was too dark-skinned and uncultured for the white man’s world. Sensing this, Peggy took her arm and led her to the street below so that they could browse the Seattle stores. If Ada wanted a new dress before sailing, she would get one.

  Down on the street, Ada once again worried about the trip. It was too much trouble and too much anxiety, and she didn’t understand all that would need to be done. She seemed helpless and frightened and close to tears, and before Peggy could stop her, she hurried off in the rain with Bennett. Peggy strode after them until she caught up and tried to persuade Ada to let her take them home in a cab so that Bennett could get out of the wet and the cold, but Ada kept walking.

  Something more was clearly troubling Ada, but Peggy Fletcher could not figure out what it was. She could talk to Ada, but she was afraid that she wouldn’t get very far. She could tell Ada was not ready to open up, and Peggy did not want to risk scaring her awaycompletely. But the older woman was determined to win the younger woman’s trust,
not because she had promised Stefansson, but because there was something about Ada that made Peggy want to help her.

  Peggy walked over to Fredrick and Nelsons, where she bought a suit, a pair of coveralls, a pair of rompers, stockings, and a hat for Bennett. She phoned Ada at her rooming house afterward, but when Ada did not answer Peggy arranged to have the clothes delivered to her room.

  If Ada decided to join Peggy on the boat the next day, it would be wonderful. If not, Peggy did not want to press her anymore than she already had. She would buy Ada and Bennett one-way tickets, which would total $80, and then help them arrange to come back on another boat for less money. Later that evening, Peggy dined with friends, and when she was finished there was a message awaiting her from Ada. She had received the lovely clothes for Bennett and thought, if she had something new and suitable to wear herself, she would like to go to California after all.

  The next day, Peggy Fletcher gave Ada $20, and with this Ada purchased a handsome suitcase, two pairs of tan stockings, a pair of shoes with straps, two cotton blouses, and a navy serge suit. She was short ten cents when she made her final purchase, the suitcase, but the clerk waved her away and told her not to mind. Now Ada would be equipped for her journey.

  The landlord and landlady at the rooming house were happyto see Ada go. She had kept her room like a pig, the landlady said, with furs draped around the floor. And a man, whose name they didn’t want to mention, had brought her booze some nights until Ada could be heard screaming drunkenly“like an animal,” and waking the neighbors.

  On February 7, Ada and Bennett joined PeggyFletcher on the Emma Alexander, run by the Admiral Line of the Pacific Steamship Company. Peggy was relieved when the ship pulled away from the dock with Ada safely on it, and unable to change her mind once more. But Ada was glad to be going. She had not said a word to her sisters about the trip because she didn’t see them much anymore. They made her feel as much like a sideshow curiosity as the reporters and the gawkers. They stared at her as if expecting her to look different and they asked her for money too often now. While she didn’t mind giving them a dollar or two, she did not like to keep handing out forty or fifty. She had only wanted to be alone in Seattle, while Bennett healed, but there was never any peace. Now she would go to Los Angeles, where she and her son could try again to start anew.

 
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