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


  Wells and his companions were assured that they would not be harmed, but they were immediately placed under arrest by the Soviet guards. On Wrangel Island, the Russian flag was raised, and $10,000 worth of furs was confiscated. After a month spent conducting scientific work on the island, the Russians sailed back to Vladivostok with their prisoners.

  The news made headlines. “Soviet officials,” wrote the New York Evening Post, “express keen satisfaction over the success of the expedition on the armed transport Red October, in planting the red flag on Wrangel Island, off Northern Siberia, taking formal possession. They believe this action will settle the status of the island, which has been in dispute for more than half a century.”

  While imprisoned, Charles Wells died of pneumonia, and at least one of the Eskimo children perished. The Eskimos who survived were deported to China, where they were detained at Sui Fen Ho and held until arrangements could be made to retrieve them and pay their expenses home. Eventually, they were brought back to Alaska through the efforts of the American Red Cross, who intervened on their behalf by transmitting a check to the Chinese for $1,600.

  When the news reached New Braunfels, Alma Galle felt a new kind of exasperation and helplessness. The Russians would have removed any remaining signs or clues of her son’s party. They might have destroyed evidence or documents or belongings simply to be rid of them, or they might have taken them as souvenirs.

  Perhaps it was ridiculous to hold out hope, when the other families had long since given up. Perhaps she was foolish to have put such faith in every little glimmer, like the Christian Science Monitor article with its curious and suspicious date, or the psychic her sister Maggie consulted who had predicted Milton would be coming home. She supposed it was wasteful to study maps late into the night and read everything she could find to try to understand the currents of the sea surrounding Wrangel Island. But there had been a ship, the Maud, which had drifted between the island and Siberia. Her geographical map showed that the Maud might have taken the same path as Milton and the others when they set off on their trek. Perhaps someone aboard had seen something...

  Harry Galle wrote to Captain Louis Lane, just to be certain that the men found on Herald Island were in fact members of the earlier expedition. Lane wrote back to confirm that they were.

  On September 1, 1924, the first letter of commemoration arrived in New Braunfels. As agreed upon, each family exchanged a letter or note honoring the anniversary of the deaths of Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle. Fred Maurer’s parents wrote first: “It has been a year of anxiety, of hopes and fears—not only for our boys in the North, but for each other as well. May we hear from you as often as you feel like writing for it does help bear our great loss.”

  There was apparently great excitement in the Knight household because Stefansson had hired Joseph as his secretary, which meant their younger son would be traveling across the United States and Canada the following winter on Stefansson’s Chautauqua tour, just as Milton Galle had done. They felt the experience would be a good one for him.

  “We have never seen you but we have felt your sympathetic heart throbs and the scalding of your tears and we know that we are kindred in one great sorrow,” the Knights’ letter to the Galles began. “Let us be consoled in the fact that, they were four men of the quality seldom found, 100 per cent men, they were all equally brave and fearless in the discharge of their duty and they have left a record which bestows glory on them.”

  “Our thoughts have been with you all,” wrote Professor and Mrs. Crawford, “and with the members of the other bereaved families throughout this day—the first anniversary of the day when the cruel news of the loss of our gallant boys came.”

  “We must all try to be as happy as we can under the circumstances and see love in everything and every body for our boys sake,” read the letter from Delphine Maurer. “We must all go on and try to think of them as just ‘being away,’ for really that is all there is to it after all and some day we will join them.”

  For the first time, Alma had to admit to herself that they would probably never know just what had happened to Milton and the others. She and his father would most likely spend the rest of their lives wondering how and when and where Sohnie had died. There was no death date to commemorate, no burial place at which to mourn, no peace of mind for a mother who was haunted at night bythe possibility of a son’s painful, lingering death. Each time she visited the graves of her parents, she wished for a grave for Milton, on which to plant some flowers.

  “It is not a ‘Friendly Arctic’ in which Wrangel Island lies,” she wrote to friends, “and it may sound bitter... when I say I wish it had never been discovered.”

  On October 19, 1924, Noice and his attorney offered Stefansson a retraction to publish in his book about Wrangel Island. Noice was willing to admit that he had exaggerated certain facts. In exchange, he asked that Stefansson refrain from publishing certain charges and evidence against him.

  Noice knew that Stefansson could and would ruin him if he didn’t cooperate. Joseph Bernard, who had led the unsuccessful relief trip to the island in 1922, said that Stefansson claimed to have threatened Noice until he gave up the pages torn out of Knight’s diary. And there were rumors that Stefansson and his friends at the Explorers’ Club in New York had forced Noice’s hand in writing the retraction with the threat of expulsion from the club. Whether they were bluffing or not, Noice was an easily influenced young man. His own lawyer advised Noice to throw himself on Stefansson’s mercy and ask his forgiveness. It would be better for Noice, in the long run, than holding to the lies he had fabricated about Ada or even to the truths—such as the fact that the men had left the island because they were starving—that he had promoted. The attorney tried to convince Frances Noice, too, that it was the only course of action, but she refused to see the sense in it.

  It was easier to give in by this point than to fight Stefansson any longer, and Noice was tired of fighting. He believed that Stefansson was jealous that he had gotten to the story first. Stefansson had certainly shown, with the Karluk escapade, that he had no qualms about exploiting the words of dead men. After their deaths, he had twisted the words of several late members of his past expedition, including one particular instance in which he was accused of creating a diary from thin air. Noice believed that if Stefansson was truly upset about something, it wasn’t that Lorne Knight had been exploited. It was that someone else had done the exploiting—and reaped the benefits—first.

  Others suspected this, too. Mae Belle Anderson remarked to Mrs. Crawford that, “In Noice’s favour can be said that he has beaten Stefansson at his own game by methods which he learned from Stefansson himself. Again and again Stefansson has stolen material just as Noice has done this time.”

  Noice had idolized Stefansson—until he had served under him in 1916. But now there was nothing but deep resentment, hurt, humiliation, and fear.

  Noice had told Frances certain things about Ada Blackjack and the men—things he knew weren’t true, but then he hadn’t expected her to mention them outside the marriage. When she insisted on publishing the “truth,” Noice hadn’t been able to tell her he had made it up.

  But now he was prepared to make amends by admitting publicly and officially that Ada Blackjack was, in fact, a hero, and that he had created scandal out of thin air. Frances, of course, was disgusted, and left him, once and for all. There would be no more reconciliations between them.

  Noice and Fanny parted ways in Brazil. She left him nothing except a return ticket, and he went back to New York, penniless and distraught. He had been working on a book about the Wrangel Island Expedition, and had destroyed the manuscript just to make Frances happy. But that wasn’t enough to placate her, so he found himself with no moneymaking ventures up his sleeve, except a few motion picture films he had taken in the Arctic and on other travels. He shopped these around, but could find no takers.

  Noice was now completely alone in every way. His wife had left him, his fr
iends had deserted him, his colleagues had shunned him, and the promising career he had been building for himself was crumbling. Also gone were his integrity, pride, and self-respect.

  After he returned from Brazil, he contacted Stefansson and asked for an interview. But at that interview, he went beyond simply repudiating the stories he had invented. He yielded to the pressure of Stefansson’s influence and threats, and retracted the facts he sincerely believed to be true and which Stefansson disagreed with—namely, that the men were starving when they left Wrangel Island for Siberia.

  “I am glad to take this opportunity of correcting some misjudgments,” Noice began. He was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, he said, brought on by the severe pain of his dislocated shoulder and the agonizing operation he had undergone to have the shoulder reset. He emphasized his “nervous condition,” his “nervous prostration,” the “nervous strain” he had been under at the time of reporting the Wrangel Island news. The nerves were apparently due to many factors—the pain of his shoulder, the anxietyover the outfitting and departure of the relief expedition, the threats made by the Russians, the pressure to reach Wrangel Island, and the shock of the tragedy he discovered once there.

  He also felt he had a right to Knight’s diary because he had found it, which, to him, meant that he could do exactly as he pleased with it, including selling it and altering its content.

  Noice now said exactly what Stefansson wanted him to—that Maurer and Knight were not really inexperienced; there had been no shortage of food, which led to that final, fateful attempt to reach Siberia—never mind that Maurer’s farewell letter to Delphine had clearly cited lack of food as their reason for leaving; and they had probably died a very fast and painless death, not like the different scenarios he had proposed earlier.

  “My complete breakdown,” he concluded, “followed soon after the publication of the original long and detailed newspaper story and its approach must have been the cause of what I later printed and which I was then convinced I was justified by Knight’s and Ada Blackjack’s diaries. I sincerely regret that any false impressions have been given and humbly apologize for myerrors.”

  After the retraction was written, Noice signed his apology before witnesses—Stefansson, Isaiah Bowman, H. M. Brigham, and young Joseph Knight, working as Stefansson’s secretary.

  According to Stefansson, Noice urged him, of his own volition, to publish his retraction in the Wrangel Island book, so that the world could read the truth, once and for all. A triumphant Stefansson not only included the retraction in his manuscript, but spent a good part of the book discussing it.

  With the Noice retraction, Stefansson expected that Professor and Mrs. Crawford would change their minds about refusing to contribute to his book in any way. He sent them the manuscript, hoping they would read it. If Noice hadn’t painted Knight and Maurer, the two seasoned veterans, as being so inexperienced and incompetent, Stefansson reasoned, the Crawfords would not have been so upset about the fact that he had sent young Allan north with them. Now Stefansson expected to be forgiven.

  But in their eyes, the Noice retraction changed nothing. It only served as proof of Stefansson’s great and harmful influence on others. However, Professor and Mrs. Crawford did agree—reluctantly—to read the manuscript, if only to guard themselves and their son against any further misrepresentation.

  In October 1924, Professor Crawford wrote to A. J. T. Taylor with his criticisms. There were many statements contained therein with which they did not agree—particularlythose beginning “the relatives and myself are of the opinion...” or “Of course the relatives and myself are of the opinion...” The Crawfords resented the implication that they would ever—or had ever—agreed with Stefansson on anything, and wired their objection directly to Stefansson’s publisher, the Macmillan Company, saying, “We now think it much wiser to specify by name the relatives to whom the author refers.”

  Stefansson thought their reaction pitiable. If onlyhe had “as sympathetic cooperation from Mr. and Mrs. Crawford as I have from the other relatives I could make for Allan a place in Canadian history that would not onlybe his trulybut would also be a solace to his parents.”

  He needed their permission to print Allan’s last letters to them and to him. He felt the letters should be included in the book, but he was afraid of a lawsuit, should he publish without the parents’ consent. Belle Anderson wholeheartedly supported Mrs. Crawford’s wish not to contribute to the book in any way. “If Stefansson gets hold of a line of your son’s letter for publication in his book,” she wrote, “it means that you endorse the book. You may not think that, but everyone who reads the book will think so, and you join the other relatives in white-washing Stefansson and showing that it was pure accident that caused the death of the boys and not his mismanagement. I feel strongly that the letter of so honourable and gallant a lad as Allan Crawford deserves a more honourable and better place for publication than in any book written byStefansson.”

  After the manuscript underwent some edits, the Crawfords were alerted that much of what they considered objectionable had been altered. Professor Crawford excused himself from reading the edited manuscript, as he did not “think it wise to do so.” Furthermore, Professor Crawford wrote Mr. Taylor, “You claim that the manuscript has been re-written and objectionable matter eliminated. Does the objectionable matter eliminated include these statements which give the impression that the boys’ salaries have been paid? While on this subject it is rather a coincidence that this Sunday just one year ago, you telephoned me to the effect that the debt owing to our late son would be paid ‘about February.’ ”

  Stefansson had asked each family to write a biographical sketch of the young man they had lost. Of course, the Crawfords refused, and so he found himself with bios of Knight, Maurer, and Galle, but nothing about Allan Crawford. He did not want to publish sketches of all the men but one, and so he would omit them.

  He could resolve himself to this, but before the book was published, there was just one more missing piece that he needed to find.

  In December 1924, Peggy Fletcher, setting out on a mission for her friend Stefansson, found Ada Blackjack living in a squalid little place in Seattle. There was just one room, with a partial kitchen jutting dismally off it. The high spirits and effervescence Peggyhad witnessed in Ada on the trip to California were missing, and a definite gloom hung about her now. She seemed heartbroken and lonely, but she was glad to see Mrs. Fletcher, and so was Bennett.

  To Peggy’s surprise, there was a new baby, just two months old, on whom Ada obviously doted. His name, Ada said, was Billy, but Peggy didn’t know if the father was Harvey or someone else. She noticed a man’s coat hanging on the back of the door, and when she asked if the baby’s father helped her out any, Ada said yes. “Is he still on the boat?” Peggy asked.

  “Yes,” Ada answered again.

  But then she said no more. Peggy took the three of them outside for a walk, even though the temperature hovered near zero. Neither Ada nor Bennett had gloves, so Peggystopped and bought them some, and also some toys for the children for Christmas. Ada was still anxious about her diary. She wanted very badly to have it back and asked Mrs. Fletcher repeatedly to please look into it for her. Ada exhibited none of her old enthusiasm or cheer, but Bennett, at least, seemed more fit and robust since the last time Peggy had seen him.

  Stefansson had asked Peggy to get a statement from Ada about the missing pages in Knight’s diary, but this time he wanted her words written down, in her own handwriting. Peggy took Ada and the children to her hotel for a hot lunch, and while they were there she asked Ada to write down her words. She tried to treat the matter casually because she knew Ada might resist otherwise. Ada wrote a few lines on a piece of hotel stationery: “I never show the Knights dairy since Mr. Noise got to dairy. I didn’t tear the leaf out of it and I didn’t read it.”

  Afterward, Peggy sent Ada and the children home in a taxi. Then she returned to her hotel room and wrote
a letter to Stefansson about her visit. She included the note from Ada and sent it registered mail to Stefansson so that he could publish it in his book.

  The next day, Peggy went to visit Ada again, and when the landlord rapped against Ada’s door and announced that Mrs. Fletcher was there to see her, there was a shout from Bennett on the other side: “Oh! It’s Mrs. Fletcher! It’s Mrs. Fletcher!” Then there was the sound of running feet, and Ada throwing open the door with a smile on her face.

  There was more that Stefansson needed to know, and Peggy had promised him she would do her best. She knew it was important that the entire Wrangel Island story was told, and that included Ada’s viewpoint, but she knew, too, to be as natural as possible with Ada, so that she didn’t trigger her usual suspicions. Peggy sat down with Bennett on her knee and told Ada there was some information Stefansson wondered about. Did the men take any specimens or rocks away with them from the island, that sort of thing. Ada didn’t remember, but thought Knight might have brought some back from a trip to the interior of the island.

  Peggy nodded and listened and bounced Bennett on her knee as she scribbled a few notes. Ada walked up and down, trying to quiet the baby, who wouldn’t stop crying. She talked to Peggy over the noise as she remembered things.

  Afterward, Peggy took her notes back to the hotel and sealed the envelope immediately. There could be no notary public or attorney present because Ada would only close her mouth and refuse to saya word, so this was the best way to get the information to Stefansson as accurately as possible.

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