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


  Times were hard for everyone in New Braunfels, and the Galles were no exception. There was little work for a house painter, but Harry had finally been able to secure a job in east Texas, some 380 miles from their home. Alma missed him while he was away, but she hoped that the new year—1933—would bring better luck for them.

  Instead, Harry underwent a cataract operation that was unsuccessful, and he became completely blind in one eye. By1933, he was blind in both eyes and unable to earn a living. Somehow, they managed to get by, and Elsie and Alfred both graduated from college at the University of Texas in Austin.

  In December of 1933, there was, at last, a piece of good news. A letter had been found by Russian colonists on Wrangel Island—just a small scrap of paper that appeared to be quite old. It contained directions, and words of work that had been done, efforts that had been made, and faith in a leader who had never come. But there had been expectation, not only that this leader would join them, but that all of their hard work and effort would be rewarded some day. It was signed Milton Galle, and, while it wasn’t the last letter his mother had been hoping for, it was a piece of him come home.

  After the publication of The Adventure of Wrangel Island in 1925, Harold Noice seemed to disappear. Friends stopped hearing from him and even the Explorers Club eventually lost touch with him. But in 1939, a book by Noice entitled Back of Beyond was published by Putnam. It detailed an expedition to the Upper Amazon to photograph a remote native tribe named the Pogsas, whom the flyleaf described as “strange, completely primitive dwarfs of the deepest jungle.”

  It was an engaging page-turner, filled with sensational tales of cannibalism, hurricanes, poisoned darts, tribal rites, flesh-eating plants, hostile peoples, the bleached bones of a white man, and the fleeing for his life of the author. Noice was forty-three years old at the time of the book’s publication, and it seemed that he had reemerged from the public humiliation and scandal of his earlier years with some success.

  There was a radio serial running—“The Black Flame of the Amazon”—which was based on Noice’s experiences in Back of Beyond. He contributed articles to the American Anthropologist and even directed a few short pictures in Hollywood.

  But the Wrangel Island disgrace would never completely escape him.

  On July 16, 1937, Stefansson and Carl Lomen toured the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. Stefansson was in a hurry and asked the guide to show them only the most interesting points, as he needed to leave in half an hour. Stefansson found the tour fascinating, particularly the crime laboratory. He asked to speak to one of the handwriting experts and was introduced to the man in charge of the technical laboratory, a man named E. P. Coffey. Stefansson told Coffey that he possessed a diary of an Arctic explorer who had died in 1923, but that the document had been mutilated byanother member of the expedition. Could he send this diary to the Bureau so that they could attempt to decipher the original writing?

  After the tour, Stefansson and Lomen were brought to Director J. Edgar Hoover’s office, where Stefansson and Hoover discussed the matter in detail. Stefansson had removed one of the leaves from the diary himself and sent it to Hamburg, where a specialist in the field of criminal falsifications of documents, Dr. Rudolf Kraul, Department Director of the Chemische Staats-Laboratorium, had been studying the document for a year, trying to decipher the blacked-out writing. Dr. Kraul had contacted Stefansson after reading The Adventure of Wrangel Island, volunteering his expertise.

  Before Kraul, a team from Harvard’s Fogg Museum had made their own attempt to restore the obliterated words. They worked with a sample page first, using similar paper to that in Knight’s diary, which theygentlysponged with ethylene dichloride, to dissolve surface pencil marks and allow the original impressions to appear. Afterward, the paper was sponged with a mixture of zinc oxide and ethylene dichlo-ride, which reduced the shine, and then the paper was placed between two pieces of plate glass and photographed with the illumination of a microscopic lamp. They tried both optical and chemical methods, but the museum, like Kraul, had to admit defeat, and the most they had been able to restore was the time of day of the entryStefansson had sent them.

  J. Edgar Hoover was delighted to help, and asked that the manuscript be sent to him. It then took two years before Dr. Kraul finished his own examination of the material and returned it to Stefansson, who then forwarded the sample page and specimen photographs to Hoover. By October 1939, the Bureau had deciphered at least a dozen words. To do more, they told Stefansson, they would need the preceding page where they might find telling indentations from the original writing, and they would also perform a treatment with photographic plates. But E. P. Coffey made it clear to Stefansson that, while they would give him their technical assistance in deciphering the pages, the FBI would not undertake an official investigation into the matter. Coffey and Hoover knew of Stefansson’s reputation and were well aware that “he is prone to use situations to his own advantage wherever possible.”

  The Fogg Museum was still in possession of Volume I of Knight’s diary, which they promptly transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The original Volume II was still with the Knight family in McMinnville, and Stefansson asked them to send it to the Bureau for study. The Knights agreed readily, and forwarded the journal, with its loose binding and separated pages, to Washington.

  The passages had been deleted with careful calculation. A rubber eraser and a soft pencil were the weapons. Knight had originally used an ordinary number two graphite pencil, and a 2b was employed to do the crossing out and marking over. Horizontal lines had been drawn to black out the impressions, but the indentations had remained, and from these Coffey and his team were able to restore the majority of the missing text. On December 21, 1939, Hoover sent Stefansson a summation of what was found.

  Noice claimed that the diary contained evidence of immorality, but the FBI’s investigation turned up nothing more than that Ada Blackjack seemed to fancy Allan Crawford and that Noice had destroyed passages with careful deliberation. Most of the blackouts involved the activities of Ada Blackjack and her refusal to work during the early weeks when she was suffering from homesickness and Arctic Hysteria. But many of the recovered sections seemed completelyinnocent, merely containing the words Crawford and Ada in the same sentence. It was clear that Noice had wanted to imply scandal where none existed. The entries revealed no immoral acts or relations between the men and their seamstress.

  “Summarizing the evidence from the context and from the words restored,” Hoover concluded in his letter, “it is apparent that the deletions are of a character which would occur if a person reading hastily through the diary and failing to observe in detail all of the entries, desires to create the impression of some sensational information being suppressed and hastily erases portions at places which because of the erasures will appear significant but which actuallycontain no more information than other portions which remain unchanged.”

  There would be, however, no going after Noice in the press, for the investigation had been conducted as a favor, and Stefansson was forbidden from discussing it publicly. He did ask for permission, however, to share Hoover’s letter with the Knights, Crawfords, Maurers, and Galles.

  Despite the brief triumph he felt over Noice’s retraction and later over the recovery of the diary text, Stefansson had managed to sabotage his own reputation with the Wrangel Island affair. It was nearly impossible to involve the governments of two countries such as Britain and Canada in an international scandal and emerge unscathed. He was bankrupt and shunned by other polar explorers, but he continued to write and to lecture.

  As the years passed, he began to deny that he had much at all to do with the Wrangel Island venture, claiming instead, as he had tried to imply in his book, that it was the brainchild of Lorne Knight and Fred Maurer, and that he had only helped them to realize their goal.

  In the late 1940s, Elsie Galle’s son, Jim Lawless, attended a lecture of Stefansson’s at the New Mexico M
ilitary Institute, where Jim was a student. He was eager to speak to the man who was such a legend in his family. When he approached Stefansson afterward and introduced himself, telling him that he was the nephew of Milton Galle, Stefansson became very uncomfortable and, as quicklyas he could, turned his back on the boy and walked away.

  In 1935, author Max Miller spotted a lone figure walking down a beach in the Aleutian Islands. It was the figure of a woman, small and childlike, and she was carefully gathering driftwood. By the look of her strained face, the lines about her eyes and mouth, she appeared to be an Eskimo woman of forty, although her diminutive size made her seem more like a girl.

  It was clear she was not looking for company, nor was she eager to talk to a stranger. She would have passed by him anonymouslyhad Miller not recognized her. Twelve years had passed since her face had appeared almost daily in magazines and newspapers, but the figure was clearly that of Ada Blackjack. The world had lost touch with her. The press speculated in later years about what had happened to her. There were rumors—she was wasting away from tuberculosis; she was struck dead by a car; she sold her soul to Hollywood; she returned to the Arctic to die; she changed her identity; she vanished. Yet here she was.

  When Miller spoke to her, she gave him the same cool gaze she had given to reporters all those years earlier when they had wanted her picture. She did not smile or make conversation. She merely waited patiently and politely while Miller spoke of Wrangel Island, her former Arctic home, and of the small colony of Russians that now occupied it.

  After he was through, she shifted the gunnysack of driftwood beneath her arm and began to walk away. “I really will have to be going,” she said. “I should have gathered this driftwood earlier.”

  * * *

  Feb. 28, 1974

  P.O. Box 215

  Hanover, N.H. 03755

  Dear Mr. Crosby:

  Thank you for the call yesterday regarding Mrs. Ada Blackjack Johnson. I talked to her son, Billy, last night, regarding your call—and between us we can provide the following information: Name: Mrs. Ada Johnson.

  Address: 221 ½ West 12th St., Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

  Born: May 10, 1898 (approximate) at Spruce Creek, a village site on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. The village no longer exists.She was born Ada Delutuk, a full-blooded Eskimo.

  State of health: Fair.

  Particular needs: Money, but much too proud to ask for it. The son, Billy, as I mentioned, is recovering from a heart attack. Nevertheless, he told me that you are welcome to contact him for any additional information, and your kind inquiry was most welcome.

  Sincerely,

  Stanton H. Patty

  Alaska Editor

  The Seattle Times

  * * *

  Epilogue

  WRANGEL ISLAND TODAY is every bit as remote and barren as it was in 1921. The winds blow year round, sweeping across the frozen tundra, the mountainous interior, the dark gravel beaches, and the jagged cliffs. For much of the year, nature sleeps here, waking up long enough in summer to bloom through the snow. Daisies, poppies, and forget-me-nots shiver vibrantly beneath the midnight sun, while willows and birches flourish.

  The harbors, the capes, the rivers, the mountain peaks, have all been named by now. The island has been used byRussia as a prison, a concentration camp for political prisoners, and a K.G.B. camp for training foreign agents.

  A colony of Eskimos now resides there, living side by side with a herd of musk oxen and reindeer. Russia has created a wildlife refuge on the island, and polar bears still roam the vast tundra. There is an airstrip and a meteorological station—one of the largest in the North— and if you are lucky and it is a good year for ice travel and if the Russian government approves, for a hefty price you may be able to pay your way to the island for a visit. There are no hotels, of course, but the island holds much interest for historians, geologists, photographers, wildlife enthusiasts, botanists, and modern-day explorers.

  There are rumors of a monument on its frozen shores, commemorating the four lost men of Stefansson’s Wrangel Island Expedition— the three who vanished into the blinding white of the Arctic horizon, and the young man who died waiting for them to return. But it is only a rumor. No such monument exists.

  Thousands of miles away in New Philadelphia, Ohio, in the hills of Amish country, the Maurer house and tailor shop is now a parking lot for the First United Methodist Church. Until her death in 2002, Marian Reiss, Fred Maurer’s niece, lived down the street from where he grew up, and even in her nineties she remembered vividly what a dashing man her uncle Fred was.

  In 1925, the New Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution to place a memorial drinking fountain honoring Maurer in the public square. The drinking fountain, like his house, is gone, but just a few blocks from his old address there is a memorial gravestone in the Maurer family plot. The burnished graymarble is suitablytraditional and refined, and the words etched into the large rectangular block read simply:

  IN MEMORIAM

  FREDERICK W. MAURER

  1893—LOST IN ARCTIC—1923

  In McMinnville, Oregon, the memorial stone for Lorne Knight is large and impressive. The rough-hewn boulder sits alone in the midst of a public park, surrounded by sidewalk, trees, and grass.

  The Knights had pressed for a memorial at their son’s gravesite on Wrangel Island, but there were too manyobstacles standing in the way— the expense of transportation, not to mention the threat of Russian interference. When their friends and neighbors discovered the difficulty the Knights were having, theypitched in together to build a monument for Lorne. It would not rest at the head of their son’s grave, as theyhad originallywanted, but it would be a place theycould come to mourn him.

  IN MEMORY OF

  E. LORNE KNIGHT

  1893–1923

  STEFANSSON CANADIAN ARCTIC EXPEDITION

  1915–1919

  REACHED 80 DEG. 26 MIN. NORTH LATITUDE

  PERISHED ON WRANGELL ISLAND 1923 ERECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF YAMHILL COUNTY

  1932

  That same year, Pechuck: Lorne Knight’s Adventures in the Arctic was published by Dodd, Mead & Company. Written byRichard Gill Montgomery, Pechuck was based largelyon the 1916–1919 diaryKnight kept during his first expedition with Stefansson. It was written in the first person, in the boldly colorful, slangy style that was so typically Knight, and related, according to the flyleaf, the tale of “a true and unusual experience which came to an American boy.”

  “God did not always use angels among men to accomplish his ends,” Mrs. Anderson wrote to Mrs. Crawford in 1923, just months after Allan Crawford and the others were declared missing. “V.S. certainly is no angel, but let us wait before we saythat no good is going to come out of the Wrangel Island tragedy.”

  After a long and bitter struggle, several moving and impressive tributes were given to Allan Crawford. Because of his Canadian citizenship, he was the only member of the Wrangel Island Expedition to be officially honored by the Canadian government. The first tribute, a plaque, was hung in the entrance to the Public Archives building in Ottawa. A scholarship was set up in his name at the University of Toronto, just as Allan had requested in his last letter to his parents before leaving Wrangel Island for Siberia. Out of his own savings, estimated at $3,385, he had designated twenty-five dollars be given each year to a student taking the highest marks in chemistry and physics at the June tests for pass matriculation. The Allan Crawford Scholarship was established in 1924. The very first award was presented by University of Toronto President Sir Robert Falconer, to whom Stefansson had written in 1921 searching for a young Canadian to head his expedition.

  In addition, a plaque commemorating Crawford was placed in the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. It was erected byhis fellow students and read, TO COMMEMORATE THE VALOUR AND PATRIOTISM OF ALLAN RUDYARD CRAWFORD, AN UNDERGRADUATE OF THIS UNIVERSITY WHO LOST HIS LIFE WHILE COMMANDER AND SCIENTIST OF THE WRANGEL ISLAND EXPEDITION, 1921–1923. And
yet another plaque was hung in the auditorium of the University of Toronto Schools, which commemorated Crawford’s SACRIFICE AND HEROISM, and pronounced him AS FULL OF VALOUR AS OF KINDNESS, PRINCELY IN BOTH.

  The Public Archives plaque is no longer on display. When the new Archives building was erected, the plaque came down and was tucked away in an attic or a basement. But the Allan Crawford Prize in Chemistry and Physics—now valued at three hundred dollars—is still given yearly.

  There is no memorial for Milton Galle, of New Braunfels, Texas. Because theynever accepted the fact that he was dead, his familychose not to commemorate him in the family cemetery.

  Long after Alfred and Elsie each married and had children, Alma Galle would talk about Sohnie living somewhere on the Siberian coast. Later, she gradually closed herself off from the memories. Milton’s pictures were removed from mantelpieces and tabletops and no one spoke of him, especially in front of his mother. She seemed a sad woman in later life, people said, and they rarelysaw her smile.

  When the New Braunfels paper proposed running a series of articles on Milton after Stefansson’s death in 1962, Alma thought she was at last ready to talk about her son again and to see the story in print. She let the newspaper borrow Milton’s photographs and diary, but after three of the articles appeared, she asked Elsie to make them stop the series. It was too painful for her to relive those memories and to endure a whole new generation of townspeople discussing the legend of Milton Galle. So Elsie went down to the newspaper office to retrieve the diary and pictures.

  The next generation of Galles grew up knowing little about their famous ancestor. In 1996, when Elsie was a grandmother, she spent her last Christmas with her family, and for the first time in many years allowed herself to speak about her older brother Milton. Her grandson Bill had brought her an old dance card and pictures of her parents and brothers and he watched as her eyes filled with tears. “Why are you so interested in Milton?” she asked him, unable to understand how her beloved brother, long-dead, could be so important to someone who had never even met him.

 
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