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Ghosts of
Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition

Leonard Guttridge
320 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Leonard Guttridge

Leonard Guttridge, the author of Ghosts of Sabine, discusses what drew him to the story of the Greely Expedition and tells us where he thinks the limits of history-writing lie.

orn and raised in Cardiff, South Wales, Leonard Guttridge served in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War before coming to the U.S. in 1948 His first book, a history of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre (in which National Guard troops opened fire on striking Colorado coal miners, killing men, women and some eleven children) was co-written with George McGovern, just before McGovern's failed presidential bid.

After several books on Naval history, Guttridge turned to Arctic exploration. Icebound chronicles the ill-fated 1881 American Arctic expedition led by George De Long (their ship, the Jeannette, was crushed in the ice; only twelve of the expedition members survived). His most recent book, Ghosts of Cape Sabine, tells the strange and tragic story of the disastrous Arctic expedition led by Lt. Adolphus Greely of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

A tale of human weakness in the face of adversity, the many twists of the Greely expedition included apparent cannibalism, a complete failure of confidence in Greely's leadership, and the strange predicament of the second-in-command, Lt. Kislingbury. From almost the beginning, he clashed so severely with Greely that he was soon relieved of his duties and ordered off the expedition—only to discover that the ship that had delivered the expedition to Fort Conger and would have returned Kislingbury home (where he had left four motherless sons, his first and second wives—who were also sisters—having died in quick succession) had only just sailed. Kislingbury's tragedy was to spend the next two years—his last—an exile within the tiny expedition.

WAG: What first interested you in the Cape Sabine story?

Guttridge: I've always liked stories in which men were not only fighting the elements or an enemy, but also clashing among themselves or even within themselves, with their own emotions.

I had written Icebound, and I was in New York at a party given in honor of the publication of the book. A couple of men who were members of the New York Explorers Club asked, "Now that you've done the Jeannette story, are you going to do the Greely story?"

I did some initial research and found those same elements—men against nature, against the elements, and quarreling amongst themselves, as well as the elements of suspense which I think no story can be without.

WAG: What about the Cape Sabine story most intrigued you?

Guttridge: What intrigued me was that at no time in American history—or any other history—has there been such a disparate, so unsuitable, so inappropriate a party of men sent on a mission. These were soldiers, not sailors. They were being sent on this expedition because the Secretary of the Navy didn't want to release any sailors for the expedition.

The tragedy of the two relief ships failing to get there [to rescue the Greely party—both ships were turned back by ice] was also compelling. The first ship was led by an Army private! The second expedition shipwrecked on the way up.

WAG: This is your second book about 19th century Arctic exploration. What interests you about this subject? How did you first become interested in it?

Guttridge: When I was a kid growing up in Wales in the 1920s, one of our heroes was Robert Falcon Scott. Cardiff, where I lived, was one of the world's greatest exporters of coal, and this was the coal used to fuel many expeditions. Scott stopped there to coal up before his [South Pole] expedition. In Cardiff, there is a man-made lake with a large lighthouse to commemorate Scott stopping there. I always used to go and look at that lighthouse.

Reading about Arctic and Antarctic travel appealed to me, as it always has to many people. After writing one or two books, I read some reference to De Long that got me a little interested, got me a little intrigued.

I would turn to American friends and say "Have you ever heard of Scott of the Antarctic?"

They would say, "Oh, yes."

But the more I looked at these De Long references, I thought, "Well these chaps went up there and had all these experiences and lost more men than the Scott expedition," and I thought, "Well, this is like the American version of the Scott expedition." And I was surprised that all these friends, these Americans, knew all about Scott but nothing about De Long.

There had only been one non-fiction book on the De Long expedition, written from a rather biased standpoint. I knew that I had a good exploring story, with all the elements of suspense and tragedy and so on. But then I learned that one of the survivors—the engineer, George Melville—came back to his home, outside Philadelphia, and they arranged a big party for him. After the guests had gone that night, he called two doctors to certify his wife as insane and commit her to an asylum. He did that because there were certain details [about the expedition] he wanted kept secret; it was Melville's deliberate intention to keep his wife silenced.

I knew then that I had a good story. And so it was the same with [the Greely] expedition. As soon as I knew about the second in command, Kislingbury, that he had lost two wives and left four motherless children—I knew there was a story there.

WAG: It appears that the historical record of diaries, letters, government documents, and so forth, had become rather widely dissipated over the years. Thus, for you, it seems the research for this book was part detective story. How did you decide where to begin your research?

Guttridge: The Library of Congress is where I began. It was essential in this case because Greely's official and personal papers were donated by the last of his daughters to the Library of Congress, a few years before I began the research.

The next step from there was the National Archives. Records are kept there of ships' voyages, ships' logs, and so forth. I also got in touch with Kislingbury's great-grandchildren.

WAG: Your descriptions of the cold and misery of the Greely party are vivid. Have you ever been to the Arctic yourself?

Guttridge: From time to time people have said, "You must have spent some time in the Arctic yourself." Except for one time when I had occasion to fly to Iceland during the war, I've never been above the Arctic circle. But reading the first-hand descriptions, written by men with their own freezing hands, I felt as if I was there with them. If you write a non-fiction book, you shouldn't pad it with fictionalized dialogue, so I drew from these sources.

I do have a powerful imagination. When I read the actual materials, I find myself on board the ship with them, a member of the party. When you are reading what these men wrote—many of these men had lost their faith in Greely as a leader, and what they wrote about him was quite scathing—you can't help but feel what they went through.

WAG: You mention not fictionalizing dialogue in a nonfiction book. As a writer, what standards do you hold yourself to in writing an historically accurate book? What kind of power does the author have to "shape" history through a particular telling of a particular event or incident, and how do you approach or handle that power?

Guttridge: When I write nonfiction, it's precisely that—nonfiction. I never write fictional dialogue. My quotes are verbatim, from letters, diaries, etc. Where I have a question that can't be fully answered via research, I just might speculate, making sure the reader knows I'm doing so. But this seldom occurs. It's better, and often safer, to so word your work that the reader will do the speculating and enjoy doing so.

Power to "shape" history? If anything I've ever written has "shaped" history, it's been purely accidental. In other words, incidental to the task of dramatizing a situation dramatic in and of itself whether anyone seeks to describe it or not. What the writer must have (this writer at least) is the knack of being able to spot the drama in such situations.

WAG: About your writing process. Do you have a routine? Do you write on a computer or typewriter or in longhand?

Guttridge: I always write in longhand first. It's because if I have something mechanical or material in front of me, like a typewriter or a computer, it's an obstacle between me and my ideas going down on the paper. It's an impediment to the creative process.

I wish I could get over that feeling because it does save time to create directly onto a piece of machinery. But always I write longhand first. I do have a moderate computer now and I do my typing on that.

WAG: When did you take up writing, and why? Did you pursue another career while writing?

Guttridge: I didn't take up writing as a full-time career until the 1960s when I left the Embassy of India, where I'd worked as a librarian. And I'm not quite inclined to call freelance writing a "career" so much as a risky occupation. But there is, of course, a sense of freedom about it, of not having to punch a time-clock....

Ever since schooldays, I liked to tell yarns. Even during wartime, I'd love to have been a war correspondent. During my first years over here, I did some fiction—short stories, mystery yarns and fantasy. But the short story market evaporated, and after writing now and then on jazz (a lifelong passion), I grew to perceive that true history, once you plunged into it with an open mind, can supply an abundance of ready-made plots. Intrigue and adventure, innumerable opportunities for creating narrative suspense.

WAG: How do you go about turning a mass of research into a coherent narrative? Do you write as you research?

Guttridge: I write as I go. A lot of the research is basic material which you find in such places as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and so forth. As you are writing the story, fresh situations spring to your mind and fresh avenues of research. You may come across a point in your story that has such potential for suspense that you want to fill in any gaps. So you set your writing aside and do some research, and then get back to the narrative. And the same thing is bound to happen again and again.

I've been influenced over the decades by Alfred Hitchcock movies; I'm always on the lookout for moments of suspense. In the Jeannette [Icebound] story, for example, you had a situation in which the navigation officer, on which so much depended, was going blind because of a syphilitic condition which he had kept secret, and the ship's surgeon was operating on the eye, without anesthetic, just as the ice was crushing the ship.

WAG: One of the things I found intriguing about the book is that Lieutenant Greely seemed to have proved himself a good leader during his work for the Signal Corps in the American West. Yet his leadership faltered on this expedition.

Guttridge: To a large extent, it was a mis-selected group. Virtually all of them had had experience on the Western frontier fighting Native Americans, but none of them had had any experience of this kind of ordeal or going into the Arctic realm. None of them had ever seen an iceberg, and precious few of them could row a boat.

Greely was an able commander—stern, a disciplinarian, but he was not a tyrant; he was fair-minded. He had all these qualities, and at one point in the book, I felt obliged to remind readers that not only did he demonstrate these qualities before the expedition but again afterward. But they were no match for the Arctic.

Even his ability to command men seemed to founder up there in those higher latitudes.

In a sense Greely was rather like [Robert] Scott: he made some tactical blunders. When Greely was faced with some opposition from his men, when he found they literally felt he was leading them in the wrong direction, his own stubbornness made him stick to his guns and say, "I'm going my own way," and that contributed to his sense of loneliness. He suspected that most of his men were turning against him or losing faith in his leadership.

WAG: Was there any one character in this tragedy with whom you found yourself in particular sympathy?

Guttridge: There were times when I felt a sympathy with Greely. But Kislingbury, his second in command, was trapped in that position, a position unique in its humiliation, once he found that he was no longer a part of the expedition. He'd been virtually forced to resign from it, he'd packed his gear and was heading for the ship, and he got to the ice foot just in time to see the ship sailing away.

It was doubly ironic because he had left four motherless sons. He was devoted to them; the only reason that he left them was that he hoped to make a name for himself and for them. Even on the way up, he was already regretting that he had left them.

When he had this clash with Greely and now could look forward to heading home and rejoining his sons, still he would be going back as someone who had been dismissed from the expedition. His mind must have been in a turmoil as he turned around and retraced his steps back to the expedition, having missed the boat.

WAG: What puzzled me most about the expedition was the plan to abandon Fort Conger at the end of the second year if no relief ships arrived by then, when it seems it would have been possible to remain there safely through the winter and strike out for the south once warmer weather and sunshine returned. To embark on the trip on the eve of winter seems like an obviously bad idea.

Guttridge: It would have been better had they stayed there. That was the consensus among many explorers. It would have been a safer risk had they stayed up there. They left Fort Conger with an expectation that the relief ships had managed to get at least part of the way and that they would meet them. They expected the ships would be at Littleton Island [an agreed rendezvous point—in fact, no ships awaited] to greet the party as they made their way south.

WAG: Why do you think there has been such a strong interest lately, among readers, in stories of adventure and exploration?

Guttridge: With a rapidity that mankind has never known, there are so many scientific advances, with computers in almost every home. You switch on your radio, your TV, and you hear so many sentences ending with "dot com." To everybody except Bill Gates, the computer age is very confusing, and they seek some form of escape. Some find it in reading old-fashioned adventure stories.

WAG: What about the evidence for cannibalism on the expedition?

Guttridge: It was turned into a scandal principally by the New York Times, which had been absolutely unfavorable towards Arctic exploration, thought it was a waste of money, risk of lives, and so forth. The Greely expedition came back in tatters, and stories of cannibalism had already started circulating at St. John's Newfoundland, where the rescue ships had put into port. The Times made all they could of it. Bold-print headlines over several columns read, "The Horrors of Cape Sabine: Survivors forced to feed on one another."

The survivors, Greely included, denied any knowledge.

However, after the body of Lt. Kislingbury had been exhumed and doctors testified that the flesh had been surgically removed from it, then it seemed 99% certain to the general populace that cannibalism had in fact taken place, and when Greely himself was asked about it, he said, "If there was cannibalism—and it appears now to be no doubt about it—then it took place without my knowledge or approval."

It might have been a more complete story, had I been able to name the man or men who ate the human flesh, but I don't know. Greely says he knew nothing about it, but in order to keep himself alive (and keep in mind Greely lived into old age), Greely may well have partaken of human flesh without knowing it. Much of those last days [before the expedition was rescued], he was comatose from hunger and sickness. The morsels of food fed him may have included some human flesh.

WAG: What are you working on now?

Guttridge: There is a possibility that I might do a biography of Commodore Stephen Decatur. He was a bold and brave sailor in the War of 1812. Some research material I've discovered suggests that when he was killed in a duel with an aged man, he may actually have been set up for murder.

Another possibility—there is evidence in my possession, and I've seen even more convincing evidence, that after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, he did indeed get away and someone else was shot in his place.

—Interview conducted by Caroline Kettlewell

Posted June 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Robin Reid

Leonard F. Guttridge is the author or coauthor of six books, including Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition, Icebound: The Jeannette Expedition's Quest for the North Pole, Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection and The Commodores. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.



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