The mysterious death of an Arctic explorer
Controversy has always surrounded Robert Peary's contention that he became the first man to reach the North Pole 100 years ago, during the winter and spring of 1909. The debate involves an early fraudulent counterclaim, a diary missing crucial entries, and the need for Peary's final push to have occurred at an almost impossible speed— leading some to believe that the Pole wasn't actually reached for another four decades. But a mystery of another sort during that famous expedition—the death of Peary's right-hand man, Ross Marvin 1905—has drifted into obscurity.
Marvin wasn't the first to lose his life while trekking toward the top of the world. In the nineteenth century, dozens perished in the attempt. But Peary, who had lost eight toes to frostbite during a previous Arctic expedition, may have been the most determined. Relying on Inuit hunters and dog-drivers and pioneering the "Peary system" of support teams and supply caches, his mission had the best chance yet for success.
When Peary's ship, the Roosevelt, left New York City on a sizzling July day in 1908, a lanky, unassuming Upstate native was among the two dozen passengers. Before graduating from Cornell with a degree in civil engineering, Marvin had completed a two-year course in navigation on a New York Nautical School ship, making two voyages across the Atlantic. Immediately after commencement, he accompanied Peary on his Arctic expedition of 1905-06. For their second polar tour, he took a leave of absence from his post as an engineering instructor at Cornell.
Following Marvin's death, the Cornell Alumni News would describe him as multitalented: "a botanist, a geologist, a mete-orologist, a mathematician, and a navigator." Indeed, in his book about the 1908-09 expedition, The North Pole, Peary claimed that after the ship's captain, Marvin was "the most valuable man in the party." He wrote of how Marvin taught the group to construct igloos and how he helped plan the advance and relay parties. The twenty-nine-year-old was the mission's chief scientist, his various meteorological and navigational measurements vital to its success.
After wintering on Ellesmere Island (the northernmost point in Canada), twenty-four men, nineteen sledges, and 133 dogs set out for the North Pole on February 28, 1909. Marvin commanded one of the support teams and made it as far north as 86 degrees 38 minutes (perhaps 200 nautical miles from the Pole) before Peary instructed him to head back to the Roosevelt. At 9:30 a.m. on March 26, Marvin and two Inuit men—cousins, one named Kudlikto and the other nicknamed Harrigan—started south with a sledge and seventeen dogs. "No shadow of apprehension for the future hung over that parting," Peary later wrote, adding that Marvin was "filled with exultation that he had carried the Cornell colors to a point beyond the farthest north of [previous explorers] Nansen and Abruzzi." (Nearly five months later, when the world finally learned of Marvin's demise, the New York Times announced, "MARVIN HONORED CORNELL: Planted Her Colors Farthest North Before He Died.")
Peary (allegedly) reached the Pole on April 6, returning to the ship three weeks later. After congratulating him, Captain Robert Bartlett informed him that Marvin had never made it back. "The news staggered me, killing all the joy I had felt at the sight of the ship and her captain," Peary later wrote. "It was indeed a bitter flavor in the cup of our success." According to Kudlikto, on the morning of April 10 Marvin had risen early to scout out the path through the "Big Lead," a strip of open water that could be crossed only in weather cold enough to freeze it. Beyond view and earshot, he had fallen through the ice and struggled valiantly. But by the time his Inuit companions arrived, they saw only the back of Marvin's fur jacket bobbing below the surface. They couldn't reach the body, so they continued south while the ice still held. "He who had never shrunk from loneliness in the performance of his duty," Peary wrote, "had at last met death alone."
But, as it turned out, that wasn't true. Ross Marvin was murdered.
Seventeen years after the expedition, by which time Peary had died of anemia, Kudlikto approached a Danish missionary in Greenland and told him the truth. The facts have grown hazy over the years, but essentially the story is this: While heading south, Harrigan (who was either exhausted or ill) asked to ride on the sledge. Marvin refused—twice. Kudlikto made a third request on behalf of his cousin; again, it was denied. Some stories say Marvin himself was in great pain, suffering from severe frostbite. Others contend he was "ice-mad"—or perhaps simply angry at Peary for sending him back. He may have begun unpacking Harrigan's gear from the sledge, as if to abandon him. In any case, Kudlikto grabbed a rifle and shot him, then sank his lifeless body beneath the ice.
There was no trial. No country held jurisdiction over the murder scene. International maritime law didn't apply. And no one was inclined to retrieve an Inuit from Greenland to try him in an American court. As author Fergus Fleming wrote in his history of polar exploration, Ninety Degrees North, "The matter was laid to rest amidst the dry shuffling of judicial excuses."
One hundred years later, Marvin is featured as part of a traveling exhibit entitled "Across the Polar Sea: With Robert E. Peary on the North Pole Expedition." A selection of Marvin-related artifacts—a pair of fur boots, his wooden snowshoes, his tobacco case—are on display. But Marvin's remains are still somewhere beneath the Arctic ice—as Peary wrote, "the farthest north of all deaths known to man."
— Brad Herzog '90