The New York Times Book Review - Robert R. Harris
…this first-rate polar history and adventure narrative…is a harrowing story well told, but it is more than just that. Sides illuminates Gilded Age society, offering droll anecdotes of [James Gordon] Bennett's escapades in New York, Newport and Europe. The author also convincingly portrays what it was like to survive in northern Siberia and provides an engaging account of the voyage of the Corwin, a kind of mail and police steamer that searched for the Jeannette and carried John Muir as a supernumerary.
In a masterful retelling, Sides (Hellhound on His Trail) chronicles American naval officer George Washington De Long’s harrowing 1879 expedition to the North Pole, an account as frightening as it is fascinating. Each page envelops readers in the bravery of De Long and the crew of the Jeannette, their indefatigable quest for the “Polar Grail,” and their dogged will to survive. News mogul James Gordon Bennett Jr., a colorful personality who famously sent Sir Henry Stanley to Dr. David Livingstone, was De Long’s patron, mostly because he desired another front-page stunner for his paper. De Long’s journal entries are mixed in with Sides’s description of a voyage fraught with peril—their steamboat was wedged in ice for two winters and,upon released, was crushed. Seeking rescue, the crew hauled supplies hundreds of miles across Arctic ice fields. Weather was harsh, erratic, and frigid with food and shelter scarce; many succumbed to frostbite and madness. Flawed theories of Siberian geography and settlements caused further setbacks. (Disastrously, De Long had already discovered that prevailing theories about warm currents under Polar icecaps were incorrect.) Impeccable writing, a vivid re-creation of the expedition and the Victorian era, and a taut conclusion make this an exciting gem. Agent: Sloan Harris, ICM. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Enthralling… In the Kingdom of Ice is a brilliant explosion of narrative non-fiction: detailed, moving, harrowing, as gripping as any well-paced thriller but a lot more interesting because it is also true… Too often American heroism is presented at one-dimensional success against the odds… This is a much more subtle and rewarding book, an account of magnificent disaster, of courage devoted to attempting something that could not be done."
The Times of London
“As our knowledge of the world increases, it must be difficult for audacious explorers to find terra incognita to match their passion. Surely the same frustration holds true for writers in that worthy genre, exploration literature: Haven’t all great stories been told? Never underestimate the ingenuity of a first-rate author. Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, which recounts the astonishing tribulations of a group of seafarers determined to be the first men to reach and reconnoiter the North Pole, is a splendid book in every way… It would be malicious to ruin the suspense about the fate of the Jeannette’s crew… The book is a marvelous nonfiction thriller.”
The Wall Street Journal
"Compelling....Sides spins a propulsive narrative from obscure documents, journals and his own firsthand visits to the Arctic regions visited by the Jeannette and its crew. In the Kingdom of Ice makes for harrowing reading as it recounts the grim aspects of the explorers' battle for survival: illness, crippling frostbite, snow-blindness and the prospect of starvation. As grisly as the details are, you keep turning pages to find out how DeLong and his men pull themselves past each setback — even though there's always another one looming ahead."
“[Sides] brings vividness to In the Kingdom of Ice, and in the tragedy of the Jeannette he’s found a story that epitomizes both the heroism and the ghastly expense of life that characterized the entire Arctic enterprise…With an eye for the telling detail, he sketches the crew members as individuals…The bare facts of what happened to the Jeannette’s crew are easily Googleable, but if you don’t already know the story, In the Kingdom of Ice reads like a first-class epic thriller. De Long and his companions became explorers of not only unknown geographical territory but also extremes of suffering and despair. In his stoic endurance of disappointment and pain, De Long rivals Louis Zamperini, the hero of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken…”
Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
“First-rate polar history and adventure narrative...wonderfully evocative.... Sides vividly recounts the horrors [of the voyage]. In the Kingdom of Ice is a harrowing story, well told.
The New York Times Book Review
“Unforgettable…a pulse-racing epic of endurance set against an exceedingly bizarre Arctic backdrop…[Sides’] descriptions of the physical challenges the men face and the eerie landscape that surrounds them are masterful. As De Long and his crew attempt to save themselves, the story grows in suspense and psychological complexity…More strange and fantastic turns follow, involving uncharted and uninhabited lands, and it pains me that I cannot describe them without spoiling the pleasure of those who have not yet read In the Kingdom of Ice. Sides’ book is a masterful work of history and storytelling.”
The Los Angeles Times
“America’s own brush with epic polar tragedy, the subject of Hampton Sides’ phenomenally gripping new book, is a less well-known affair…What ensued — a struggle to survive and a nearly 1,000-mile trek across the Arctic Ocean and into the vastness of Siberia — stands as one of the most perilous journeys ever. Sides works story-telling magic as he evokes the pathos and suffering of what unfolded: De Long and his crew endured hardships that boggle the mind. But there is also beauty here… [Sides] writes superbly on the geography of Siberia and the Arctic, and the abundant bird and animal life the explorers encountered on their travels, which took them across ice, storm-tossed seas, treacherous tundra, rocky seacoasts, and volcanic islands.”
The Boston Globe
“…harrowing and impeccably paced.”
The New Yorker
"A dazzling page-turner.....”
Nathaniel Philbrick, New York Times bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea, Bunker Hill and Sea of Glory
“[A] stunningly vivid account.....”
Mark Bowden, New York Times Bestselling author of Black Hawk Down
“An astonishingly good story....”
Candice Millard, New York Times bestselling author of The Destiny of the Republic and The River of Doubt
"Hampton Sides conjures the doomed USS Jeannette and her courageous crew with haunting power...."
Caroline Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of The Endurance and The Bounty
"A spellbinding tale....”
David Grann, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of Z
"Hampton Sides is one of America’s most expansive and engaging storytellers, and he proves it again with the incredible saga of the USS Jeannette...."
Scott Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of Lawrence in Arabia
"A vivid tale of exploration set in a howling, deadly wilderness."
T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
In 1879, U.S. naval officer and explorer George W. De Long (1844–81) set off on a highly publicized attempt to reach the uncharted and mysterious North Pole. Sides (Hellhound on His Trail; editor, Outside magazine) presents a lengthy, gripping, and well-written account of De Long's treacherous expedition. Backed by the vast wealth of newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett, De Long's voyage aboard the USS Jeannette ground to a grim halt when the vessel became trapped in the ice for two interminable years and later sank. After abandoning ship onto the frigid ice fields, De Long and his crew embarked on a desperate trek toward rescue in distant Siberia. Suspenseful and well grounded with biographical and historical context, Sides's work skillfully captures the passionate essence of determined explorer De Long, his indomitable compatriots, and the public's fascination with his quest. VERDICT Using De Long's correspondence with his wife as an especially effective tool to bring the explorer to life, this title will appeal to adventure fans and recreational readers interested in polar exploration, Gilded Age society, or naval history. Readers may also consider Leonard F. Guttridge's Icebound: The Jeannette Expedition's Quest for the North Pole.—Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI
Another crackling tale of adventure from journalist/explorer Sides (Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, 2010, etc.), this one focusing on a frigid disaster nearly 150 years ago.When the Jeannette, commanded by a dashing officer named George De Long, disappeared in the Arctic waters of Russia on a long expeditionary voyage that began in the summer of 1879, American newspapers thought it did not necessarily mean disaster: They preferred to see it as a sign that the ship had broken through the dreaded polar ice and was now sailing freely, if without communication, in the open polar sea. No such luck: As Sides documents, the Jeannette and its crew met a gruesome end; toward the end of his narrative, we tour their icy cemetery, here the Chinese cook gazing serenely into the sky, there De Long lying barehanded with arm upraised, as if he "had raised his left arm and flung his journal behind him in the snow, away from the embers of the fire." When contemporaries took that tour and reports came out, the newspapers were full of speculation about even more gruesome possibilities, which Sides, on considering the evidence, dismisses. Given that a bad outcome is promised in the book's subtitle, readers should not find such things too surprising. The better part of the narrative is not in the sad climax but in the events leading up to it, from De Long's life and education at sea to the outfitting of the ship (complete with a storeroom full of "barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer"), personality clashes among members of the crew, and the long, tragic history of polar expedition.A grand and grim narrative of thrilling exploration for fans of Into Thin Air, Mountains of the Moon and the like.
Read an Excerpt
A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death
Close to midnight on the evening of Sunday, November 8, 1874, as the early edition of the next day’s New York Herald was being born, the gaslit building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street bustled. The telegraph machines hammered away, the press platens churned, the setting room clinked with the frenetic rearranging of movable metal type, the copy editors clamored for last-minute changes--and outside, in the cool autumn air, the crews of deliverymen pulled up to the freight docks with their dray horses and wagons, waiting to load the hemp-tied bundles and carry them to every precinct of the slumbering city.
Following routine, the night editor had the draft edition of the paper brought up to the publisher for his approval. This was no mean feat: The proprietor of the New York Herald could be a tyrannical micromanager, and he wielded his blue pencil like a bowie knife, often scribbling barely legible comments that trailed along the margins and then off the page. After his usual wine-drenched dinner at Delmonico’s, he would return to his office to drink pots of coffee and torment his staff until the paper was finally put to bed. The editors dreaded his tirades and expected him to demand, well into the wee hours, that they rip up the entire layout and start over again.
James Gordon Bennett JR. was a tall, thin, regal man of thirty-two years with a trim mustache and fine tapering hands. His blue-gray eyes seemed cold and imperious, yet they also carried glints of mischief. He wore impeccable French suits and dress shoes of supple Italian leather. To facilitate his long, if erratic, work hours, he kept a bed in his penthouse office, where he liked to snatch an early-morning nap.
By most reckonings, Bennett was the third-richest man in New York City, with an assured annual income just behind those of William B. Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Bennett was not only the publisher but also the editor in chief and sole owner of the Herald, probably the largest and most influential newspaper in the world. He had inherited the paper from his father, James Gordon Bennett Sr. The Herald had a reputation for being as entertaining as it was informative, its pages suffused with its owner’s sly sense of humor. But its pages were also packed with news; Bennett outspent all other papers to get the latest reports via telegraph and the transatlantic cable. For the newspaper’s longer feature stories, Bennett did whatever was necessary to acquire the talents of the biggest names in American letters--writers like Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Walt Whitman.
Bennett was also one of New York’s more flamboyant bachelors, known for affairs with burlesque stars and drunken sprees in Newport. He was a member of the Union Club and an avid sportsman. Eight years earlier, he had won the first transatlantic yacht race. He would play an instrumental role in bringing the sport of polo to the United States, as well as competitive bicycling and competitive ballooning. In 1871, at the age of twenty-nine, Bennett had become the youngest commodore in the history of the New York Yacht Club--a post he still held.
The Commodore, as everyone called Bennett, was known for racing fleet horses as well as sleek boats. Late at night, sometimes fueled with brandy, he would take out his four-in-hand carriage and careen wild-eyed down the moonlit turnpikes around Manhattan. Alert bystanders tended to be both puzzled and shocked by these nocturnal escapades, for Bennett nearly always raced in the nude.
James Gordon Bennett’s most original contribution to modern journalism could be found in his notion that a newspaper should not merely report stories; it should create them. Editors should not only cover the news, he felt; they should orchestrate large-scale public dramas that stir emotions and get people talking. As one historian of American journalism later put it, Bennett had the “ability to seize upon dormant situations and bring them to life.” It was Bennett who, in 1870, had sent Henry Stanley to find the missionary-explorer David Livingstone in remote Africa. Never mind that Livingstone had not exactly needed finding. The dispatches Stanley had sent back to the Herald in 1872 had caused an international sensation--one that Bennett was forever seeking to re-create.
Critics scoffed that these exclusives were merely “stunts,” and perhaps they were. But Bennett had a conviction that a first-rate reporter, if turned loose on the world to pursue some human mystery or solve some geographical puzzle, would invariably come back with interesting stories that would sell papers and extend knowledge at the same time. Bennett was willing to spend profligately to get these kinds of articles into his paper on a routine basis. His paper was many things, but it was rarely dull.
Now, on this early November morning, the Herald’s night editor must have been cringing as he had the still-warm draft of the first edition sent to his mercurial boss. The Herald contained a lead story that, if executed properly, was guaranteed to cause the kind of stir Gordon Bennett delighted in. It was one of the most incredible and tragic news exclusives that had ever run in the Herald’s pages. The story was headlined “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death.”
The Commodore scanned the paper and began to take in the horrifying details: Late that Sunday afternoon, right around closing time at the zoo in the middle of Central Park, a rhinoceros had managed to escape from its cage. It had then rampaged through the grounds, killing one of its keepers--goring him almost beyond recognition. Other zookeepers, who had been in the midst of feeding the animals, had rushed to the scene, and somehow in the confusion, a succession of carnivorous beasts--including a polar bear, a panther, a Numidian lion, several hyenas, and a Bengal tiger--had slipped from their pens. What happened next made for difficult reading. The animals, some of which had first attacked each other, had then turned on nearby pedestrians who happened to be strolling through Central Park. People had been trampled, mauled, dismembered--and worse.
The Herald reporters had diligently captured every detail: How the panther was seen crouching over a man’s body, “gnawing horribly at his head.” How the African lioness, after “saturating herself in the blood” of several victims, had been shot by a party of Swedish immigrants. How the rhino had killed a seamstress named Annie Thomas and had then run north, only to stumble to its death in the bowels of a deep sewer excavation. How the polar bear had maimed and killed two men before tramping off toward Central Park’s upper reservoir. How, at Bellevue Hospital, the doctors were “kept busy dressing the fearful wounds” and found it “necessary to perform a number of amputations . . . One young girl is said to have died under the knife.”
At press time, many of the escaped animals were still at large, prompting Mayor William Havemeyer to issue a proclamation that called for a rigid curfew until “the peril” had subsided. “The hospitals are full of the wounded,” the Herald reported. “The park, from end to end, is marked with injury, and in its artificial forests the wild beasts lurk, to pounce at any moment on the unwary pedestrians.”
Bennett did not break out his blue pencil. For once, he had no changes to suggest. He is said to have leaned back among his pillows and “groaned” at this remarkable story.
The HERALD report was written in an even tone. Its authors had peppered it with intimate details and filled the roster of victims with the names of real, in some cases quite prominent, New Yorkers. But the story was entirely a hoax. With Bennett’s enthusiastic encouragement, the editors had concocted the tale to demonstrate that the city had no evacuation plan in the event of a large-scale emergency--and also to point out that many of the cages at the Central Park Zoo were flimsy and in bad need of repair. The outmoded Central Park menagerie, the editors later noted, was a far cry from the state-of-the-art zoo at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It was time for New York City to rise to the level of a world-class city, and for the nation, whose one hundredth birthday was approaching in just over a year and a half, to have at least one world-class park to display the planet’s wildest creatures.
Lest anyone say that the Herald had deceived its readers, the editors had covered their bases. Anyone who’d read “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death” to its end (buried discreetly in the back pages) would have found the following disclaimer: “Of course, the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true.” Still, the paper contended, the city fathers had devoted no thought to what might happen in an authentic emergency. “How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe?” the Herald asked. “From causes quite as insignificant the greatest calamities of history have sprung.”
Bennett knew from experience that very few New Yorkers would bother to read the article all the way to its conclusion, and he was right. That morning, as the usual clouds of anthracite coal fumes began to rise over the stirring city, people turned to their morning papers--and were plunged in chaos and confusion. Alarmed citizens made for the city’s piers in hopes of escaping by small boat or ferry. Many thousands of people, heeding the mayor’s “proclamation,” stayed inside all day, awaiting word that the crisis had passed. Still others loaded their rifles and marched into the park to hunt for rogue animals.
It should have been immediately apparent to even the most naïve reader that the piece was a spoof. But this was a more credulous era, a time before radio and telephones and rapid transit, when city dwellers got their information mainly from the papers and often found it hard to tease rumor from truth.
Later editions took the story even further. Now the Herald reported that the governor of New York himself, a Civil War hero named John Adams Dix, had marched into the streets and shot the Bengal tiger as a personal trophy. A much-expanded list detailed other animals that had escaped from the zoo, including a tapir, an anaconda, a wallaby, a gazelle, two capuchin monkeys, a white-haired porcupine, and four Syrian sheep. A grizzly bear had entered the St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, and there, in the center aisle, it “sprang upon the shoulders of an aged lady, and buried his fangs in her neck.”
The editors of rival newspapers were thoroughly perplexed. It was not the first time the Herald had scooped them, but why had their reporters failed to glean even an inkling of this obviously momentous event? The city editor of the New York Times stormed over to police headquarters on Mulberry Street to scold the department for feeding the story to the Herald while ignoring his esteemed paper. Even some staffers of the Herald fell for the prank: One of Bennett’s most celebrated war correspondents, who apparently had not gotten the memo, showed up at the office that morning armed with two big revolvers, ready to prowl the streets.
Predictably, Bennett’s rivals excoriated the Herald for its irresponsible conduct--and for spreading widespread panic that could have resulted in loss of life. A Times editorial observed, “No such carefully prepared story could appear without the consent of the proprietor or editor--supposing that this strange newspaper has an editor, which seems rather a violent stretch of the imagination.”
Such expressions of righteous indignation fell on deaf ears. The Wild Animal Hoax, as it came to be affectionately known, only brought more readers to the Herald. It seemed to solidify the notion that Bennett had his finger on the pulse of his city--and that his daily journal had a sense of fun. “The incident helped rather than hurt the paper,” one historian of New York journalism later noted. “It had given the town something to talk about and jarred it as it had never been jarred before. The public seemed to like the joke.”
Bennett was enormously pleased with the whole affair--it still ranks as one of the great newspaper hoaxes of all time. The story even managed to accomplish its ostensible goal: The zoo’s cages were, in fact, repaired.
True, it was not nearly as sensational a success as Stanley’s finding Livingstone. Bennett would have to keep looking for an encore to that lucrative saga. His reporters were out in the field, in every corner of the globe, hunting down the next blockbuster story. He had correspondents in Australia, in Africa, in China. They were covering the debauchery of faded European royals, the high jinks of Wall Street, and the gunslinging of the Wild West. They were wandering throughout the Reconstruction South, too, reporting on all its colorful frauds.
The direction that most interested Gordon Bennett, though, was north. He sensed that the greatest mysteries lay in that direction, under the midnight sun. The fur-cloaked men who ventured into the Arctic had become national idols--the aviators, the astronauts, the knights-errant of their day. People couldn’t get enough of them. They were a special breed of scientist-adventurer, Bennett felt, their quest informed by a kind of dark romance and a desperate chivalry. Bennett, who took reckless risks in his own sporting life, expected his reporters to do the same while pursuing their assignments. In this heroic age of exploration, the Commodore was adamant that his best correspondents should head for the ice zones to follow the gallant and obsessive characters who now were aiming for the ultimate grail.