The Greatest Show in the Arctic: The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898-1905

The Greatest Show in the Arctic: The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898-1905

by P. J. Capelotti

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In Gilded Age America, Arctic explorers were fabulous celebrities—assured of riches and near-immortality so long as they reached the North Pole first. Of the many attempts to meet that goal, three American expeditions, launched from the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land, ended in abject failure, their exploits consigned to near-oblivion. Even so, these ventures—the Wellman expedition (1898–99), the Baldwin-Ziegler (1901–2), and the Fiala-Ziegler (1903–5)—have much to tell us about the personalities, politics, and economics of exploration in their day. In The Greatest Show in the Arctic, the first book to chronicle all three expeditions, P. J. Capelotti explores what went right and what, in the end, went tragically wrong.

The cast of colorful characters from the Franz Josef Land forays included Walter Wellman, a Chicago journalist and bon vivant running from debts, his mistress, and an illegitimate daughter; Evelyn Briggs Baldwin, a deranged meteorologist with a fetish for balloons and a passion for Swedish conserves; and Anthony Fiala, a pious photographer in search of God in the Arctic. Featuring an international cast of supporting characters worthy of a three-ring circus, The Greatest Show in the Arctic follows each of the three expeditions in turn, from spectacular feats of financing to their bitter ends. Along the way, the explorers accumulated considerable geographic knowledge and left a legacy of place-names.

Through close study of the expeditions’ journals, Capelotti reveals that the Franz Josef Land endeavors foundered chiefly because of poor leadership and internal friction, not for lack of funding, as historians have previously suspected. Presenting tales of noble intentions, novel inventions, and epic miscalculations, The Greatest Show in the Arctic brings fresh life to a unique and underappreciated story of American exploration.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806154459
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Series: American Exploration and Travel Series , #82
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 648
File size: 12 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

P. J. Capelotti, Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, is author or editor of numerous books on history and archaeology, including Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The Expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England’s Forgotten Arctic Explorer and Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol, 1942.

Read an Excerpt

The Greatest Show in the Arctic

The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898â"1905

By P. J. Capelotti


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5445-9


A Useful Corps of Newspaper Correspondents

Walter Wellman was born in Mentor, Ohio, in early November 1858. The future polar explorer arrived into the world a year and a half after the passing of Elisha Kent Kane, the first American to achieve fame in the Arctic, and within a cluster of births of men who would come to define polar exploration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Robert Peary (1856), Fridtjof Nansen (1861), and Frederick Cook (1865). The day of Wellman's birth, November 3, was barely a week after the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt, the paragon of American muscularity whom Wellman would profile in his newspaper more than a decade before Roosevelt became president of the United States.

Wellman's family descended from Thomas Wellman, a Puritan who fled London for Barbados in the mid-1600s before settling eventually in Massachusetts. After fighting in the American Civil War, a descendent of Thomas by the name of Alonzo Wellman resettled his family from Ohio to a small town in south-central Nebraska called Sutton. There, his sixth son, Walter, established a newspaper at the age of fourteen. It was not unusual for boys to start newspapers during these years, since "manufacturers of printing presses in the United States [had begun to produce] smaller versions of their commercial offerings for use in the home [that lead to] an explosion of newspapers written, edited, and printed by teenage boys." Walter Wellman would be associated with newspapers for much of the rest of his life.

In his early twenties, Wellman returned to his native Ohio. He married Laura McCann in 1879 and the five daughters subsequently born to them were all given "R" names: Ruth, Rose, Rae, Rita, and Rebecca. Along with his brother Frank, at the age of twenty-two Wellman founded another newspaper, this one in Cincinnati, Ohio, and called the Penny Paper. They eventually sold the paper to two other brothers destined for much greater fame in newspaper publishing, James E. and Edward W. Scripps. Renamed the Cincinnati Post in 1890, the paper remained in business for over a century until December 31, 2007.

Wellman received his big break in February 1885, when at the age of twenty-six he arrived in Washington, D.C., as correspondent and political reporter for the Chicago Herald and its successors, the Times-Herald and the Record-Herald. It was in the nation's capital that Wellman perfected the craft that would soon make him one of the most recognized names in American journalism. In Washington, wrote Wellman, "there is no profession so interesting as the profession of journalism."

Here we have professional politicians, professional statesmen, professional lobbyists, professional farmers, professional everything; but of them all none form such a compact, picturesque, little understood and withal so useful a corps of workers as the newspaper correspondents. Being a member of this corps, I hope I shall not be accused of blowing my horn when I say that I am often amazed at the intelligence, the industry, the wide range of information, the acumen and the shrewdness of the men who represent here the great newspapers of the land.

I would sooner take the judgment of the correspondents on the probable outcome of an attempt to pass a certain bill, on the nominations to be made by the great political parties, or anything of that sort in which information and discernment are requisite to the making of a good estimate, than the judgment of all the senators or all the members of the house, or both combined.

Over the next twenty years, Wellman would travel back and forth between Washington and Chicago to chronicle the politicians and capitalists of the Gilded Age and the successive economic depressions spawned by its speculative excesses. Wellman's articles were syndicated across the Midwest, and as a result he was introduced to a vast new audience of newspaper readers. These were citizens — many newly literate thanks to Civil War–era initiatives in public education — hungry for stories of the men and machines that were creating a new world of rapid transit, rapid information, and rapid wealth.

Wellman found much to admire in this new breed of capitalist, men whose frontier ventures were generating stupendous, almost unimaginable, amounts of untaxed wealth and — very often to accompany it — singularly megalomaniacal visions of social control. One early piece by Wellman attempted to put the best face on a planned community south of Chicago. Conceived by George Pullman for Pullman sleeping-car workers, it was a place deliberately designed as a "national model for efficiency and order," described by Wellman as a place where the "health, morality and happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants could be raised to a much higher level than that usually found among communities of laborers and mechanics."

Wellman visited several of the homes in Pullman, where he found that in "only one of two [were there] odors arising from negligent housewifery." Even though he correctly identified the factors that eventually doomed both Pullman the man and Pullman the town — "The residents have no voice in local matters. There are no home politics, no caucuses, no town meetings. Pullman attends to all affairs of local government and consults only his own wishes" — Wellman did not recognize them as such. Revealing his own developing sense of both American politicians and the people they presumably served, Wellman asked:

what proportion of workingmen in any community really enjoy voice in local government? How much better than Pullmanism is that citizenship which gives to a clique of pot house politicians the actual control of things, and which fastens upon the public treasury a coterie of chronic leeches? ... It may be un-American to say so, but in local affairs, except where things are going all wrong and a Tweed ring is to be broken up, the precious right of suffrage is largely a delusion and a farce. ... The social organization of Pullman is such that the monocrat or whoever represents him must use his best skill and energy to keep all at work. All well paid, all content, all healthy, all happy. Failure to do this is his own failure and ruin.

Wellman continued to develop this theme whenever he was assigned to profile another tycoon. In an article written in the summer of 1888, Wellman described all of the new millionaires he had become acquainted with in Chicago and Washington. He had a special fondness for those men who had moved from the East and then risen from "country storekeepers" to control vast fortunes in banking and railroads, such as Albert and Henry Keep, who "used to be country store keepers up in Wisconsin" but now owned a railway.

In 1892 Wellman got himself onboard a yacht owned by Joseph R. De Lamar so that he could conduct an interview with the entrepreneur who had made fortune in maritime salvage operations in the Atlantic and silver mining in the West. The axial notion of Wellman's subsequent article — that the possession of millions of dollars in untaxed profits was too much of a bother — typified much of what he wrote during the Gilded Age. De Lamar, according to Wellman, was a rough and ready capitalist whose only desire was to have a few friends he could consider as something more than importuners after his cash. "I do not want to be a capitalist," Wellman decided.

I will stick to the newspaper business, working hard for a living, racking my dull brain to please both readers and managing editor, and when I fall back done for, worked out, no longer able to satisfy public and employer — as it is said all writers fall back sooner or later — I will take up the stick and rule and set type. Anything but being a capitalist.

A month later, Wellman rode in a Pullman car to Asheville, North Carolina, where he interviewed George Vanderbilt and in the process became lost in the cavernous foundations of the colossal mansion Vanderbilt was then constructing — even today still the largest home in the United States. "It is to be a stone palace of 100 rooms. ... Vanderbilt travels in Europe, picks up new ideas and comes back here and spends millions upon them. One of his notions is an arcade or gallery running about 500 feet from the house to an astronomical observatory, and down a marble cascade from observatory hill is to run a stream of mountain water." A decade later, many of these bankers and capitalists and editors, men such as dry goods pioneer Levi Z. Leiter and Wellman's own boss at the Chicago Herald, John R. Walsh, would have their names attached to remote bays and headlands of Franz Josef Land as a result of their patronage of Wellman's second polar expedition in 1898.

Wellman would also place the names of several Washington politicians in Franz Josef Land. These, however, would be only those who offered direct financial support to his expedition, since the longer he stayed in Washington the lower sank his opinion of the nation's politicians. As an example, in a scathing piece written in 1890 in the wake of a Senate committee investigation into the public naming of journalists writing unpleasant "facts which the senators think ought not to be printed," Wellman heaped scorn on any notion of the "dignity" of the United States Senate:

As if the dignity of a great body like this depended upon the action of a few newspaper writers, and could be maintained by locking those writers behind iron bars for performance of their duty to their employers and the public. There is nothing new in all this. Ever since it was born the United States senate has been striving to keep up its dignity. It has paid more attention to dignity than brains, and in consequence has constantly degenerated.

Wellman ridiculed Washington "tea parties," where "no tea is served" but there was plenty of champagne. "A swell tea in Washington, particularly in a big house where the hostess is ambitious and the invitations numerous, is one of the most soul harrowing and provoking instruments of torture I ever had the misfortune to meet with." Secretary of State James G. Blaine could only be interviewed by appearing at his front door and passing single questions written on small note cards back and forth, one at a time, via a servant. And Grover Cleveland, twenty-second and twenty-fourth president of the United States, could occasionally be buttonholed for an interview if one desired to follow him "to a Turkish bathroom."

As for the opposite sex, "in Washington the American woman appears to know rather more about taking care of herself than she does in other cities, develops greater facility for getting what she wants, going where she wishes and ascertaining what she desires to know."

Not all residents of the capital came in for such criticism. One young man, a recent appointee to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, caught Wellman's eye as one of a handful of "literary statesmen."

Nothing gives the young civil service reformer greater delight than to sit down and write a sharp, stinging, sizzling letter to somebody who has criticised [sic] the civil service board, or in some other manner roused the combativeness of Mr. [Theodore] Roosevelt. ... Scorning stenographers and typewriters, he sits down, pen in hand, and scratches, scratches, metaphorically tearing people's eyes out. ... The phrases about which he is most particular are those which cut the deepest, and these he turns and re-turns, each change sharpening them, till they are like razor edges. [In spite of his writing], he is a delightful companion — vivacious, sympathetic, entertaining. He has a merry, ringing laugh. His teeth, which are perfect in form and of dazzling whiteness, he shows a dozen times a minute.

Little more than a decade later, following the stunning assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt would become, at forty-two, the youngest president in the history of the United States. In the summer of 1906, Wellman would send him the first telegram from the Arctic, delivered by wireless transmission from a base camp on the remote island of Danskøya in the Spitsbergen archipelago.

In between his profiles of the powerful and the rich of America's Gilded Age, Wellman engaged in the kinds of dogged feature-article writing that editors sew into the shirts of every journalist. A visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave system on the planet — "a weird, uncanny voyage" — was followed by a visit to the U.S. Patent Office to study dozens of models of passenger elevators — "The fastest elevator in the world is the Chicago elevator. This is conceded by all authorities, and nobody denies that it is in keeping with the characteristics of the place." An essay on "Advertising as Art" was followed by another on "Memorable Names," wherein Wellman "collated from official sources a list of about 10,000 of the men who have held conspicuous place in the public service since the foundation of the republic." A trip to Cape May, New Jersey, to report on the relaxation habits of President Benjamin Harrison on summer holiday was followed by a chance encounter at the Army and Navy Club with the Civil War commander of the USS Monitor, Admiral John Lorimer Worden.

Wellman also wrote scores of articles that attempted to predict the future of technology, with varying degrees of prescience. An insightful 1892 essay entitled "Electrical Power: It Will Soon Be Used for Railway Locomotives" was followed by the slightly less omniscient 1894 article that, while correctly foreseeing the coming awesome destructiveness of aircraft, suggested that this fact would make warfare impossible: "Aerial Destroyers: Prediction that War Will Soon Be Impossible."


On Watlings Island in Characteristic American Fashion

Walter Wellman's favorite journalistic subjects involved exploration, in all its forms, beginning with his obvious enthusiasm as he ventured into Mammoth Cave in the fall of 1887. So when Chicago won the right to host the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition — a massive international gathering to celebrate four hundred years of social and technological progress since Christopher Columbus — his editor at the Chicago Herald asked Wellman if he could pinpoint the precise landing spot of Columbus in the New World in 1492. The Herald paid for Wellman to lead a small expedition to the Bahamas in the summer of 1891 to search out the actual location and place a marker on the spot — all in time for the Chicago exposition. Wellman leapt at the opportunity. Here was a heaven-sent chance both to get out of Washington and to pursue his passion for exploration.

At the age of thirty-two, this was to be Wellman's debut as an explorer. It also marked his first real opportunity to drop hints as to his future ambitions. When given his assignment — "find the spot where Columbus discovered America and mark it with a memorial" — Wellman wrote that his unfazed response was "'Will try.' If it had been a request to find the north pole or capture a mermaid I supposed the answer would have been the same. The newspaper correspondent is not surprised at anything." He might not live to capture a mermaid, but it is clear from this offhand remark that the North Pole was very much in his thoughts as early as the spring of 1891.


Excerpted from The Greatest Show in the Arctic by P. J. Capelotti. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Off the American Route,
EXPEDITION ONE: The Great American Act of Hustling The Wellman Polar Expedition 1898–1899,
1. A Useful Corps of Newspaper Correspondents,
2. On Watlings Island in Characteristic American Fashion,
3. Wellman at the 1893 Columbian Exposition,
4. The Matchless Energy of Americans,
5. Success or Nothing,
6. The Intrepid Explorer,
7. Nansen Is Getting Rich,
8. My Plan Is Very Simple,
9. A Paradise of Opportunity,
10. To Advance as Rapidly as Possible, and as Far as Possible,
11. To Storm Bay and a Change of Plans,
12. The Dark Side of Things,
13. Norwegians,
14. A Better Hut Than This,
15. Norwegians Are Better Than Eskimos,
16. Born Again Up Here,
17. The Death of Bernt Bentsen,
18. The Polar Dash,
19. The Discovery of Graham Bell Land,
20. The Cooperation of Nations in Arctic Exploration,
EXPEDITION TWO: Cigarette-Smoking Dudes The Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition 1901–1902,
21. Pluck,
22. No Place in the Basket,
23. Purely American in Character,
24. Hit Him Squarely between the Eyes,
25. The Dogs Are Becoming Uncomfortable,
26. The Naked Future Is Nude Indeed,
27. The Men Were "Put on the Mat",
28. Good Luck Is a Big Factor,
29. From Kane Lodge to Cape Auk,
30. Dr. Nansen Slept Here,
31. Downward into a Yawning Crevasse,
32. Louisiana Cypress on Alger Island,
33. The Launch of the Balloons,
34. Sensational Rumors,
35. It Won't Be a Lot of Cigarette-Smoking Dudes This Time,
EXPEDITION THREE: Onward, Christian Soldier The Ziegler Polar Expedition 1903–1905,
36. Money Is Success! Money Is Victory!,
37. "Knocking" against the Captain,
38. The America Goes Farthest North,
39. Camp Abruzzi,
40. The Knowing Ones,
41. Shaking like a Young Tree in a Storm,
42. Peculiar Answers and Replies,
43. Dead Bones of an Engulfed Continent,
44. His Crowd of Children,
45. Joy,
46. The Death of Sigurd Myhre,
47. The More Kicking There Will Be,
48. Joy, Part Two,
49. How I Discovered H. P. Hartt Land,
50. A Profound Feeling of Gratitude for My Dogs,
51. The Memory of a Satiated Desire,
52. The Breaking of Winter's Back,
53. The Same Old Tale,
54. Joy, Part Three,
55. Retreat,
Aftermath: An American Tractor at the North Pole,
A Note on Sources,
Works Cited,

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