At 7 p.m. on 22 April 1825 the Arctic explorer John Franklin received the tragic news of the death of his first wife Eleanor. He was then at Penetanguishene on the shore of Lake Huron, now in the province of Ontario, Canada, as he was making his way on his second land Arctic expedition. We know all this because it was recorded in the last letter he ever wrote to his wife. He had written to inform her of his safe arrival, his impressions of the area, his wish that she could have been by his side and his hopes of hearing of her continued improvement. He also about the flag she has made for him, which was “snug in the Box and will not be displayed ’till we get into a more northern region”. He tells her that Mr Back [George Back] and the men have arrived, after which comes the simple line:
7PM The distressing intelligence of my dearest wifes death has just reached me John Franklin
In a letter started on the same day to his sister-in-law Mrs Kay, he adds that he actually received news of the death from the newspaper.
When John Franklin wrote these letters, it was exactly two months since Eleanor had passed away, just before 12 o’clock in the evening of the 22nd February. His wife had been ill for a year or so with tuberculosis, and by early February 1825 there was every indication that she would soon be dead. For most of that year Franklin had been deep in preparation for his second land expedition. His first one in 1819-1822 had been little more than an unmitigated disaster; a few geographical and scientific discoveries, but at huge human cost, with the deaths of 10 men, including two who had been shot dead amid starvation, despair and almost endless misery. This had been partly due to his being continually let down by those people tasked with providing him with the right supplies in the right places at the right times. In spite of this, he had still wanted to try a similar mission, which the Admiralty sanctioned, impressed by what seemed to be his heroic leadership in incredibly trying circumstances.
He had, therefore, done everything he could possibly do to make sure the disaster was not repeated, by thoroughly preparing the way and putting in as much as groundwork as possible. It would actually prove to be work which did produce results, as his second expedition certainly did not end the same way as the first. It was not without its hardships and privations and even deaths, and if it did not quite achieve all he would have wanted to, there is certainly no sense that it failed because of any lack of planning on his part.
His year of preparations had coincided with a period of family bliss, with the birth of his adored daughter Eleanor in June 1824. In spite of his wife’s periods of illness, there is no doubt that the marriage was remarkably happy for both of them, somewhat surprising in the light of their different characters and the occasionally awkward period of their engagement. As it became increasingly apparent how poor her health was in the New Year of 1825, it was a real dilemma for Franklin as to what he should do: to stay with his wife or go ahead with the expedition as planned . As it turned out, it was Eleanor who made the decision for him. She insisted that it was his mission to go and nothing must stop him.
He, therefore, set sail on his expedition from Liverpool on 16th February. Although her death had seemed imminent, he continued to write to her, as though she might still in fact be alive. There are four comparatively light-hearted letters which he wrote to her; the first started on board ship in New York on 1st March, with updates on the 7th, 14th and 15th March: the second in New York on 22nd to 24th March; the third written on 26th March in Albany, the capital of New York State, 150 miles north on the Hudson River, up which he was travelling -this last letter was definitely sent, as it arrived at their home address of 55 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, London, with a postmark for 10 May 1825. The fourth and final letter on 22 April we have encountered above.
Back at 55 Devonshire Street, in his absence in late February 1825, Eleanor was being nursed by assorted family members. Her older sister Sarah Henrietta Kay was there, as was John’s sister, Hannah Booth, down from her home in Ingoldmells in Lincolnshire. Also present was Hannah’s daughter, Mary, who would later go on to marry John’s great friend and fellow expedition member, Dr. John Richardson. They sent joint letters to him, reporting on the situation back at Devonshire Street. The first letter was written not long after Franklin had left her, reporting that she was in a slightly better state, greatly composed and sleeping comfortably; Eleanor had been talking about him and had made the telling remark that she was thankful that he had gone; Dr Thomson called and pronounced that he found her infinitely better than expected. It is not dated, but the letter is postmarked 14 February 1825, having been sent care of Thomas Langton, esquire, Liverpool. Another letter dated 17 February was sent by the same route, and it had even more encouraging news from another doctor, Sir Henry Halford. His words are directly quoted at the start.
“I do not think Mrs Franklin out of danger by any means, but I have no hesitation in saying that she is less ill than she was, and that my hopes of her ultimate recovery are much higher than they were Henry Halford”
It is clear he did receive this news of a more positive development from the letter written to Mrs Kay on 22 April. He had obviously been hoping for further letters from Hannah and Mrs Kay on her continued improvement and was frustrated that the post from Liverpool seemed to have been delayed. Unfortunately, any brief hopes that might have been raised were soon dashed.
On 25 February sister Hannah wrote to inform him of the death of his wife. She did not stint from telling him that her sufferings had been very great in the final days until shortly before her actual death, “the violent restlessness and shortness of breath continued without interruption, but she had not such horrifying feelings as when you saw her, nor had she ever so violent a struggle as that night we witnessed on the sofa”. Her end was apparently calm and composed, although neither Hannah and Sarah were actually there when the final breath was drawn. The doctor confirmed in his post mortem the following day that Eleanor had died of tuberculosis, and she was buried on 1st March.