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John Hartnell was an able seaman aboard HMS Erebus during the Franklin expedition.

Early Life[]

John Hartnell was born in Gillingham, Kent in 1820 to a family of shipwrights and sailors. He was baptised at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Gillingham on July 16th, 1820. John was the son of Thomas and Sarah Hartnell (née Friar), and was the oldest of six children, five of whom survived past infancy. He was the older brother of fellow Erebus seaman Thomas Hartnell Jr.. Their father died on April 23rd, 1832 when John was twelve years old. Sarah Hartnell never remarried.

Prior to his career in the Royal Navy, John was apprenticed as a shoemaker. By the 1841 census, he was living in the Nelson Street & East Row area of Gillingham with his widowed mother, four younger siblings, and a boarder.

Naval Career[]

By September of 1841, John Hartnell had enlisted as an Ordinary Seaman in the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Volage, a Sixth-rate sailing frigate. Oddly, John had his pay allotted to his younger sister, Mary Ann, rather than his mother as per tradition. The 1841-45 journey of the Volage was commanded by Captain William Dickson and participated in assignments such as the escort of the King of Prussia to England, the transport of $800,000 to Port Royal, Jamaica, and extensive patrolling of the Irish coast. Lieutenant John Irving was among the officers as well. John Hartnell was paid off on February 1st, 1845 and due to his years of service, was promoted to able-bodied seaman (AB).

Franklin Expedition[]

In the spring of 1845, Hartnell and his brother signed up for the Franklin Expedition as able seamen aboard HMS Erebus. On this expedition, he had his pay allotted to his mother. He was healthy enough to be allowed to continue the journey past the last known sighting of the Erebus and Terror off the coast of Greenland in summer of 1845.

Illness & Death[]

By mid-November, John Hartnell's health was in rapid decline. He was suffering from a zinc deficiency, of which symptoms include poor wound healing, loss of appetite, fatigue, weight loss, night blindness, and increased risk of infection. At an earlier date, he had injured an ankle, had an infection in one of his feet, sustained a shoulder injury, and had a compressed cervical vertebra in his neck. His overall cause of death may have been a combination of tuberculosis and pneumonia.

John died on Beechey Island on January 4th, 1846 at the age of 25, being the first of the Erebus crew to die. After his death, he was autopsied aboard the Erebus, presumably by anatomist Harry D.S. Goodsir. He was then buried beside John Torrington and William Braine. The three graves would become important and iconic landmarks in the search for the lost Franklin Expedition.

In a letter dated May 1st, 1854, addressed from R.M. Bromley, Department of the Accountant General of the Navy to Charles Hartnell, John and Thomas' younger brother, John was officially declared dead, as follows:

“I have to inform you that [John Hartnell] died on the 4th January 1846 in debt to the Crown £117. 4s. 8d.”

The exact cause of the Crown debt is currently unknown. Because of this debt, the Hartnell family were prevented from receiving any of John Hartnell's pay or his Arctic Service Medal until 1986.


John Hartnell's body was exhumed on three different occasions. The first exhumation was conducted in 1852 by Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield of the HMS Isabel and Dr. Peter Sutherland, a physician. The crew of the 1852 expedition found John Hartnell's grave was a full six feet beneath gravel and permafrost, which they found incredibly difficult to penetrate. After hours of work, the coffin was unearthed. In a letter from 1853, Sir Roderick Murchinson of the Royal Geographic Society described the body as:

"perfectly preserved by the intense cold, exhibited no trace of scurvy or other malignant disease, but was manifestly that of a person who had died of consumption, a malady to which it was further known that the deceased was prone."

Later, Edward Inglefield would privately disclose further details of the exhumation, deliberately kept from press outlets as well as some of his own crew.

"My doctor [Sutherland] assisted me, and I have my hand on the arm and face of poor Hartnell. He was decently clad in a cotton shirt, and though the dark precluded our seeing, still our touch detected that a wasting illness was the cause of dissolution."

After the exhumation was concluded, John was reburied, although Inglefield removed the metal nameplate that had been nailed to the lid of the coffin and kept it as a souvenir, since lost.

The second exhumation attempt was conducted in 1984 by Dr. Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta. This exhumation was short, as time constraints and difficulty digging up the grave prevented Beattie's team from performing a full autopsy on the body. They resolved to mark the grave and return at a later date to do a full observation.

The third and final complete exhumation was conducted in the summer of 1986, again by Dr. Owen Beattie and his team. This exhumation was made even more remarkable by the presence of Brian Spenceley, John and Thomas Hartnell's great-grand nephew who served as the team's forensic photographer. As Inglefield and Sutherland had found in 1852, John Hartnell's remains were exceptionally well-preserved. His body had sustained some damage from the 19th century exhumation attempt, but was otherwise intact. He was found dressed in three layered shirts—including one belonging to his brother, Thomas, which had 'T.H. 1844' embroidered in red thread on the shirttail—and a wool watchcap. His head rested on a hand-sewn pillow stuffed with wood shavings and a folded wool blanket was tucked under his body.

A surprising find during the course of John Hartnell's modern autopsy was the discovery of an upside-down Y-incision on his torso made during his autopsy on the Erebus. Dr. Beattie and other researchers suspected that the 1846 autopsy had been done in under a half hour, as Hartnell's chest plate had been reinserted upside-down as well. Once the modern autopsy had been concluded and x-rays were carried out, John Hartnell was carefully reburied and his grave restored to order.


John's immediate legacy could be found in the names of some his family members. His youngest sister, Betsy, named one of her sons John Hartnell Salton in his memory. Later descendants could recall a story being passed down regarding two brothers who disappeared into the Arctic.

In the St. Mary Magdalene's churchyard in Gillingham, a headstone was erected for both John and Thomas, with John's inscription including the following:

Died in the execution of his duty / as seaman on board H. M. Ship Erebus / in the ill fated expedition under / Sir John Franklin / His remains lie buried on Beechey Island / in the Arctic seas

Author Richard Heathcote Gooch alluded to the fates of John and Thomas Hartnell in his short story "An Old Man-of-war's-man's Yarn", including a fictionalised version of their father, envisioned as alive long after his sons had left England.

John Hartnell became internationally known after the findings and photographs of the 1984 and 1986 exhumations were published in the book Frozen in Time. A photograph of his face in the ice was used on covers of some editions of the book. Hartnell was also one of the focuses of the 1988 NOVA documentary "Buried in Ice", and was shown and mentioned again in the 2015 NOVA documentary "Arctic Ghost Ship".


The Description Book of the HMS Volage gives his height as 5 feet 11 ½ inches, remarkably tall for the time and a full three inches taller than his younger brother. It also says that he had a sallow complexion, hazel eyes, and black hair, the last of which was confirmed by the exhumations carried out in the 1980s.