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Owen Beattie and John Geiger

The exhumation of the body of a crewman from an ill-fated hunt for the Northwest Passage by a pair of Edmontonians heralded a new trend in exploration literature.

In 1981, University of Alberta anthropologist Owen Beattie, scientists and author/filmmaker John Geiger led their own expedition to discover why the 1845-48 Franklin Expedition had gone so awry ... and left no survivors among the 129 crewmen.

The Franklin Forensic Project travelled to Beechey Island, a tiny island in the Northwest Territories north of Baffin Island. There, Beattie, Geiger and their crew exhumed from the permafrost the well-preserved body of 20-year-old John Torrington, performed some tests on the remains, and reburied his corpse. Their findings made an impact on both the scientific and literary worlds, when they concluded that many of the crew had died from exposure to the lead solder sealing the expedition's tins of preserved meat, soup and vegetables.
 Featured Audio

Arts Alberta #120
This episode of Arts Alberta, broadcast: June 3, 1988
examines explorer Sir John Franklin's ill-fated third
voyage to the Canadian Arctic in search of the
Northwest Passage. Beattie and Geiger discuss their
documentary film Frozen in Time, with Tony Dillon-Davis.

On this third and final Franklin Expedition, there were
no survivors, and Beattie and Geiger attempt to find out
what went wrong on the trip. The Franklin Forensic
Project (1981-91) led to the discovery in the permafrost
of the body of Franklin crewman John Torrington.
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Beattie and Geiger's work was first detailed in The Edmonton Sun in 1984, where Geiger worked as a journalist. The pair also published a book in 1987 and a documentary film on their expedition the following year, both entitled Frozen in Time.

The book would prove to be a best-seller worldwide, with several foreign-language editions, and foster a new interest in Franklinalia. There would, for instance, be an influence felt not only in the world of exploration literature, but in popular culture as well. Singers such as James Taylor and the rock group Iron Maiden would incorporate the work of Beattie and Geiger into their lyrics. Canadian authors Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood would use aspects of the project in a novel (Solomon Gursky Was Here), and short story (The Age of Lead, from Wilderness Tips), respectively. And in Germany, novelist Sten Nadoly would write in 1997, The Discovery of Slowness; Elizabeth McGregor of Dorset, England would follow in 2001 with The Ice Child, her novel spawned directly from Torrington's photographic image.

Beattie and Geiger would continue their literary work together, releasing Buried in Ice, a children's edition of Frozen in Time; a second Arctic true-life mystery Dead Silence, in which they would uncover the 1719 fate of James Knight's 40-man gold and copper-seeking expedition; and editing an upcoming book of essays on exploration and adventure. Beattie still teaches anthropology at the U of A, and Geiger has continued a journalism career at The Edmonton Journal and The National Post.

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