It was a meeting between an ambitious young American with plans for a great polar expedition – and one of Scotland’s greatest exports, whose name has become synonymous with philanthropy.
Still, there was nothing charitable in the air when Dr Frederick Cook, who was determined to raise money to finance an Antarctic odyssey, reunited with Kirkcaldy-born Andrew Carnegie at the lavish club of Union League at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street in Manhattan in early 1897.
It was one of the first chapters in a sprawling story of adventure and adversity; the one that led the ship Belgica to get stuck in the ices of the Bellinghausen Sea, as a prelude to the crew who endured months of darkness and fell prey to a horrible disease as they sank into the sea. madness.
The setting could hardly be more different when Cook, a man whose career was hampered by scandal, as when he claimed to have become the first man to reach the North Pole in 1908, shook hands with Carnegie, and the couple started chatting about venturing into the lavish building with Tiffany windows.
In the end, Cook’s subsequent infamy, which earned him a long prison sentence, eclipsed his brilliance aboard the Belgica in the company of the ship’s first mate, a young Norwegian called Roald Amundsen, whose name is in never recorded in the chronicles as the man who beat Captain Scott on the pole.
But it was in the future when avid Cook and pragmatist Carnegie sat down to chew on the proposition.
A bond has been forged between the two
Details of the encounters between this strange couple were documented in Madhouse at the End of the Earth, a new book by acclaimed writer Julian Sancton, which documents the extraordinarily turbulent life of Cook, part PT Barnum, part Walter Mitty with a hint of Indiana Jones in her makeup.
Whatever his flaws and weaknesses, he forged a vibrant friendship with Amundsen even as the couple prepared a desperate – and daring – escape from their prolonged white hell around the Belgica.
Mr Sancton explained how Cook had charisma to burn and, at least initially, made a positive impression on the multimillionaire Scottish expatriate.
He said: âGiven Carnegie’s reputation as a hard-working businessman, it surprised Cook to see him show genuine enthusiasm for the project.
Perhaps the once penniless Scottish immigrant recognized that he and Cook were cut from the same ragged cloth, both European citizens, who discovered that America placed no limits on their ambitions.
âThe two talked amicably about polar exploration for an hour, after which Carnegie stood up, shook hands with Cook, and said, ‘Doctor, I’d like to get into your ice cream business. See you next Monday or write [to] me.
âCarnegie was challenging Cook to show how the expedition could be profitable, obviously not convinced by Cook’s hint of a potential Antarctic gold rush. When they met for the second time, in the corner of a lavish cigar-smoke smelling club room, the jokes were put aside.
“Cook knew he couldn’t count on the charm and the big stories this time around.”
The whole plan has been put on ice
When he joined Carnegie, he had prepared a detailed explanation of why the Antarctic mission deserved support. It would help science, it would increase humanity’s knowledge of the world, it would shed light on a hitherto unknown regionâ¦ and so he passionately exposed his case.
Yet just as the doctor’s speech reached a crescendo, another member of the club approached Carnegie and “rudely interrupted” the conversation. It was a pivotal moment. In the blink of an eye, the moment was over.
As Sancton says: âCarnegie got up and walked with Cook up the stairs. He said, âDoctor, there is so much to do in this closer world. Three miles above is all the ice we’ll need.
âCook was devastated. He now realized that when Carnegie had expressed his interest in the “ice business” it had literally meant the ice trade – the ability to harvest Antarctic glaciers for the mundane purpose of chilling and cooling cocktails. . “
It was a blow to Cook, but he refused to get too downcast. Interest in the frozen continent had increased dramatically since the Sixth International Geographical Congress in 1895 called for its urgent exploration.
And then, as he was browsing the New York Sun on August 6, 1897, he noticed a news item about the imminent departure of an Antarctic expedition from – from all places – Belgium.
It was his opportunity. And, a few weeks later, he was on his way with 13 Belgians, ten foreigners and two cats named Nansen and Sverdrup.
The trip quickly turned into a nightmare
If Cook was delighted to finally make his dream come true, his elation quickly turned to worry. Almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for Adrien de Gerlache’s doomed crusade in the months to come.
The Belgica broke down in the North Sea and was forced to go to Ostend for repairs. Two crewmen deserted there and two other crewmen went ashore without permission, returning to the ship drunk with their skulls.
But while Cook was in his element, the litany of woes piled up. Upon arriving in Montevideo, Uruguay, the cook was fired and a Swedish replacement was hired. On the trip from Montevideo to Punta Arenas, Chile, the mechanic let the boiler run dry and was fired.
There were other disciplinary issues in Punta Arenas, which prompted the Chilean Navy to intervene. The Swedish cook and three Belgian sailors were made redundant and by the time the Belgica finally left for Antarctica she was considerably understaffed.
Things went from bad to worse
Sancton’s book vividly expresses the confusion and chaos that accumulated as the Belgica continued its unfortunate exodus into the remote wilderness.
The crew were, for the most part, inexperienced and more enthusiastic than knowledgeable about the business they had undertaken from the security of Europe. So it was hardly a surprise when, shortly after crossing the Antarctic Circle on February 15, 1898, the ship got stuck in the pack ice.
The crew had not prepared for the prospect of wintering in Antarctica and the stubborn Gerlache forbade the crew to digest the penguin and seal meat that had been stored because he himself hated the eat.
As a result, scurvy became a problem, and hardships and tragedies piled up until the point where insanity began to set in.
The magnetist Emile Danco died on June 5, 1898, then morale deteriorated after the death of Nansen, one of the ship’s cats, a few weeks later. The situation had turned into a time bomb of madness.
An attempt to cut a mile-long evacuation channel to the high seas – a dangerous undertaking at the best of times, not to mention sailors with scurvy – failed when a random wind change closed the channel .
The desperate situation demanded bold and decisive leadership. This is where Cook and Amundsen took center stage in the drama.
Salvation was on the horizon
On July 22, the ship’s command was taken over by the duo, as the unfortunate De Gerlache was too ill to continue giving his mostly futile instructions. What had seemed like a noble plan in Belgium had turned into a horrific chapter of incompetence and mismanagement.
Cook insisted the men ate the penguin and seal meat, which allowed the crew to recover from scurvy quickly.
Sancton wrote: âHis air of optimism was the cornerstone of his treatment plan. “When they were in serious distress,” he wrote, “men thought they would surely die and fighting this spirit of abject despair was my most difficult task.”
“The doctor looked away from his comrades from the dark chasm of anguish in which they gazed all night and towards the light on the horizon, which lingered a few more minutes each day, announcing the imminent return of the sun.
The dire prospect of a second winter in Antarctica energized the men in their efforts to bring Belgica out of its plight, and Cook and Amundsen worked heroically and tirelessly to save themselves and their colleagues.
Their efforts and powers of persuasion worked. On Valentine’s Day in 1899, Belgica was finally freed from the ice, although it took her another month before she could set sail for Punta Arenas, where she arrived on March 28.
A welcome from heroes for the return home
The Belgica was repaired in Punta Arenas, then sailed for Buenos Aires in Argentina and, although there is little cause for celebration, given the heavy toll the expedition had suffered, she ventured to she and arrived in Antwerp on November 5, sparking national celebrations in Belgium. .
It was Cook’s crowning achievement. As Amundsen took immediate steps to organize his own expeditions and finally, more than a decade later, a group of five, led by this formidable figure, became the first to successfully reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. , his Belgian colleague was heading in a radically different direction – downwards.
From poles to prison cell
Cook and his compatriot, Robert Peary, subsequently engaged in a furious war of words over their rival claims to have reached the North Pole.
In December 1909, a commission from the University of Copenhagen, after reviewing evidence submitted by Cook, ruled that its files contained no evidence of the explorer’s claims.
This sparked consternation and the New York Times said, “He will forever be one of the world’s greatest impostors.”
Peary refused to submit any of his documents for third-party review, and for decades the National Geographic Society, which held his documents, denied researchers access. He too has been discredited.
In 1919, Cook became involved in promoting oil startups in Fort Worth, but he and 24 others were subsequently charged as part of a federal crackdown on fraudulent schemes.
Inmate # 23118 was not a typical con artist
Three of his employees pleaded guilty, but Cook insisted he was innocent and went to trial. He was charged with paying dividends from sales of shares rather than profits and the jury found him guilty of 14 counts of fraud.
He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and although his lawyer appealed the verdict, the conviction was upheld.
Amundsen, who believed he owed his life to Cook’s extrication from the Belgica, visited him several times and the doctor was eventually pardoned by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1940, ten years after his release and shortly before his release. died of brain hemorrhage.
But we suspect that Andrew Carnegie was right to be wary of this mercurial but controversial character.
The book is published by WH Allen.