Friday, April 28, 2017

Of spoons, forks, and insanity ...

Photo used with the permission of Jersey Heritage
Regular readers of Visions of the North will recall my older posts about the silver utensils -- one spoon in particular -- that played such a key role in the launching of the Schwatka expedition; the story is also told at greater length in Chapter 8 of my Finding Franklin. And yet now, I've discovered quite a new and different chapter of that story, and found a trail of "clews" that stretches all the way from Arctic Canada, to New York, Milwaukee, and eventually to the Channel Island of Jersey, where one of Potter's forks unexpectedly turned up at some point prior to 1936.

The story begins with Captain Edwin A. Potter, late master of the New Bedford whaler "Glacier," who in 1873 returned from two winters in the Arctic with a handful of silverware that had a tale to tell. Captain Potter might not have been the best observer -- he thought that Franklin's crest on his spoons resembled an Indian with a bow and arrow! -- but he did realize that what he had obtained were relics of the Franklin expedition. Two large spoons of Sir John's -- one with the famous copper mend -- were the stars of the show, but their impact wasn't felt until a few years later, when Thomas Barry brought them to the attention of the American Geographical Society (Barry claimed he'd received the spoons from the Inuit; Potter claimed he'd stolen them from him).

As I recount in my book, the spoons were eventually returned to Sophia Cracoft (not, by her account by Thomas Barry as he'd claimed, but only when the whaling company that employed him demanded them back, from whence they went to the US Naval Observatory, and then to Miss Cracroft). But what of the others? What, especially, of the fork with the initials "R N" scratched into it, which Potter thought might mean "Royal Navy" (though that would be odd, as in every other instance the initials were those of one of Franklin's men). A few days ago, looking for better imagery of the silverware of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, I noticed, via a footnote in my friend Huw Lewis-Jones's article about him, that there was a fork of his in the collections of the Société Jersiaise. That esteemed entity, now a part of Jersey Heritage, had an online database of its collections -- but alas, no fork was listed.
Detail of fork
Hoping against hope, I wrote to them, and received a very kind reply, with the photo above, confirming that they did indeed have such a fork, whose ownership was attributed to Le Vesconte (whose family was from Jersey). The museum, alas, had no provenance for the fork; it first was mentioned in their records in 1936. But in any case, there, scratched onto its upper surface, were letters that looked very much like RN, or perhaps RM, or RII -- it was hard to be certain, but only one fork was said to have had similar marks -- that of Captain Potter.

The line of transmission was very unclear, however. If this fork had been Potter's, how had it found its way across the ocean to Jersey? It was then that I searched the archives of the American Geographical Society (now in Wisconsin), which had sponsored Schwatka's expedition, and found a very curious item. It was, in part, a typed copy of an undated newspaper article, under the headline INSANE.
Captain Edwin A. Potter, formerly of this city, but for a couple of years past a resident of Westport, has been adjudged insane, and was taken to the asylum at Taunton yesterday by Deputy Sherriff Kirby. Capt. Potter sailed for many years from this port in the whaling service, and at one time commanded the bark Glacier in the Hudson Bay fishery.
But what would a notice of Potter's insanity be doing in the AGS archives? The answer was typed below:
Above is a copy of a clipping lent to us by Mr. Wood of the American Numismatic Society, accompanying two forks, two large spoons, and one small spoon. They were returned to Mr. Wood on November 18, 1930.
Howland Wood
"Mr. Wood" was doubtless Howland Wood, the longtime curator of the ANS. But what would he be doing with Potter's spoons and this newspaper clipping? I can only assume that, at some point near the date of this note, Captain Potter's effects had been brought to his attention, possibly via a pawnbroker or someone managing an estate sale. He was born in New Bedford, so news of the story would have been local knowledge. In his search to identify the utensils, he'd found (or been given) the clipping, and had sent the items to the AGS for assessment, or advice. If it was advice he'd sought, I feel confident that they would have recommended they be returned to the the families of their late owners, and that it was by this means that the fork attributed to Le Vesconte arrived in Jersey prior to 1936.

But there is yet more to the mystery: the fork, like those at the National Maritime Museum, has only been photographed from above; with this style of cutlery, with a ridged top, the crest is generally etched on the underside, along with the maker's hallmarks. I'm waiting to hear what the good people of Jersey Heritage uncover; they have taken a great interest in my findings, and plan to have the fork removed from its case and photographed on both sides.  I'll follow up here with a fresh posting as soon as the results are in.


  1. If that is truly Le Vesconte's fork, I would wonder if Capatain Potter in 1871-1873 visited the grave of Le Vesconte looking for something. He certainly would have known of Charles Hall's returning the remains in 1869.

  2. I've always found it interesting that many people were incredulous that the survivors trekked carrying silver spoons etc. I wonder if they were carried primarily as trade offerings in the hopes of bartering with bands of Inuit as they marched along? Since they lived alongside them (the caribou hunt being a great example of their cooperation) the crew would have known what items would be highly valued in any future trade. Maybe the crew valued these items not so much for the "silver" content but the fact that one utensil could buy "X" amount of meat?

  3. I always understood that the Royal Navy provided plates, bowls etc but never cutlery, therefore everyone provided their own and it had to be marked - in the case of officers - with either a crest or initials & in the case of other ranks with some mark of their owners so that everyone had their own knives, forks etc. Sylvia McClintock Wright