This essay first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 10).
Was he the greatest of heroes, or the biggest liar who ever talked? That was the question on everyone’s mind in the entire industrialized world in September 1909. It divided families, alienated lifelong friends, and has been debated for more than a century. The man in question was Frederick Albert Cook, a medical doctor and veteran explorer of both polar zones.
Cook left Gloucester, MA, in July 1907, serving as guide to millionaire gambler John R. Bradley’s big game hunting expedition to Greenland. When Bradley returned to New York in October, he delivered a note to the Explorers Club, of which Cook was the sitting president. Finding conditions favorable, Cook wrote, he had remained behind to try to reach the North Pole in the spring of 1908.
Robert E. Peary, who had tried and failed four times at that same task, was furious at what he claimed was Cook’s plan to forestall him in what Peary considered to be his own destined quest. Meanwhile, Peary’s plans for another attempt at the North Pole that year had to be put off. In the interim before Peary sailed nothing more was heard from Peary’s rival beyond a single additional letter.
When Peary finally arrived in Greenland in August 1908, he interrogated Cook’s only white companion, Rudolph Franke, who had spent the winter with him, but only learned that Cook had last sent word in a letter dated March 17 from Axel Heiberg Island saying he was about to set out across the Arctic sea ice for the North Pole. Cook’s letter arrived when all but two of his Inuit companions had returned without him in May. After gathering members of the Inuit tribe as workers, dogs for transport, and fresh meat, Peary sullenly sailed north.
On September 1, 1909, Cook wired from the Shetland Islands that he and two Inuit had reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, but because they could not regain their outward-bound food caches, they had been forced to spend the previous winter on North Devon Island, only returning to Cook’s base in Greenland in April 1909. This unexpected news caused a worldwide press sensation when it appeared the next day as the banner headline of the New York Herald, then the city’s predominant newspaper.
When Cook landed at Copenhagen, he was treated as a hero and showered with honors. At the height of Denmark’s adulation, word came from Labrador that Peary, after 23 years of intermittent attempts, had also reached the North Pole, but nearly a year after Cook, on April 6, 1909. When news of Peary’s success reached Cook at a celebratory dinner given by reporters in his honor, he offered his heartiest congratulations to Peary. For his part, Peary denied Cook had ever been at the North Pole when he sent a wire to the New York Herald saying that Cook “had simply handed the world [a] gold brick,” as is discussed in the volume Cook and Peary by this author.
Thus began perhaps the greatest geographical dispute of all time, the Polar Controversy, over who was first to reach the North Pole. It remained front-page news for four months, and even today both Cook and Peary attract a small group of ardent supporters who profess to back the true discoverer.
Initially, the public favored Cook for his dignified demeanor in the face of the ungentlemanly accusations that made Peary look to most like a very poor loser. But eventually a coordinated press campaign financed by Peary’s millionaire backers began to erode the public’s trust in his rival’s credibility. First, Peary claimed that Cook’s two Inuit companions, whom he had interviewed in Greenland, stated that on their journey with Cook they had never been out of sight of land and therefore could never have been even within hundreds of miles of the North Pole. Second, Cook’s sole witness to his claim to have ascended Mt. McKinley in 1906 swore in an affidavit that the climb was a hoax. Finally, two men swore additional affidavits in which they claimed Cook had hired them to concoct a set of fake astronomical observations that would aid him in proving he had been at the North Pole. When Cook submitted his polar “proofs” to scientists in Copenhagen, they found no evidence of these alleged forgeries, but they also were unable to find, in the words of their official decision, “any proof whatsoever of Dr. Cook having reached the North Pole,” as recounted in Cook and Peary. Shortly before Copenhagen’s decision, Cook vanished and his whereabouts remained unknown for nearly a year.
Cook later claimed he was unable to present convincing proof at the time because Peary had forbidden Harry Whitney, a rich hunter who had overwintered in Greenland, to transport any of the belongings Cook had entrusted to him when Whitney traveled back to the US aboard Peary’s ship. Cook maintained that these belongings included notes, navigational instruments, and data critical to proving his case. Nevertheless, the negative verdict of the scientific tribunal in Copenhagen, which Cook himself had chosen, taken together with his abrupt disappearance seemed to cement his newfound status as a contemptible cheat. With Cook’s priority apparently discredited, Peary was able to claim that he had discovered the North Pole.
The dispute did not end there, however. Peary was retired with the rank of Rear Admiral in 1911 after a series of Congressional hearings that seriously damaged the credibility of his own narrative of discovering the North Pole, while Cook spent years on the lecture circuit repeating his story of a little man’s struggle to regain his honor against the false attacks financed by Peary’s powerful backers. The dispute eventually reached the halls of Congress, where it was fought out by professional lobbyists hired by each explorer. Later, as the US’s entry into WW I loomed, the public eventually lost interest, but the controversy was sustained by a few avid partisans who pored over the public record and found many things in Peary’s story of his own conquest that did not seem quite right, or even possible.
Peary died in 1920 and was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Cook went into oil promotion and was convicted in 1925 of mail fraud. After being sentenced to more than fourteen years at Leavenworth penitentiary, he was paroled in 1930 after becoming its most popular inmate for his compassionate medical care of fellow prisoners. Once off parole, he attempted to reassert his claim to the North Pole after 1936 but was unsuccessful. He died in 1940, just after receiving a full pardon from President Roosevelt.
The story of Cook and Peary’s Polar Controversy, begun through periodicals and eyewitness accounts published at the time, succeeded both men in the form of secondary literature that examined the controversy in greater depth. This essay will examine the major accounts and studies that shaped public perceptions of this monumental dispute over time.
Robert M. Bryce is the retired head librarian of Montgomery College in Germantown, MD. He is an independent scholar focusing on polar exploration, and the author of two books and numerous papers, articles, and book reviews on the subject.