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The Polar Controversy between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (June 2021): Later analysts and biographers

by Robert M. Bryce

Later analysts and biographers

Later analysts and biographers

Hall’s first book lay unnoticed for years in the many libraries to which he donated copies, but by the 1930s his ideas had generated several new titles. The first of these, by J. Gordon Hayes, titled Robert Edwin Peary, was not limited to Peary’s polar claim, but was rather a broader examination of Peary’s entire exploratory career. Among other assertions made in the book, Hayes concluded that Peary’s 1906 claim to setting a new “farthest north” record was a fraud. Following Hayes, Lewin published another book in 1935, The Great North Pole Fraud, a thorough debunking of Peary that even contained a lengthy article by Hall on the 1909 murder of Peary’s chief assistant Ross Marvin, implicating Peary. Around the same time Henshaw Ward was slated to publish a similar book denying Peary’s claims, to be titled “The Peary Myth,” but the book was suppressed by Peary supporters after the author’s death.

The first attempt to retell in detail the events of the Polar Controversy appeared in 1960. Despite the debunkers, John Edward Weems’s Race for the Pole accepted the conventional view at the time that Peary had discovered the Pole and that Cook was an obvious faker. When Andrew Freeman’s biography of Frederick Cook, The Case for Doctor Cook, appeared the following year, it countered Weems’s volume well. Like those by Hayes, Lewin, and Ward, Freeman’s book was first begun in the 1930s. Based on solid research, including interviews with Cook, the original, much longer book was initially suppressed, as was Ward’s, by pro-Peary interests. Once published, Freeman’s book was not overtly pro-Cook, though it was very skeptical of Peary. While limited in what it reports, the text is still factually sound, and it establishes Cook as an interesting historical figure.

Although there had been two hagiographic accounts of Peary’s life previously, Weems’s second book on Peary, Peary: The Explorer and the Man, published in 1967, was groundbreaking for its use of Peary’s extensive personal papers. Although largely sympathetic to Peary, the book is surprisingly candid and well grounded in fact.  Even today it stands as a real achievement.

Several derivative and sloppily documented studies of the Polar Controversy appeared over the next two decades, based on these books. Theon Wright’s The Big Nail: The Story of the Cook-Peary Feud, although fairly neutral, clearly favors Cook. Hugh Eames’s scantily researched and sometimes speculative biography of Cook, Winner Lose All: Dr. Cook and the Theft of the North Pole, more openly supports the explorer, but was the first to reject some major aspects of Cook’s disputed Mt. McKinley climb. William Hunt’s To Stand at the Pole: The Story of the Cook-Peary Feud is an ambivalent examination of both Cook’s and Peary’s claims, ultimately leaning toward favoring Peary over Cook. It contains some interesting insights but is largely unfocused, adding very little to the puzzle.

By far the most significant book to appear in the twenty years following Weems’s is Dennis Rawlins’s Peary at the North Pole, Fact or Fiction?, which presents Peary’s North Pole claim as a case study in science fraud. Although indebted to Hall’s original 1917 text, it adds scientific analysis and the interesting findings of Henshaw Ward (as detailed in the section on internet sources below) to the evidence against Peary and dismisses Cook out of hand. It remains the most valuable title on the technical aspects of the Polar Controversy.