Over a year ago I wrote a post ‘Sympathetic vibrations‘ that mentioned a 1688 pamphlet that included (as satire) a means of finding longitude by using a ‘Powder of Sympathy’. The idea was that this could be used to enduce an on-board dog to yelp at a pre-determined time at a known reference point, thus allowing a comparison with local time and, hence, a calculation of longitude. I noted there the fact that this story has often been presented as a genuine longitude scheme, probably because it is useful in getting across the basic point about time difference.
The other day I came across a genuine attempt to locate a longitudinal position that makes this time difference = longitude difference point just as forcefully. While it would today be discounted as pseudo-science, just as the powder of sympathy, it relates to real events and a story that has a number of nice resonances with ours, despite being a few decades later: Arctic exploration, magnetism (or mesmerism), and longitude.
I found this story in the recent edition of Wellcome History (available online PDF) in a ‘work in progress’ piece by Shane McCorristine on ‘The “Bolton Clairvoyante” and Arctic exploration’. This was on the attempt by some individuals, including Capt Alexander Maconochie, to use clairvoyance (what we might now call ESP) to aid the search for John Franklin, missing with his crew in the Arctic from 1845. Franklin had, of course, begun his Arctic career with an 1818 expedition heading for the north pole, at the same time as Ross and Parry were searching for the North West Passage (see Sophie’s post on Thomas Young’s role in the Board and its ‘Arctic turn’).
In September 1849 Maconochie, a naval officer, professor of geography and friend of Franklin’s, contacted a Lancashire surgeon-apothecary called Joseph W. Haddock, who had been carrying out mesmeric experiments on his patients and had discovered an apparent clairvoyante talent in his maid, ‘Emma L’. She was described by Haddock as of a “nervous-bilious temperament”, and by Harriet Martineau as “a vulgar girl, anything but handsome, and extremely ignorant”, but it was claimed that she could travel – virtually – across the globe in search of someone if she had a sample of their handwriting.
Maconochie provided the necessary sample and Emma apparently declared that Franklin was still alive, and “spoke of the snow, ice, &c, of the place where the writer was; said that many with him were dead, but that he was alive, and expected to get away in about nine months, but that she could not say whether he would be able to do so, but that it appeared to her he would get home again”. This was enough to prompt Maconochie to travel to Bolton and undergo several sittings with Haddock and Emma.
While the sittings gave further hope that Franklin was alive, locating him was, of course, the aim, and so Emma was also presented with maps of Northern America. While her ability to deal with maps, especially a detailed Admiralty Chart, was limited – she “appeared to have lost this instinctive sort of power to mark the place, and I found that no reliance could be placed on her in this respect” – Maconochie sensibly asked her to tell him the time of day during her visions. This naval officer knew well, of course, that time difference would provide longitude difference, although he had to assume that Emma’s visions were exactly concurrent with events in Bolton, and that she, or those she was visualising, knew the local time.
Apparently she did, more or less. It was reported to Lady Franklin that Emma suggested a time difference of six hours, placing the expedition somewhere between 85 and 90 degrees west and she had also pointed to Hudson’s Bay on a large-scale map (85 degrees). Perhaps Emma was not as ignorant as Haddock liked to suggest, for this did at least place the expedition somewhere near the relevant region, although it was considered unlikely. It turned out to be a little too far east, and much too late. Traces of the expedition were found on Beechey Island (91 degrees) in August 1850. Much later it was established that Terror and Erebus were trapped in ice off King William Island (97 degrees) in September 1846 and that Franklin had died there on 11 June 1847.
For McCorristine, this episode is useful for revealing the “interrelated histories of affectivity and Artic exploration”, the connections of intimate spaces, imagined regions and the public interest in Franklin’s fate. He writes, therefore, of “an emergent ‘polyvocal’ Arctic” that challenages “the dominance of imperial histories that focus too closely on the naval, scientific and biographical”. But my thanks too for drawing my attention not only to this intruiging episode in the history of Arctic exploration, but to this 19th-century attempt at establishing longitude-at-a-distance.