Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arctic Explorer Mystery

Dr. Bessels Speaks

The final witness was Dr. Bessels, and Robeson invited the surgeons general of the Army and Navy to question the German about medical and scientific evidence.

Emil Bessels portrait
Emil Bessels portrait
Bessels was a slight man, short and slim, with a stern nose, piercing ice-blue eyes, a muttonchop beard and a thick head of hair the color of wet sand.
Robeson asked the doctor about reports of conflicts on the ship, but Bessels was dismissive.
"Some kind friends wanted to make out that we had a mutiny on the ship," he said sarcastically. Bessels insisted that the misunderstanding about journal-keeping was a minor disagreement -- nothing more.
Curiously, he presented the signed agreement between Hall, Bessels and meteorologist Frederick Meyer that resolved the issue. The document had come from Hall's lost personal papers.
Bessels explained that he found the single document "on the ice" on the day that the castaways' floe broke away from the Polaris. The German gave a detailed account of his treatments of Hall, and he speculated that the rapid change from cold to warm when he returned to the ship after two weeks on the sledge journey may have caused apoplexy, or a stroke.
The surgeons general were collegial in their questioning of Dr. Bessels. He was not asked to explain why Hall would have suspected him of murder.
Robeson, taking his cue from the medical doctors, was equally circumspect.
He politely asked, "Did you have any difficulty with Capt. Hall?"
Bessels' two-word reply --"None whatever" -- went unchallenged.
In December, the board of inquiry made a formal report to President Grant. It concluded, "We reach the unanimous opinion that the death of Captain Hall resulted naturally, from disease, without fault on the part of anyone."
The surgeons general added their own addendum regarding Bessels:
"From the circumstances and symptoms detailed by him, and comparing them with the medical testimony of all the witnesses, we are conclusively of the opinion that Captain Hall died from natural causes, viz., apoplexy; and that the treatment of the case by Dr. Bessels was the best practicable under the circumstances."
The United States government was eager for the embarrassing controversy of the failed polar mission to go away.