Photo of the Day

Peter Freuchen with fellow explorer Knud Rasmussen.

Frozen Poop Chisels 

I had often seen dog’s dung in the sledge track and had noticed that it would freeze as solid as a rock. Would not the cold have the same effect on human discharge? – 

– Peter Freuchen

If you were asked to picture an adventurer in your head, chances are you’d come up with the image of Peter Freuchen. A bear of a man, well over six foot tall, with a long, bushy beard, sailor’s cap and rugged, weathered face – and in later years, a wooden leg completed the look.

Above the fireplace in the trophy room of the New York Explorer’s Club is a large oil painting of Peter Freuchen, one of the club’s legendary members. During one of his many Arctic adventures, an avalanche buried him beneath several feet of snow. Luckily, he remembered that the native people often used the frozen excrement of their sledge dogs to make tools. Freuchen quickly moved his own bowels, then cooled and crafted a chisel from his icy poop, using it to dig his way to freedom.

Unfortunately, during the long trek back to camp he suffered severe frostbite and was forced to amputate and eat part of his own leg for sustenance.

If anyone deserves a movie made about them, it’s Peter Freuchen. He stood 6’7″, was around about 300 pounds, and had a gigantic beard to go along with his intimidating stature. Peter Freuchen’s size befitted a man who was larger than life in more ways than one, and his amazing life reads like a boy’s own adventure tale.

Freuchen was an arctic explorer, journalist, author, and anthropologist. He participated in several Arctic journeys (including a 1000-mile dogsled trip across Greenland), starred in an Oscar-winning film, wrote more than a dozen books (novels and nonfiction, including his Famous Book of the Eskimos), had a peg leg (he lost his leg to frostbite in 1926; he amputated his gangrenous toes himself), was involved in the Danish resistance against Germany, was imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Nazis before escaping to Sweden, studied to be a doctor at university, his first wife was Inuit and his second was a Danish margarine heiress, became friends with Jean Harlow and Mae West, once escaped from a blizzard shelter by cutting his way out of it with a knife fashioned from his own faeces, and, last but certainly not least, won $64,000 on The $64,000 Question.

Peter Freuchen, born Lorenz Peter Elfred Freuchen (Feb. 2, 1886 – Sep. 2, 1957) He wrote several scientific papers and numerous popular science books, novels and autobiographical works, primarily focusing on the Arctic Thule region, native culture, and scientific exploration.

He was born in Nykøbing Falster, Denmark. His father was Lorentz Benzon Freuchen (1859-1927) of Danish Jewish descent, and his mother was Anne Petrine Frederikke Rasmussen (1862-1945).

Peter Freuchen was Great Uncle to Arctic Thule expedition organiser, Dr Peter Skafte. Freuchen made a distinct impression upon his nephew, telling arctic tales to young Skafte while putting out cigarettes on his wooden leg (having lost a leg to frostbite in 1926).

Born in the provincial Danish town of Nykøbing Falster in 1886, Freuchen found his spiritual home in the remote landscape of northeast Greenland and commercial success in the United States. His Danish island estate was named Enehoje, but Freuchen spent many years in Thule, Greenland, exploring and living with the Polar Inuit people, and working with Knud Rasmussen, who crossed the Greenland ice cap with him.

He was married three times and was an explorer, polar researcher, writer, film star, diplomat, landowner, resistance fighter and sailor. Quite simply, he was an adventurer.

The Danish native originally fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a sailor, but later decided he’d rather use his skills to sail to the unexplored arctic than fish or transport cargo.

Peter Freuchen  was a smart man, decided that school wasn’t for him after disliking the rigour that comes with studying medicine; he dropped out of school, and in 1906 headed north to Greenland. Using dog sledges, they travelled a total of more than 4000 miles. This was a record distance for an Arctic expedition at the time. In 1912, he was part of the First Thule Expedition. This expedition proved that Robert Peary’s claim that a channel divided Peary Land from Greenland not to be true. It was a 1000 km journey that almost killed them. He spent a tonne of time with the native Inuit, learning the language and customs, and later marrying his first wife, Navarana Mequpaluk, in 1911. He had two children with her; his grandson, Peter Freuchen Ittinuar, became the first Canadian Inuk to be elected as a Member of Parliament, from 1979-1984, representing Nunatsiaq (now Nunavut).

Above the fireplace in the trophy room of the New York Explorer’s Club is a large oil painting of Peter Freuchen.

Growing up in Denmark he might never have known he was a Jew had it not been for his mother. Certainly, his father was not typically Jewish all his life a seaman and South American merchant, whose comings and goings were great events in Peter’s life. The boy stuck to school until he was almost through college, anxious to obey his mother and become a lawyer or a good business man. But adventure beckoned. One morning his mother found his bed unslept in. He had run off during the night, become a sailor, and shipped to Greenland on a whaler. Already a giant, Peter held his own with men twice his age and learned to hurl the harpoon unerringly, to trim sail in a storm, and to laugh in the teeth of death.

Returning home after going as a meteorologist on the Mylius Ericsen expedition among the smaller Arctic islands, Peter found his father waiting for him. The old man was stern and emphatic. He wanted his son to resume his studies. So Peter went back to college to study medicine, hoping thus to be sent among the Eskimos, whose way of life intrigued him, but who needed hygienic instruction. Alas, he proved such a bad medical student that his dean politely advised his parents to turn their son’s ambitions in another direction. This was all the incentive Peter needed. He jumped his bonds again and sailed for London, where he undertook the study of surveying, having read in books of exploration how vitally necessary surveyors were in trackless lands.

Peter Freuchen and his first wife, Navarana Mequpaluk.

A portrait of Peter Freuchen. When Captain Freuchen was fifty years old when he first met the wife of his friend, Rockwell Kent, she exclaimed: “What a wonderful beard!” … “You like it?” and he cut off a great piece and gave it to her.

In 1910 Peter justified his choice of a career. He was chosen to go together with Knud Rasmussen up to the extreme north of Greenland, there to found the station of Thule. It was from there that Peary had left the year before to discover the North Pole, and the two Danish explorers found that Peary had already done much to improve the conditions of the aborigines.

Freuchen, who is a gifted linguist and speaks almost every European tongue including English, had no trouble learning the Eskimo dialect; and soon he was looked upon as an “anagok,” a medicine man in touch with the divine spirits so that his influence over the natives was great. Recognising this, the Danish government appointed him Resident Governor of Thule Colony in 1913, a post he held for seven years. During the years of the World War, the sea blockade prevented ships from coming up, and Freuchen had to resort to the ways of the Eskimos for survival since he could get no supplies. Across the Greenland ice cape, and to distant Ellesmereland he went, foraging for food. Hunting, fishing, travelling with the ever-happy Eskimos, he discovered a new philosophy of life that went far beyond the white man in providing a life of contentment.

Until 1924 Freuchen continued to accompany Rasmussen on expeditions into the remote north of Canada, learned all the Eskimo dialects, learned to love them.

It was here that Freuchen discovered Inuit culture, and for over two generations he lived, hunted and travelled with the Inuit. In 1911, Freuchen married his first wife, an Inuit woman called Navarana Mequpaluk. Navarana bore him two children, a boy named Mequsaq Avataq Igimaqssusuktoranguapaluk and a girl called Pipaluk Jette Tukuminguaq Kasaluk Palika Hager. When she died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1921, the local Christian church refused to allow her burial, and so Freuchen buried her himself.

Peter Freuchen and Navarana Mequpaluk.

It’s said that Freuchen was first drawn to Greenland after watching a student revue portraying the Arctic heroes of the time. After a brief stint studying medicine at the University of Copenhagen, he applied for and was accepted on, the ill-fated 1906 Mylius-Erichsen expedition to uncharted northeast Greenland as a meteorological assistant.

Despite the awful conditions faced on this expedition, which ended with the deaths of not only Mylius but two other members of the party, Freuchen was not put off by the experience; on the contrary, he was hooked.

This seems unbelievable when one hears of the utterly inhuman life Freuchen lived for almost two years – while still just 21 years of age. He spent the winter of 1907-08 manning a weather station 70km away from any other human being, unable even to read because all the books were frozen, with wolves lurking close by outside his hut.

Only on his return to Denmark in the spring of 1908 was he informed about the tragic fate of the expedition’s leaders.

Freuchen returned to Greenland for the first Thule expedition in 1912, which disproved Robert Peary’s claim that a channel divided Peary Land from Greenland. The name was apt: this was a journey to the end of the known world, to the ‘Ultima Thule’ of classic folklore.

His companion was the famous explorer Knud Rasmussen, and after having experienced an incredible 1,000km journey across the ice that almost killed them, the pair’s friendship lasted until Rasmussen’s death in 1933. Freuchen would later write his own account of this journey in ‘Vagrant Viking’ (1953) and ‘I sailed with Rasmussen’ (1958).

The pair of them established the Thule trading station in Cape York (now Uummannaq) in 1910, which Freuchen managed until 1919. Despite wildly differing backgrounds and personalities (Rasmussen was half Inuit, Freuchen, despite his attire, was very much the Dane; Rasmussen had shrewd business sense, while Freuchen was a deep-rooted socialist), there was little animosity between the two explorers.

Peter Freuchen with Navarana Mequpaluk and their children.

A Bohemian before his time, Freuchen seemed to find a spiritual happiness in Greenland. He dressed in full Inuit attire and described the Inuit people as “the happiest in the world”. In turn, Greenlanders named him ‘Petersuaq’, or Peter the Great.

In around 1911, he married an Inuit woman called Mekupalut, who took the name Navarana. The couple had two children: a boy, Merkusak (not much is known of him – he was perhaps mentally ill), and a girl, Pipaluk, born in 1918.

Navarana herself died during an influenza epidemic in 1921; as she was not a member of the church, the local priest refused to allow her to be buried in the official graveyard. Her husband sneaked in one night and buried her in secret.

Freuchen’s autobiography, Vagrant Viking  (full text available online here), vividly describes his life, starting when he was a restless, unhappy youth driven to get out of the ordinary world into the wide open spaces of the north. Perhaps the most memorable anecdote in the book concerns his harrowing escape from a coffin-sized tomb of ice and snow that had immobilized him as he sheltered in a snowbank to wait out a storm.

 “What a way to die…I gave up once more and let the hours pass without another move. But I recovered my strength while I rested and my morale improved. I was alive after all. I had not eaten for hours, but my digestion felt all right. I got a new idea! I had often seen dog’s dung in the sledge track and had noticed that it would freeze as solid as a rock. Would not the cold have the same effect on human discharge? Repulsive as the thought was, I decided to try the experiment. I moved my bowels and from the excrement, I managed to fashion a chisel-like instrument which I left to freeze…I was patient. I did not want to risk breaking my new tool by using it too soon…At last, I decided to try my chisel and it worked!”

Long story short, Freuchen extricates himself with the help of his improvised chisel after about thirty hours of confinement, and crawls three hours back to camp. Crawling, because his feet are frostbitten. After he gets back to camp, gangrene sets in on one foot. The standard Eskimo remedy—a poultice of bloody lemming skin—stops the gangrene by peeling all the flesh and muscle off his toes. Freuchen is understandably dismayed by the skeletal appearance of his ravaged foot. Less understandably, he decides to do something about it, amputating his toes himself with a big pair of pincers and a hammer. Freuchen was a teetotaler, so no anesthetic was apparently involved.

Polar Vortex sufferers, take note. The episode is a perfect illustration of the impulsiveness, determination, and McGyveresque ingenuity that drove Freuchen to adventure and survive in Greenland.

With daughter Pipaluk, he moved back to Denmark where he married former silent film actress Magda Vang Lauridsen, his childhood sweetheart, in 1924. He bought an island, Enehøje in Nakskov Fjord, where he lived a relatively quiet life, writing his novels and memoirs.

“There was a time when this charismatic adventurer was known the world over as a mastodon from the heroic period of polar exploration,” is how Jes Stein Pedersen described him in Politiken newspaper.

Peter Freuchen with his children.

During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Freuchen played an active role in the resistance movement, hiding refugees on his island before his actions were discovered by the Germans and he was forced to flee to Sweden, and later the United States.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Freuchen was consulted by President Herbert Hoover regarding the US military’s Thule Air Base; worked as a journalist for the UN; and, in 1932, wrote the script for and starred in the MGM picture ‘Eskimo’, the story of how an Inuit’s idyllic existence was changed dramatically by the arrival of an unscrupulous white trader.

Despite a lifetime of exploration and adventure among the Eskimos in the Arctic, Captain Freuchen was for long known chiefly to explorers, adventurers, scientists, anthropologists and others interested in Arctic study. His book, “Eskimo,” which had already appeared in several foreign languages. The book was translated and published but did not create a stir. Although a novel, it was considered too ethnographical for popular consumption. And then some Hollywood genius awoke with the inspiration to do a motion picture about the Eskimos. Freuchen’s book was bought, and he was sent with the MGM expedition to Alaska, where the picture was to be filmed.

Up to this time, Freuchen had no idea he was an actor. But after he had chosen genuine Eskimos for various roles, he could not find an actor who would look like the trader in his book so he played the villain’s role himself! His all-around achievement in motion picture history.

Filmed on location and considered a ‘documentary’ of its time, Freuchen played an evil, wooden-legged sea captain who unwisely arouses the wrath of the Inuit hero.

The movie failed to find an audience, even when salaciously repackaged as Eskimo Wife Traders. The charismatic Freuchen made his mark in Hollywood, however, befriending Jean Harlow and, on one memorable occasion, lifting the Platinum Bombshell up over his head in a two-arm press and twirling her over a Hollywood party to the delight of Harlow herself, and guests and photographers. The following Monday, Louis Mayer personally called Freuchen on the carpet to castigate him for imperilling Harlow’s reputation and career. Freuchen is too much of a gentleman to mention it, but apparently, the photographs on Mayer’s desk persuasively documented Harlow’s lifelong disinterest in wearing underwear.

Lifting attractive women over his head was part of Freuchen’s modus operandi. He incensed Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi minder by giving Hitler’s favourite filmmaker a toss for a photo-op at Eskimo’s Berlin premiere. (Parenthetically, Freuchen, a resolute anti-Nazi, distinguished himself in the Danish resistance during WWII.)

In 1956, Freuchen participated in and won the TV show ‘The $64,000 Question’ with the specialist subject ‘The Seven Seas’.

In 1944, Freuchen’s second marriage ended, and he left Europe for New York, where he married Danish-Jewish fashion designer & illustrator Dagmar Cohn in 1945. Dagmar Cohn was a fashion illustrator for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar – in New York.They split time between the city and a second home in Noanck, CT; he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Hollywood producers & stars and American politicians alike. In 1956, he became just the fifth person to win The $64,000 Question, the pre-eminent game show of the era; the topic of the show was “The Seven Seas”. A poor choice, if you were a studio executive looking to hold onto your money… (His appearance on the show starts around 5 minutes into this clip).

Peter Freuchen with wife Dagmar Cohn. Danish scientist on the ice cap at Greenland. 1950s. 

Peter Freuchen and Dagmar Cohn by Irving Penn (1947). In a portrait by Irving Penn, Peter Freuchen wears a vast coat, made from the fur of a polar bear he killed himself, which only serves to emphasise his not undaunting 6’7” frame. Freuchen stands beside his third wife, Dagmar Cohn, whom he married in 1945.

In September 1957, at the age of 71, Freuchen was invited by a production company to join a group of polar explorers who were to be filmed in a staged reunion at the North Pole. Freuchen died of a heart attack while walking up the steps to the plane in Anchorage, Alaska.

His ashes were scattered over the tundra near Thule (Qaannaaq), his spiritual home. Following his death, Freuchen’s obituary in The New York Times observed that, “except for Richard E. Byrd, and despite his foreign beginnings, Freuchen was perhaps better known to more people in the United States than any other explorer of our time.” An irrepressible character whose story struggles to find a match, even in the realm of fiction, his legend continues to find compelling visual metaphor in Irving Penn’s heroic portrait.

Freuchen’s memory was later honoured by the planting of an oak tree and creating an Eskimo cairn near the place, where he’d left Denmark for Greenland back in 1906. It is located East of Langeliniebroen in Central Copenhagen and not far from the statue of The Little Mermaid.

The plausibility of Freuchen’s story (about the chisel, not Jean Harlow) is bolstered by an interview which Wade Davis, the anthropologist of The Serpent and the Rainbow fame, gave to Discover Magazine in 2008. Davis recounted:

During the 1950s the Canadian government forced the Inuit into settlements. A family from Arctic Bay told me this fantastic story of their grandfather who refused to go. The family, fearful for his life, took away all of his tools and all of his implements, thinking that would force him into the settlement. But instead, he just slipped out of an igloo on a cold Arctic night, pulled down his caribou and sealskin trousers, and defecated into his hand. As the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of an implement. And when the blade started to take shape, he put a spray of saliva along the leading edge to sharpen it. That’s when what they call the “shit knife” took form. He used it to butcher a dog. Skinned the dog with it. Improvised a sled with the dog’s rib cage, and then, using the skin, he harnessed up an adjacent living dog. He put the shit knife in his belt and disappeared into the night.

I suppose the moral is, Where there’s crap…there’s hope!

Kottke.org

American Digest

International Policy Digest

AnOther Magazine

The Verge

Full Text of Freuchen’s Autobiography

 


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