Thursday 30 April 2020

J'Accuse! - The case of Stephan Goldner - Britain's Dreyfus

 Images from the wonderful AMC's The Terror

I shamelessly appropriate the language of Émile Zola's celebrated exposé of the notorious Dreyfus Affair to emphasize the injustice meted out by history to Stephan Goldner.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French army captain of Jewish descent who was wrongfully accused and convicted of treason in late 1894. He suffered five years harsh imprisonment but was eventually exonerated and promoted in July 1906.

Stephan Goldner was an Hungarian born industrialist of Jewish descent who was accused of fraud, almost immediately exonerated, yet strangely he was still condemned and demonised by the court of public opinion for 150 years.

Goldner built a successful business supplying canned food for the Royal Navy and the civilian market but when defective products caused the collapse of the venture and a public scandal in January 1852, the question was raised as to whether a similar failure may have caused the disappearance of Sir John Franklin's expedition which had departed for the Arctic seven years earlier.

The Times article had phrased the question quite neutrally, "Suppose, for instance, Franklin and his party to have been supplied with such food as that condemned...", it did not pretend to have the answer. Nonetheless, within a few years, the supposed poisoning of the Franklin expedition was being treated as established fact, and it grew from there.

    ... but worst of all they were supplied with Goldner's canisters of meat, which were (as subsequently proved to be) putrid and unfit for human food

                John Ross, 1856, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin: a narrative of the circumstances &c.

    ... it was now proved beyond doubt that their lives were sacrificed by the accursed cupidity of the contractors who supplied them with putrid provisions.

                Alexander Bryson, 1859, Proceedings of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh

    It seems probable that the men of the expedition might have survived for a longer period but for the fact that the animal food which they were supposed to carry with them in the shape of preserved meats had actually rotted in its cases. ... To supply putrid poison for naval men engaged upon a public duty is to play the part of the enemy and the traitor.

                The Spectator, November 19, 1859

    To me one of the most awful things in connection with the Franklin catastrophe was the discovery afterwards of tins professing to be filled with preserved meat, but which were only packed with stones. These had been supplied by a contractor Named Goldner in England. When the poor unfortunate explorers came to open them, what must have been their horror on discovering the fiendish act - I call it nothing else - that had been perpetrated? These tins were eventually found by one of the searching parties; but of course on their return to England the man - who deserved hanging several times over - had disappeared.

                Albert Hastings Markham, 1895, The Windsor Magazine

    Like most evil men, Stephen Goldner would have passed unnoticed in a crowd.

        Cookman, 2000, Ice Blink

John Barrow, The Admiralty's archivist and son of  the long serving Admiralty Second Secretary who had set the expedition in motion, was the first to try to set the record straight, his letter appearing in the Times just two days after the scandal broke.



    Sir,— Having read in The Times of to-day the account of
    the examination of the preserved meats at the Royal
    Clarence-yard, supplied under Goldner’s contract, and of
    the contents of the tin canisters, you will oblige me by in-
    serting these few lines, which I trust may in some measure
    counteract the alarm which the concluding paragraph from
    your Portsmouth correspondent cannot fail to have created
    in the minds of the family and friends of the officers and
    seamen of Sir John Franklin’s expedition. Your corre-
    spondent very reasonably supposes, and very naturally too,
    "that if Franklin and his party have been supplied with
    such food as that condemned, and relied upon it as their
    mainstay in time of need, the very means of saving their
    lives may have bred a pestilence or famine among them,
    and have been their destruction."
        No one can dispute this. If it be so, it is a fearful thing
    to contemplate; but I do not myself feel much misgiving
    on the subject. I think I am right in asserting that the
    first supply of preserved meats under Goldner’s contract
    was to Sir John Franklin’s ships. This, of course, can
    easily be ascertained. It is not probable that in his first
    supply anything but the very best provisions would have
    been issued. From that period (1845) Goldner’s preserved
    meats have been in constant use in the navy, and it is only,
    I believe, latterly that they have been found to consist of such
    disgusting material. Disgusting, however, as the material is,
    the state of putrefaction is certainly infinitely worse; but in
    a cold climate this is fortunately not likely to have occurred.
    Had any of the preserved meats, supplied to Sir John
    Franklin’s ships been of a bad description I think it would
    have been known, inasmuch as Capt. Fitzjames remarked
    to me, that "it was not wise to take a new contract for
    preserved meats from a man who was unknown, merely
    because his tender was lower, while another was willing
    to supply the provisions whose meat had been universally
    approved in the navy."
        Captain Fitzjames was alive to the importance of the sub-
    ject, and would doubtless have discovered and made known
    the fact, had it been so, on the return of the transport
    which accompanied them to Disco; but so far from it, I
    possess a letter from that brave officer — the beloved of all —
    in which he speaks to the very contrary of the provisions
    they were consuming.

Barrow makes several excellent points.

He wasn't completely correct in that Goldner’s first government contract wasn't for Franklin’s ships in 1845. There had been a small contract (less than £250) for Henry Dundas Trotter's Niger expedition of 1841. However, the supply for Franklin's ships was a much larger and far more important contract which carried with it the prospect of future sales on a vastly different scale. Barrow's point that Goldner would have been motivated to provide only the very best provisions is perfectly valid as to do otherwise would have been business suicide.

The product had been in use on a large scale for a long time without complaint. The recent report of disgusting material could not be reasonably used to imply a problem with goods provided six or seven years previously.

Commander Fitzjames was an experienced officer very alert to the possibility that a contractor might supply inferior goods. It was after all an everyday occurrence. In fact he was not correct that the preserved provisions had been supplied on the basis of lowest bidder in this case. If there had been a problem with any of the provisions then reports to that effect would certainly have been sent back with the Barretto Junior. On the contrary, Fitzjames' report of the provisions was positive. We also know from a letter of James Thompson, Engineer of HMS Terror, that preserved meat was served out three times per week.

Barrow's final point refers to the empty tin canisters carefully piled up Cape Riley. Actually they were on Beechey Island - the other side of Erebus and Terror Bay. Standard practice was to throw condemmed stores over the side of the ship so the the fact that these cans were all perfectly empty is suggestive that their contents was serviceable and had been consumed. 

Good as these arguments are, Barrow is not speaking in any official capacity. To fully acquit Golder would require the authority of the State. The subject would soon be raised in the House of Commons.


  1. Rather typical that the most ludricous accusation (i.e. Goldner supplying the expedition with cans filled with stones) was made by self proclaimed Arctic/Antarctic genius/visionary A.H. Markham.....

    TBH, the more i read about this man, the lower he sinks in my esteem.

    1. I fully agree. John Rae had to correct a number of errors in Markham's "Life of Sir John Franklin".

    2. I guess an biography of Markham, his self propaganda and how he helped shaping the British adulation on the suffering (to the death) British Arctic/Antarctic hero would be a very interesting window on late Victorian/Edwardian tropes... fascinating PhD subject i guess...(and relevant to this day: "Dunkirk Spirit", anyone ? )

  2. As one who, very hungry, once ate spoiled food. Let me say this, the taste was absolutely horrible. But I ate it. Soon enough, I got very sick. Food poisoning is no joke. Fortunately I recovered.

    I can very easily visualize Lt. Gore's hungry men out on the ice suffering food poisoning.

    1. Some time ago I had a penchant for cooking frozen chicken kievs in a microwave. Never again...

  3. I first heard of the botulism thing from Scott Cookman's Iceblink. The problem I have with his theory is that it would have only taken one bite of botuli infested food to have killed the person who ate it. I don't believe for a second that a ship's crew could have not gotten a poisoned can at some point. He posits that the men on the sleds were eating the canned goods for some time, I just don't see that as possible. Botulism kills an organism very fast.
    Your blog is excellent, I am adding it to my bookmarks.

    1. My mother was a Public Health visitor in England after the war. She was nursing a patient at home suffering from botulism, it took that person over a year to die

  4. Here's the bottom line, Goldner was a crook driven by greed. He was cheap,
    worked his employees to bone, paid the lowest of wages. Instead of allocating resources to ensure the successful production, canning, packaging, and delivery of quality product products for the Navy, he focused the company's resources on more profitable lines of business such as tanning. Goldner and people of his ilk have swindled billions of tax payer money (over the years) by scheming, swindling, litigating, hedging, and leveraging to win lucrative government contracts. You'll never see people like him sacrifice themselves on the frontlines or volunteer services. They remain way back in the rear contemplating money making schemes at the expense of others.

    1. Looks like you have fallen for the fictional version of history.


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