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In fact, many subsequent expeditions attempted and failed to follow Peary's route and reach the Pole in 37 days, and the feat was not accomplished until 2005.20
Peary's other problem was one of geography. The geographical data that he returned with, particularly as it concerned Greenland, was simply erroneous and there was debate over whether these were simple errors of science or outright fabrications.21 Henderson claimed that Peary's diary lacked the amount of wear and grease stains one might expect of an object that had been to the Poles, and that the penmanship was far too perfect to be written by a man whose extremities must have been numbingly cold.22
Naturally, none of these things add up to hard and fast evidence - for example, although the penmanship in Peary's diary is clearly quite tidy, there are in fact stains on the pages.23 What constitutes enough staining? That is clearly a matter of interpretation.
Perhaps the problems surrounding Peary's claims were lost in the house of cards that was collapsing all around Cook in the year after he and Peary made their claims. As was mentioned, there was suspicion surrounding the fact that it took nearly a year and a half for Cook to announce that he had reached the North Pole. Plus, Peary was openly doubting Cook and claiming that Cook's Eskimo guides claimed Cook's tales were a hoax.24 but the problems only grew from there.
Cook refused to provide supporting evidence or data to verify his claim. As Maeder points out, Cook repeatedly found excuses to avoid turning over notebooks, astronomical data or anything else that could prove his expedition had succeeded, eventually leading his own lawyer to stop defending him.25 When Cook eventually turned some documents over to the University of Copenhagen, which had previously feted Cook, they were considered so implausible that the university president resigned in disgrace.26
Rumors also began to circulate that Cook had never really climbed Mt. McKinley, which had been one of the defining moments of his career. A crew member (who may or may not have been in league with Peary) claimed that Cook had faked the photo that had been used to prove his ascent, taking it from a promontory much lower on the mountain.27
Was the McKinley photo a hoax? Cook was certainly a talented photographer who took excellent photos, particularly given the technological limitations of the time, during his expeditions. He may not have faked the photo, but the ability to do so was likely well within his ken, which is bound to only feed speculation.
And, really, it didn't matter much at the time. The speculation that Cook had faked the McKinley climb interacted dangerously with his hole-ridden story of having reached the North Pole, and the end result was that a picture of Cook as a fraud began to emerge. Cook was demonized in the world press, and even changed his appearance and fled the United States.28 Cook still had supporters, many of whom believed that the flaws in his polar claims were a result of his poor understanding of geography and astronomy, and not some master scheme. Still, the tide was turning against him and this was an opportune time to step out of the spotlight.
Peary, by contrast, was faring much better in his claim to assert his polar credentials. The National Geographic Society, which, again, had a financial interest in his mission, certified that he had reached the North Pole. A subsequent investigation by Congress produced the same finding, and Congress issued a proclamation in 1911 that Peary had, in fact, been first to reach the North Pole.29 Peary successfully lobbied for a Navy pension and retired, dying in 1920 with his credibility mainly intact.
And, after all, the battle between Peary and Cook was all about credibility - one man's word against the other's - and Cook spent many of the later years of his life further impugning his own credibility. Cook's data, for one reason or another, was always dicey, and whether you believed Cook reached the North Pole or climbed Mt. McKinley largely depended on how you weighted Cook's personal credibility. And Cook's credibility was in tatters in the last years of his life.
Cook spent most of the 1920s in federal prison for mail fraud for his role in running an alleged stock scheme. Cook served as president of a Texas oil company that essentially had no assets and no prospects, but he was able to trade on his notoriety to sell stock to people who eventually lost great sums of money. He was berated at his sentencing, with the judge calling his business "damnably crooked" and reflecting on whether Cook had any decency at all.30
As the scandal was snapped up by the press, it became increasingly easier for the public to believe that perhaps Cook also lied about his polar expeditions. and, really, it would have been as opportune a time as any for Cook to admit that his polar achievements were simply sprung from the machinations of his mind.
But he never did. Cook never relented on his claim to have been the first person to have reached the North Pole. He spent the 1930s trying to persuade Congress and the American Geographical Society to take another look at his claim, and he threatened to sue an encyclopedia publisher for issuing information that was not supportive of his claim.31
By this time, however, Cook was to some extent a broken man; still cheered by some, but a pariah to others. Cook still had enough star power to win a presidential pardon for his crimes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, just months before Cook died. Cook took his battle for redemption to the grave - his headstone was inscribed with the words, "recognized by many as the first discoverer of the North Pole."32
But the conflict between Peary and Cook could not be ended by something as trivial as death. The war between both sides' supporters is waged to this day with a level of vindictiveness that is shocking for a century-old conflict and perhaps offers a modern-day glimpse at how contentious the fight must have been while Peary and Cook were alive.
The Frederick a. Cook Society, run by Cook descendents and other supporters, seems to exist with the dual aims of rehabilitating Cook's image while thoroughly discrediting Peary as an explorer and as a man. In the summer of 2006, the society's Web site at www.cookpolar.orgdevoted almost its entire home page to an article depicting Peary as a racist for his treatment of his African-American colleague, Henson.33
It bears mentioning that Peary's views on race are far from established fact. Other experts claim Peary considered a Henson a dear friend and the fact that he minimized Henson's contributions was more an issue of Peary's ego then Henson's race.34 Bear in mind that Peary also sought to minimize Cook's contributions when the two men were on an expedition together.
The Frederick a. Cook Society also specializes in providing information that rehabilitates Cook. An entire section of the society's Web site focuses on affirming that Cook actually summited Mt. McKinley the biographical section of the site even spins Cook's years in prison, claiming the land in Texas he was hoping to explore for oil eventually produced one of the country's largest reserves.35 the matter is in part glossed over and in part ignored.
One might expect the aggressive tactics of Cook's descendents and supporters, as they are trying to rehabilitate a man who was vilified by many at the end of his life. But Peary's supporters take an equally low road in defending his credentials. The Peary & Henson Foundation (www.pearyhenson.org) offers some interesting information about the lives of Henson and Peary, including biographies and original documents, such as articles and diaries. But the foundation's Web site spends far more energy, almost to a comical degree, assaulting the character of Cook, making sure his integrity is dead and stays buried.
The Web site repeatedly calls Cook a con-man and compares him to the disgraced executives of the former energy company Enron.36 the Peary & Henson Web site is not for the faint of heart. Visitors can learn Cook's prison identification number, read articles supporting the notion of Cook as a fraud, and read scandalous allegations about his family, such as a story about his relatives harassing elderly members of Peary's crew or paying off journalists and academics to write favorable articles about Cook.37
Quite clearly, passions are still running high on both sides and the personal animosity that existed between Peary and Cook during their lifetimes has somehow persisted to this day.
The ongoing vindictiveness of the battle between the Peary and Cook camps is perhaps best explained by the fact that, nearly a century after both men claimed to have reached the North Pole, there are many elements of both men's stories that are still unresolved. History has not selected either man as…[continue]
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