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Out in the Cold: Part I

May 10, 2011 10:47 AM | 0 comments

A portion of the Leslie's page -- a little hard to see.

I couldn't get a good scan of the September 30, 1909 page from Leslie's Weekly which I wanted to show you, so I'll try to describe it: in the upper left hand corner there is a photo taken from the back row of a fairground bandstand looking out at a string of promenading milk cows; beside it, in the upper right hand corner of the page, is a photo of a tubby U.S. President tomahawking the air with his right hand as he delivers a speech on the postal service from a bunting-swathed stage; beneath that photo, center-right of the page, is a photo of an ad-hoc triumphal arch festooned with wreathes and flags erected somewhere in Brooklyn to welcome back an arctic explorer who, in the next photo over, center-left, stands garlanded with flowers beside a woman whose face is obscured by a polka dotted veil. Beneath the photo of the Arctic couple there is a photograph of their car being swarmed by men and beside the man-swarmed car we can see another photo of the couple, this time aboard a steam-tug surrounded by children and friends. At the bottom of the page are three photos of Manhattan locales -- J.P. Morgan's at Broad and Wall among them -- decorated in red, white, and blue for the Hudson-Fulton celebration.

Together these photos present an apt portrait of early 20th century ascendant America: fat cows, a fat Taft, the headquarters of a fat cat banker, and, playing nothing less than the central role in this photo spread's pageantry, a man from Brooklyn -- Dr. Frederick A. Cook -- who had just made it to the top of the world.

But in looking closer at those photos in Leslie's Weekly something seemed a little off with the triumphant tableaux -- there on that temporary hero's arch, above a folksy painted portrait of the polar explorer, was a phrase which, as a means of  exultant welcome, seemed a little odd to me: We Believe in You. Why faith where facts should have carried the day? Why doubt at all? Better yet, (and no offense, Brooklyn) but why was the first man to reach the North Pole being feted in Bushwick by the borough president and not Manhattan by the mayor? Though as big an accomplishment in its own day as Lindbergh's flight in 1927, or the moon landing in 1969, not a single person I asked about Frederick Cook lit up with recognition at the mention of his name. And maybe it's because polar exploration just isn't such a hot topic anymore; or maybe it's because, as I discovered, he was largely considered a fraud.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo of Cook from 1909.

Shortly after Cook sent word that he had discovered the North Pole, another announcement came from the long-time explorer, Navy Rear Admiral Robert Peary, that he -- not Cook -- was the one who first set foot at the Pole. These two adventurers were no strangers to each other; in fact, in 1891 Cook had served as surgeon aboard Peary's first Arctic expedition -- even setting the broken leg of his soon-to-be rival after it had been crushed by an out of control iron tiller. The competing claims of these two closely linked men would set off one of the most heated and controversial debates of the day. But just as there is only room enough on this planet for one North Pole, there could only be one heroic, mustachioed, ice-covered discoverer -- and that title would fall to the man pictured below.

"Photo shows Rear Admiral Peary, North Pole explorer, in cockpit of Navy seaplane ready for flight."

After the dust of the dispute settled -- the evidence against him too strong and the evidence backing him up too weak -- Cook fell out of sight for a number of years. In 1922 he resurfaced in Fort Worth, Texas, where he became involved with the government in the promotion of oil stocks. But even there the shadow of charlatanism followed him. He was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to Leavenworth for 14 years. He was paroled in 1930, having served one third of his term.

Photo of a younger, triumphant, Cook  on the right and an older, post-prison Cook on the left. 

After leaving prison, Cook retired to Niagara Falls to write his memoirs and to begin the difficult task of clearing his name. In 1936 he wrote to the American Geographical Society demanding recognition as discoverer of the North Pole, asserting that reports of prominent explorers -- Lincoln Ellsworth and Admiral Byrd among them -- confirmed his claim. At the time of his death in 1940 a number of libel suits against publications which had ridiculed his claims were still pending. On his death bed, as a sort of last gesture of mercy, President Roosevelt announced the full pardon of Cook for his involvement with the oil stock mail fraud -- thereby removing some of the tarnish from the dying man's name.

But Cook, as he himself asserted time and time again, had many supporters. Among them was another Brooklyn polar explorer, Anthony Fiala (about whom -- I promise -- there will be another post later). Here, in a photo dated January 5th, 1935, we can see Fiala shaking Cook's hand, putting his faith on display for the Eagle cameras.

In addition to the Cook materials in our collection, we also have a few photographs of, or related to, Robert Peary -- including this one of sailors and naval officers standing around the memorial dedicated to the Admiral at Arlington National Cemetery.

And although he spent most of his life in Brooklyn, Cook's ashes didn't end up in Greenwood Cemetery (let alone Arlington) but rather in that iciest and most arctic of New York State cities -- the once grand but now largely forsaken -- Buffalo.