Few heroes suffered harsher falls from glory than Dr. Frederick
Cook, the Brooklyn physician who limped out of the Arctic in
September 1909 to announce that, 17 months earlier, he had
discovered the North Pole. The Big Nail, as some explorers then
called the Pole, was the expeditionary Holy Grail at the time,
and the world exulted in Cook's conquest. King Frederick of
Denmark received him in Copenhagen. In New York a Broadway cafe
came up with a "Cook cocktail." It was said that three of the
drinks would send you north to the Pole.
But the explorer's acclaim was short-lived. Five days after
Cook's triumphant emergence from the Arctic, his rival Robert E.
Peary cabled from Labrador to say that he alone had stood at 90
degrees north and that Cook was a fraud. "He has not been to the
Pole on April 21st, 1908, or at any other time," Peary told The
New York Times. "He has simply handed the public a gold brick."
When Cook, who said he had entrusted his field notes and
instruments to a wandering sportsman in northernmost Greenland,
failed to produce sufficient navigational proof of his feat,
some newspapers branded Cook "the North Pole Swindler."
Peary, who had succeeded Cook as president of the Explorers
Club, went on to use the club's clout and his ties to the Times
and the National Geographic Society, to disparage Cook's 1906
claim to the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, North America's
The world had long since dismissed Cook as a charlatan when in
1923, a Fort Worth judge sentenced Cook to 14 years and nine
months in prison for fraudulently promoting oil stocks. "Time
will bear out claims that I have for myself," Cook told
reporters after he was paroled in 1930. "Time, and a final
examination of the records." A measure of vindication came when
President Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned Cook after he suffered
a stroke in 1940. "Great ... happy," the 75-year-old Cook
uttered upon seeing the certificate. Then he sank into a coma
and died three months later.
The controversy over Cook's claim to having reached the Pole
still smolders among armchair explorers. Five decades after his
death, the Frederick A. Cook Society, a group of 130 members
based in Hurleyville, N.Y., is working to rehabilitate the
explorer's reputation. A breakthrough occurred in 1984, when the
Peary family authorized the National Archives to take
restrictions off private documents that cast doubt on Peary's
claims regarding the polar controversy. Peary's expedition
diary, for example, contained no record of the 30 hours he
allegedly spent at the Pole. Even the National Geographic
Society, Peary's sponsor and steadfast advocate, acknowledged
the explorer's "astonishingly slack" navigation in a skeptical
1988 assessment of Peary's papers by Wally Herbert, an explorer
who traveled by dogsled across the Arctic Ocean terrain in
"Peary's claim to the North Pole is the biggest scientific hoax
of the 20th century," polar historian Ted Heckathorn says. From
the reams of Peary's unsealed documents, Heckathorn plucked an
item of great interest to Cook advocates: a signed check for
$5,000 purportedly used to bribe Cook's climbing companion to
say that Cook never reached Mt. McKinley's summit.
Had Cook reached the summit after all? Last year Heckathorn and
a team of climbers retraced Cook's route up McKinley's rarely
traveled East Ridge. The views they encountered from its upper
elevations perfectly matched Cook's descriptions and sketches,
confirming, in their minds anyway, that Cook climbed to at least
11,700 feet--6,000 feet above the point at which he was said to
have turned back.
Five years ago the Cook Society's historian, Sheldon
Cook-Dorough (no relation to Frederick), put his thriving
Atlanta law practice on hold to dedicate himself to researching
the Texas oil fields that Cook promoted before his prosecution.
Cook-Dorough's conclusion: While Cook languished in Leavenworth
penitentiary for overstating the fields' value to stockholders,
his former holdings yielded "substantial amounts of oil, at
least five million barrels, and untold sums of money." The
acreage had delivered, as Cook had promised.
Cook's partisans have abundant, fresh fodder for the debate on
their hero's accomplishments. Before Cook's granddaughter, Janet
Vetter, died in 1989, she bequeathed to the Library of Congress
20 boxes containing perhaps 10,000 items pertaining to her
grandfather: diaries, photographs and correspondence. Among
other things, the boxes contained Cook's unpublished memoir,
Hell Is a Cold Place. "It doesn't have the bitter tone you might
expect," says Cook's great-nephew Warren Cook, who as a child
received an Eskimo suit from his Uncle Freddy. "He was
comfortable with what he'd done, and he was content to let
history make its own judgment."
Michael Cannell's book "I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism" will be
published this month by Crown.