Polar Controversy, Resolved
By Robert M. Bryce
Chapter One: The Sunrise of Ambition
The prisoner sat in his cell, alone but for his
in confinement, the eye of his mind was free to survey and summarize
sweep of a spectacular career. And when that inner vision had
itself into words, he took up a pencil to preserve them:
They have called me the Prince of Liars,
truth, I am
King of the Luckless.
Brave words. Yet Frederick Albert Cook--physician, explorer, lecturer
author, federal prisoner No. 23118--later admitted that this was his
Life has taken me to the top of the world, and
down into the
Kings and felons, savants and savages, have been
associates; I have
lived in the rarest luxury of civilization, and in aboriginal
Once the far horizon was my only confine, which now is a barred cell
the towering walls of the Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Civilized humanity has hailed me as one of
to snatch the laurels from my brow and place there instead the brand of
fraud and criminal.
Wealth has flowed to me in torrents, then
trickled away to
at last in utter poverty.
But though Fortune has cast me deep in the
plaudits have changed to condemning hisses; though I am penniless and
there is no bitterness in me, for I have three things remaining that
above those which have been stripped from me--my friends, my hopes, and
He had always been an introspective man. Now there
The purview of life is ever the outcome
can never be more than hindsight ... through which to envision the
If we saw life in one whole sphere, ... how much more thorough our
would become. But we see the unit of human endeavor only in
in spectacular sections. History is seldom more than somebody's opinion
of the thrill source of life--the stagy artifice of an upstaged world.
This is to a large extent unavoidable for the mind does not retain the
commonplace in which union of purpose must ever be grounded.
As he paged backward through the mental record of his life to the very
limit of his earliest memories, Frederick Cook must have wondered at
chain of chance and circumstance, the opportunities presented or made,
then taken or turned aside, that had led him to this place and to this
But life's chances are not all our own. A life is
not a story
front to back from birth to death; it is rather a series of related
a chapter in a continuing story passed one to the next as long as life
And so, as for countless other Americans before
Cook's chances were ultimately the result of his immigrant parents'
to leave behind an Old World for the New, to abandon the known for the
unknown, and to strike out on a untried path toward a new destiny. It
a course he, too, would follow, but in a different way.
Looking from that barred window beyond the gray
walls to the
now denied him, and farther still into the limitless expanse of the
Kansas sky, he mused: "It is a long step from the doom of Leavenworth
the sunrise of ambition."
There was little to set Theodor Albrecht Koch
apart from his
A plain-looking man of average height and weight, with his high
and fringe of dark whiskers framing an otherwise cleanly shaven face,
had the look of an Amish farmer. Born on June 8, 1822, in the town of
about 20 miles south of Hamburg, he was the first of his family to
Germany. Why he left is less than clear.
For years he had assisted his father, who held the
in Schneverdingen. After Dr. Koch died, Theodor continued to minister
the sick, despite having no formal medical training. When a licensed
complained of this, the townspeople paid to send Theodor to Hamburg to
study. But they suffered by his absence and petitioned that he be given
his father's concession before he completed his course. Perhaps their
was refused, or perhaps he came to America, like so many other northern
Germans of the time, because he had no prospect of inheritance under
law, the estate falling to the eldest son.
Whatever his reasons, he did come, landing at New
1855. In the
company of several other new arrivals from Germany, he traveled to
then westward into Sullivan County. The concentration of Germans
in the area may have caused him to settle in Jeffersonville after a
stay in Lake Huntington. He must have found the country agreeable,
eventually his three brothers followed, leaving only a sister in
Among the immigrants already established in the
formerly a successful manufacturer of cigars in New York. To escape an
epidemic of cholera that struck that city in 1850, he had taken his
west, up the Hudson to Newburgh by raft, then overland by covered
He, his wife and eight-year-old daughter, Magdalena, had come to
from Frankfurt in 1844. Now they intended to go much farther west. But
passing through the rolling wooded country above the Delaware River,
paused at a place called Beechwoods, six miles west of Jeffersonville.
Here the Longs settled, cleared the top of a hillside and prospered,
family growing to six children.
In Jeffersonville at a community dance Dr. Koch
Magdalena Long. It was an attraction of opposites: he a Lutheran, she a
Catholic; he known for having an excitable temperament, she from a
noted for its reserve; he in his thirties, she still in her teens. But
if there were objections or obstacles, all were overcome. After a
period of courtship, they married on March 12, 1858.
For a year, the Kochs lived in Jeffersonville
before moving to
and finally, in 1860, they settled with their son Theodore in the
of Hortonville at the foot of the Catskills, two miles from Callicoon
on the Erie line.
No doubt they lived a hard yet respectable life.
an extensive practice, cash was scarce; his patients usually paid him
eggs, fruits and vegetables, or an occasional chicken. Of the Koch
15 rocky acres, only two were tillable. But the doctor, fond of horses
and hunting, supplemented the larder with game from the surrounding
There, between Callicoon Creek and Joe Brook, in a
bedrooms and a third room that served as living room and kitchen, the
of children came--first William, then an infant who lived but a few
and then Lillian. The Kochs solved their religious differences through
choice or circumstance, attending the German Reformed church in
where they enrolled their children in Sunday school.
During the Civil War, Dr. Koch found employment as
for recruits entering the Union Army at Goshen. The payroll clerk
him on the roster by the English equivalent of his name, Cook. Having
irritated since his arrival in America by the inability of most
to pronounce his name properly, most calling him "Cox" or "Kotch," Dr.
Koch capitulated long before Appomattox, and "Cook" it remained even
he left the Army's service.
The war was over hardly two months when a fourth
10, 1865. They named him Frederick Albert and called him,
The boy's earliest recollections were of traumatic
experiences. At two,
while playing with his dog, he had leapt upon the stove. One of its
gave way and his foot went into the fire, setting his clothes alight.
feel of the fire licking at his leg was frightening enough, but the
bucket of cold water his mother doused him with was even worse, leaving
him gasping for breath. He next remembered sitting on a table nursing
burns, helpless as his family fought the rising water of the two creeks
lapping at the door. "I watched its advance and cried," he recalled, as
he did at the sight of a small herd of deer driven into the nearby
by hunters. There was the sound of shots, and his tears came at the
that the beautiful, terrified creatures must die.
Even to one so young, death already had meaning,
it was so
The Longs had fled from New York before its shadow, but few families
it completely. Even remote Sullivan County offered no safe refuge, and
the Cooks were no exceptions.
They had been fortunate. The cemetery was dotted
they had lost only one child. And with the addition of August Heinrich
in 1868, they now counted five healthy children. But the family's life
was irrevocably redirected when Dr. Cook, after a brief illness, died
pneumonia on May 10, 1870, at age 47; Freddy was not quite five:
Of this tragedy I only remember Father's
and his mud colored suit left hanging on the wall after he was buried.
I do not remember the funeral, but I do remember tears and a cold cry
made me shiver at sometime about the coffin.
Magdalena Cook used the money from her husband's small life insurance
to build a one-story-and-garret frame house on the high banks above the
creek, out of harm's way. Little was left to live on, but with tenacity
and frugality the Cooks scratched a living from what they could grow or
earn at odd jobs, while Mrs. Cook tried to collect unpaid doctor bills
to buy food and clothing. The hard times brought with them hard lessons
for young Frederick:
For a few years we struggled for a bare
and potatoes with apples and an occasional rabbit or woodchuck linger
my memory of food delicacies.... Life here muse represent the beginning
of my schooling for the hardship to follow in wild adventures to the
of the unknown.
The children walked the three quarters of a mile to school on Callicoon
Creek. As in many rural places where children provided the farm labor,
the session lasted only four months. In his later years Frederick Cook
would look back on that one-room schoolhouse next to the graveyard and
call it "the most attractive place on Earth." It was through its door
he first entered the world of ideas, a world he embraced and held fast
for the rest of his life. Geographical locations especially interested
him, and he gathered together every book on the subject that he could
Not all was happy at school for Freddy Cook,
he seemed always to be in trouble. Rivalries between the town boys and
the country boys often led to fistfights. He and his brothers sometimes
came home battered and bruised and got an additional whipping to
Despite these frequent scrapes, Freddy was known
Perhaps he had inherited his mother's reserve along with her large
features and remarkably fine, clear blue eyes, set below asymmetric
that gave his face an open yet contemplative look. Or maybe the slight
lisp with which he spoke made him think better of speaking too much and
exposing himself to ridicule.
He had but one particular friend, Peter Weiss--PY,
as he was
PY stuttered. Perhaps their shared speech impediments made it that much
easier to talk to each other and to form a common bond. Freddy and PY
to have adventures and visit forbidden places, like the local swimming
hole, where Freddy's career almost ended when he plunged into its
and nearly drowned. "I shall never forget that struggle," he recalled
after, "and though I nearly gave out, in that short time I learned to
It seems to me now I have been swimming and struggling ever since."
But life is never all hardship for a growing boy.
was wild enough for any imaginative youngster to find adventure in.
springs fell from its hillsides, and it was full of secret nooks and
to explore. Freddy would often venture into the woods, alone or with
brothers, as far as time and nerve allowed, then find his way home,
the position of the sun as a guide.
Without a father, the Cook brothers learned to be
early age. Will Cook remembered that Freddy, especially, depended upon
no other if he felt his own efforts would succeed alone. When he
to build a "bunker," he went out and chopped down the young trees
and out of them he fashioned a sled of such quality that it had no
in the entire neighborhood.
In a countryside so broad and high, with so much
imagination, Freddy Cook found himself drawn to the natural world
him and wondered at the things he didn't understand. He learned by
and this led to some curious childhood experiments:
I had noted that if I looked at my dog
long enough I
get his attention, and the dog seemingly got the same idea, for he made
some experiments of his own. At these times he would look intently for
prolonged periods. If in due time my eyes did not respond, a little
would come from a seeming distance. When the eye connection was made he
would come to my side and proceed to talk. His language was wordless,
In 1878 Mrs. Cook, seeking better opportunities, rented out the farm
$25 a year, and the family took the train 48 miles east to Port Jervis.
The two eldest boys were old enough for outside work, and even Fred,
12, held part-time jobs while attending Mountain House School.
I next tried the lesson my dog taught me on
... I tried to get her attention from various
parts of the
room by prolonged
gazing without success. Finally I made a boyish discovery that pleased
me very much. There was just one place from which I could always get
attention. That was when I came between her and the stove.... It was
the heat waves that carried my gaze impulse....
What is the language of the unsaid message of
His first was in a glass factory in Port Jervis.
as a lamplighter, cleaning, filling and lighting the naphtha lights
lined the streets of the town. He also helped his two older brothers
the spring log-rafting on the Delaware, which provided thrills they all
looked forward to with great anticipation.
But even with what the boys brought home and the
taking in sewing, Lena Cook was hardly better off than she had been in
Hortonville. She sent Theodore to New York City to try to find steady
He secured a job in a beer keg factory, and a year later she followed
the other four children. They found shelter at the foot of South First
Street in the shadow of the Havemeyer Sugar Refinery, along the East
in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There, August died of scarlet
fever, but life for Fred and the other children continued on its
Now I was the baby, about 15 years old.
and I went to school but worked on Saturdays and Sundays. Slowly a way
was made out of poverty to scant but secure subsistence.
Fred was now a restless youth seeking an ambition but lacking in
I never liked New York. It was slushy and dirty
hot and sweaty in summer. There were no nearby woods in which to enjoy
what a bare footed boy wants, but it did serve well to co-ordinate that
Indian inclination deep seated in all country boys of my age and time.
This was, I suppose, that nebulous desire
itself in early youth and later is asserted in strivings toward some
sometimes spectacular aim.... I was discontented, and from the earliest
days of consciousness I felt the burden of two things which accompanied
me through later life--an innate and abnormal desire for exploration,
the manifestation of my yearning, and the constant struggle to make
meet, that sting of poverty, which, while it tantalizes one with its
grind, sometimes drives men by reason of the strength developed in
its concomitant obstacles to some extraordinary accomplishment.
Through the good offices of a distant relative, William Ihrig, Will
found work selling vegetables in Manhattan's Fulton Market. Mr. Ihrig,
impressed by Will's industry, agreed to hire his brother as well. Fred
worked in the market on weekends from 2 A.M. until noon. Coming from a
household with the plainest kind of fare, he marveled at all the things
there were to eat in the world. There he saw for the first time many
edibles, including mock-oranges, as grapefruit were then called.
During the week Fred attended P.S. 37, two blocks
the principal took an interest in him and encouraged his studies. He
from grammer school at 16, but as Theodore, and then Will, married and
assumed new responsibilities, Fred had to help support his mother. He
a job as an office boy and rent collector for a real estate agency in
then enrolled in night school.
Fred accumulated enough money to buy a second hand
he printed advertising bills for his employer and local merchants, as
as greeting and calling cards. These generated such a demand that he
to devote his full time to printing. Proud of his work, he designed his
own business card. Bordered by a Chinese scene of a boy fishing by a
it read: "F.A. Cook, Job Printer, 255 South First Street, Brooklyn."
But Fred Cook always had bigger ambitions. His
one of the boys should follow in their father's footsteps and become a
doctor. The idea fired Fred's imagination; he decided the advantage
fall to him.
By now he had finished his high school studies
with a new
goal, set out to accomplish it. Fred sold his printing business and
the profits to purchase a milk route in the hope that he could earn
to pay for a medical education. Milkmen delivered between 2 and 8 A.M.
He reasoned this would give him a source of income and leave his days
to finish his college course.
He started out with a small hand-delivered route
and a manageable amount of time, buying his milk from Rauch and
a local milk wholesaler. This milk, a new, richer product from Delaware
County, quickly outstripped demand for the standard milk then coming
Orange County. As a result, Fred's business flourished, and his
heard opportunity knocking. They gave Fred a loan for expansion, and
it he bought his first wagon and a big brown mare for $150. Theodore,
had become an expert woodworker at the barrel factory, helped modify
wagon to carry glass bottles, which were just beginning to replace the
tin cans then in use. Fred moved in with Will on Bedford Avenue and
a milk depot there, renting stable space from their next-door neighbor,
Mr. West, a manufacturer of ketchup and pickles.
In 1887 he entered the College of Physicians and
University. As the son of a physician, he received a reduction in his
In that simpler time, an entrant needed only to be
and 21 years of age. Two winter lecture series were prerequisites to a
course in practical anatomy and the passing of satisfactory written
in surgery, chemistry, practice of medicine, materia medica, anatomy,
and obstetrics. Practical examinations on a cadaver and for urinalysis
competency were also required before a medical degree could be
Between school and his growing business
enterprise, Fred Cook
little time for leisure. He went to work at 1 A.M. and worked through
night, reporting to school by 9, where he remained until 4. Between
and 1 in the morning, he slept. He worked every day, but on weekends,
there was no school, he tried to catch up on his sleep. Whatever few
waking moments the young man had, he spent in studying.
It took an hour and a half to travel from Brooklyn
to New York
23rd Street Ferry. When the college moved from 23rd Street to 59th
Fred Cook could not afford the extra hour of commuting time entailed.
transferred to New York University, located more conveniently at 26th
His milk business continued to grow, so Fred
had done him years before by making him his partner. They soon owned
horses and were delivering as far as Rockaway Beach, and their milk
now also carried specialties, such as sweet cream and fresh print
As Will took on his share of the responsibilities,
for other shines. One was more sleep. The grueling schedule he had been
keeping had taken its toll; now there was a better attitude for
more time for study and a chance for a social life.
When a stupendous blizzard struck New York on
effects of the unexpected storm were devastating. All transportation,
the elevated railways, ground to a halt, and what electrical and
service existed was cut off. At least a hundred people perished, some
attempts to reach their places of employment on foot. Hundreds of
froze to death along with tens of thousands of the sparrows that
Fred's medical classes were suspended, and the
others, closed down. But the storm only posed another opportunity for
Cook brothers to show their ingenuity. Coal was selling at fabulous
much as a dollar a pail at the height of the storm. So Theodore put
on an 18-foot boat he had built, and hitching their horses to it, Will
and Fred made coal deliveries over streets made impassable to ordinary
vehicles by the three-foot drifts.
Patches of snow from the "Dakota Blizzard" still
as late as June. By then, Fred Cook had met Libby Forbes at a
festival at the 2nd Street Methodist Church. Miss Forbes, one of four
sisters from Greenpoint, worked for the French, Shriner and Urner shoe
factory as a stenographer, an unusual job for a woman. Soon Fred was
Libby regularly. After a courtship of less than a year, Fred proposed.
Her family, at first opposed, since Fred was still in school, relented,
and the couple married in the spring of 1889.
Fred's final examinations were due in June 1890,
was expecting their first child, and with Libby no longer employed,
was short. Somehow, though, he managed to keep up with his business
during those first months of married life and even found time for
instruction in medical diagnosis.
As summer came round, since Fred was not yet a
selected a homeopath for the delivery. There were complications. The
girl lived but a few hours, and in a week Libby Cook was gone, too, a
of peritonitis. Fred was shattered. The future had suddenly become a
Months of loneliness and depression set in.
Word soon arrived that he had passed his
examinations and was
physician. Dr. Frederick A. Cook decided to lose himself in his new
He sold his share in Cook Brothers Milk and Cream
from the proceeds bought the furnishings and equipment for an office
from Brooklyn and its sad memories.
Though 25 and a widower, Dr. Cook still looked
do something about it:
Young doctors of this period considered
a full crop of whiskers to better express the dignity of their
I ... allowed my hairy head to fill out to artistic ... fashion. Thus
in facial pride, armed with a diploma from one of the best medical
of the land, endowed with the usual self-confidence of university
and vested with the sublimity of my profession, I opened an office in
York [at 338 W.] 55th St.
He thought all he had to do was hang out his shingle and the patients
come. But even the addition of his whiskers failed to bring them to his
door. He learned quickly that it took hard work and patience for a new
doctor to build up a practice. Suddenly time, which had always been so
scarce, became a burden. Dr. Cook sought escape in reading:
To this time I was an average young man
had risen out of poverty with an unusual hunger for knowledge. I had
very few books of fiction and among books of travel only Dr. Kane's
[Explorations] and Stanley's [In] Darkest Africa.
Kane's Arctic Explorations! What other book set so many young men to
of adventures untold? Perhaps the fact that Elisha Kent Kane was a
himself caused the young doctor sitting in his empty office to look
the covers of that book Dr. Kane had left like a spell upon the nation.
With time to think and plan there developed a
longing to get
the world into the unknown to blaze the trail for a life of useful
A review of it published in the London Saturday
be taken as a prefigurement of Dr. Cook's own future, and of a book
he would write about his past:
Looked at merely from a literary point of
a very remarkable one.... The general impression which the book conveys
is graphic to the last degree, and its effect is greatly heightened by
what Dr. Kane speaks of as defects. It consists almost entirely of
from a journal kept at the time, connected by narrative matter more or
less compressed from it. An attentive reader can trace the feelings and
prospects of the little knot of icebound prisoners, and of their
leader with extraordinary clearness, for Dr. Kane is obviously a
man, and by no means unaccustomed to watch the process of his own mind.
The hoping against hope, the determination to look at the bright side
things, and the effort to write himself into a cheerful frame of mind,
which may be detected in the lines penned by the light of the dim
lamp, in the filthy little den into which the crew was crowded--penned,
too, when all but the writer had half forgotten their trouble in
to us far better worth having than any amount of artistic composition.
What thoughts stirred in Frederick Cook's mind as he read the
adventures of this man, who managed to pack into 37 years of life more
than an average lifetime of experiences? Dr. Cook had wished to escape.
Perhaps in the pages of Arctic Explorations he first glimpsed the route
of that escape, and in Dr. Kane's vivid descriptions of the wild people
and places of Greenland he heard for the first time the mysterious call
of the North.
One morning in the very early spring, as he was
Telegram, he chanced upon a small notice datelined Philadelphia:
Robert E. Peary, Engineer at the Naval
in fitting our his expedition to North Greenland. As is well known, it
is his intention to try to ascertain the extension of Greenland
by undertaking an excursion on sledges over its snowcovered interior.
companions on the expedition are not yet decided upon.
Dr. Cook had hoped to absorb himself in work and forger his recent
losses. But the work did not come, and there was no relief from his
Now, before his very eyes, had appeared an avenue for complete escape.
He immediately wrote to Peary, volunteering to serve as his surgeon
pay, then waited impatiently several weeks before a telegram arrived
him to come to Philadelphia.
That trip must have been an adventure in itself.
Up to then he
left his native state except for brief excursions into Pike County,
across the Delaware River from his boyhood home.
As he walked up the steps at 4118 Elm Avenue,
he didn't know what to expect. Could he hope to be selected with so
experience? His knock at the door was answered by a charming young
who showed him into the drawing room, where her husband was sitting in
Robert E. Peary, Civil Engineer, U.S. Navy, was an
figure as he rose to shake the young doctor's hand. He was 34 years old
and six feet tall, his ruddy complexion set off by his sandy, reddish
and an even redder mustache, large and twisted to pointed ends, which
obscured his narrow mouth. When he smiled, a fine set of white teeth
in his squared jaw, marred only by a space between the two front ones.
He looked every inch the picture of a proud naval officer. But it was
eyes, most of all, that one noticed. Stern and steely gray-blue,
the smiling face, they had a veiled appearance that was hard to
yet they seemed to look right through a man.
Peary invited the doctor to sit down. The tall
figure of his
lovingly on her husband's shoulders as he outlined his plans to his
With a company of five or six members I
Whale Sound, on the west coast of Greenland, in 77 [degrees] 35'
in the month of June or July. We shall spend the remainder of the
and autumn in erecting a hut for our wintering, lay in an abundant
of meat, make scientific investigations and excursions to the inland
and, if the season is favorable, also establish a provision-depot near
the south corner of the Humboldt Glacier. In the course of the winter
shall prepare sledges, "ski," clothes and travelling outfit, and
running on "ski," and Canadian snow-shoes, for which purpose the head
Whale Sound is well adapted.
After Lieutenant Peary finished the outline of his expedition, there
many questions for the doctor to ask and to answer. They discussed the
techniques of fieldwork. Peary had been in Nicaragua and had made a
of Greenland, but he readily admitted that he had yet to master the
of arctic research.
When spring begins, four or five of the company
inland ice for the Humboldt Glacier, one or two remaining behind to
care of the house. If good progress is made, we shall continue from the
Humboldt Glacier to the head of Petermanfjord. From here two or three
us will push on, whilst the others return to Whale Sound with the
provisions for the home route. Those in advance will continue to
Osborne fjord, go farther on to the head of De Long fjord, and finally
push on towards the northernmost point of Greenland. When this is
and its geographical position determined, the party will return by the
same route to Whale Sound, and the expedition will take the first
to return to America.
Dr. Cook's first impression was that of "a
and a strong character." Peary questioned him closely as to his
but the doctor confessed he had few beyond good health, his medical
and a strong desire to walk where no others had gone before.
"The life up there under the Pole is terribly
the expedition is going we will be as much out of touch with the world
as we would on another planet. Death will be hovering near us always.
of us more than likely will never return to civilization. I advise you
not to go if there is any fear in your heart."
But Frederick Cook had already had his taste of
death. "I am
to take the chances," he replied. "This is my great opportunity, and I
won't be held back by dread of hardships." But as he said the words he
shivered a little, inwardly, at the picture Peary painted.
By the end of the afternoon, it was agreed. Dr.
Cook would be
of the North Greenland Expedition. The Pearys asked him to stay for
but he excused himself, saying he had another engagement in New York.
he walked down the steps of the Pearys' Elm Avenue apartment building
saying goodbye, he saw more than the green expanse of Fairmount Park
away before his eyes:
A new school of life now in prospect came
horizon. The first pages of the art of poleward travel were soon to be
set into my book of endeavor. This was quite as exciting as the actual
execution of the dream of future adventure.
© 1997 Robert M. Bryce