SI Vault
Who Found the Big Nail?
Michael Cannell
November 13, 1995
Whether Frederick Cook reached the North Pole in 1908 is still hotly debated
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 13, 1995

Who Found The Big Nail?

Whether Frederick Cook reached the North Pole in 1908 is still hotly debated

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

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 highest peak.

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 1968-69.

"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."

Related Topics
Frederick Cook 1 0 0
Robert Peary 4 0 0
North Pole 11 0 0
Ted Heckathorn 0 0 0
Mount McKinley 6 0 0