Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
But for most of those years between their marriage and Peary’s final homecoming in 1909, husband and wife were separated. Even when the explorer was not in the Arctic, he was on a grueling treadmill of public lectures, which raised money for expenses. At one point he gave 165 lectures in 103 days, netting $20,000.
Jo, whose childhood nickname was “Peppy,” lost a lot of her pep as the children came — a second daughter, Francine, who died in infancy while Peary was in the Arctic in 1899, and a son, Robert, Jr., in 1903 — and, as children do, caught the measles and scarlet fever, or cried incessantly, or needed new clothes. Jo’s letters to her husband began to exhibit the same peevish tone as his mother’s, as both women realized that their places in Bert Peary’s heart would always be secondary.
Had I known how matters stood when we were first married things might be very different now. But I do not feel equal to the separation from you again…(1893)
It is useless for me to say take care of yourself for my sake because that has lost its effect long ago but for the sake of the thing you love best in this world. success and glory, you ought to be careful…(1898)
Surely God will not take (Marie) from me too. She is all I have left to live for. I mean the only one to whom it makes any real difference…(March 1900, after Francine’s death)
You will wish yourself back with your sleek fat Eskimo woman after you have seen me… (April 1900)
When she wrote that last message, Jo was apparently unaware of her husband’s relationship with the Eskimo woman Alakasingwah, who was to bear him two sons. When she learned of it later that year, from Alakasingwah herself, it must have been a stunning blow. It is interesting that in her letters to Peary up to 1900, she generally saluted him as “My darling” or “My husband.” Afterwards, she adopted a cooler, oddly nostalgic tone: “My dear Old Man” (1902), “My dear Bert” (1904), “My dear old sweetheart” (1904).
As for Peary, he was capable of writing passionate love letters, and did, but there is a distracted quality to much of his correspondence with Jo that she was quick to notice. In 1905, for example, he wrote:
Am very sorry I can be with you only in spirit on your birthday, but you will be in my thoughts, you and the years during which you have doubled the joy and value of life for me,’ and I wish you many happy returns, for your sake, for my sake, for the children’s sake. My birthday present I shall deliver in person when I give you your birthday dinner….
The last line is followed by a penciled note — Never did — in Jo’s hand.
Still, she seems to have come to terms with this infuriating husband of hers, and where passion might have died, a deeper form of companionable love emerged. When she heard of his final triumph in 1909, she wrote to him:
At last you have what you value most in this life; now will you give a thought to those who love you better than life?
And he, in his own way, reciprocated. In a 1908 letter from Greenland, describing familiar places they had stayed together when she accompanied him on his early expeditions, he added this wistful note: We have been great chums dear ….
Edward Stafford, Peary’s grandson, who lives in Chester, Maryland, and is a retired naval officer with several books to his credit, was chiefly responsible for persuading his family to open the Peary archives to researchers. Peary himself, Jo, and Stafford’s mother, Marie Peary Stafford, had refused all requests for 75 years. “The explanation I always got was that Granddad was so embittered by the Cook controversy, by all the terrible things that were said about him, that he was afraid his enemies would be able to find something in there, further ammunition to use against him,” Stafford explained. “So they remained under lock and key, in a safe someplace. When my mother died, I came across them and turned them over to the National Archives.”
The Cook controversy involved Dr., Frederick Cook, who three days before Peary sent his famous telegraph message — “Stars and Stripes nailed to the Pole” — announced that he had reached the Pole on April 21, 1908, nearly a full year before Peary’s claim. When he heard of the competing claim, Peary intemperately told reporters not to believe Cook (who had served as physician on one of Peary’s early Greenland expeditions). The charges led to countercharges by Cook’s backers that Peary had not really gone to the Pole. The battle was fought out in newspapers and lecture halls across the nation, as well as in the U.S. Congress, where Cook supporters grilled Peary when he sought promotion to Rear Admiral. Although most authorities now discount Cook’s claims — he was found to have faked an earlier claim to have climbed Mt. McKinley and never produced any convincing documentation of his Polar exploit — the genial doctor from New York, who died in 1940 after spending some years in jail for mail fraud, still has believers.