Born and raised in Cardiff, South Wales,
Leonard Guttridge served in the Royal Air Force
in the Second World War before coming to the U.S.
in 1948 His first book, a history of the 1914 Ludlow
Massacre (in which National Guard troops opened
fire on striking Colorado coal miners, killing men,
women and some eleven children) was co-written with
George McGovern, just before McGovern's failed presidential
After several books on Naval
history, Guttridge turned to Arctic exploration.
Icebound chronicles the ill-fated 1881
American Arctic expedition led by George De Long
(their ship, the Jeannette, was crushed
in the ice; only twelve of the expedition members
survived). His most recent book, Ghosts of
Cape Sabine, tells the strange and tragic
story of the disastrous Arctic expedition led
by Lt. Adolphus Greely of the U.S. Army Signal
A tale of human weakness in
the face of adversity, the many twists of the
Greely expedition included apparent cannibalism,
a complete failure of confidence in Greely's leadership,
and the strange predicament of the second-in-command,
Lt. Kislingbury. From almost the beginning, he
clashed so severely with Greely that he was soon
relieved of his duties and ordered off the expedition—only
to discover that the ship that had delivered the
expedition to Fort Conger and would have returned
Kislingbury home (where he had left four motherless
sons, his first and second wives—who were
also sisters—having died in quick succession)
had only just sailed. Kislingbury's tragedy was
to spend the next two years—his last—an
exile within the tiny expedition.
What first interested you in the Cape Sabine
I've always liked stories in which
men were not only fighting the elements or an
enemy, but also clashing among themselves or even
within themselves, with their own emotions.
I had written Icebound,
and I was in New York at a party given in honor
of the publication of the book. A couple of men
who were members of the New York Explorers Club
asked, "Now that you've done the Jeannette
story, are you going to do the Greely story?"
I did some initial research
and found those same elements—men against
nature, against the elements, and quarreling amongst
themselves, as well as the elements of suspense
which I think no story can be without.
What about the Cape Sabine story most intrigued
What intrigued me was that at no time
in American history—or any other history—has
there been such a disparate, so unsuitable, so
inappropriate a party of men sent on a mission.
These were soldiers, not sailors. They were being
sent on this expedition because the Secretary
of the Navy didn't want to release any sailors
for the expedition.
The tragedy of the two relief
ships failing to get there [to rescue the Greely
party—both ships were turned back by ice]
was also compelling. The first ship was led by
an Army private! The second expedition shipwrecked
on the way up.
This is your second book about 19th century
Arctic exploration. What interests you about this
subject? How did you first become interested in
When I was a kid growing up in Wales
in the 1920s, one of our heroes was Robert Falcon
Scott. Cardiff, where I lived, was one of the
world's greatest exporters of coal, and this was
the coal used to fuel many expeditions. Scott
stopped there to coal up before his [South Pole]
expedition. In Cardiff, there is a man-made lake
with a large lighthouse to commemorate Scott stopping
there. I always used to go and look at that lighthouse.
Reading about Arctic and Antarctic
travel appealed to me, as it always has to many
people. After writing one or two books, I read
some reference to De Long that got me a little
interested, got me a little intrigued.
I would turn to American friends
and say "Have you ever heard of Scott of
They would say, "Oh, yes."
But the more I looked at these
De Long references, I thought, "Well these
chaps went up there and had all these experiences
and lost more men than the Scott expedition,"
and I thought, "Well, this is like the American
version of the Scott expedition." And I was
surprised that all these friends, these Americans,
knew all about Scott but nothing about De Long.
There had only been one non-fiction
book on the De Long expedition, written from a
rather biased standpoint. I knew that I had a
good exploring story, with all the elements of
suspense and tragedy and so on. But then I learned
that one of the survivors—the engineer,
George Melville—came back to his home, outside
Philadelphia, and they arranged a big party for
him. After the guests had gone that night, he
called two doctors to certify his wife as insane
and commit her to an asylum. He did that because
there were certain details [about the expedition]
he wanted kept secret; it was Melville's deliberate
intention to keep his wife silenced.
I knew then that I had a good
story. And so it was the same with [the Greely]
expedition. As soon as I knew about the second
in command, Kislingbury, that he had lost two
wives and left four motherless children—I
knew there was a story there.
It appears that the historical record of
diaries, letters, government documents, and so
forth, had become rather widely dissipated over
the years. Thus, for you, it seems the research
for this book was part detective story. How did
you decide where to begin your research?
The Library of Congress is where I
began. It was essential in this case because Greely's
official and personal papers were donated by the
last of his daughters to the Library of Congress,
a few years before I began the research.
The next step from there was
the National Archives. Records are kept there
of ships' voyages, ships' logs, and so forth.
I also got in touch with Kislingbury's great-grandchildren.
Your descriptions of the cold and misery
of the Greely party are vivid. Have you ever been
to the Arctic yourself?
From time to time people have said,
"You must have spent some time in the Arctic
yourself." Except for one time when I had
occasion to fly to Iceland during the war, I've
never been above the Arctic circle. But reading
the first-hand descriptions, written by men with
their own freezing hands, I felt as if I was there
with them. If you write a non-fiction book, you
shouldn't pad it with fictionalized dialogue,
so I drew from these sources.
I do have a powerful imagination.
When I read the actual materials, I find myself
on board the ship with them, a member of the party.
When you are reading what these men wrote—many
of these men had lost their faith in Greely as
a leader, and what they wrote about him was quite
scathing—you can't help but feel what they
You mention not fictionalizing dialogue
in a nonfiction book. As a writer, what standards
do you hold yourself to in writing an historically
accurate book? What kind of power does the author
have to "shape" history through a particular
telling of a particular event or incident, and
how do you approach or handle that power?
When I write nonfiction, it's precisely
that—nonfiction. I never write fictional
dialogue. My quotes are verbatim, from letters,
diaries, etc. Where I have a question that can't
be fully answered via research, I just might speculate,
making sure the reader knows I'm doing so. But
this seldom occurs. It's better, and often safer,
to so word your work that the reader will do the
speculating and enjoy doing so.
Power to "shape" history?
If anything I've ever written has "shaped"
history, it's been purely accidental. In other
words, incidental to the task of dramatizing a
situation dramatic in and of itself whether anyone
seeks to describe it or not. What the writer must
have (this writer at least) is the knack of being
able to spot the drama in such situations.
About your writing process. Do you have
a routine? Do you write on a computer or typewriter
or in longhand?
I always write in longhand first. It's
because if I have something mechanical or material
in front of me, like a typewriter or a computer,
it's an obstacle between me and my ideas going
down on the paper. It's an impediment to the creative
I wish I could get over that
feeling because it does save time to create directly
onto a piece of machinery. But always I write
longhand first. I do have a moderate computer
now and I do my typing on that.
When did you take up writing, and why?
Did you pursue another career while writing?
I didn't take up writing as a full-time
career until the 1960s when I left the Embassy
of India, where I'd worked as a librarian. And
I'm not quite inclined to call freelance writing
a "career" so much as a risky occupation.
But there is, of course, a sense of freedom about
it, of not having to punch a time-clock....
Ever since schooldays, I liked
to tell yarns. Even during wartime, I'd love to
have been a war correspondent. During my first
years over here, I did some fiction—short
stories, mystery yarns and fantasy. But the short
story market evaporated, and after writing now
and then on jazz (a lifelong passion), I grew
to perceive that true history, once you plunged
into it with an open mind, can supply an abundance
of ready-made plots. Intrigue and adventure, innumerable
opportunities for creating narrative suspense.
How do you go about turning a mass of research
into a coherent narrative? Do you write as you
I write as I go. A lot of the research
is basic material which you find in such places
as the National Archives, the Library of Congress,
and so forth. As you are writing the story, fresh
situations spring to your mind and fresh avenues
of research. You may come across a point in your
story that has such potential for suspense that
you want to fill in any gaps. So you set your
writing aside and do some research, and then get
back to the narrative. And the same thing is bound
to happen again and again.
I've been influenced over the
decades by Alfred Hitchcock movies; I'm always
on the lookout for moments of suspense. In the
Jeannette [Icebound] story, for
example, you had a situation in which the navigation
officer, on which so much depended, was going
blind because of a syphilitic condition which
he had kept secret, and the ship's surgeon was
operating on the eye, without anesthetic, just
as the ice was crushing the ship.
One of the things I found intriguing about
the book is that Lieutenant Greely seemed to have
proved himself a good leader during his work for
the Signal Corps in the American West. Yet his
leadership faltered on this expedition.
To a large extent, it was a mis-selected
group. Virtually all of them had had experience
on the Western frontier fighting Native Americans,
but none of them had had any experience of this
kind of ordeal or going into the Arctic realm.
None of them had ever seen an iceberg, and precious
few of them could row a boat.
Greely was an able commander—stern,
a disciplinarian, but he was not a tyrant; he
was fair-minded. He had all these qualities, and
at one point in the book, I felt obliged to remind
readers that not only did he demonstrate these
qualities before the expedition but again afterward.
But they were no match for the Arctic.
Even his ability to command
men seemed to founder up there in those higher
In a sense Greely was rather
like [Robert] Scott: he made some tactical blunders.
When Greely was faced with some opposition from
his men, when he found they literally felt he
was leading them in the wrong direction, his own
stubbornness made him stick to his guns and say,
"I'm going my own way," and that contributed
to his sense of loneliness. He suspected that
most of his men were turning against him or losing
faith in his leadership.
Was there any one character in this tragedy
with whom you found yourself in particular sympathy?
There were times when I felt a sympathy
with Greely. But Kislingbury, his second in command,
was trapped in that position, a position unique
in its humiliation, once he found that he was
no longer a part of the expedition. He'd been
virtually forced to resign from it, he'd packed
his gear and was heading for the ship, and he
got to the ice foot just in time to see the ship
It was doubly ironic because
he had left four motherless sons. He was devoted
to them; the only reason that he left them was
that he hoped to make a name for himself and for
them. Even on the way up, he was already regretting
that he had left them.
When he had this clash with
Greely and now could look forward to heading home
and rejoining his sons, still he would be going
back as someone who had been dismissed from the
expedition. His mind must have been in a turmoil
as he turned around and retraced his steps back
to the expedition, having missed the boat.
What puzzled me most about the expedition
was the plan to abandon Fort Conger at the end
of the second year if no relief ships arrived
by then, when it seems it would have been possible
to remain there safely through the winter and
strike out for the south once warmer weather and
sunshine returned. To embark on the trip on the
eve of winter seems like an obviously bad idea.
It would have been better had they
stayed there. That was the consensus among many
explorers. It would have been a safer risk had
they stayed up there. They left Fort Conger with
an expectation that the relief ships had managed
to get at least part of the way and that they
would meet them. They expected the ships would
be at Littleton Island [an agreed rendezvous point—in
fact, no ships awaited] to greet the party as
they made their way south.
Why do you think there has been such a
strong interest lately, among readers, in stories
of adventure and exploration?
With a rapidity that mankind has never
known, there are so many scientific advances,
with computers in almost every home. You switch
on your radio, your TV, and you hear so many sentences
ending with "dot com." To everybody
except Bill Gates, the computer age is very confusing,
and they seek some form of escape. Some find it
in reading old-fashioned adventure stories.
What about the evidence for cannibalism
on the expedition?
It was turned into a scandal principally
by the New York Times, which had been absolutely
unfavorable towards Arctic exploration, thought
it was a waste of money, risk of lives, and so
forth. The Greely expedition came back in tatters,
and stories of cannibalism had already started
circulating at St. John's Newfoundland, where
the rescue ships had put into port. The Times
made all they could of it. Bold-print headlines
over several columns read, "The Horrors of
Cape Sabine: Survivors forced to feed on one another."
The survivors, Greely included,
denied any knowledge.
However, after the body of Lt.
Kislingbury had been exhumed and doctors testified
that the flesh had been surgically removed from
it, then it seemed 99% certain to the general
populace that cannibalism had in fact taken place,
and when Greely himself was asked about it, he
said, "If there was cannibalism—and
it appears now to be no doubt about it—then
it took place without my knowledge or approval."
It might have been a more complete
story, had I been able to name the man or men
who ate the human flesh, but I don't know. Greely
says he knew nothing about it, but in order to
keep himself alive (and keep in mind Greely lived
into old age), Greely may well have partaken of
human flesh without knowing it. Much of those
last days [before the expedition was rescued],
he was comatose from hunger and sickness. The
morsels of food fed him may have included some
What are you working on now?
There is a possibility that I might
do a biography of Commodore Stephen Decatur. He
was a bold and brave sailor in the War of 1812.
Some research material I've discovered suggests
that when he was killed in a duel with an aged
man, he may actually have been set up for murder.
is evidence in my possession, and I've seen even
more convincing evidence, that after John Wilkes
Booth shot Lincoln, he did indeed get away and
someone else was shot in his place.