Poles apart – The explorer and the Express man

Frederick Cook starred in a movie short

Frederick Cook starred in a movie short (Image: Getty)

It was one of the biggest stories of the new century. In September 1909, American explorer Frederick Cook returned from a two-year expedition during which he claimed to have become the first person in history to reach the North Pole.

But it would spark an incredible series of scoops that, ultimately, undermined Cook’s claim and sparked an astonishing row that echoes down the ages.

The amazing news of Cook’s triumph caused a media stampede, with correspondents and photographers dispatched post-haste to Copenhagen where the explorer, a physician by training, was heading to trumpet his return to civilisation.

Among them to cover the story was former Daily Express man Philip Gibbs, then 32 and an experienced Fleet Street hand. Waiting in the Danish capital for Cook to arrive, Gibbs enjoyed one of the more fortuitous breaks in journalistic history.

While drinking a coffee, he was introduced to a woman called Dagmar Rasmussen in a café after she was pointed out to him as the wife of one of Cook’s fellow-explorers. Rasmussen revealed that, first thing the following morning, a boat would be leaving Elsinore, some 40 miles northwards, to meet the ship carrying Cook before it reached land.

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 Cook was an American explorer

Cook was an American explorer (Image: Getty)

Here was the chance of an exclusive angle on a huge story, and Gibbs grasped it. With no more trains for Elsinore that evening, and rules against driving at night outside of the city, Gibbs offered a taxi driver a large fee to risk a fine and drive him and Rasmussen to the eastern Danish city to catch the boat.

Finding a driver who agreed, they made it to the docks where Gibbs waited nervously while Rasmussen went to ask the director of the boat company if they could find space.

The reporter’s hopes faded as he watched their conversation from afar, the body language suggesting she was disappointed by what she was being told.

“He won’t take us,” Rasmussen told him. Hard luck,” said Gibbs. “But he will take you,” she added quickly.

Rasmussen explained that the director had been so inundated with requests from friends of the returning explorers that he had decided to refuse them all for fear of appearing to favour anyone. But hearing that Gibbs was a journalist, he decided he could give the British reporter a place without causing offence.

So the following morning, Gibbs was on the boat heading to intercept Cook’s ship.

As they stopped alongside it, Gibbs climbed up a rope ladder and on to the deck, where he was greeted by a man with an untidy moustache and wearing a shabby-looking suit.

Journalist Philip Gibbs

Journalist Philip Gibbs (Image: Getty)

“Dr Cook, I believe,” he said, as he shook hands with the explorer.

So while the world’s journalists were gathered on the quayside waiting for Cook to arrive, Gibbs was interviewing the man they were all desperate to speak to. And when Cook reached land, and was mobbed by an ecstatic crowd, Gibbs went to an out-of-the-way hotel to write up what was the biggest story of his career so far.

Yet as he sat down to write it, Gibbs hesitated. He was troubled by what Cook had told him about leaving his instruments and observations in Greenland to be sent back to America.

And there was something about Cook that did not sit comfortably – a hint of evasiveness; a quickness to anger when questioned; and a nervousness when he was called to go on deck to wave at the crowds. All these combined in Gibbs’s head and, by the time he came to write his article, he firmly believed Cook was not the discoverer of the North Pole but a liar who was perpetrating an audacious fraud.

While the obvious approach to an article like this would be to simply repeat what Cook had said and describe what it had been like to stand next to him as they approached Copenhagen, he did not want to publicise a claim he now believed to be untrue.

So he wrote an article that focused so intently on the question of whether Cook really had reached the Pole it was obvious Gibbs thought his claim could not be taken at face value. Gibbs would later remember that, “when I handed it into the telegraph office I knew I had burned my boats, and that my whole journalistic career would be made or marred by this message”.

Cook had reached the Pole

Cook had reached the Pole (Image: Getty)

He was right. When his article was published in the Daily Chronicle in London the following day, it caused a sensation, news of which soon reached Denmark.

With Copenhagen in a state of excitement, Gibbs found himself suddenly transformed into the most unpopular person in the city.
He was booed by fellow diners in a restaurant; twice accused of lying; and even challenged to a duel by one of Cook’s supporters.

But more than the hostility of the Danish public, he was troubled by how many people seemed convinced Cook was telling the truth.

As he tried to build a case to back his belief that Cook was lying, a banquet was held in Cook’s honour. He was invited to dine with the Danish King and Queen, the University of Copenhagen gave him an honorary degree, and the Danish Royal Geographical Society awarded him a prestigious gold medal.

With each scientist or explorer who declared their confidence in Cook’s claim, Gibbs found himself worrying that perhaps he had made the wrong judgment.

Perhaps, he feared, the man he was accusing of fraud really was one of the greatest explorers the world had ever seen.

But over the week they spent in Copenhagen, Gibbs’s daily articles gradually chipped away at the credibility of Cook’s claim. These combined with new questions about Cook’s earlier claim to have been the first person to reach the top of Mount McKinley (now called Denali) in Alaska to mean that, by the time he left Denmark for America, there were now widespread doubts about whether he had reached the Pole.

Back in New York, Cook was greeted as a returning hero, driven in a huge convoy through packed streets, with people even crowding on to rooftops to see him. As his car passed his former home in Brooklyn, Cook was amazed to see a huge wooden arch had been constructed over the road in his honour. At its centre was a picture of him, along with the words: “We believe in you”.

Meanwhile, Gibbs was now back in London, following events from across the Atlantic. Having staked his reputation on Cook being proved a liar, his whole career now depended on whether Cook would be able to produce credible evidence that he really had reached the Pole.

Finally, in December 1909, Cook’s evidence arrived at the University of Copenhagen, which had assembled a commission of experts to assess his claim. Their conclusion was damning: “There cannot in the material which has been submitted to us for examination, be found any proof whatsoever of Dr Cook having reached the North Pole.”

This was the moment the world at large abandoned its belief that Cook might have reached the Pole. His Inuit companions from the expedition also later claimed they had stopped short hundreds of miles from the Pole.

Cook would spend the rest of his life trying to persuade the world that he really had reached the Pole, but his efforts were dealt a further blow when he was convicted for fraud and spent six years in jail for his role in an oil company.

Even today, it is not clear who was first to reach the Pole, but most experts think the best claim is that of Roald Amundsen, who flew over it in an airship in 1926. Gibbs had staked his credibility on Cook being a liar, and now Cook’s claim was dismissed, he suddenly found himself established as one of Britain’s leading journalists.

Cheers for Cook in the US

Cheers for Cook in the US (Image: Getty)

The story of Gibbs’s intuition in suspecting Cook and the courage and doggedness with which he had pursued him was repeated so often in the newsrooms and pubs of Fleet Street that it became part of journalistic legend.

Fifteen years later, the Daily Express looked back on his reporting as “a triumph of intuition and perseverance”.

A history of British journalism published after the Second World War remembered that “Fleet Street felt he had shown great courage in cabling his conclusions as well as astuteness in forming them so quickly”.

The triumph of Gibbs’s reporting of Cook provided a platform for him to become one of Britain’s greatest journalists.

He reported on the First World War, was the first journalist to get the news of the death of Edward VII, and got an exclusive interview with the lover of notorious murderer Dr Crippen. But while his fellow journalists celebrated the brilliance of his reporting from Copenhagen, Gibbs would always modestly emphasise the role good fortune had played in his success from the moment Dagmar Rasmussen walked into the café on his first evening in Copenhagen.

“It is nearly always luck that is one of the essential elements in journalistic success, and sometimes, as in a game of cards, it deals a surprisingly fine hand,” he wrote.

“The skill is in making the best use of this chance and keeping one’s nerve in a game of high stakes… Truly it [the Cook story] was a queer, exciting incident in my journalistic life, and looking back upon it, I marvel at my luck.”

  • The Explorer and the Journalist: Frederick Cook, Philip Gibbs and the Scandal that Shocked the World (History Press, £20) is published today. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25

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