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A Noose for Peary, Laurels forWally?
"...the general public could easily be not appear to have a chip on your shoulderbut rather, let the reader form his own take on the American "establishment" and fell it with one well-timed bookbeware!..."
Letter from Wally Herbert in the Cook Society (anti-Peary) collection. Ohio State Byrd Polar Archives
The Noose of Laurels
Robert E. Peary and the Race to the North Pole
By Wally Herbert. © 1989, Publishers: Hodder & Stoughton;
ASIN: 0340412763,
ASIN: 0385413556
Illustration © 2002 O.K. Maercks

Wally for $sale!

Editor's note: "I believe Doug's review exposes this pseudo-history work as a perversion of the most extraordinary achievement in all of Arctic history.  Noose of Laurels was misunderstood by book reviewers and has been misrepresented ever since. When originally published no one knew Herbert had a history of correspondence with anti-Peary/anti-Establishment crusaders Helene Vetters and author Hugh Eames. Recently, Herbert's financial motives have been exposed as well." (Russell R. Robinson)
"Although one might expect Herbert, as an experienced writer and polar traveler, to bring new perspectives to these old arguments we get only fudged data, one-sided analysis and the sniping tone of a rival."

Sir Wally Herbert's web site hawks a watercolor painting of the famous day that "the North Pole was reached for the very first time by a party of men on foot." Sir Wally is both the artist and subject of this painting. The day was April 6, 1969—exactly 60 years after the officially recognized discovery of the North Pole by RAdm Robert E. Peary. The painting is from a photograph described by Herbert as a "vaguely familiar" pose documenting his arrival at the pole. "What other proof could we bring back that we had reached the Pole?" Herbert had once asked in the book about his marathon trek across the Arctic Ocean via the Pole in 1968–1969.

Of course, Sir Wally's trek was witnessed by the armed forces of three nations, who were busy air dropping 56,000 pounds of supplies, including a hut and a bath tub, and rescuing him from the icy waters near Spitzbergen at the end of the trip. Peary, traveling in the days of utter self-reliance, had only fellow expedition members as witnesses. Herbert uses Peary's lack of independent witnesses (i. e. the armed forces of three nations) as his opening to reject Peary's account and develop a speculative theory in Noose of Laurels that pushes Peary off the pole by 60 miles or more. With Peary out of the way (and no one else having bothered to go on foot in the intervening 60 years) Herbert claims the North Pole as his prize.

Attacks on Peary's account began in 1911 with a book by rival claimant and colossal fraud Frederick Cook (My Attainment of The Pole) followed in 1917 by his supporter Thomas Hall (Has The North Pole Been Discovered?). Every now and then (when old arguments can be presented as new) another book in the same vein comes out. In fact nearly everything in Noose of Laurels is borrowed from earlier books. But Herbert is able to garner popular credulity by touting his polar traveling experience and by claiming to have new information from documents that had only recently been made public, including Peary's diary.

Herbert would have us believe there is a smoking gun among these documents, enticingly noting that it is little wonder that the Peary family wanted to keep "documents as revealing as this under wraps", but there is in fact nothing damaging to Peary's claim in them, and very little that is new.

For example, Herbert acknowledges that a Congressional Subcommittee, looking into a promotion for Peary, made a "somewhat superficial " examination of Peary's diary 75 years before Herbert saw it. What he doesn't admit is that the Subcommittee specifically noted on the public record (as reported in earlier critical books) Herbert's two most important "discoveries": (1) that Peary's "Pole at last!" entry made at the pole camp is written on a loose page; and (2) that the cover of the diary says "No. 1, Roosevelt [the name of Peary's ship] to [blank space] and return."

Although Herbert identifies these "discoveries" as the source of his doubts about Peary's diary, they are irrelevant. Herbert concedes that if Peary were making a false record he could have easily avoided the first two supposed irregularities. The inserted page is, in fact, followed by a blank page on which Peary could have made or transcribed the same entry. And Peary obviously could have filled in "North Pole" on the cover.

Although the book is neatly kept (Peary's Subcommittee testimony described the care that he took to protect the diary), Herbert concludes it was truly written in the field. As Herbert notes, the diary includes personal memoranda that would not be included in any document created for publication. Herbert concludes that the diary is genuine, but argues that it is revealing because nowhere (excluding the inserted page) does it state that Peary went to the pole. But here Herbert is just plain wrong. For example, among numerous other direct and indirect references to success, Peary's diary entry for April 9 proclaims: “from here to the Pole & back has been a glorious sprint with a savage finish.”

Typical example of Peary fact contradicting Herbert fantasy.

Nor do other documents provide any sign of the smoking gun
Herbert implies is buried in this new archival material. Herbert refers extensively to Peary's correspondence to develop his theories of Peary's character and motivation, but the vast majority of this is published in earlier biographies or critical works, and attempts to psychoanalyze Peary based on letters to his mother are interesting speculation at best.

A few cryptic notes on distances traveled and things observed while on the ice are about all that is new, and even these Herbert misinterprets. Herbert claims that “Self came in from [dash] in 20 days (18 marches).” indicates that Peary was not claiming to have returned from “the Pole,” but it is clear from the mileage used in an accompanying calculation that the dash was shorthand for the farthest point out on the ice from which Peary returned, some 9 miles past the Pole (and a few miles to the "west," using the 70th meridian as north).

Detailed data on wind speeds and directions recorded in Peary's diary do constitute new evidence, but this evidence appears damaging only because Herbert puts his thumb on the scale. Herbert's thesis is that all the significant winds were from the east (mostly in the first 3 or 4 days), forcing the ice to drift west. But Peary's diary noted that, after strong easterly winds for two days, there were two days of strong westerly winds. Borup, who had returned to land for additional fuel similarly noted that it was "blowing great guns" from the west. Herbert does not mention this westerly wind or take account of it in his analysis, despite the fact that Borup observed that when he went back out to overtake Peary, he found that the trail, previously broken into slabs that had shifted to the west, had moved back nearly to its original location.

In any event, the idea that anyone can demonstrate an uncorrected westward drift from Peary's own data is logically absurd. Herbert's estimate of the ice drift (due to winds) is based entirely on data that Peary had recorded but without the benefit of any additional information Peary may have had but did not record.

Peary obviously was well aware of the wind data that he himself recorded, and is on record as being aware of the correlation of wind to ice drift. Whatever Herbert predicts about the effect of winds, Peary would also have predicted. Moreover, during the time when most of the predicted drift would have occurred, Peary was well within the sight of land, as noted in his diary. It is ridiculous to suggest that a man of his experience would not have noticed the familiar landmarks bearing ever more eastward as the ice drifted westward. And, of course, when Borup rejoined Peary, he undoubtedly would have mentioned his observations about what the wind had done to the trail.

Herbert sniffs that “there is no evidence” that Peary took account of any of this data, but there is certainly no evidence that he failed to do so. In fact, the most significant wind driven drift occurred in the first four marches, according to Herbert, and Peary's own sketch of this part of his track matches Herbert's.

Herbert concedes that by April 1, 1909 through whatever combination of planning, skill or luck, Peary had put the Pole within his grasp, less than 133 nautical miles away. But then Herbert tells us, sadly, the direction he traveled was not north. Herbert notes that Peary was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Bowdoin College who won surveying positions with the Coast Survey and with the Naval Engineers, based on nationwide competitions against hundreds of applicants. His work surveying a proposed canal route in Nicaragua was highly praised. His longitude and compass variation observations of lands discovered in Greenland were accurate. Why are we to believe that this man, who certainly knew how to find north, didn't bother to do so?

Herbert finds the explanation in some unspecified way in the penumbras of Peary's "complex" character. Peary was driven by a desire to achieve fame; he was determined and persistent beyond reason (a "weather beaten fanatic"); he believed that it was his destiny to discover the pole; he refused to fail, could not afford to fail, having invested so much of his life in pursuit of the pole; he felt he deserved to succeed. Even if true, none of that would explain why upon leaving Bartlett, he would go five marches (long marches, according to his Eskimo companions, marches totaling 132 miles according to Henson, 130 miles according to Peary's diary) and not bother to head in the right direction to get to the pole, or as close as possible.

Herbert rehashes the charge (first made within days of Peary's return and repeated in every critical work over the years) that Peary couldn't have traveled as fast as he claimed in the last 5 days after "sending back any credible witnesses." Even here Sir Wally wavers.

Herbert, in fact, states in one chapter that the distances were "incredible" and in the next chapter that Peary had gone far enough (to reach the Pole), but had veered to the west. This doublespeak arises out of Herbert's difficulty in dealing with the statements of Henson, Peary's Negro assistant.

It was popular in 1909 and still popular with some polar "experts" (e. g., Curator Robert Headland of the Scott Polar Institute) that Peary's decision to take Henson rather than Bartlett on the final dash reflected a desire not to have a "credible" (i. e., white) witness present. Herbert acknowledges that Henson, as the best non-Eskimo dogsledder of his time, perhaps ever, stated confidently that the distance to the Pole had been covered.

In discussing the supposed impossibility of Peary's distances, Herbert would have to argue that the expert Henson, with knowledge of the actual conditions encountered, was just plain wrong or that he was lying. Instead, he just doesn't mention Henson.

But Herbert cannot ignore Henson altogether, because he wants to put his own spin on a comment made by Henson. Henson had been in the lead on the last few marches, and announced that he was the first person to reach the pole when Peary arrived at the last camp. When Peary shot back that they might not yet be exactly at the pole, Henson opined that they had come far enough, and if they were not at the pole, it was Peary's fault, since he was setting the course. Peary apparently was angry with Henson for the rest of the trip, and Henson attributed this to the fact that he had disobeyed his commander's instruction to stop short on the last march, thus making them co-discoverers—an event Peary had wanted to avoid. Peary had simply not wanted to share the honor with any other man, even (it is documented) with Bartlett. Back in the USA Peary would be quoted by newspapers saying, “I am the only white man to reach the Pole.”

Herbert thinks the real reason for Peary's anger was that Henson had hit the nail on the head -- that Peary's observations told him they had come the wrong direction, and it was Peary's fault. Of course, Herbert is free to second guess Henson 80 years after the fact, but it is disingenuous to seize on this incident and ignore half of what Henson said -- that the full distance from Bartlett's camp had been covered. This flatly contradicts Herbert's theory that the distance was impossible as well as his theory that Peary simply didn't bother to head north. If Peary was going to cover the full distance, or anything close to it, why would he not try to head north? And if he didn't bother to head north, why would he be angry when he discovered he hadn't done so?

In discussing Peary's distance claims, Herbert ignores not only the opinion of Henson, but also the opinion of the majority of experienced dog sledge drivers who have written on the subject. Herbert summarily dismisses the opinion of modern dog sledger Will Steger, but does not even mention the opinions (favorable to Peary) of famous arctic explorers such as Gunnar Isaachsen, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Interestingly, since Herbert’s 1988 book a lone pair of Canadians (Landry & Crowley, 2000) reached the Pole within 4 days of Peary’s 37-day record. It was only their first attempt.

Herbert's last main point again goes back to charges made in 1909, that Peary did not make sufficient navigational observations to find the Pole. Herbert finds it shocking that Peary did not take a single observation for longitude, but this is not new; Peary testified in 1910 that he took no observations for longitude. Other methods for finding north exist, and Peary explained his navigation methods to the satisfaction of surveyors from the Coast Survey who checked his work in 1910.

One annoying aspect of the book is the obvious insincerity of Herbert's constant protestations of admiration for Peary. Herbert claims to give Peary the benefit of every doubt, but does just the opposite, as when he assumes Peary ignored wind-driven drift of the ice, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. While admitting that no one has ever attacked Peary's courage or determination, he turns these virtues against Peary.

• Peary's willingness to take risks—normally considered bravery—Herbert sees as being motivated by fear of failure.

• Many of the risks Peary took are (with the benefit of hindsight) ridiculed by Herbert as ill conceived.

• After Peary set a new world’s record for the “farthest north” in 1906 Herbert scoffs at Peary's determination to survey an unexplored coast late in the season by means of an arduous and dangerous trek across northern Ellesmere Island. The "pathetically small" 60 miles of coastline could "so much more easily be explored by some other explorer at some other time." Herbert theorizes that the whole effort was calculated to distract public attention from Peary's failure to reach the Pole that year.

• Herbert repeats every tale told by someone with a grudge against Peary, including Peary's archenemy Cook, whether or not supported by any evidence. He even recounts charges that are demonstrably false.

• Herbert characterizes Peary’s personal diary notes, in which he accurately compares his achievements and expected rewards with those of other arctic explores and considers the potential market for "Peary North Pole" products as “reek[ing] of delusions of grandeur.” Herbert has no trouble expecting the public to pay $15,000 for paintings of his own achievement.

• Where Herbert appears to be simply recounting facts, he chooses loaded words to reflect his speculative theories of Peary's motivation or feelings.

In a letter dated November 25, 1971, Herbert advised Cook biographer Hugh Eames that, although none of his anti-Peary material was new, the "general public could easily be fooled that what you have to say has never before been said." Like Eames, Herbert has come up with nothing new. He relies on old and long disputed arguments to reach the same conclusion he published in 1969—that some unnamed “critics” claimed Peary missed the Pole by 60 miles.

Although one might expect Herbert, as an experienced writer and polar traveler, to bring new perspectives to these old arguments, we get only fudged data, one-sided analysis and the sniping tone of a rival.


Douglas R. Davies, August, 2002
Wally tried to knock Peary off the North Pole pedestal and place himself upon it with his 1989 book.
Herbert lied about Peary's diary:
"...he argues that  nowhere does Peary's diary state that he went to the Pole
Herbert is just plain wrong."
Peary's Diary: April 9
"From here to the Pole & back has been a glorious sprint with a savage finish. Its results due to hard work, little sleep, much experience, first class equipment, & good fortune as regards weather & open water"

Apr. 22-23

" 6.-a.m. of the 23rd reached the igloos at C. Columbia, 16 marches from the Pole. It has been a great return trip. Will never be done like this again. 52 days (43 marches) from land to beyond the Pole & back again.

...I have got the North Pole out of my system. After 23 yrs of effort, hard work, disappointments, hardships, privations, more or less suffering & some risks, I have won the last, great geographical prize, the North Pole, for the credit of the U.S., the Service to which I belong, myself, & my family. My work is the finish, the cap & climax, of 300 years of effort, loss of life, & expenditure of millions, by some of the best men of the civilized nations of the world; & it has been accomplished with a clean cut dash, spirit, & I believe thoroughness, characteristically American. I am satisfied."
…so called "evidence" appears damaging only because Herbert puts his thumb on the scale.

"The financial motive is all too obvious. Herbert's website openly proclaims himself, not Peary, as first to reach the North Pole ...selling pictures for as much as US $15,000..."
Quote from Russell R. Robinson
“…the obvious insincerity of Herbert's constant protestations of admiration for Peary. Herbert claims to give Peary the benefit of every doubt, but does just the opposite…”
“… Herbert has come up with nothing new. He relies on old and long disputed arguments to reach the same conclusion he published in 1969—that some unnamed “critics” claimed Peary missed the Pole by 60 miles.”
Herbert wrote to anti-Peary author Eames:

"...most of the other books (polar controversy) on the subject are out of print, and the general public could easily be fooled that what you have to say has never before been not appear to have a chip on your shoulderbut rather, let the reader form his own conclusions...if it is merely a David and Goliath situationwhere you are determined to take on the American "establishment" and fell it with one well-timed bookbeware!...I would of course be delighted to review your manuscript for the publisher (at a price proportionate to the time spent on the work). I would expect the publisher to pay my fee...You might let them know I am prepared to do this."
Source: Letter from Wally Herbert, Ohio State Byrd Polar Archives

Robert E. Peary, 1909. A tough athlete who today we would call "an iron man." He stood almost a foot taller than Wally Herbert and could have kicked his butt.

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