Fred Dairy to Fred Doctor
Fred was born into poverty and met with early success as a Brooklyn, New York, milkman. Then he began social climbing by first using his dairy profits to pay for a 2-year doctor's degree. It did him no good as his Brooklyn neighbors knew he was the milkman and would not trust him as a real physician; even his own wife died in childbirth. Without patients he was unable to earn money with "medicine." He never interned at a hospital or continued his education. Then one day he read a story about Peary's Arctic expedition in the newspaper. He volunteered to go along and thus got his big break in life.
When Peary broke his leg, the ship's doctor set the bone—not Cook. But after that one winter in the arctic Cook developed a lifelong case of Peary envy; Peary was a college educated engineer and commissioned Naval Officer. Peary successfully marched to the northern tip of Greenland and back, thus discovering new land. His tall, beautiful wife was similarly competent, well educated; she learned a remarkable amount of Eskimo language, proved herself to be an enthusiastic hunter, and managed the Eskimo seamstresses who made fur clothing for Peary's trek. Josephine even wrote a very successful book about this expedition titled My Arctic Journal. In contrast, Cook could only observe with envy their accomplishments.
Cook's Greenland failure
Cook was one of Josephine Peary's "boys" as she called the men. He was covetous of everything Peary had and commanded. Josephine documents Cook's shortcomings as a hunter; one who ate more food than he harvested.
Cook took over Josephine's management of the headquarters, Redcliff House, but then she took charge again when Cook left for a 10-day unsuccessful hunting trip. While waiting for her husband to return from his expedition, she preferred camping alone in a glacial valley with her favorite companion; Negro Matt Henson. In fact, Cook had "accidentally" discharged his rifle through the roof of the cabin while Matt was sunning himself. The bullet narrowly missed Henson. Josephine and Matt left Cook in charge of Redcliff House and fended for themselves, quite successfully, in her beloved "Tooktoo Valley."
Thus Josephine's book is the first documented evidence that Cook was some kind of problem. The next writer to do so was Robert Dunn who had the misfortune of being paid by his newspaper editor to "keep and eye on Cook" during the 1903 Mt. McKinley camping trip. His magazine article about Cook grew into the classic Shameless Diary of an Explorer.
After one winter in the Arctic, and being an abnormal personality, Cook wanted the kind of attention Peary received from other gentlemen, the success that the tall, aloof, educated naval officer Peary commanded. However, Cook was simply not made of the "right stuff"—a fact that Robert Dunn, in 1903, would so harshly document.
Cook emulated Peary
In imitation of Robert Peary, upon returning to New York, Cook set up his own little arctic lecture series. Then he tried to break the standard no-publishing contract he had signed with Peary, (all volunteers gave up publication rights) and briefly exploited some Eskimos in an obscure circus side show. Thus began what became a lifetime of being a parasite of other people's expeditions, money, and private yachts. On his own he tried to arrange tour groups to Greenland, both ended in failure. Once he brought back a female Eskimo child to show around. As repulsive as this sounds, he actually presented this 12 year old girl at a Brooklyn Gynecologist's meeting.
Cook's tour groups
Fred used the funds and yacht of a wealthy man who had an ill boy to go north on a short trip to lower Greenland, and later had an other tour to lower Greenland that flopped. He volunteered to play doctor on a ship headed to Antarctic with some Belgians. Their ship became stuck in the ice all winter so Cook became the ship morale booster. On the way home he took a missionary's life work—a dictionary of the Patagonian native language. The priest died so Fred published it under his own name. That Belgian trip provided Fred the opportunity to write an adventure book starring himself as the hero, and with his photos Cook set about lecturing. His book narrative is reminiscent of Kane's 2-volume Arctic nightmare form the 1850's. No one called it plagiarism, but clearly Cook put on the personality of Dr. Kane in his writings. Where Kane writes repeatedly about the need for fresh raw meat to keep men healthy, and not canned food, Cook would resurrect this as if he discovered it. To any scholar it is clear that Cook stole from Peary, from Kane, from the Patagonian gentleman, and even from the crew of the Belgian ship. All this became Cook's "polar stock" to show off on his lecture tours.
The rich widow
Cook married a wealthy widow. He raised money for a camping expedition to Alaska's Mt. McKinley, North America's highest peak, which had never been climbed. Taking along his wife, as Peary had with his, and using some of her funds they took their little New York summer tour group into the wilderness. Fred had no mountain climbing experience; the group could not advance above 10,000 ft (1/2 McKinley's height). His trip was a dreary failure. One of the group members, Robert Dunn, saw Cook as a leaderless fool. His article about their adventure got him thrown out of the "Alpine Club", but his book about Cook was a winner. Dunn stands out in history as the man who first spotted Cook's defective character and documented it so well that his book is still in print.
Cook's second McKinley trip
Cook had to get away from Dunn if he was going to fake climbing McKinley, so he went back in 1906 by again using other people's money for a tour group. When they weren't looking he went off for a few days with guide Ed Barrill and bribed Barrill to say Cook Climbed McKinley. Everyone back at camp immediately knew it was a lie, but the folks back in Brooklyn bought the story. Cook wrote a book, starring himself as the hero who conquered Mt. McKinley. He even had faked pictures.
People were talking in New York that Cook had not really climbed McKinley. The "bribed guide" didn't care much for Cook and had begun to talk. Cook was in trouble. To evade an investigation into the authenticity of his McKinley claim, Cook conveniently sailed on a millionaire gambling friend's yacht for big game hunting in Greenland. After slaughtering herds of walrus and every living polar bear in sight, Cook went ashore in the northernmost Eskimo village with a few tons of supplies from his benefactor.
The North Pole hoax
That Spring Fred headed to the west of Ellesmere Island, then disappeared with 2 Eskimo guides to fake his trip to the North Pole. He knew Peary would be coming through the region where he had been the previous summer, so he had to stay out of sight. The following year he scrambled back through the same Eskimo village before Peary came south again on his return trip.
How he was found out—the Eskimos talked
Peary knew all the natives in the region, they had become like family to him after spending 18 years working together, and soon the entire ship's crew heard about Cook's stunt. Peary's long time assistant, Matthew Henson, spoke the Inuit language fluently and got all the details about how Cook never went out of sight of land, (just 2 days travel out on the polar ocean) then headed south. Apparently Cook had tried to find the land mirage known as "Crocker Land", but it wasn't visible that summer. So Cook made fake photos of it and put it on his map as a discovery of "new land" named for benefactor John Bradley. (Apparently Cook did not understand what a mirage is?) All of this was carefully recorded in August, 1909. The Eskimo testimony fills numerous pages of a Peary memo pad. Every detail was revealed by Etookashoo and Ahpellah, Cook's guides. When shown maps of the region they pointed out Cape Sparbo as the location of the cave they hid in.
Cook had fled to Europe
Peary's North Pole expedition had passed through the same Eskimo village the previous year and Cook had to hide far from where Peary might find him. As a result he was forced to spend the winter in a tiny cave with his two smelly Eskimo friends eating blubber and frozen meat. The following Spring they walked back hundreds of miles, half dead, to the Eskimo village. Cook took a sledge and some dogs to travel 600 miles to a Danish settlement in Greenland. He had to get away from Peary's returning expedition, and to announce his hoax before Peary could announce the success of his 1909 trip. In fact, Fred reached a wireless telegraph station only 5 days before Peary did. For $6,000 cash the New York Herald newspaper agreed to buy the rights to his story and through their newspaper pages proclaimed, to an astonished world, that Cook had been to the North Pole in 1908. Cook caught the next ship leaving Greenland bound for Europe. When the vessel reached Denmark he was welcomed as a hero. They had no idea he was a fraud. The European news was telegraphed to America and newspapers there printed the story, thinking it was all true. They didn't know Cook was a fraud, either. Thus was born, by yellow journalism, the infamous North Pole Hoax of Dr. Cook.
Blame it all on Peary—the "box hoax"
The most hilarious aspect of the Cook mess is how he tried to blame all his problems on the real North Pole Discoverer Robert E. Peary. Cook had no proof he had reached the North Pole because he had never gone closer than 500 miles to it. So he "cooked" up a scheme with the first white man he met, a fellow named Whitney who was in the Eskimo regions of Greenland for big game hunting. Cook gave Whitney a box, telling him that it contained all his highly prized instruments, notebooks, the flag he flew at the North Pole, etc. Cook told this complete stranger to take all this back to America for him when Peary's ship came back that way. Why did Cook do this?
How the "box hoax" worked
Cook was a crook, but he wasn't stupid. He had nothing to prove his story and certainly had nothing of value in the box. But he knew Peary would either: 1) Allow Whitney to take the box back to America on his ship, or 2) Refuse to do so, or 3) The box would be lost. Are you catching on yet?
In reality Greenland was so remote in those days that no ship was sent. Instead, Cook simply blamed Peary for not allowing Whitney to take the box on Peary's ship. Peary had been very smart to avoid THAT hot potato by not having anything to do with the alleged box.
Cook actually had nothing to prove he reached the Pole simply because it was all a hoax anyway. His McKinley hoax had begun to unravel before the North Pole hoax was announced, now the reporters were all over him. Cook's credibility was sinking rapidly. He never dispatched a ship to Greenland for obvious reasons; the box was simply another hoax. Yet to this day Cook descendents blame Peary for not letting Whitney bring that box on his ship. See how clever Cook was? If Peary had taken the box, then it would have been worse—to this day he would be blamed for destroying or tampering with Cook's "North Pole proofs."
Peary, of course, caught on to this trick and ridiculed Cook in newspaper interviews for such a pathetic tactic in September of 1909 (see: New York Times). Peary pointed out that he himself sewed his own notebook into his jacket pocket so that even if he fell though the ice it would not be lost. He wrapped his North Pole flag around his body—he literally wore it. Peary noted that these items are precious to any real explorer and should never be out of his hands. For Cook to claim he gave them to a stranger is too absurd to believe, and Peary explained that these items are so small and take up so little space that Cook had to be lying. Peary, we now know, was absolutely correct.
Cook cashed in on his fame
Despite all this, Cook's hoax lasted long enough for him to rake in a fortune in lectures and publication rights. By November he had to go into hiding when the public caught on it was all a scam, by December he was headlined on the front page as a fraud. In 1911 he took money from Hampton's Magazine for his famous "Cook's Confession" article in which Frederick explained the vivid hallucinations that seem to have followed him all through his Arctic adventure. He wasn't sure where he was or where he went. But later he recanted all this and wrote a ridiculous 600 page "come-back" book detailing his delusions of grandeur, a persecution complex, rampant paranoia, and hatred for all things Peary. Many pages contain nothing more than vile slurs against critics. But he hit the vaudeville and Chautauqua circuits with his polar con game claiming there was a "Peary conspiracy" out to destroy him. More correctly there was a Cook conspiracy out to destroy Peary! (And it is alive today...)
The Prince of Liars
Cook was ridiculed by the newspapers and named "The Prince of Liars". So he gave up the exploring scam as he aged in favor of stock fraud. Running the equivalent of a "boiler room" operation he and his team of cronies fleeced rural Midwesterners out of their life savings using the mail to sell stock. As they folded each bogus company Cook took his profits and they moved on to the next city.