Did Explorer Peter Freuchen Save His Life with a Poop Chisel?

Fact Checker
Did Explorer Peter Freuchen Save His Life with a Poop Chisel?

Myths, lies, and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor, or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at factchecker@themeateater.com.

Peter Freuchen was a Danish traveler, author, journalist, and anthropologist. He’s most famous for being the 6-foot-7-inch Arctic explorer who used feces to save himself in a blizzard.

It happened in 1926 when a nasty Arctic storm demobilized his team of dogs and forced him to take shelter under the sled. He stayed there for 30 hours as a coffin of snow and ice formed around the sledge’s runners. But when the blizzard passed and Freuchen tried to leave, he realized he couldn’t break through the ice with his bare hands.

In a moment of desperate genius, he made a bowel movement and froze the product to be the shape of a chisel. It was strong enough to breach the wall of ice, allowing Freuchen to escape and make a three-hour hike to safety. He realized that three of his toes were frostbitten beyond repair when he arrived at camp—so he simply took them off with a pliers and hammer.

Freuchen tells the story in his 1953 autobiography “Vagrant Viking.” He was the sole witness to the event.

Since then, the tale has been retold in countless blogs and books. One site even deemed him “The Real Most Interesting Man in The World,” even though we gave that title to Teddy Roosevelt last year.

A 2019 study from Kent State University put this claim to the test using experimental archeology. The team of researchers wanted to see if frozen feces fashioned into the shape of a knife could cut animal skin. They were inspired by an old Inuit fable that tells of a man who uses frozen poo to kill and butcher a dog.

This isn’t an apples to apples comparison to the Freuchen story, but it’s the only scientific evidence available on the strength of frozen waste.

“In order to procure the necessary raw materials for knife production, one of us went on a diet with high protein and fatty acids, which is consistent with an Arctic diet, for eight days,” according to the study. “Fecal samples were formed into knives using ceramic molds, ‘knife molds,’ or molded by hand, ‘hand shaped knives.’ All fecal samples were stored at -20° C until the experiments began.”

The anthropologists did everything possible to make the experiment succeed, including sharpening the poop knives with a metal file, cooling the pig hide to make it easier to slice, and briefly storing the tools at -50° C before cutting. But despite their best efforts, the knives failed with each stroke of the blade.

Instead of puncturing the skin, the poop knives melted and left streaks. Even when kept at unrealistically low temperatures, the fecal blades deteriorated with any applied pressure. “It was like a brown crayon,” one of the scientists said.

In addition to all those titles mentioned earlier, Freuchen was a Hollywood personality. He served as an advisor and actor for the Oscar-winning film “Eskimo,” won the grand prize on the game show “The $64,000 Question,” and often posed for photographers in outlandish scenes. At one Tinseltown party, he hoisted actress Jean Harlow over his head and twirled her around to the delight of guests and cameras.

So, while Freuchen wasn’t your classic socialite, he certainly enjoyed some of the attention his larger-than-life persona gained him.

Was the infamous poop chisel a product of his appetite for fame? Or did it genuinely happen and save his ass from death? Based on the Kent State study and Freuchen’s low-key reality star status, I think he’s full of crap.

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