The second to top spot in this list is reserved for a man who certainly did not do it for the money. The enigma, however, is whether he did it at all. The Cook/Peary controversy over who exactly reached the North Pole first could place Frederick Cook in the seat as the conman, but it could quite easily also place his rival, Robert Peary, in the same seat, and that is what make this story so interesting.
Cook was the son of German immigrants who made his way up through the hardscrabble streets of New York. In 1890, he graduated from New York University Medical School, but he lost his wife in childbirth, and sought distraction as an expedition doctor on the first major journey of Robert Peary.
Peary, a bombastic and attention seeking US Navy officer, was as much interested in fame as he was geographic discovery. As an expedition leader, he tended to promote his own interests at the cost of his crew. His relationship with Cook, therefore, did not survive that first adventure, after which the two men fell into competition to be the first to reach the North Pole.
Cook set off from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in July 1907, while Peary’s expedition took to the ice almost exactly a year later, in August 1908. Cook was the first to emerge, in February 1908, almost 14 months after he had set out. A few months later, he announced to the world that he had attained the pole.
Now the crucial point is simply that Cook reached civilization at Annoatok, on the northwest coat of Greenland, and storing his journals and instrumentation for later forwarding, he hurried south to announce that he had reached the Pole.
Initially, his claim was treated with the respect it was due, and matter was inserted into the record. Peary, however, soon returned to civilization himself, and he too claimed to have reached the Pole. He also returned via Annoatok, but once he had passed through, en-route south to make his own claim, none of Cooks journals, documentation or instrumentation were ever seen again.
Peary, with the naval establishment behind him, challenged Cook to prove that he had discovered the Pole, which, without documentation, he could not do. Peary’s own documentation presented a more authentic picture than no picture at all, and in the end the historic record shifted in the favor of him. Cook retired from the battle, and never pressed the point, but for years he has been regarded as a fraud. Recent comparisons, however, between Cook’s description of the Pole and those of modern explorers has tended to reinforce his claim. Since his and Peary’s description of the Pole differed, one or other of the two was lying, the question is simply who.
The first undisputed overland claim was made on April 19, 1968, by the explorer Ralph Plaisted.