Third Man factor: What really happened to Ernest Shackleton?

BY Ben Alderson-Day

28th Mar 2023 Life

Third Man factor: What really happened to Ernest Shackleton?

When Shackleton led a rescue mission in the Antarctic, he experienced a strange otherworldly phenomenon—the Third Man factor. But was it real, or imagined?

When Ernest Shackleton finally reached the whaling station at Stromness on May 20, 1916, the station commander Captain Petter Sorrle didn’t recognise him.

With a long beard and matted hair, wearing clothes he had on for nearly a year, Shackleton and his two companions—Frank Worsley and Tom Crean—were at the end of an epic journey, and the start of one of the most audacious rescues in history.

They had crossed the craggy and mountainous interior of South Georgia Island in a 36-hour trek, having already made an 800-mile journey across the Southern Ocean in an open boat.

Reaching Stromness meant safety and help—which they needed, in order to go back and find the rest of the crew of the Endurance, stranded on Elephant Island. The Endurance itself was long gone; crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea in October 1915.

The Endurance ship on Shackleton's expedition crushed in Antarctic iceCredit: Underwood & Underwood, copyright claimant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The Endurance stuck in the Antarctic ice

The origins of the “Third Man”

They had reached Stromness just in time. Within an hour a storm rolled in that would have stopped them in their tracks. Worsley called it “Providence”, and Shackleton and Crean thought similar.

But Providence didn’t just mean fate to these men; it meant something, and someone else. All three men reportedly had an uncanny feeling during the trek that they “were four, not three”.

"All three men reportedly had an uncanny feeling during the trek that they 'were four, not three'"

A companion had been with them, through the snow and ice, and out the other side.

Referencing the story in his 1922 poem, The Wasteland, T S Eliot wrote of the “third who walks beside you”, and from that the “Third Man” was born: a figure of legend for polar explorers, mountaineers and solo adventurers.

Felt presence

Accounts of the Third Man accompanying, guiding or even saving travellers in need are legion, and they are often considered an example of a broader phenomenon: “felt presence”; the distinct (and uncanny) sensation that someone is with you, in the absence of any clear sensory evidence.

But the original Third Man—Shackleton’s companion—is actually a very curious case to found a legend upon.

Reticent to discuss

Hurley and Shackleton at camp on Antarctic expeditionShackleton and Hurley sheltering at camp

The number in itself is strange, as often these experiences happen to individuals, not groups. And the three men themselves were extremely reticent in talking about what had happened. Crean reportedly only spoke of it once to some friends in a pub years later; he said that “The Lord brought us home”.

Worsley refers to the presence in only a few lines of his account of the expedition and rescue: “It is strange in mentally reviewing the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves”.

Shackleton would later tell the journalist Harold Begbie that, “None of us cares to speak about that. There are some things which never can be spoken of”. 

What was the Third Man?

Who, or what, was the figure that joined Shackleton and his men on their journey? Without other sources, it is very hard to say.

But we can look further back in Shackleton’s account of the Endurance expedition, South: The Endurance Exhibition, and we can draw upon ideas from the contemporary science of felt presence to understand more about this mysterious figure.

Harrowing experiences

A key point that is sometimes missed in the story of the Fourth is how much the men had been through leading up to that point.

Before the South Georgia trek there was the boat crossing from Elephant Island, which to this day is considered a miraculous feat of seafaring. And before that, they had lived for months on the ice while the Endurance was imprisoned.

They had set out from the UK nearly two years before, on the outbreak of the First World War.

"Shackleton was acutely aware of the effects that such conditions could have on the mind"

Throughout that time, Shackleton documented the changes in himself and the men as they battled through extreme and sometimes otherworldly environments. He was acutely aware of the effects that such conditions could have on the mind.

At one point he wrote of an iceberg rising above them like “an icy Cerberus” with “water streaming from its eyes, as though it were weeping at our escape from the clutch of the floes”. And he meant it. 

“This may seem fanciful to the reader, but the impression was real to us at the time. People living under civilised conditions… may scarcely realise how quickly the mind, influenced by the eyes responds to the unusual, and weaves about its curious imaginings”.


Wild and Shackleton in the Heavy Pressure, Endurance expeditionCredit: F Hurley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Wild and Shackleton in the Heavy Pressure

What Shackleton was describing is something like pareidolia, where our minds find meaningful forms from unstructured surroundings (like seeing faces in clouds).

It’s a well-known phenomenon in environments like deserts or polar landscapes, and can lead to people experiencing a range of hallucinatory phenomena, as our brain works hard to fill in the gaps.

By May 1916, the conditions will also have been taking their toll on bodies as well as minds, and we know that in such situations many people start to have feelings of derealisation and depersonalisation, where the world doesn’t feel the same, and nor do you.

"Disrupting our brain’s idea of where our bodies are in space can produce a range of doppelganger and phantom phenomena"

We know from case studies in neurology and experiments in cognitive neuroscience that disrupting our brain’s idea of where our bodies are in space—our bodily self—can produce a range of doppelganger and phantom phenomena.

It would be no surprise if Shackleton and his men were living in a rather more hallucinatory world by the time they had reached South Georgia Island.

The mental side of the story

Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic Sir Ernest Shackleton to the rescue.Credit: Underwood & Underwood, copyright claimant, public domain. Shackleton leads the Endurance rescue

But the story doesn’t end there. Presences like the Third Man often carry deep significance for the person experiencing them; and when people encounter such companions it is not uncommon for them to be a deceased relative, or a long-lost friend.

Feelings of presence can come with a kind of social bond or affinity; some seem almost built of emotion. And in that context, some of Shackleton’s other comments to Harold Begbie seem likely to be highly relevant to understand who the Fourth man really was:

“Do you see Begbie, it was like this: the thought of those fellows on Elephant Island kept us going all the time. It might have been different if we’d had only ourselves to think about.

"But if you’re a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you’ve got to keep going. That was the thought that sailed us through the hurricane, and tugged us up and down those mountains.

"Of course, I couldn’t say all this in the book. I couldn’t give the mental side of the story. But that is the side, looking back, that interests me the most”.

You can read more about Shackleton's story and other experiences of presence in Ben Alderson-Day's new book, Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other, available now via Manchester University Press

Banner copyright: Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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