Post by Graveyardbride on Mar 4, 2015 13:09:52 GMT -5
Death in the Cold
New England brings to mind summer cottages by the sea, ghost stories around campfires, county fairs and snow-covered wonderlands ... but there is a dark side.
A sequence of horrible adversities began on the morning of Thursday, March 4, 1869, in the Vermont town of Hardwick, or it could have been Stannard or Marshfield – it is unrecorded in diaries, and newspaper accounts offer a choice of locations. Whatever the town, Mrs. Esther Emmons, 74-years-old and of no settled abode, had been visiting her son there. He had suffered a crippling accident and, as a consequence, applied to the town for assistance. It is strongly hinted that officials, fearful the mother would also become a ward of the town, had ordered her to leave.
A daughter, 35-year-old Mary Davis, went to fetch her mother in the company of her nephew, 8-year-old Willie, a grandson of Mrs. Emmons. They planned to walk the 20 miles to Peacham, where Mary had been engaged to work for the season as a servant girl for a former employer, Charles Gates, a well-to-do farmer. Mrs. Emmons and Willie would stay with the elderly lady’s sister in the extreme southern part of Peacham. They were penniless and homeless transients who lived here and there with one poor relation or another.
Early that morning, Mrs. Emmons made her ailing son as comfortable as possible before the three set out on foot at daybreak in cold, clear weather. They were thinly clad in shabby hand-me-downs and carried their few personal belongings in a small bundle.
The old lady, for all the frailty of her years, seems to have set the pace and taken command. Mary Davis was passive, a little dull and dispirited – her husband had deserted her. Willie was a lively little fellow; good company on the grim trek.
Nothing is recorded of their trip until they were approaching Peacham Woods. The uphill route was over the winter road, little traveled in summer because of the rough bed; but in winter, packed with snow, it made good sledding and the long stretch of woods gave comparative shelter from fierce winter winds. Before they entered the woods, the sun had disappeared and the sky was a tumult of heavy grey clouds, foreboding heavy snows. After six miles, Mrs. Emmons, now beginning to tire, decided they should not attempt to go all the way through that day. At the next house – and few there were on that lonely road – they would ask for shelter as it would be a long way before there would be another. But at the little cottage at the foot of the mountain, they were gruffly turned away by a man by the name of Bean. They had no choice but to go on, aching though they were with cold and little nourished by the meager lunch they had packed.
By mid-afternoon, they entered Peacham Woods, taking some comfort, no doubt, in the knowledge they were now within Peacham town limits, but still with many miles to go. The snow started, lightly at first, then it grew heavy, relentlessly piling up on their heads and shoulders and clinging to the women’s skirts and the boy’s leggings. And then the wind came, rattling the bare limbs of trees and stinging their numbed faces with sharp crystals. They clung to each other as they struggled through the deepening snow – toes, ankles, fingers aching, their bodies shivering under thin garments. But hark! Could it be? The jingling of sleigh bells. A man, heavily bundled to his ears, overtook them in a light, one-horse sleigh. He recognized Mrs. Emmons and stopped. He would give her a ride to town, but his spent horse could not carry them all in the small conveyance. The old lady thanked him. No, she could not desert the others; they would stay overnight at the next house. He slapped the horse with the reins and drove on into the worsening storm.
The elderly woman, summoning all her determination, moved forward again; but exhaustion began to overtake her soon after they emerged from the woods into open country. She sat down frequently in the snow. Mary and Willie helped her to her feet and supported her until she had to rest again.
As approaching darkness was adding a new dimension to their peril, they reached the farm of a man named Stewart. With what expectation of merciful relief from their excruciating sufferings they must have presented their red, pinched faces to the farmer to request a night’s refuge. He was watering his cattle at a hole chopped in the ice of a small brook across the road from his farm buildings. Why he should have been so insensible to their plight will never be known. Perhaps the storms of winter had caused so many problems he could not comprehend the extent of theirs. He curtly refused them, saying he was taking in no one. Turning away from them, he shouted angry commands to the cattle and herded them back to the shelter of the barn.
The despairing trio trudged on through the drifting snow, Mary and Willie supporting the old lady between them. Surely there would be shelter for them at the next place, the Farrow farm, kindly folk living within a mile down the road.
It was a long mile and the old lady was now so fatigued that hope could not rally her strength. Without the force of her strong will, the others were thrown into confusion – the simple girl looked to her mother for direction and the young boy to both of them. Mrs. Emmons fell again and again. They would pick her up to stagger on a few more feet through the snow now up to their knees. When she could no longer be raised to her feet, they pulled her until, at last, cold, hunger, fatigue and panic made this too much of an exertion. The elderly woman now lay still in the snow, breathing heavily, her words incoherent and then there were no words at all. It appears Mary and Willie remained by her side for some time in the angry, swirling, total darkness before leaving her in search of help.
In the blackness of the stormy night, the woman and child lost the road and stumbled into a field. While resting on a stone wall a few yards from where Mrs. Emmons lay, they must have distinguished a light through the veil of snow at the back window of the Farrow house some 120 feet distance. From tracks still visible in the snow the following day, it appeared Willie crawled on his hands and knees in a path “as straight as an arrow” over a drift toward that window. Perhaps both were hysterically screaming for help at the same time, or calling to each other. The Farrows heard repeated cries but, thinking they were coming from a demented daughter locked in an upstairs room, paid them no heed. They blew out the lamp and went to bed. Ben Kimball, living some distance leeward, heard a single cry and decided he must have been mistaken as the violent wind caused many noises.
The storm raged all night over the darkened countryside. Dawn broke, grey and dreary, with the thermometer at 24̊ below zero. By midmorning, Ben Kemball and other men were breaking out the drifted road with oxen. They were curious about some bright piece of cloth churned up by the sled – which turned out to be a remnant of a pitiful knapsack. Then they made a horrifying discovery – an elderly woman’s body, which the sled must have dragged along the road about a half-mile beyond the Farrow house. There were two more grotesque finds: the frozen corpse of Mary, lying face-up across the stone wall where she appeared to have died without a struggle, and Willie, stiff upright in the snow, having started back toward Mary after being within 30 feet of a warm fire. Word was sent to the town and authorities arrived a short time later and began enquiring along the route that pieced together the tragic story.
It was small consolation to hypothesize that if Mary and Willie had kept to the road, they would have reached the Farrow house safely; that if the Farrows had not extinguished the light at the very moment they did, Willie would not have become confused and turned back in his tracks to die. The bodies were transported to the town hall in the basement of the church, where they were prepared for burial. News of the tragedy spread rapidly through the community – with many embellishments. Townsfolk were in shock: how could it be that in their midst, in an enlightened settlement known for its humanity and compassion, some of their own could have violated the most elemental tradition?
Almost every citizen of Peacham filed silently into the large church for the funeral service where the big box stoves gave only a crackling promise of heat and the March wind shuddered the building and pelted the long windows with sleet. They sat miserably in their cold pews in a transport of spiritual confusion to hear a powerful sermon – a true apologia. The sermon was afterward published in full in the Caledonian-Record of St. Johnsbury at the request of town officials and several citizens.
Rev. P. B. Fish chose as his text: “Who can stand against His cold?” These words are found in Psalm 147: He giveth snow like wool; scattereth the hoar frost like ashes. He sendeth forth His crystals like morsels; who can stand against His cold? In his sermon, the minister reviewed the events as he knew them, observing it would do no good to curse the cold, but quickly adding, “There is blame somewhere.” As everyone in the church leaned forward to catch every word, the minister continued, “None who lay this side of the fatal spot is guilty. If they had been thrust out, those who thrust them out bear the guilt.” A hundred eyes looked hard at the Stewart family’s empty pew.
Down through the years, Peacham residents who heard the story from older family members recalled a curious afterword. Stewart, they insisted, suffered thereafter from an intense feeling of guilt. While on his deathbed many years later, he seemed, in his delirium, to be reliving the awful tragedy. His body tremors and cries were of one who was freezing and though it was mid-July, his corpse was cold as ice.
To this day, in the vicinity where the old Farrow farmhouse once stood, when fierce winter winds howl across a landscape of deepening snow, rattling shutters of even the sturdiest homes, people still hear bloodcurdling cries in the night that send a chill through even the bravest of men.
Sources: Louis A. Lamoureux, Mysterious New England; Green Mountains: Dark Tales by Joseph A. Citro, and The Vermonter.