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First published in 1943, the “Frozen Death” story, by Robert Wilson, is still one of the all-time favorites (and most debated) among Almanac readers.
The events described herewith took place within twenty miles of Montpelier, Vermont. They were first found recorded in a local diary and were verified by an old man who vouched for their truth—and who said his father was among those operated on. The practice is not commonly used today.
”January 7. I went to the mountain today and witnessed what to me was a horrible sight. It seems that the dwellers there who are unable, either from age or other reasons, to contribute to the support of their families are disposed of in the winter months.
“I will describe what I saw. Six persons—four men and two women. One man—a cripple about thirty years old—and the other five people—past the age of usefulness—were laying on the earthy floor of the cabin drugged into insensibility while members of the families were gathered about them in apparent indifference. In a short time, the unconscious bodies were inspected by one man who said, ‘They are ready.’
“They were stripped of all their clothing except a single garment. The bodies were carried outside and laid on logs exposed to the bitter cold mountain air.
“Soon, the noses, ears, and fingers began to turn white, and then the limbs and faces assumed a tallowy look. I could stand the cold no longer and went inside, where I found my friends in cheerful conversation. In about an hour, I went out and looked at the bodies. They were fast freezing.
“Again, I went inside, where the men were smoking their clay pipes, but silence had fallen on them. Perhaps they were thinking that the time would come when they would be carried out in the same way.
“I could not shut out the sight of the freezing bodies, nor could I bear to be in darkness, but I piled on the wood in the cavernous fireplace and, seated on a single block, passed the dreary night, terror-stricken by horrible sights I had witnessed.
”January 8. Day came at length but did not dissipate the terror that filled me. The frozen bodies became visibly white on the snow that lay in huge drifts about them. The women gathered about the fire and soon began to prepare breakfast. The men awoke, and affairs assumed a more cheerful aspect.
“After breakfast, the men lighted their pipes, and some of them took a yoke of oxen and went off into the forest, while others proceeded to nail together boards, making a box about ten feet long and half as high and wide. When this was completed, they placed about two feet of straw in the bottom. Then, they laid three frozen bodies in the straw. The faces and upper parts of the bodies were covered with a cloth, more straw was put in the box, and the other three bodies were placed on top and covered the same as the first ones, with cloth and straw.
“Boards were then firmly nailed on top to protect the bodies from being injured by carnivorous animals that made their home on these mountains. By this time, the men who had gone off with the ox team returned with a huge load of spruce and hemlock boughs, which they unloaded at the foot of a steep ledge. They then came to the house, loaded the box containing the bodies on the sled, and drew it near the load of boughs.
“These were soon piled on and around the box, and it was left to be covered with snow, which I was told would lie in drifts twenty feet deep over this rude tomb. ‘We shall want our men to plant our corn next spring,’ said the wife of one of the frozen men. ‘If you want to see them resuscitated, you come here about the tenth of May.’
“With this agreement, I left the mountaineers, living and frozen, to their fate and returned to my home in Boston, where it was weeks before I was fairly myself.”
Turning the leaves of the diary, I came to the following entry: “May 10. I arrived here at 10 A.M. after riding about four hours over muddy, unsettled roads. The weather here is warm and pleasant, and most of the snow is gone except where there are drifts in the fence corners and hollows. But nature is not yet dressed in green.
“I found the same parties here I left last January. They were ready to disinter the bodies, but I had no expectations of finding life there. A feeling that I could not resist, however, impelled me to come and see.
“We repaired at once to the well-remembered spot at the ledge. The snow had melted from the top of the brush but still lay deep around the bottom of the pile. The men commenced work at once, some shoveling and others tearing away the brush. Soon, the box was visible. The cover was taken off, the layers of straw removed, and the bodies, frozen and apparently lifeless, lifted out and laid on the snow.
“Large troughs made out of hemlock logs were placed nearby and filled with tepid water, into which each body was placed separately with the head slightly raised. Boiling water was then poured into the trough from kettles hung on poles nearby until the water was as hot as I could hold my hand in. Hemlock boughs had been put in the boiling water in such quantities that they had turned the water the color of wine.
“After they lay in the bath for about an hour, color began to return to the bodies when all hands began rubbing and chafing them. This continued for about an hour, when a slight twitching of the muscles, followed by audible gasps, showed that vitality was returning.
“Spirits were then given in small quantities and allowed to trickle down their throats. Soon, they could swallow, and more was given to them when their eyes opened. They began to talk and finally sat up in their bathtubs.
“They were taken out and assisted to the house, where after a hearty meal, they seemed as well as ever and in no way injured but rather refreshed by their long sleep of four months.”
Jud Hale is the honorary Editor-in-chief of The Old Farmer’s Almanac; Jud was the 12th editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac (since 1792!) and joined the parent company Yankee Publishing in 1958 as an Assistant Editor. Read More from Judson D. Hale Sr.