Late winter 1869 brought about one of the biggest snowstorms in Danville, VT’s recorded history. By all accounts, farmers and residents alike would not know just how cold and tragic the storm had actually been until they gathered by wood stoves to read the weekly newspaper. A tragedy had occurred in the neighboring town of Peacham, which would embarrass even the most prosperous of its citizens.
The story begins in another town miles away from the Danville-Peacham area. No one is really sure which town. A woman named Mrs. Esther Emmons, 74 years of age had been visiting her son who had suffered a crippling accident in the Vermont woods. Her son had applied for “assistance” through the town but local officials were concerned that his mother would also partake in such assistance, so she was ordered to leave.
Her daughter, 35 year old Mary Davis, arrived to help Esther leave town. She had brought along 8 year old Willie, a grandson of Mrs. Emmons and nephew of Mary. Together, they planned to walk on foot, some 20 miles to Peacham where Mary had been employed as a servant for a wealthy farmer. Mrs. Emmons and Willie would live with the old lady’s sister in the far southern end of Peacham.
Mrs. Emmons said goodbye to her ailing son and attempted to make him feel more comfortable before the trio set out on foot the following morning. They were clothed in worn out, used clothing and carried the few personal items they owned in a small bag. The cold, crisp and clear winter morning stabbed at their bodies like tiny, icy knives. The journey had begun and they could not go back. Mary was the younger of the two ladies but Mrs. Emmons set the pace with Willie in tow. Mary, whose husband had deserted her was a passive woman, willing to follow rather than lead.
Eventually they approached Peacham Woods which could be seen in the distance. The journey was along an uphill route across snow packed winter roads. Thankfully, the long corridor of tree lined woods provided some welcome shelter from the harsh winter winds. As they entered the woods, the sun faded away and was quickly replaced by darkening, foreboding clouds. As every native Vermonter knows, a sure sign of heavy snowfall to come.
They trekked another 5 or 6 miles before Mrs. Emmons started to give in to exhaustion. It would make no sense to continue on any further with a storm nipping at their heels so they decided to find temporary shelter. Houses were few and far between but they hoped to gain a well needed one night’s rest at the first home they came upon. A small house at the foot of the mountain provided a little hope. It was occupied by a man named Bean who turned them away in a less than polite manner.
Although they were tired, cold and hungry, they would have no choice but to continue onwards. It was mid-day and they finally entered Peacham Woods, which meant that the town was nearby. This gave them a bit of relief as they knew their journey was nearly over, if they could just beat the oncoming winter storm. However, they also knew there were still miles to go which soon dashed their relief. As the snow started lightly, it was both beautiful and ominous at the same time. Within minutes, the snow gathered intensity and became heavy to the point it was difficult to see even a few feet ahead. The snow stung at their faces like needles and piled upon them in a cover of white. Their thin, worn out clothing soon became covered with cold snow. Each one of them felt chilled to the bone. They hugged each other close in a vain attempt to generate warmth. Their hopes were again raised when they heard the sound of sleigh bells approaching. A man in a one-horse sleigh soon came upon them and he recognized Mrs. Emmons. He offered to give the old lady a ride into town but his tired horse could not carry the weight of all of them. Rather than leave May and Willie behind, Mrs. Emmons thanked the man and declined the offer. After all, she thought, the next house they came upon would surely offer them shelter for the night. The man flicked the reins and continued on into the storm, quickly vanishing into the snow filled countryside. Mrs. Emmons proceeded along with both her determination and strength quickly running out. Nearing exhaustion, she exited the woods into open country fields. It was becoming increasingly difficult to walk in the snow. May and Willie helped support her while she trudged along, frequently stopping to sit and rest for awhile.
The day was nearing its end as what small bit of daylight remained, gave way to the coming darkness. The snow still pounded at them relentlessly and they were becoming numb with cold. Finally, they reached a farm owned by a man named Stewart.
Surely after all they had endured, they had at last found someone with the kindness to extend shelter to them for the night. Despite their harrowing journey and sad appearance, all three frozen from head to toe in thin clothes and a frozen blanket of snow, the farmer refused to give them any type of refuge from the storm. He quickly refused their pleas and said he was taking no one in. Turning his back on them, he went back to tending his cattle. Their hearts sank with despair as they slowly continued onwards. Not everyone could be so cruel and surely the next home they came upon would be more gracious and charitable.
The snow was not slowing down and the darkness of the night was coming fast. Just a short distance further and the old lady was so exhausted, she had little strength to continue. Her strong willed waned with her fatigue and without her leadership, the other two lacked a sense of direction. Mrs Emmons fell more frequently and each time it was more difficult for her to stand up. Eventually, she could only stagger on for a few feet while the others tried their best to drag her along. Hunger, exhaustion and frigid cold were taking their toll on all three of them as their strength dwindled to nearly none. The old lady now lay in the snow, unable to summon the strength to carry on. She mumbled incoherently as Mary and Willie stayed by her side for awhile, desperately trying to figure out what to do. As darkness overtook them, they decided their only choice was to leave her behind and continue on, searching for help.
Soon, Mary and Willie were lost among the darkness of the night and the never ending snow, stinging at their eyes. They stumbled into a field and noticed a dim light shining in the distance. Tracks visible in the snow the next day, indicated that Willie had crawled on hands and knees over a huge snow drift towards the light he and Mary had seen in a window. The owners of the house, some 120 feet away, thought they heard cries for help in the night. But, with a demented child locked in an upstairs room, they attributed the sounds to her, blew out their lamp and went to bed. Another neighbor living nearby thought he heard one single cry for help but not hearing a second one, reasoned that perhaps he was mistaken or maybe it could have been the sound of the howling wind.
The snow storm continued unabated all night long. When morning arrived, the skies were still cloudy and the temperature was a bone chilling 24 degrees below zero. As the villagers dug out from the snow, a couple men were clearing the drifted road with oxen. A bright piece of cloth was stuck on the sled, a left over remnant of a bag perhaps. As the sled continued on, clearing the road they made a gruesome discovery. The sled had been dragging the frozen body of an older lady about a half mile. It was Mrs. Emmons. It wasn’t much longer before they came across another frightful scene.
The frozen body of Mary was lying face up near a stone wall where she had died without a struggle.
Willie’s frozen corpse was stiff upright in a snow drift, where he had turned back to Mary after the dim light disappeared the night before. He was only 30 feet away from a warm fire. Town authorities soon pieced together Peacham Cemeterywhat had happened and started inquiries into why such a thing had taken place. Ironically, if Mary and Willie had not strayed from the road they were on, they would have reached a welcoming home with shelter safely. If the Farrows (the owners of the house) had not turned off the light when they did, Willie would not have turned back in confusion and died in his tracks.
The three bodies were brought to the town hall in the basement of the church, where they were prepared for burial. News of the tragedy spread throughout the community. People wondered how something like this could have possibly happened in their town which was noted for humanity and compassion. Nearly everyone in town attended the funeral which was held in the large church where big box stoves provided the crackling warmth of heat, while the wind and sleet was held at bay by the long windows.
As for farmer Stewart, the man who refused the three people shelter, rumor has it that while on his death bed, he seemed to be reliving the tragedy. His body shook and he acted as if he was freezing to death. Although it was mid-summer when he died, his corpse was as cold as ice.
From a story “Who Can Stand Against His Cold?” by Louis A. Lamoureux in the book Mysterious New England published in 1971
Gravestone image courtesy of Chad Abramovich of Obscure Vermont