Vermont’s Deep Frozen Old Folks
The following is from a story by Wesley S. Griswold; from Mischief in the Mountains published by Vermont Life 1970:
The Argus and Patriot listed the author as A.M. noting the events took place in a mountain town some 20 miles from Montpelier. A.M. wrote that the tale was excerpted from his Uncle Williams’ diary.
January 7: I went on the mountain today, and witnessed what to me was a horrible sight. It seems that the dwellers there who are unable, either form age or other reasons, to contribute to the support of their families, are disposed of in the Winter months in a manner that will shock the one who reads this diary, unless that persons lives in that vicinity. I will describe what I saw. Six persons, four men and two women, one of the men a cripple about thirty-years-old, the other five past the age of usefulness, lay on the earthy floor of the cabin drugged into insensibility, while members of their families were gathered about them in apparent indifference. In a short time the unconscious bodies were inspected by several old people, who said, “They are ready.” They were then stripped of all their clothing, except a single garment. Then the bodies were carried outside, and laid on logs exposed to the bitter cold mountain air, the operation having been delayed several days for suitable weather.
It was night when the bodies were carried out, and the full moon occasionally obscured by flying clouds, shone on their upturned ghastly faces, and a horrible fascination kept me by the bodies as long as I could endure the severe cold. Soon the noses, ears and fingers began to turn white, then the limbs and face assumed a tallow look. I could stand the cold no longer, and went inside, where I found the friends in cheerful conversation.
In about an hour I went out and looked at the bodies; they were fast freezing……I could not shut out the sight of those freezing bodies outside, neither could I bear to be in darkness, but I piled on the wood in the cavernous fireplace, and seated on a shingle block, passed the dreary night, terror-stricken by the horrible sights I had witnessed.
January 8: ….”We shall want our men to plant our corn next spring,” said a youngish-looking woman, the wife of one of the frozen men, “and if you want to see them resuscitated you come here about the 10th of next May.”….
May 10:…The men commenced work at once, some shoveling away the snow and others tearing away the brush. Soon the box was visible. The cover was taken off, the layers of straw removed, and the foodies (bodies), frozen and apparently lifeless, lifted out and laid on the snow. Large troughs made of hemlock logs were placed near by, filled with tepid water, into which the bodies were separately placed, with the head slightly raised. Boiling water was then poured into the trough from kettles hung on poles near by, until the water in the trough was a hot as I could hold my hand in. Hemlock boughs had been put in the boiling water in such quantities that they had given the water the color of wine. After lying in this bath about an hour, color began to return to the bodies, when all hands began rubbing and chafing them. This continued about another hour, when a slight twitching of the muscles of ht face and limbs, followed by audible gasps, showed that life was not quenched, and 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 them, when their eyes opened, and they began to talk, and finally sat up in their bathtubs. They were then taken out and assisted to the house, where after a hearty dinner they seemed as well as ever, and in nowise injured, but rather refreshed, by their long sleep of four months.
Times change and the old traditions have a way of fading out. These days, we Vermonters just buy an extra pair of woolen socks and throw an extra blanket or two on top of Grandpa.
Hemlock poison - Coniine is a poisonous alkaloid found in poison hemlock. Coniine paralyzes muscles by blocking the nicotinic receptor on the post-synaptic membrane of the neuromuscular junction causing a flaccid paralysis. This action is similar to that of curare. Symptoms of paralysis occur within a half hour, and death may take several hours. As the central nervous system is not affected the person remains conscious and aware until respiratory paralysis results in cessation of breathing. The muscular paralysis is an ascending flaccid paralysis as the lower limbs are affected first. The person may have a hypoxic convulsion just prior to death but this is greatly disguised by the muscular paralysis and the person may just weakly shudder. The cause of death is lack of oxygen to the brain and heart as a consequence of respiratory paralysis. A poisoned person will recover if artificial ventilation (breathing) is maintained until the toxin is removed from the receptor.
Sacred Tree Profile: Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) – Magic, Mythology, and Qualities - Hemlocks as a means of warmth and heat: In the Seneca story “Okteondo and his Uncle” and “Hótho,” the hemlock is featured as a means of warmth. In “Okteondo and his Uncle” hemlock boughs are used in the story to keep warm at night—both for shelter and for sleeping upon. In “Hótho,” the cold (Hótho) attempts to conquer a man who is out hunting. The man builds a fire and makes a huge kettle of hemlock tea—while the cold pressed in around him all night, the fire and the tea kept him warm and allowed him to overcome the cold. In the Micmac story “The Adventures of the Great Hero Puloweach, or the Partridge” Pulowech encounters two evil magicians who attempt to roast him to death in a cavern. Their fires are fed with hemlock bark. Puloweach ends up roasting them with his own blazing hemlock bark fire. Hemlocks as a means of warmth and heat. Hemlock as an aid to magical transformation. Hemlock magically growing from a needle and offering aid. Hemlock as Holding the Winter at Bay. Addition to the mythology, Hemlock branches were used for ceremonial purposes, including ceremonial clothing and in the construction of sweat lodges (according to the Makah legend)
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