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The Story That Never Dies

The Story That Never Dies
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It’s not possible to freeze old people in the beginning of winter, store them outside, almost naked, and then thaw them out in time to help with the spring planting. Is it? Well, in 1939, a Dr. Temple S. Fay of Philadelphia, who had done some experiments freezing human organs, gave a talk in Providence, Rhode Island, in which he related a grotesque story he believed to be true. He said it occurred just outside Montpelier, Vermont, about the turn of the century. And if I were asked to name the most popular story we ever printed in The Old Farmer’s Almanac (yes, we do both Yankee magazine and The Old Farmer’s Almanac), I’d probably have to name this story of Dr. Fay’s. In fact, we still receive letters about it. Although Dr. Fay’s title for it had been “A Strange Story”, we called it “Frozen Death.”

Supposedly Dr. Fay quoted the tale from an old diary that was kept by his late uncle Williams, who visited a remote community outside Montpelier one January 7 and found all the community’s elderly people lying on the floor of a cabin, drugged into unconciousness. The diary does on to describe how, during that evening, the drugged people were stripped of all clothing “except a single garment,” carried outside in to the bitter-cold air and stacked up on logs.

The next day the bodies, by then frozen solid, were covered with straw and pine boughs, placed in layers in a huge wooden enclosure to protect them from animals, and left there. The diary relates that when the writer returned to the community the following May, all the frozen old people were brought inside, placed in tubs of warm water with hemlock boughs until they revived and were given sips of brandy. Soon they were going about their business “rather refreshed by their long sleep of four months.”

That, essentially, was the story. So one cold January day when I was in that area researching a story about Vermont legends, I stopped at a country store outside Montpelier. The proprietors were a man and his wife, both quite elderly.

After introducing myself and chitchatting about the cold weather, I told them that I’d heard that somewhere nearby they used to freeze the old people in early January and then thaw them out come spring.

“Ever heard of that?” I asked. Both nodded and said, yes, everyone around there had heard that story.

“Well, what I’d like to know,” I said, “is whether or not you believe it. Do you believe it?”

Again, they both nodded.

“Yes, we believe it to be true,” the old gentleman replied to which, after a moment of silence, his wife added, very seriously, “All except for the thawin’ out part.”

Makes me smile to remember how, after that, the three of us laughed together that day.

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The Story That Never Dies

Updated Monday, January 1st, 2007

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