In Episode 132, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger face a brutal winter snow storm in Peacham, Vermont, in search of a story from March of 1869 when a blizzard took the lives of three wayward travelers: Esther Emmons, her daughter Mary David, and her grandson Willie. Three travelers whose lives could have been spared if a stranger would have offered some shelter. The lack of human decency in an emergency has haunted the small town of Peacham ever since.
Read the episode transcript.
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*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
RAY: This is a brutal storm, Jeff!
JEFF: I know! I can barely see ten feet in front me!
RAY: I see a light up ahead. I think that’s the Library here in Peacham, Vermont.
JEFF: Let’s head inside and get out of this storm.
[DOOR CLOSES/STORM STOPS]
RAY: This hasn’t been much of a winter so far, but this storm really makes up for it. I’m just glad there was a place we could go in to get out of this horrible weather.
JEFF: There was a time not that long ago when getting caught in a storm like this could mean your life. Some winter storms become legendary because sometimes these storms can kill.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to episode 132 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Thank you for coming along as we chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. If you enjoy our show, please subscribe. It’s free! You can find us anywhere you get your podcasts. Also, tell a friend or two about us. That goes a long way in helping us grow and find more stories, because we get so many great leads from you guys.
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JEFF: Ray, I know you’re a fellow life-long New Englander. What’s the first thing people do when they hear there’s a big snow storm in the weather forecast?
RAY: Ooo ooo! I know this one! We all race to the grocery store to buy bread and milk.
JEFF: Correct! Remember that blizzard we had back in 2015?
RAY: Absolutely! We got just shy of three feet of snow in that one. Everything was shut down.
JEFF: And how long did it take for you to be able to get out and about again?
RAY: I’m pretty sure by the following day all of the streets were plowed and I could get out to the grocery stories and things like that.
JEFF: Right, and that storm eclipsed the infamous Boston Blizzard of ’78.
RAY: I get your point. Do we really need a bunch of bread and milk to survive one single day shut in?
JEFF: Right. Today, we really don’t need to stock up. Chances are there’s some kind of food in the house to get you through a day or two. Still, old habits die hard. Our grandparents no doubt grew up on stories of people getting snowed in and starving to death during a bad winter storm. It can be tough for us to relate to those times with our modern doppler radar to warn us days in advance, and efficient snowplows clearing every street in town. But there was a time when you looked up at dark clouds on a cold winter’s day and had to wonder if it’s going to bring some flurries, or if that beast might just have your number.
RAY: And if you live in a remote area with a lot of nothing between you and your neighbor, that storm would be all the more dangerous.
JEFF: So with that in mind, let’s head back in time and jump into one of those killer storms the left a permanent scar here in northern Vermont.
RAY: The year is 1869, it’s early March here in northern Vermont, and 74 year-old Esther Emmons has been staying with her son who suffered a horrible accident while working as a lumberjack in the woods. The accident has left him an invalid.
JEFF: Fortunately, in these times if you find yourself unable to work and in need to help, you apply to your town for assistance. And that’s exactly what Esther’s son had done. No one in town doubted that Mr. Emmons did indeed need the help. He’s no freeloader looking for a handout.
RAY: Still, town officials are concerned that though Mr. Emmons may not be a freeloader, they think old Esther might be because she has no other home. They’re willing to give him money and support, but on the condition that Esther leaves.
JEFF: Esther sees no other way to get her son the help, so she sends for her daughter, 35-year-old Mary David, who brings along her 8-year-old son, Willie to help Esther carry her things on the 20-mile walk to Peacham, Vermont. Mary works for a wealthy farmer in Peacham, so Esther should be able to stay with her and help around the house.
RAY: On March fourth, on a cold, crisp, but clear late winter morning, Esther says goodbye to her son…
RAY: And Esther, her daughter Mary, and young grandson Willie start off for Peacham.
[WALKING ON DIRT]
JEFF: Okay, time for a little math, here. 20 miles is a long distance to walk. But very doable, especially if you’re walking along a road that’s relatively flat. If you average say 25-minute miles, which is a little faster than two miles per hour, and of course you’d have to factor in some rest breaks here and there, you’re probably looking at a nine- to ten-hour walk to Peacham.
RAY: That’s a long day. Especially if one of you is 74 years old and one of you is eight years old.
JEFF: So, they walk.
RAY: And walk.
JEFF: And walk. As the hours and miles start pealing away, they can’t help but notice the crisp, clear morning, is giving way to some clouds by early afternoon.
RAY: Clouds that are getting darker by the minute. And then… some snow flurries move in.
[WIND IN THE DISTANCE BUILDING]
RAY: But these flurries soon give way to a steady snow, and now the wind is picking up.
JEFF: There’s no turning back at this point. They figure they’re closer to their destination than they are to Esther’s son’s house. So they press on with Esther leading the way with young Willie trying to keep up with his grandmother. Esther has seen enough Vermont snow storms to know these things aren’t to be trifled with. If they can pick up the pace, all the better.
RAY: The trio make their way toward Peacham Woods just as the storm is turning heavy. The clouds are growing darker, the temperature is dropping as the daylight prematurely bleeds out of the winter sky.
JEFF: Still, Esther has hope that Peacham Woods will offer a little bit of a shield from the storm and allow them to finish their journey because the town lies just on the other side of the forest.
RAY: With the skies growing dark, the snow piling up, and the storm showing no sign of letting up, Esther decides they will knock on the door of the next house they see and ask for shelter for the night. Up ahead they see some lights in a farmhouse window, so the pilgrims trudge toward the house.
[KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK]
JEFF: They ask for shelter for the night, but the homeowner takes one look at the three women and offers them only one word.
JEFF: With no other choice, they set their site on Peacham Woods. Once the road makes its way among the trees there’s hope that the journey is nearly over. Just a few more miles to go and they’ll arrive in Peacham.
RAY: And suddenly, even more hope arrives in the form of a one horse-drawn carriage.
[HORSE TROTTING WITH SLEIGH]
RAY: The man in the horse recognizes Esther, and of course stops to offer them a ride into town. So Esther, Mary, and young Willie try to climb aboard, but there just isn’t the room in the tiny sleigh. And to make things worse, the old horse just can’t get through the snow with the extra weight.
JEFF: The driver offers to take only Esther, but she refuses to leave her daughter and grandson. So the horse and driver trot off toward Peacham.
[HORSE TROTTING AWAY]
JEFF: And the three keep walking.
RAY: At this point they’re exhausted, and the storm is clearly not passing through. It’s getting worse. They’re hungry. They’re numb from cold, and shivering. But no one is worse off than Esther. Mary and Willie do their best to support her while they walk through the fierce storm.
JEFF: Still, Esther figures the next house they encounter will have no choice but to offer them shelter for the night. The three emerge from Peachman Woods to a large open field. But the snow is growing deep, slowing them further, and there’s very little daylight left. That’s when they spot the Stewart Farm in the distance.
RAY: The three make their way to the farm, and pound on the door.
[POUND, POUND, POUND]
RAY: But Mr. Stewart will have none of this. He tells them he’s not taking anyone in. Esther begs for some space in the barn, but he hears none of their pleas for help. He points them on their way. Left with no choice, they trudge again through the deepening snow.
JEFF: Esther Emmons didn’t make it 74 years in Vermont by accident. She’ll see her family through this. But as daylight gives way to horrible darkness, and with visibility so low, Esther slips and falls into the snow. Mary and Willie lift her back to her feet, but each step is more difficult than the one just before it. Esther falls again. She’s mumbling something, but they can’t make out the words.
[OLD LADY MUMBLING]
RAY: Mary and Willie stay by Esther’s side, not sure of what to do. But one thing is clear, without some shelter soon, their lives are in serious danger. Mary decides their only hope is for she and Willie to leave Esther where she is, and go find help.
JEFF: It’s now night. The wind and snow are whipping at their faces. The snow stings their eyes to the point they can only squint. Mary is so weak, so cold, and so hungry. She wanders off the road hoping to find any kind of shelter. Somewhere up ahead she sees a light in a window. Or she thinks she sees a light. It’s so hard to tell. She falls. She yells out for help among the howling snow.
[WOMAN YELLS HELP IN THE DISTANCE UNDER WIND]
JEFF: Willie crawls in the direction his mother points him toward, and soon he’s out of her sight.
[WINTER STORM FADES]
RAY: As day breaks, the storm finally passes. There’s still some lingering clouds, but Peacham begins the process of digging out from the blizzard.
RAY: Some men are plowing the snow on the road with their horse-drawn plow when they spot a bright-colored fabric on the edge of the plow. They stop the plow to take a closer look only to discover something awful. They had been dragging the body of Esther Emmons for some distance.
JEFF: Mary was right. She did see a house in the distance. It belonged to the Kimball family. They discover the body of young Willie frozen sold just 30 feet from their house the following morning. His mother’s body is found about 100 feet further out.
RAY: The three bodies are taken to the basement of a Peacham church where they are prepared for burial. The entire town shows up for the service… the entire town except for Mr. Stewart who was the last to turn them away. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: This is such a heartbreaking story, Jeff.
JEFF: That it is. The story made rounds in the newspapers back in March of 1869, and also appears in Louis Lamoureux’s 1971 book, Mysterious New England. And here we are still talking about it.
RAY: I get why we’re still talking about it. This event still haunts us. We keep talking about it in the hopes of reminding… even if we’re just reminding ourselves… never to let this happen again.
JEFF: We have a natural distrust of strangers, I get that. But sometimes the kindness of a stranger is all that may stand between us and death. Sometimes it feels like a moral obligation to help someone out if you’re ever in a position to do so, because you never know when you’ll be the person needing the help.
RAY: Clearly though the biggest villain in this event was Mr. Stewart. The last man to see the trio alive, and the last person who could have saved their lives even by offering them some space in the barn.
JEFF: According to a local Peacham legend, that event never stopped haunting Mr. Stewart. They say when he was on his death bed one mid-summer’s night, he appeared to be reliving that horrible winter night of 1869 when he condemned three wayward travelers to death. They say his body shook and quaked like he himself was freezing to death. And when he did pass, even though it was a hot summer’s day, they say his body immediately turned ice cold.
RAY: With just a few more weeks of winter to go, here’s hoping we all survive until Spring, Jeff.
JEFF: And here’s hoping that you legendary listeners get more involved. We love when you share your own local stories with us, when you reach out to us on social media, or when you call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683. You can also leave our show closing on there for us.
RAY: Please also visit our Web site at ournewenglandlegends.com where you can see our entire archive of shows, clips and links to the New England Legends television series available right now on Amazon Prime, and dates for Jeff’s ongoing story tour.
JEFF: And our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Joseph Ames from Ossipee, New Hampshire. And I was wondering if you guys could do more Ossipee, New Hampshire stories or Legends. Anyway, thanks if you do and just remember the bizarre is closer than you think.
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