In Episode 161, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger trek through the woods of Warren, New Hampshire, searching for the legend of a lost little girl named Sarah Whitcher. In 1873, Sarah wandered into the woods by her forest home and was gone an entire day before her family realized she was missing. Folks came from several towns away to help search for days. When a child’s footprints were found near bear tracks, Sarah’s mother almost broke down.
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[WALKING IN THE WOODS]
RAY: It’s a great time of year to be hiking in the woods around the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Jeff. The air is getting crisp, the leaves are just starting to change.
JEFF: I couldn’t agree more, Ray. It’s easy to enjoy the scenery and forest when we’re out here for a stroll, but if we were out here in a panic, suddenly this pretty scene could turn to chaos.
RAY: Is that why we came to the woods of Warren, Jeff? Looking for chaos?
JEFF: Sort of. We’re here to connect to a time of panic. This is the story of a parent’s worst nightmare…
RAY: (interrupting) Oh man… we’re talking about a missing kid, aren’t we.
JEFF: That we are. This is where three-year-old Sarah Whitcher got lost. But it gets worse.
RAY: Worse than being lost in the woods?
JEFF: It gets worse when you add a bear.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 161 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: I’m Ray Auger, thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast if you don’t already, because it’s free! Also tell a friend or two about our show because we love how these stories bring people together.
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JEFF: Ray, we’re both dads.
JEFF: And we’ve explored this topic before. There’s no horror greater than when your young child goes missing in a dangerous world.
RAY: As pretty as this Warren forest is, yeah, if we were searching for my lost kid right now, I’d be panicked beyond belief.
JEFF: That’s exactly what happened way back in 1783 to little Sarah Whitcher—this according to the book The History of Warren; a Mountain Hamlet Located Among the White Hills of New Hampshire written by William Little and published in 1870.
RAY: I love when we find a solid source for these stories. So let’s travel back in time to 1783 and set this up.
RAY: It’s a Sunday in June of 1873 in the quiet mountain town of Warren. Being the Sabbath, the mills are quiet, there’s no busy horse-drawn wagons full of cargo rolling down the roads, it’s a pleasant day of rest as an early summer breeze wafts through town.
JEFF: On Pine Hill, Mr. John Whitcher suggests to his wife, that the couple go pay a visit to their relative Chase Whitcher who lives near the summit of one of the nearby hills. Mrs. Whitcher soon agrees that it’s the perfect day for a hike and visit, so she begins to pack up her things.
RAY: That’s when their youngest daughter, Sarah—not quite four years old—tugs on her mother’s dress.
SARAH: Mother, can I go too?
RAY: But Mrs. Whitcher tells Sarah, no, she has to stay home with her siblings, but promises the young girl she’ll bring her back something nice. And with that, the couple are off walking across the ridge toward babbling Berry Brook.
[BIRDS AND SUMMER SOUNDS]
JEFF: Mr. and Mrs. Whitcher spend a pleasant day with Chase and his wife. They admire all of the flowers in full bloom, they listen to the many songs of the birds as it mixes with the buzz of the bees. They even pick a few wild strawberries that, they agree, are some of the sweetest they’ve ever tasted. It’s a perfect, carefree Sunday.
RAY: As the sun dips below Webster-slide mountain to the west, the couple see it’s time to say their goodbyes and begin their hour-hike home.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
RAY: By the time the pair approached Pine Hill, the sky has turned hazy, then dark. The stars are just starting to show themselves when the Whitchers spot the welcoming lights from their cabin windows.
[DOOR OPEN AND CLOSES]
RAY: Mr. and Mrs. Whitcher settle in, and that’s when their oldest daughter speaks up.
OLDER DAUGHTER: What made you leave Sarah up at the summit?
JEFF: Mr. and Mrs. Whitcher are confused. They insist they didn’t leave Sarah at the summit because she was home all day with her siblings.
OLDER DAUGHTER: She is certainly not at home. Where can she be?
JEFF: That’s when the horrible truth dawns on the family… little Sarah must have tried to follow her parents and gotten lost. And now, there’s a panic. Night has already fallen, and the temperature is dropping. Nothing like winter, but still, a child can freeze to death in relatively mild temperatures if there’s no shelter or adequate clothing.
RAY: Their son, Reuben, thinks quickly and grabs the dinner horn.
[DINNER BELL RINGING]
RAY: He races out into the night clanging the bell for all he’s worth.
JEFF: Mrs. Whitcher gathers the older children and sends them running to their closest neighbor, Mr. Stephen Richardson, with instructions to spread the alarm.
[RUNNING FEET FADING]
JEFF: it doesn’t take long for the group to return, all shouting for Sarah.
CROWD: Sarah! Sarah!
RAY: Mr. Whitcher lights a campfire outside, and piles on the wood, hoping to create the brightest light he can so hopefully little Sarah can make her way home in the dark. With clouds covering up the sky, you can’t see very far in the forest.
[CRICKETS AT NIGHT]
JEFF: No one sleeps. All night the family frets and calls out. They know their only hope now is to head out at first light and try to find little lost Sarah.
JEFF: As soon as the sun cracks the horizon, the family and neighbors set off into the woods in different directions. Some of the Whitcher children seek out other neighbors to help in the search. Word travels fast.
CROWD: SARAH! SARAH!
RAY: Pretty much anyone who hears what happened joins the search. From several towns away others join the hunt for the little lost girl. Col. Clement brings his friends to help search. They head down through the maples to Black brook, by Kelly pond, then up by Oak Falls. Squire Copp blasts his hunting bugle…
RAY: In the hopes Sarah will hear the noise and come running. But by the time night falls again, hopes are being dashed. Sarah has been missing for more than a day. She has no food, and it looks like she’s going to have to face another long night…
JEFF: Hey! It looks like one more searcher is approaching. I don’t like the look on his face.
SEARCHER: I’ve found the tracks of a child… (CHANGE OF TONE) and of a bear on Berry Brook.
JEFF: Mrs. Whitcher is inconsolable. She’s sure her daughter has been devoured by the bear. The poor young girl didn’t stand a chance. Still, she begs everyone in the search party to please come back tomorrow, if only to find her child’s body for a proper burial. The folks gathered agree they’ll come back. Some walk away with bowed heads. They know the odds are now slim of finding Sarah alive.
RAY: Another night passes for the Whitcher family and their friends helping in the search. And the following day offers more of the same. Fruitless searching with no signs of Sarah. Still, the search party continues to grow in size. Everyone is determined to find answers. Then another very long night passes.
RAY: The new day offers the kind of hope only a sunrise can offer. The growing search party set out again in all directions. Folks have come from many miles away to help look, and to bring supplies like food for the people aiding the Whitcher family.
JEFF: Around noon, Mr. Heath, who had walked almost 20 miles from Plymouth, New Hampshire, arrives at the home of the Whitchers where he finds two neighbors cooking giant pots of beans to feed to the searchers.
HEATH: Give me some dinner.
JEFF: Mr. Heath demanded.
HEATH: Then show me the bridle-path to the north and I will find the child.
JEFF: The neighbors offer Mr. Heath a plate of food then listen while he eats. Another neighbor Joseph Patch arrives just in time to hear his story.
HEATH: I heard last evening how little Sarah Whitcher was lost. Three times that night I dreamed I found her lying under a great pine top, a few rods to the southeast of the spot where the path crossed Berry brook. She was being guarded by a bear.
RAY: The neighbors smile at Mr. Heath. But something about him seems so sure. When he finished his meal, as requested, they point him toward the bridle path and watch him walk away. Joseph Patch offers to accompany him.
[WALKING IN THE WOODS]
RAY: The afternoon sun is getting pretty low on the horizon, but not as low as the spirits of the Whitcher family and those searching for poor little Sarah. No child can survive days outside with no food or shelter. And just when all hope is about lost.
RAY: A gunshot is heard in the distance. A gunshot fired into the air! It’s a signal that someone has found the child! But is she dead or alive?
JEFF: Meanwhile, at the source of the gunfire, Joseph Patch places his pistol back in its holster as he stares in astonishment at a half-famished Sarah Whitcher lying under a pine right where Mr. Heath said they would find her. Though the child is weak, she’s able to speak.
SARAH: I want to go to mother. Carry me to mother.
JEFF: Joseph Patch asks the girl if she’s seen anyone else out here in the woods.
SARAH: A great black dog stopped with me every night.
JEFF: Patch lifts the young girl into his arms, and the two men quickly make their way back to bridle path where they soon met up with others in the search party. Cheers, tears, and joy overcome everyone who sees Sarah. And pretty soon, a family is reunited.
RAY: Little Sarah is fed, and after seeing her mother, perks up quite a bit. It’s clear to the overjoyed group gathered, that she’s going to be okay. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Once Sarah regained her strength, she explained how she set out to follow her parents that Sunday morning. Her siblings assumed she was allowed to go along, and her parents assumed she was home. The little girl followed the path for a while, but then found herself picking some of the many pretty and colorful flowers. She followed the sounds of the pretty birds, and soon she was lost. The girl wandered all day until her scratched and bleeding feet caused her to sit on a patch of moss by the cascades on Berry Brook. As night fell, a large black bear snuggled up next to Sarah, who buried her little body in the bear’s warm fur.
RAY: This is such a touching story.
JEFF: And it’s a story that’s locals from Warren swear by, and have stood by since it happened. It’s a story that’s been told in children’s books, it’s been told around campfires, and here we are reliving it today.
RAY: I love the idea that even a powerful animal like a black bear would find compassion and empathy when encountering a helpless child, even if that child or cup is from a different species.
JEFF: I agree. It implies the bear is capable of some abstract thought, even if that thought is to treat this child the way the bear would want its lost cub treated if the roles were reversed. And that’s how a story and the legend that grew around it, can give us all just a little bit of hope for a better tomorrow.
RAY: That’s what stories do. Especially true ones. May all of you legendary parents out there never find yourselves in the shoes of the Whitchers. And may all of us find ourselves in the shoes of the search party if ever we have a neighbor in need.
JEFF: Amen. Hey, please share this podcast with your friends. Tell them about, post your favorite episode to your social media, or write a review for us on Apple Podcasts. That all helps a great deal. Also, please call our legend line at 617-444-9683 and leave our show closing on our voicemail. We’d love to have you be a part of a future episode.
RAY: We’d like to thank Jim Harold from the Paranormal Podcast for lending his voice acting talents this week, plus Jonathan Bashford, Sophie Belanger, and Megan Belanger. And of course our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL_161: Hi, this is Laurie Bastian from Pembroke, Massachusetts until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.