Podcast 232 – The Tragic Tale of the Tarboxer

In 1819, Mr. and Mrs. Tarbox of Standish, Maine, lost their lives in a brutal blizzard. The event still haunts the Sebago Lake region.

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In Episode 232, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger are caught in a brutal winter storm by Sebago Lake in Standish, Maine, where they explore the tragic story or Mr. and Mrs. Tarbox, who lost their lives in a March 1819 blizzard. Their frozen demise inspired local poet Thomas Shaw to chronicle the event in a “mournful song” of a poem. The event still haunts the region.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: Michael Legge
Theme Music by: John Judd

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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 winter storm is brutal, Jeff! There’s already more than a foot of snow on the ground.
JEFF: Yeah, this is a good one. Up here in Standish, Maine, some folks still refer to snowstorms like this one as a real Tarboxer.
RAY: A Tarboxer? I’ve never heard that expression.
JEFF: A Tarboxer is a snow storm that’s so bad, you’re risking your life to even go outside in the storm.
RAY: Yeah, this storm may count as that. It’s bad out here. But I still don’t understand the term Tarboxer.
JEFF: A storm just like this one took the life of Samuel Tarbox and his wife, and THAT still haunts this town in Maine.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 232 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. If you love strange tales of true crime, history, ghosts, monsters, UFOs, roadside oddities, and the just plain weird, you’ve come to the right place. You should also visit our Web site because not only do we have our entire archive of shows up there, but there’s photos that go with each location, episode transcripts for the deaf, an interactive map so you can check out every place we’ve been, and video clips from the New England Legends television series on PBS and Amazon Prime.
RAY: So much to see up there for sure. Plus there’s a way to contact us on our Web site. Did you know that so many of our story ideas come from YOU? Like this one. Thanks to Lauren Middleton – she also developed our smart phone app – thanks for the tip, Lauren!
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RAY: Okay, Jeff, this storm is brutal. I can’t believe we’re out here in this weather near the eastern shores of Sebago Lake in Maine.
JEFF: And today we have good snow plowing services that can clear even the worst winter weather in a day or two. But there was a time when a few feet of snow meant you weren’t leaving your home for a week or more. You had to be ready for storms like these. And if a storm caught you off guard, it meant you had to risk everything to go get what you need to survive.
RAY: I can only imagine the lines for bread and milk before the days of snow plows!
JEFF: Exactly. This is a tragic tale of a husband and wife who risked everything for their young family in the teeth of a mighty blizzard. A story that made the day’s headlines, but was also immortalized in a poem. Grab your hat and mittens, we’re going back to the winter of 1819.
RAY: It’s mid-March of 1819, and spring SHOULD be just around the corner… but with clouds moving in, it looks like the Sebago Lakes region is about to get hit by another winter storm.
JEFF: Still, the first official day of spring is only a week away. I mean, how bad could a storm be at this point?… Right?
RAY: That’s what Samuel Tarbox thinks as well. Samuel lives in a home by the lake with his wife and four children. Hi youngest is still a baby.
JEFF: It’s March 15th when snow starts to fall. The Tarbox family is a hearty group. They’ve lived in Maine for years, so no one is too concerned.
JEFF: But a day and a foot of snow later, Samuel is growing concerned. The storm is showing no sign of letting up.
RAY: Still, even the biggest winter storms don’t last more than a day before they move on.
JEFF: Not usually, but this storm is stubborn. Another day passes, and more snow is piling up. And the food supply inside the Tarbox home is running low. And that’s making Samuel even more nervous.
JEFF: It’s day three of this brutal storm, and the Tarbox family is out of food. Samuel Tarbox has no choice. He’s going to head out into the storm and make his way to his nearest neighbor five miles away to ask for help.
JEFF: For five miles, Samuel trudges through the deep snow toward his neighbor’s house.
JEFF: He arrives exhausted and hungry, but soon he warms himself by the fire. After hearing of his plight, Samuel’s neighbor loads a sack with provisions. Enough to get his family through the next week until the storm has passed. Still tired, but grateful, Samuel wastes no time. He needs to get this food back home to his family.
RAY: For hours, Samuel Tarbox trudges through the deep snow back toward his home. He’s cold. Exhausted. The sack on his back is growing heavier by the step. The wet snow is weighing him down. But he knows this journey is a matter of life and death for his family. Just a mile from home, Samuel is struggling to take another step. He can’t go on. Spotting a nearby tree, he ties the sack of food onto one of the branches. His only hope now is to get home for help to recover the food.
RAY: Samuel can hardly see as he continues his journey toward his home. Shivering, afraid he’s going to lose consciousness, he falls to his knees only a quarter of a mile from his house. He cries out!
JEFF/ALTER VOICE: Helllllllp! Helllllllp!
RAY: Samuel’s wife hears her husband’s cry through the storm. She knows something is very wrong, and she must act fast. Leaving her children to watch each other, she bundles up…
RAY: And races into the storm toward the sound of her husband.
JEFF: Mrs. Tarbox locates her husband. He’s weak, but alive. He pleads with his wife to go fetch the provisions from the tree, and then they can carry it together the rest of the way. Mrs. Tarbox wraps her cloak and handkerchief around her husband’s head to keep him warm, and heads off in the direction of the tree where Samuel stashed the food.
JEFF: Neither Mr. or Mrs. Tarbox make it back home. The children huddle together through the night until morning when the storm finally moves on.
RAY: With the sun shining again, the oldest Tarbox child heads outside, and soon finds her father’s frozen corpse just a quarter mile from their house. She returns home and sounds the work bell used to call in workers to meal time.
RAY: It’s the only alarm she has. All day she rings and rings, but no one arrives. Night falls, and once again the four Tarbox children huddle together until morning.
RAY: And once again, the oldest child rings the work bell, but today someone hears the alarm and comes to investigate. The children have gone three days without food, and they’re weak and exhausted.
JEFF: Pretty soon, Samuel Tarbox’s body is discovered, and then his wife’s frozen corpse is discovered… just a few yards away from the tree that held their life-saving provisions.
RAY: In the coming weeks, this tragic story makes the newspapers of the region. And the tale haunts the community around Sebago Lake. It’s something locals can’t forget.
JEFF: One of those locals is a neighbor to the Tarbox Family, a 67-year-old man named Thomas Shaw.
RAY: Shaw was born in New Hampshire in 1753. He came to this part of Maine when he was ten years old because his father wanted to raise him in the woods away from the bad influences of world. He was never educated because there weren’t even school houses around here back then. Thomas was never exposed to art, either. After serving in the War of 1812, he retires in his sixties. Though Shaw never had any formal training as anything other than a soldier, he has an artist’s heart. So he starts writing poems.
JEFF: His poems aren’t very good. Plus, he focuses on telling rather tragic tales. A series of mournful songs and broadside ballads.
RAY: Still, what he lacks in lyrical talent, he makes up for it with marketing prowess. He prints his poems and sells them by the thousands in Portland for six and a quarter cents apiece. Sailors buy them, as do locals. They call him the Standish poet.
JEFF: So when this terrible tragedy occurs to the Tarbox family, right in his own town, Thomas Shaw can’t help but be moved by the Muse. He pens a poem titled “Mournful song, on a man and wife, who both froze to death in one night, on Standish Cape, so called.” Here’s part of it.
And now the story I shall tell, Who am informed of it full well, And O my soul what can this mean, A real or a fancied dream.
O yes, it is the truth I tell. On Standish Cape these two did dwell, Together lived as man and wife, Until ended their day of life.
This man for food abroad did go, In a snow-storm in a deep snow, At his return his strength gave way, Which brought him to his dying day.
Under his load he seemed to fall, And then aloud for help did call, His wife his dying sound did hear, Then for his help did soon repair.
She left her children then with speed, To help her husband then in need, Through cold and wind in a deep snow, God knows what she did undergo.
She met her husband in a fright, Through winds and snow on a cold night, Whom she most lovingly did own, To save his life she lost her own.
JEFF: And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Today, original Thomas Shaw poems are hard to find, because nobody thought to save them.
JEFF: Right, they were kind of throw-away poems. Folk art. But his poetry spoke to enough people to earn him a living. His word choice wasn’t too high-falutin. He was accessible. You have to respect that.
RAY: The story of the tragic death of Mr. and Mrs. Tarbox struck a chord with Shaw, as well as the whole region around the Sebago Lakes.
JEFF: It did! We found many of the details for this story from an April 9, 1819 article printed in the Sentinel and Democrat newspaper of Burlington, Vermont. The same article showed up in a bunch of newspapers.
RAY: It was a cautionary tale then, and still is today.
JEFF: The story of the Tarbox family or the poem?
RAY: Both!
JEFF: Good point! When a big snow storm is forecasted today in New England, we laugh at how busy the grocery stores get just before.
RAY: You gotta get bread and milk!
JEFF: Right! As a kid, I remember my mom sending my dad to the store for bread and milk. That’s the secret recipe for surviving being snowed-in. And though we laugh at this today, because even the worst storms only shut us down for a day or two, there was a time when if you were caught off-guard from a big storm, your family could be in peril.
RAY: Considering this blizzard hit in mid-March, with Spring just a week away, no one would suspect that big of a storm.
JEFF: Which is why we still take winter weather seriously around these parts. We smell the snow coming. We get a twitch somewhere deep inside. Maybe that’s our New England ancestors knocking around inside of us somewhere with a dire warning: This next storm could be a real Tarboxer.
RAY: We appreciate you going through another winter with us, and we really appreciate our patreon patrons! For just $3 bucks per month, our inner circle of Patrons gets early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. If you can help the cause, please head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: Also, be sure to subscribe to our podcast if you don’t already, because we don’t want you to miss a thing—and it’s free! We also appreciate it when you post a review of our show on Apple Podcasts. It just takes a second and it helps others find us in a crowded sea of podcasts. The bigger our community, the more people feeding us story leads.
RAY: You should also join our super-secret New England Legends Facebook group! Almost 7,000 people strong now. Also, if you’d like to read the entire Thomas Shaw poem about this tragic event, we have a link to it on our Web site. Just click on Episode 232.
JEFF: We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, thank you to the great Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week, and our music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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