January 4, 2010

FIRST NIGHT. Part 1

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What follows, in 4 parts, is the presentation I gave at Burlington’s First Night celebration. The theater was full and it was great to see so many of the actual 3-dimensional faces of the people who read my books and listen to my public radio commentaries.

FIRST NIGHT 2010
PART I

Thank you for joining me on this very busy evening. The end of another year. . . can you believe it?

I realize that lately I’ve been getting something of a reputation in this state. People are starting to refer to me as “Joe Citro, The Ghost Guy.” While I’ve been called worse things, I have to admit I have written a lot about ghosts.

But “The Ghost Guy”? Jeez, I’ll be a ghost soon enough!

To tell you the truth, I’m getting a little sick of ghosts. Last year, as some of you know, I tried to become “Joe Citro, The Monster Guy.” I collected a bunch of Vermont monster stories and published them in a book – beautifully illustrated by my friend Steve Bissette – called The Vermont Monster Guide.


I was surprised to discover that our old pal Champ is not alone. Our seemingly safe little state contains a whole zoo-full of monsters. (You might keep that in mind as you head home tonight.)

While ghost stories display an almost infinite variety, they are truly stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Monster stories are often a bit more simple. In fact, they are generally limited to two basic scenarios:

I saw a monster and I ran away. Or. . .

I saw a monster and it ran away.

I surprised even myself that I was able to collect over 60 Vermont monster stories, most of them with a bit more complexity.

Anyway, now that I’m “Joe Citro, the Monster Guy,” I’m going to ignore ghosts altogether. This will be a ghost free evening. Spirit free. And, as my contract says, alcohol free.

What I want to do is read you a couple of Vermont stories that are the undisputed classics of Vermont weirdness. These are the venerable tales that have been told since our granddaddy’s days, and even before. They have been told over and over and over again.

1. THE HIBERNATING HILL FOLK

In recognition of this time of year, and the arctic temperatures we’ve been enduring lately, I give you this first little chiller.

Long before they began enjoying the luxuries of Caribbean vacations and second homes in Florida, certain Vermonters discovered a novel method of passing the long, grueling winter months -- they slept through them.

For over a century, whispered tales of the “hibernating hill folk” have echoed through the Green Mountains. The specifics of this peculiar practice were first publicly revealed in December, 1887 on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper, “The Montpelier Argus and Patriot”.

The reporter’s apparently self-protective byline was simply “A.M.”. His article made public certain “information” from his deceased uncle’s diary. This “Information” -- then as now – seems unbelievable, even. . . horrifying.

Uncle William, “A.M.” wrote, had witnessed the techniques used by a wretchedly poor family of hill farmers to get their elderly and infirm relatives through the winter without putting a drain on the family’s meager food supply.

Their system was a hybrid of Yankee ingenuity, old-time folk medicine, and sheer gothic horror. Somehow, they had developed a procedure to literally freeze people alive. Like hibernating bears, they’d sleep the winter away.

“A.M.” verified his uncle’s bizarre claims. “I have been to the place,” he wrote, “and seen the old log house where the events . . . took place, and . . . talked with an old man [whose] father was one of the parties operated on.”

Although the chemical concoction’s specific ingredients were not recorded, the process was thoroughly described. It began by drugging four men and two women, "one of the men," Uncle William wrote, "a cripple about 36 years old, the other five past the age of usefulness…."
The unconscious family members were then stripped naked.

Under the frosty glow of the winter moon they were carried outdoors and packed side by side on straw beds encased within a ten-by-six foot wooden box.

Uncle William watched in horror as their noses, ears, and fingers slowly turned white. He saw their ghastly upturned faces assume a tallowy pallor.

When the overseer judged them "ready," helpers placed cloth over their heads and packed more protective straw around them. Then they sealed the box to guard against predators.

Shivering from the cold and quaking from the horrid sight before him, Uncle William ran into the cabin, no longer able to endure the nightmare.

In the weeks that followed, twenty-foot snow drifts buried the sleepers for a quarter of the year.

What Uncle William had witnessed turned out to be more than a crude, perhaps merciful, form of euthanasia. Because -- four months later -- his May 10th diary entry revealed an unexpected outcome.

Just as the Green Mountains were beginning to warm up, Uncle William returned to the cabin to watch the sleepers' liberation from their icy crypt. Able-bodied men lifted their stone-stiff relatives into log troughs. Women poured hot water and a hemlock-based potion over them, creating a fragrant, steaming bath.

Slowly, pallid faces began to brighten. Muscles twitched. Fingers flexed. Vitality returned. Carefully helped from their baths, the six were carried inside.

Warmed by blankets, fire, and a hardy meal, the sleepers slowly revived after their long winter's nap.

The printed version of this remarkable story hibernated for almost half a century. Then, in 1939, Elbert S. Stevens of Bridgewater, Vermont brought the original clipping to the attention of Bob Wilson of The Rutland Herald. The story was soon picked up by The Boston Globe, Yankee magazine, The Old Farmer's Almanac, and numerous books, periodicals, and newspapers from all around the world.

It was a sensation. By the early 1950s Vermont was big news. Vermonters, on the other hand, were portrayed as having a dark secret. The primitive ritual, and the “operator’s” apparent indifference to human life, cast the state in an unsavory light.

Yet, because the story's grim details seemed like the product of a horror writer's imagination, many dismissed it as an especially grisly mountain myth. At the same time, earnest individuals -- including some scientists -- believed it. After all, it was. . . possible.

Researchers like Doctor Temple S. Fay of Philadelphia suggested this arcane Vermont "folk medicine" might someday be used to treat cancer and heart disease. Experiments at the University of Toronto buttressed the story when researchers demonstrated that a dog could be kept alive after freezing. The American Medical Association disclosed recent experiments in which humans were frozen, suspending all bodily functions for hours. An Illinois newspaper reported, "A man was restored to life after having been frozen in an unconscious sleep for five days and nights...."

Even today the University of Vermont receives occasional inquiries from cryogenics researchers about the techniques used by our primitive practitioners.

So the question remains: Had a semi-literate Vermont hill family stumbled on a stupendous medical discovery? Or, as the story jumped from publication to publication, had there been some misinterpretation, misquotation, or just plain mischief?

The original article and subsequent retellings describe Vermont's cryogenic events so vividly and convincingly that the story has taken root in our folk memory where it is frequently accepted as fact.

Having grown up in southern Vermont, I recall talking with old-timers who swore the tale was true.

In his book Inside New England, “Yankee Magazine” editor Judson Hale relates an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this strange tale's unique position between fact and fantasy. He writes, "I once asked an old Vermont farm couple in the Montpelier area if either one of them truly believed the 'Frozen Death' story.

"'Certainly do, the husband answered emphatically, without hesitation.

"Then the wife added, 'The only part I doubt is the thawing out.'"
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Well, no monster there, but the events described are truly monstrous.

Maybe this next one will bring us a little closer to what we’re looking for. I give you another “Vermont Classic.”

…To Be Continued. . .