March 18, 2010

Hibernating Hill Folk

Submitted for your consideration, the first commentary of my 2010 Commentary Series on public radio. If you prefer, you can listen to it on line. The URL is posted at the end.

Beginning this month I’m kicking off another series of weird Vermont stories, including ghost lore, monster legends, and historical oddities. And today’s tale is an undisputed classic.

It concerns the odd practice of “human hibernation", first publicly disclosed in a December, 1887 issue of The Montpelier Argus and Patriot.

The reporter had discovered information in an old diary written by his Uncle William. The entries focused on the efforts of a wretchedly poor and isolated family of hill farmers from up around Calais. Their problem was how to stretch a meager food supply through the long, cold winter months.

Yankee ingenuity led to a horrifying solution. Somehow they developed a process to literally freeze people alive. Like hibernating bears, they’d sleep the winter away.

This seemingly impossible (and decidedly inhumane) process began by drugging four men and two women. "[O]ne of the men," Uncle William wrote, "[was] a cripple about 36 years old. The other five [were] past the age of usefulness…."

When unconscious, the individuals were stripped and carried outdoors into the freezing mountain air.

Beneath the full moon their noses, ears, and fingers slowly turned white. When their upturned faces assumed a tallowy look, they were judged "ready".

Then they were packed side by side on beds of straw, and boxed-up to guard against predators.

Accumulating snow drifts buried the sleepers for one quarter of a year.

Just as the Green Mountains were beginning to warm up, Uncle William returned to the cabin to witness the sleepers' liberation from their icy crypt. Able-bodied men lifted their stone-stiff relatives into warm baths fragrant with a mysterious hemlock-based potion

Slowly, pallid faces began to brighten. Muscles twitched. Fingers flexed. Vitality returned. The six were carried inside where they were warmed by blankets, fire, and a hardy meal.

After this vivid account first saw print, the story of Vermont’s “hibernating hill folk” quickly spread around the world.

Newspapers, magazines and radio shows presented it as real.

Locally, it imprinted on our folk memory and was frequently confused with fact.

Having grown up in southern Vermont, I recall hearing this strange tale from old-timers who swore it 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 [story of the hibernating hill folk].

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

"Then the wife added, 'The only part I doubt is the thawing out.'"

The End

For your ears only: Listen...!