In 1857, Henry David Thoreau wrote that on Jan. 19, 1810, the temperature fell as much as 55 degrees in 24 hours. “Mother remembers the Cold Friday very well. She lived in the house where I was born. The people in the kitchen, Jack Garrison, Ester & a Hardy girl drew up close to the fire–but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.”
by Sidney Perley
January, 1810 is the day known in the annals of New England as the “Cold Friday.” It was said to have been the severest day experienced here from the first settlement of the country to that time. To this date the winter had been unusually moderate. December had been quite warm, even milder than November. Very little snow had fallen and the ground was bare in southern New England, but in New Hampshire and other northern states there was good sleighing.
The preceding day and evening had been mild for the season, with a warm south wind, but at about four o’clock in the afternoon there was a squall of snow, the wind sprang up, and immediately changed to the north-northwest, increasing in force until it blew with great violence. The temperature was then forty-five degrees above zero at Salem, Mass., and it suddenly began to descend. (The Essex Register of Salem: “The extraordinary contrast between the fine weather of the season, and the violence of this wind and cold, induced many to consider it as a more sudden and violent change than had been recorded in the history of our atmosphere.”)
The next morning, only eighteen hours later, it was five degrees below zero, having fallen fifty degrees. At Amherst, N. H., it was fourteen degrees below zero, and in other places thirteen, having fallen as many degrees as it had at Salem. At Weare, N. H., the temperature fell fifty-five degrees in twenty-four hours, from Thursday morning to Friday morning.
The strong piercing wind enhanced the cold to a great degree, and penetrated the thickest clothing, driving the cold air into all parts of dwelling-houses, and making the day almost insufferable in common houses and terrible out of doors. Few people ventured out, and those that did had their hands, noses, ears or feet almost instantly frostbitten. Many people were frozen to death while travelling along the highways. At times and places the wind was so strong that it was difficult to keep on one’s feet. The gale continued all day, and houses, barns, and vast numbers of timber trees were blown down, or broken to pieces in such a way as to render them unlit for timber, being left to decay where they fell. At Chester, N. H., the wind lifted a house, letting one corner of it fall to the bottom of the cellar.
At Sanbornton, the three children of Jeremiah Ellsworth perished with the cold on this morning under very sad circumstances. As Mr. Ellsworth and his wife were uncomfortable in bed, they rose about an hour before sunrise. Shortly after, a part of the house was blown in, and it was thought that the whole structure would be demolished. Leaving the two elder children in bed, because their clothes had been blown away, Mrs. Ellsworth dressed the youngest child and went into the cellar for safety, while her husband started for assistance to the house of the nearest neighbor in a northerly direction, which was a mile distant. He found it to be too hazardous to face the wind and so changed his course toward the house of David Brown, which was the nearest in another direction, being only a quarter of a mile away. He reached it as the sun rose, his feet being considerably frozen, and his whole person so benumbed by the cold that he could not return with Mr. Brown to bring his wife and children in a sleigh.
Having arrived at the house, Mr. Brown put a bed in the sleigh and placed the children upon it, covering them with the bed clothes. Mrs. Ellsworth also got into the sleigh; but they had gone only six or eight rods when it was blown over, and all the persons and every thing were lodged in the snow. Mrs. Ellsworth held the horse while he reloaded the sleigh. She decided to walk, and started off ahead, but before Mr. Brown’s house was reached was so overcome by the cold that she thought she could not go farther, and sank into the snow. She thought that she must perish, but at length she made another effort and crawled along on her hands and knees until she met her husband, who was searching for them. She was so changed by her experiences that he did not at first recognize her. By his help she reached the house.
Mr. Brown had not yet come. After Mrs. Ellsworth left him, he again started, but had gone but a few rods when the sleigh was torn to pieces by the wind, and the children thrown to some distance. He collected them once more, laid them on the bed and covered them over. He then hallooed for assistance, but no one answered. He knew that the children would soon perish in that situation, and as their cries of distress pierced his heart, he wrapped them all in a coverlet, and attempted to carry them on his shoulders, but the wind blew them all into a heap in the snow. Finding it impossible to carry all three of the children, he left the child that was dressed by the side of a large log, and took the other two upon his shoulders.
But again he failed to carry them against the strong wind. He then took a child under each arm, they having on no other clothing than their shirts, and in this way, though blown down every few rods, he finally reached the house, having been about two hours on the way. The two children, though frozen stiff, were alive, but died a few minutes after reaching the house, Mr. Brown’s hands and feet were badly frozen, and he was severely chilled and exhausted. The body of the child was found before night. Mr. Brown lived many years after this experience, but never recovered from its effects, becoming blind in consequence.
The cold continued to be extreme until the forenoon of the following Monday, when the wind changed to the southwest, and the temperature began to rise. At Springfield, Mass., on the cold morning, a heavy fog seemed to be passing down the river. The cold air congealed it into fine snow, which rose as high as forty feet above the water. It continued through the day, but was most conspicuous about two o’clock in the afternoon, A similar phenomenon was seen at the same time in Salem. It there had a smoky appearance, being so dense that it was opaque, but rose only a few feet above the surface of the water.
- Featured painting: “The Blizzard,” oil on canvas by Cornelius Krieghoff, c. 1860
- Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley
- The Cold Friday of 1810 – New England Historical Society
- Henry David Thoreau and the Coldest Winter Ever in New England
- Biography of Sidney Perley