The story of a husband and wife who froze to death at a pivotal point in Maine history — and became poetry

In honor of Maine’s birthday today, we went looking for old representations of the state from around 1820. This poem below, which we found in the U.S. Library of Congress archives, caught our eye.

Called “On a man and wife, who both froze to death in one night, on Standish Cape, so called,” it was written by Thomas Shaw of Standish. Here’s part of the poem’s beginning:

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.

Not only does the poem offer a particularly striking story, but the history behind it gives us a look at what Maine was like about 196 years ago. It tells the tragic end of a real couple who didn’t get to see Maine become a state.

In an old collection of Maine happenings called Sprague’s Journal of Maine History, a University of Maine professor named Windsor P. Daggett describes the poet Shaw, lending us some insight into Maine at the turn of its statehood. He shows us a man with no education, whose poetry Daggett didn’t particularly admire, who struggled and lived an often isolating existence — but who sought connection and expression:

He spent his youth “in the woods” of Cumberland County before there were schools or churches in Standish. At the age of manhood, he joined the continental army. By the time the War of 1812 was over and the treaty of peace signed, Thomas Shaw was sixty-two years old. He never went to school, for he was twenty-four when the first schoolhouse in the town was erected; he knew all the hardships of those pioneer and Revolutionary days. Like all the people of his class, who lived “in the woods,” he knew nothing about any kind of art, and he lived before the day of American literature. Yet Thomas Shaw had ideas that sought expression, moods and emotions that knocked at the door of his brain, aspirations that followed him to the grave. In temperament he was the artist, and without even knowing what poetry was, he sought to be a poet.

Daggett called Shaw’s verse “lamentably bad,” but understood it indicated “the isolation of mind and poverty of vision that was inevitable in those days of material and political struggle.” Shaw’s poems — or, “mournful songs,” as they were called — were in demand in Maine. Thousands were sold in Portland and in the many villages of Cumberland County.

And it appears this particular poem commemorated the actual deaths of a husband and wife in 1819. Daggett and others have written that the husband was Samuel Tarbox (though one source calls him Jeremiah). His wife, who found him in the storm, took off her own clothes to try to save him.

As the poem continues:

She took her clothes from off her frame
And on her husband plac’ed the same,
For help she cried aloud and strong
Was her last fierce and mournful song.

Towards her neighbors she did steer
Through snow and wind and doleful fear,
With solemn cries that God would save
Her, and mercy upon her have.

She went as long as she could stand,
Aiming for human help at hand,
With bitter groans and solemn cries
That did before the Lord arise.

And then she crept upon all four,
Until her clothes from her were tore,
The snow flying — sorrow and woe,
God only knew her trouble too.

She crept till to a bloody gore,
Her flesh was into pieces tore,
God only knew her heart-felt cries,
Which did unto the heavens arise.

Until at last gave up her race,
And her self too, to sovereign grace,
And with her doleful cries severe,
Which reached to her Saviours ear.

Ms. Tarbox (whose first name apparently was not recorded), had told her children to stay inside the house but to sound a horn intermittently, so she or other rescuers could find their way back in the blinding snow, according to the book “Hidden History of the Sebago Lakes Region” by Marilyn Seguin. It was two days before a woodsman heard the horn and found the two bodies.

Among the older families left in the area, “there are still those who refer to a fierce winter storm as a ‘real Tarboxer,’” Seguin wrote. (Another interesting note: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s aunt, who lived nearby, adopted one of the Tarbox children.)

I didn’t know this when I first started learning about the Tarbox family, but Seguin documented that the big winter storm began on March 12, 1819, and continued unabated for three days, at which point the husband set out to have a bag of corn ground into meal at the local gristmill, five miles away. He returned that day but struggled in the snow and storm, and collapsed and died. If the dates are correct, then he, followed by his wife, died on March 15, 1819, exactly one year prior to Maine becoming a state.

Congress ratified Maine’s constitution as part of the Missouri Compromise early in March 1820. (That’s where Missouri got to be a slave state in exchange for Maine as a free one — to keep the balance of power between north and south in the U.S. Senate.) Maine officially became a state on March 15, 1820.

See the whole poem by Shaw from the Library of Congress below, or click on it for an image where you can zoom in:

poem