Samuel Tarbox and his wife are still remembered nearly 200 years after they froze to death in a fearful March snowstorm. To this day, some people in Maine’s Sebago Lakes Region refer to a fierce snowstorm as a ‘real tarboxer.’
It had snowed for three days when Samuel Tarbox ventured out of his house in the town of Standish, Maine. He set out to the local gristmill to have a bag of corn ground, but collapsed on his return. His wife went to find him and she, too, perished.
The sad tale reached the ears of their 67-year-old neighbor, Thomas Shaw, who wrote bad but popular poems for a little bit of money. Shaw sold printed copies of MOURNFUL SONG, On a man and wife, who both froze to death in one night, on Standish Cape, so called. (Read it here.)
Shaw sold his ballad for pennies in nearby Portland, where sailors picked it up and took it to distant lands. And Nathaniel Hawthorne, the teenaged nephew of the Tarboxes’ neighbor, supposedly watched the burial of Mr. and Mrs. Tarbox.
The Storm of 1819
The winter of 1818-19 had had remarkably little snow. People had hardly had to use their sleighs.
Then on March 25 came the great snowstorm. “Probably more snow fell at this time than has ever fallen during a single storm in this town since its settlement,” wrote Francis Gould Butler in his history of Farmington, Maine.
“The depth was estimated from three and one-half feet, and the surrounding country is blockaded for several days.”
The storm, according to some accounts, lasted nine days.
The Tarbox Tragedy
Samuel Tarbox left his starving family at their home in Standish with a bag of corn to have it ground. He reached the gristmill, but on his return the heavy bag of cornmeal proved too much for him in the heavy snowdrifts. He tied the bag to a low-hanging branch, then struggled home through the snow.
Just outside his yard, Samuel Tarbox collapsed. He cried to his wife for help. Inside the house, Mrs. Tarbox thought she heard her husband call over the howling wind. So she told her five children to stay inside the house, and to blow a horn so she could find her way back, according to Hidden History of the Sebago Lakes Region.
Mrs. Tarbox (her first name is lost to history) found her husband lying just a few feet from her door. She tried to move him, but couldn’t. So she covered him with her woolen cape and hat, then set off to a neighbor’s house for help. But she didn’t get far. Mrs. Tarbox collapsed not far from her husband.
Meanwhile the frightened Tarbox children blew intermittently on the horn for two days. Finally a woodsman came upon the frozen bodies of their parents.
Thomas Shaw wrote folksy poems he called mournful ballads and sold them on broadside sheets in Portland and the other Cumberland County towns.
Bon in 1753, he had come to Standish as a 10-year-old with his father. He grew up on the frontier of Cumberland County before churches or schools were built. In 1775, he joined the Continental Army.
Thomas Shaw had no formal education, but as he wrote in his journal, “I learned to read and write a little, and in the year 1775 I began in my ignorant way to write spiritual songs . . . and some of them I have got printed.”
The subjects included the fall of the Gorham meeting house, Captain Adams’ shipwreck and the hanging of Drew, which he and his son watched in Portland in 1808.
He sold thousands of the ballads for six and a quarter cents apiece. In his poem about the Tarbox tragedy, Shaw had two coffins printed at the top.
The mournful song did not go down as great literature, with lines such as “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.”
The tale of the Tarbox tragedy may have inspired a greater writer than Thomas Shaw. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 14, visited his Aunt Susan and Uncle Richard Manning in Standish in 1819. He reportedly stood by an upstairs window and watched in horror as Mr. and Mrs. Tarbox were buried.
The Mannings, who had no children of their own, adopted the youngest Tarbox child, Betsy. She was later described in a diary believed written by Hawthorne, who spent some of his youth in nearby Raymond, Maine:
“I can from my chamber window look across into Aunt Manning’s garden, this morning, and see little Betty Tarbox, flitting among the rosebushes, and in and out of the arbor, like a tiny witch. She will never realize the calamity that came upon her brothers and sisters, that terrible night when her father and mother lay within a few rods of each other, in the snow, freezing to death. I love the elf, because of her loss; and still my aunt is much more to her than her own mother, in her poverty, could have been.”
Two of Hawthorne’s short stories, The Gentle Boy and My Kinsman, Major Molineux, deal with young people cut off from their families. They may have been inspired by Betsy Tarbox.
This story about the Tarbox family was updated in 2021.