A Maine Folktale
By Pat Higgins
Quite awhile ago, when I was in library school, I took a course in storytelling. It was a lot of fun. The final project was participation in a storytelling event and telling of a tale developed by the student for the occasion. The tale I told was one I remembered being told around campfires when I was a kid. I remember being quite surprised when I turned up the tale in some research I did for my course. Most surprising was that at least one researcher thought the tale originated in Newry, Maine. For the life of me, I cannot find this reference now! If you should come across it please email me the citation.
More recent attempts to track down Charlotte's Maine connection have turned up some interesting information. A whole folk culture rose up around the oft repeated story. Little girls played with "Frozen Charlotte" dolls, made in Germany, and so called because of their stiff unjointed china bodies. And, of course, there is the delectable Frozen Charlotte dessert. Try the recipe given in our Maine Cooking.
The original poem, from which the story is derived, is called "Young Charlotte" and was written by Seba Smith, Maine humorist and journalist. Smith was born in 1792 in Buckfield and grew up a poor boy in Bridgton. Throughout his boyhood he worked hard at a number of jobs from manual labor to teaching school, and he studied hard. Eventually he entered Bowdoin College on a loan from a Portland gentleman and graduated in 1818 with highest honors. Smith married Elizabeth Prince (otherwise known as the Maine author and feminist Elizabeth Oak Smith). Today she is better known than her husband.
The Smith's took up residence in Portland where Seba Smith sold a couple poems to the Eastern Argus, then became its editor and eventually a joint owner. In 1826 Smith sold his interest in the paper and devoted himself to his writing. By 1829 he was back in the newspaper business, this time as the publisher of the Portland Courier, the first daily newspaper east of Boston. He first began publishing the work he became most famous for in the Courier in the form of letters in a Maine dialect from the fictional Major Jack Downing of Downingville. The letters began as satires of Maine politics, but Downing's popularity soon took on a life of his own and spread to the New York Daily Advertiser where they lampooned Jacksonian politics and the Mexican War. Smith, who sold the Portland Courier to cover the debts he incurred as a speculator, soon followed his popular character to New York where he worked at various newspapers and magazines. Downing was so popular that his identity was soon stolen by Charles Augustus Davis who wrote a new series of letters (often confused with Smith's) roasting Van Buren and the National Bank. In American literature, Downing was just the beginning of a series of shrewd characters who voiced their pointed opinions in whatever local dialect. Thanks to the fictional Downing, Seba Smith is considered to be the first political satirist in American literature, the creator of a new type of humor and of characters with that certain Yankee personality.
Humor aside, Smith pursued an interest in poetry. On February 8, 1840, Smith spied an interesting little tidbit in the New York Observer. It read, "A young woman, whose name is given as Miss _____, was frozen to death while riding twenty miles to a ball on the eve of January 1, 1840." (Gaughan) Smith was taken with the story and churned out a popular poem for publication that begins "Fair Charlotte lived on a mountain side" and ends with the death of her broken hearted beau, "And they both lie in one tomb." You can read the poem at Michelle's Antique Dolls. Smith was somewhat maudlin in his poetry. If you have a taste for this stuff you might also check out "The Snowstorm" (sometimes called The Stratton Mountain Tragedy), an 1843 ballad about a mother and baby lost in a snowstorm also written by Smith.
"Fair Charlotte" is not fine poetry, but it does capitalize on a sensational little news story that normally would have sunk into oblivion as soon as the cause was forgotten. Charlotte did not disappear. The poem was picked up and set to music by William Lorenzo Carter who is eulogized as "the Blind Homer of Benson, Vermont" (Michele, Gaughan) The song survived through a hundred years of folk music and spread all across the country regardless of how cold the climate might be in any given place. Sometimes it is called "Young Charlotte", sometimes "Fair" or "Frozen"; there is even a "Corpse Going to the Ball". The lyrics change a bit from Seba Smith's original but the story remains recognizable. The song was a favorite in Vermont, throughout the South and went west with the Mormons. In recent years versions have been recorded by Pete Seeger and Natalie Merchant. (Keefer) Not bad for a little ballad by a Mainer.
The following is my version of the Frozen Charlotte tale. It is not particularly flattering to "Fair Charlotte". She is not as pitiable as Seba Smith's careless and thoughtless girl.
This is a tale I heard as a child growing up in Maine. Its telling will make you shiver on a hot summer afternoon, and if you hear it on a long cold winter night, well, you'll want to move south.
My story takes place out in the countryside in Western Maine on a New Year's Eve perhaps a hundred or more years ago. Then, as now, it was a farming and lumbering economy and tended to a large emptiness. More than one hundred years ago the area lacked our modern roads and fast cars; people traveled more slowly - by wagon in summer and by sleigh in winter. Social occasions were few, particularly during the stormy winters, and people were unwilling to let opportunities for merriment pass them by.
Charlotte, the centerpiece of our story, was the beautiful daughter of a man who acquired great wealth in the lumbering business, and he could afford to indulge Charlotte because she was the apple of his eye. Charlotte was very beautiful, a beauty that was accentuated by all that wealth and position could buy in that time and place. She had a long slender white neck set on soft round shoulders, ruby lips and blond curls that framed her face. However, Charlotte was totally and annoyingly vain. She could not pass a mirror without gazing at herself in rapture. She could not see a pretty dress without imaging how much better it would look on her. She was completely taken with herself.
One New Year's Eve, a holiday ball was planned for the local young people by a well to do farmer. It would be the social event of the season. Simpering and conniving as always, Charlotte managed to corner the local heart throb into escorting her. Her evening dress was a marvel of daring seldom seen in the countryside. The bodice was cut to reveal her beautiful neck and shoulders. The skirt was long and full and nipped in tightly at her tiny waist. The fabric was a silky, gossamer blue. Clearly, no other girl would be Charlotte's equal on this occasion. Her beauty would most certainly triumph.
New Year's Eve dawned clear and cold; by sundown the cold was assisted by a bitter wind. Cold like this could not be recalled by even the oldest residents. Charlotte's beau arrived at dark bundled up in a long wool cape, a scarf wrapped around his neck and face, and a fur cap pulled down over his ears. He knew the value of warm dress on such a cold night. His little open sleigh was red with gold trim and a high leather seat, and it was pulled by a fast black team.
Charlotte was waiting in the beautiful gown and a satin cape with a little hood tied under her chin. She radiated beauty and anticipation of her impending social triumph.
"Please, daughter, you will catch your death in such a thin cape," pleaded Charlotte's mother. "Wear my warm woolen coat and long knitted scarf."
"Oh, no, Mother, such a dowdy coat will spoil the effect of my gown," snapped Charlotte. No matter how much the boy pleaded or the mother begged, Charlotte could not be persuaded. They set off in a flurry of frost and blowing snowflakes.
Before long, her escort asked, "Charlotte, Charlotte, are you cold?"
"It is very cold," she shivered.
I have a blanket under the seat that I can wrap around you," said the boy. "It is a bitter night and a long ride."
Oh, No!" retorted Charlotte. "By the time we reach the party, I will smell as bad as your old horse blanket, and everyone will laugh at me!"
They traveled on at furious rate. It was quite evident to the boy that Charlotte was extremely cold. Her ruby lips were nearly as blue as her gown, and her hair was frosted white.
"Charlotte, Charlotte, are you cold?" asked the boy again. "I have a bearskin under the seat that will warm you up."
"What!" replied Charlotte but much milder now. "And wrinkle my beautiful gown? I have my anticipation to keep me warm."
A little further on, the boy chanced a look at the girl in the light of the rising moon. She appeared as an ice maiden and was quite still. An uncharacteristically innocent smile touched her lips.
"Charlotte, Charlotte! Are you cold?" asked the boy. "Sit closer to me, and we will share my cloak! The warmth of my body will warm you."
"Oh," she replied in a small and distant voice. "That would not be proper. Besides, I am warmer now."
Truly frightened, her beau drove on as fast as he could whip up his team and after awhile pulled into the festively lit farmyard. Smoke poured from the chimneys, and a warm glow flooded from the windows. The house was so warm that the revelers had even found it necessary to to crack open a window for a little fresh air.
The boy jumped down from the sleigh before it had hardly come to a stop, crying, "Charlotte, Charlotte! We are here! Jump down, and we will go inside and warm you up!"
Charlotte said not a word. Thinking she was too cold to move, he reached up to help her to the warmth of the fire. Touching her hand, he found that she was... frozen quite solid!
Now, if you ever go for a sleigh ride on a long, cold winter's night up in the backcountry in Maine, make sure you wear a warm coat, a long scarf wrapped around your neck, and a hat pulled down over your ears. Don't forget that smelly old horse blanket and the heavy bearskin rug, or you, too, might freeze quite solid - like Charlotte!
"Abby Sales Happy Archive: 31st of December." Dick Gaughan's Website. < http://www.dickalba.demon.co.uk/happy/12_dec/1231s.htm >.
The Cambridge History of English and American Literaure. Early Humorists: Seba Smith; "Jack Downing"; Haliburton. <http://www.bartleby.com/226/1005.html>.
"Folklore: Frozen Charlotte." Michelle's Antique Dolls. < http://sites.netscape.net/micheledolls/Folklore/Folklore.htm >. Visit this site for the full text of Carter's song.
Kunitz, Stanley and Howard Haycraft. American Authors: 1600-1900.New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1966.
"The Snow Storm: A Ballard Set to Music." Poetry by Seba Smith, Music by L. Heath. Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1843. <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/sentimnt/snowstorm.html>.
c2002 Pat Higgins