The legendary Cold Friday of 1810 brought such terrible winds and frigid temperature that people talked and wrote about it for generations.
Tales of the killer weather event made their way into town histories, journals and court records long after it happened on January 19. They told of the many people who froze to death while traveling along the highways. The wind blew down houses, barns and vast numbers of timber trees. Ships wrecked, cattle froze in their barns and old people died of hypothermia inside their homes. It was so cold pens wouldn’t write though they were right next to the fireplace.
What made the Cold Friday so lethal was the sudden, steep drop in temperature that caught people unaware.
Several jourrnals claimed the mercury dropped 100 degrees in Boston in less than 24 hours, from 67 to 33 below zero, Michael R. Doyle reported in 2005. Though the ice in the harbor did freeze to Spectacle Island, that may have been an exaggeration.
The more scientific minds at the American Register reported the mercury dropped from 48 degrees on Thursday to nine below zero on the cold Friday. In Portsmouth, N.H., it went from 54 on Thursday to minus 12 on Friday — and minus 13 on Saturday.
Joseph Dow, in his History of Hampton, N.H., described how the plunge in temperature surprised some local farmers:
“…[I]n Hampton, the morning was so mild, several farmers set out for Newburyport, with ox-loads of potatoes, beguiling with neighborly chat the tedium of the slow progress.
“On the return, the cold became so intense and the wind so violent, all suffered extremely, and one man who had rashly left his overcoat at home was only saved from perishing, by wrapping himself in the blankets that had covered the potatoes.”
Cold Friday Redux
So memorable was the Cold Friday that a mention of it 20 years later meant the listener understood it to mean January 19. Asked to recount a date in a New Hampshire court case, the witness simply said it happened on the “Cold Friday, 1810.”
Henry David Thoreau thought of the Cold Friday during the winter of 1857, the coldest ever in New England. On Jan. 11, 1857, he wrote in his journal:
“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.”
Few people ventured outside. The New England Farmer reported, “very little going from place to place. Farmers piled on the wood and attended to their cattle, and that was about all for the day.” Anyone who had to go outside for an errand that could not be deferred, ‘sped over the ground like squirrels and were fortunate if they returned with no flesh from the intensity of the frost.’
One intrepid little girl named Rebecca Ramsdell braved the cold to walk a mile to school in Henniker, N.H. Her teacher, who awarded medals to his most punctual students, gave her the prize. She kept it during the term. In fact, she kept it her whole life. The Henniker Historical Society has a picture of her at age 100 with the medal. (See it here.)
In Woburn, Mass., Joseph Brooks, a 50-year-old Revolutionary War veteran, and his cousin Benjamin, 45, had no such luck. They went into the forest to cut wood during the mild afternoon of January 18. They were found frozen to death on January 20.
People even died without going outside. Salem diarist William Bentley reported in his diary.
“Several Old Persons perished within doors…Susanna Beadle, aet. 82, attempting to arise from bed was so chilled as to expire immediately.” Bentley wrote. “A woman, also a Widow, chilled, fell into the fire, on the western part of the Town, & escaped with life enough to put out the fire in her clothes but did not call assistance & perished with the cold & found dead in the morning.
“The young man from the Ship going to Beverly Shore not half a mile could not be recovered. A Soldier coming from Salem Fort only to the Farm houses on the Neck, not half a mile, was much frozen……the use of the pen was impracticable unless near to the fire, & even before the fire the water froze on the tables.”
The fierce winds blew ashore several other vessels in the harbor. Capt. James Sears and the crew of the sloop Margaret, carrying a load of plaster from Thomaston, lost their lives at sea.
In Antrim, N.H., the wind blew the roof off the home of Samuel Marshall and his family, and in Farmington, Maine, the home of James Johnson burned.
The saddest tale of suffering was repeated many times. It happened in Sanbornton, N.H. According to the New Hampshire Historical Society, the wind blew down part of the home of Jeremiah Ellsworth, jeopardizing the lives of his wife and three children.
Mrs. Ellsworth dressed the youngest child and went into the cellar, leaving the other two in bed. Jeremiah Ellsworth went to the home of David Brown, a quarter mile away, seeking help. His feet had frozen, though, and the two men agreed he shouldn’t risk the danger of going back home.
Brown hitched his horse to a sleigh to rescue Mrs. Ellsworth and the children. He found her and the baby in the cellar, the other two naked in bed as the wind blew their clothes off. He covered them with a blanket and put them in the sleigh, but the wind turned the sleigh over and scattered everything.
Mrs. Ellsworth decided to walk to Brown’s house but sank into the snow, benumbed by cold. She crawled to Brown’s house, where she had changed so much her husband didn’t recognize her.
Brown put the children back in the sleigh but the wind blew it over again and tore it to pieces. He could only carry two of the children, so he left the baby, who was dressed, behind on the road. When he reached his home the children were still alive, but died a few minutes later. Brown was too exhausted and frostbitten to find the baby, but later that day a search party found him dead by the side of the road.
The parents lived, but had no more children after that Cold Friday.
This story was updated in 2023.