Emma’s tragic story

It’s really, really cold out there. Here in Morris, we’re deep in the deep freeze, in a place where exposed flesh only stings for a little while before the skin goes novocaine numb and you begin to worry that ice crystals are killing your dermis; where I live across the street from my office and I look out at the dead grey white world in the morning and wonder whether it’s worth it to hazard the walk. The only thing that gets me moving is that I’ve programmed our furnace to drop the temperature in the house during the day, when supposedly none of us are here anyway, as a cost-cutting measure — so I scuttle from a cold house through a brief bit of deadly freezing frigidity to reach a little oasis of warmth. And then I don’t want to come home again.

The house takes a while to warm up, usually not until it’s time for me to go to bed…and then my poor suffering wife has to deal with a body verging on hypothermia.

So anyway, to put it all in perspective, this morning I had to run some errands around town, and no way was I walking in this cold. I drove. Five blocks downtown, another five blocks to the edge of town and the local pharmacy, something I’d normally take care of on foot. While I was out, I happened to see our local free weekly for senior citizens (no, I don’t normally read it!) and I saw a front page story on a little local history that caught my eye: Emma’s tragic story. It’s about the only black person living in the area, over 140 years ago, a 12-year-old girl named Emma.

In its infancy, Glenwood was a village of homely wooden buildings scattered between mud paths near the east end of Lake Whipple (now called Lake Minnewaska) in the newly organized county of Pope. Census data reveals barely 200 people living in town when two men arrived from the south in 1870 – the affluent Mr. James B. Peabody and his associate, Mr. Robinson. They built a hotel called the Fountain House Hotel. By running a pipe from the town spring, Peabody and Robinson were able to erect a fountain in the front yard (thus the name Fountain House).

More interesting than the fountain, perhaps, was the fact that Peabody and his wife brought with them a child of about 12, referred to in documents at the Pope County Historical Society as “the little slave girl.” She was, the census declares, the only “colored” person in the county. Known as Emma Ferris (or Ross or Peabody), the youngster was “require to work very hard” for only room and board.

Very hard, and with little reward, only punishment: there was something called a “blacksnake whip” and stabbings in the palm with needles. Her only friend was another servant at the hotel, Ingeborg, who went home for Christmas in 1871.

Then, after a severe beating, Emma decided to run away and find Ingebord at her family farm, 5 miles away, on December 23, 1871.

Did I tell you how cold it gets around here in December? Like knives in the wind, with the ground sucking all the heat of your body and snow in wicked drifts.

Read the whole thing. But the word “tragic” in the title tells you it’s not going to have a happy ending.


  1. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    Tragic indeed.

    I’m glad that – although she had no one else – Emma had Ingeborg.

    I’d happily support a fund to give Emma’s grave a proper marker.

  2. says

    It’s really, really cold next door to you, too. Winds have been driving extreme cold, today, -20 F instead of -40 F.

    Poor Emma, so alone, so abused, so terrified. Humans can be so very inhumane.

  3. chrisdevries says

    Yeah, it can get pretty cold in Minnesota (I’ve been down there a few times in January and February), but it’s usually colder up here in Winterpeg. Windchill values across Manitoba have been falling below -50 Fahrenheit for the past few days at night (mid -30s without the windchill taken into consideration), and it’s actually been getting colder each day for the past 3 days (at 9 AM today twas -54F/-48C in Winnipeg with the wind – that’s -34F/-37C without windchill). This is the 6th coldest December in Manitoba since Environment Canada started keeping records in 1872, and today came within about 0.5 C of the all-time coldest December 31. I wouldn’t be surprised if this month saw dozens of city and town daily coldest temperature records broken all throughout the Canadian and American Prairies and Great Lakes areas. You know you’ve acclimatised to the Prairie weather when you start looking forward to days with forecast highs of -5F/-20C with windchills of -31F/-35C.

    I cannot imagine how badly that little girl suffered exposed to these kinds of temperatures on the open prairie where the wind is always howling, without warm clothes, a warm place she felt safe, or even a stable, loving household to support her. I dislike our brutal, cold winters but at least I have appropriate clothing so when I go out to walk the dog (we do 40 minutes in the summer, but only 15-20 on days like today, otherwise we both freeze), I am protected (well…mostly) from the elements. And I have a loving family with a warm house to retreat to afterwards. Slavery is a stain upon human history and people minimising the depth of suffering slaves experienced (and experience today in many countries) should be forced to endure a week…nay, just 48 hours of actual slavery, an accurate emulation of the real circumstances of slaves. And then they should consider the psychological impact of knowing that this was your life, for better or worse, until you died. Fucked up shit.

  4. Dick the Damned says

    Wha, wha, wha!

    …I’ve programmed our furnace to drop the temperature in the house during the day, when supposedly none of us are here anyway, as a cost-cutting measure…

    You mean you don’t do it to protect the environment? I think I’ll assume that you do, but just didn’t say so. That would better fit what I believe about your priorities.

  5. carlie says

    Doing it for cost-saving won’t help. As people are conserving more, companies are responding by raising rates so they don’t lose out in revenue.

  6. says

    I can’t read it, because I can’t, just reasons. But I think I basically get it.

    It’s way not so cold here in southern Ontario, practically balmy next to you folks (11/-2 in F; -12/-19 in C). -40 is brutal. When it gets so cold it doesn’t matter if it’s C or F, that’s brutal.

    Hope the cold snap breaks before your hydro or water lines do, folks. Remember to iron the pipes if they run outdoors at all. Learned that one when I visited a friend who lives in Timmins, which was probably as cold as PZed, but not as cold as Winterpeg.

    Happy New Orbit, y’all.

  7. chigau (違う) says

    The cat has a fur coat and spends most of the day curled in a tight ball, sleeping.
    Sucks to your heat-turning-down.

  8. thunk: y'all know ageism is a thing? says

    Here in northern wisconsin, it’s -30 C. No wind though.

    Haven’t been in such cold in a long time. It’s brutal.

  9. ck says

    Hope the cold snap breaks before your hydro or water lines do, folks.

    The power lines aren’t likely to break around here, since it’s too cold for ice to form on them. There have been more than a couple water main breaks, though.

    Toronto, on the other hand, is the one that got the ice storms, and has the outages from snapped power lines.

    We’re certainly getting some nasty winter weather this year.

  10. says

    Yeah, I’m near Toronto myself, I was lucky enough to get my power back after only six hours of cold cold daytime, and before the cold cold cold nighttime came. :)

    The power lines can break in the utter cold when the insulation gets so cold that it loses structural integrity, ice or no. Rubber/plastic only has so much give when it gets way cold.

    Seen it happen on telephone lines, back when I was a line-repairer in the Canadian army. :D

  11. mikeconley says

    Rubber/plastic only has so much give when it gets way cold.

    I think we lost a space shuttle finding that out.

  12. Olav says

    A tragic story indeed, but a very good thing that it was researched and written after so many years. And that for a local senior’s rag. Well done.