The subzero temperatures that descended on the Midwest this week reminded me of an obscure historical weather event that blew through central Illinois in the 1830s. It was known as the “Sudden Freeze,” and appeared without warning on December 20, 1836. The weather had been relatively warm in the proceeding days, and a light rain turned the snow to slush. In the early afternoon, a dark cloud traveling about 25-30 mph descended from the northwest “accompanied by a roaring noise.”
What happened next was described by William H. Perrin in his History of Coles County, Illinois (1879):
There are several stories of pioneers who were unfortunately caught outside and instantly froze to death. According to History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois (1876) by John C. Power, in the western part of Douglas County near the border of Piatt and Moultrie counties, “two brothers by the name of Deeds had gone out to cut a bee tree, and were overtaken by the cold and frozen to death. Their bodies were found ten days later, about three miles from home.”
Others resorted to extreme measures to survive the cold snap. Jack Moore Williams, in his History of Vermilion County, Illinois, Vol. 1 (1930), related the following two incidents. In the second incident, several men disemboweled one of their horses and used its body as shelter:
John C. Power, author of History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois, tracked down relatives of the man who survived that incident and pieced together a more detailed account.
Power also related this story of a man who barely escaped the sudden freeze on his way to obtain a marriage certificate in Springfield, Illinois.
Anecdotal accounts put the cloud near Springfield, Illinois around 12:00pm, and Lebanon, Ohio (in southwestern Ohio) around 9:00pm, covering that distance in nine hours. Its width reportedly stretched from Ottawa, Illinois to a short distance below Coles County, or about 140 miles. The freezing storm cloud exhausted itself somewhere over Ohio. To this day, there is no explanation for this strange event.