Somewhere in the New England countryside, first half of the nineteenth century. It is a cold winter night. In a lonely home on the side of a mountain, a young woman named Charlotte is dressing up to go to the ball. Only, the ball will be held in an inn fifteen miles away, and the only available means of transportation is the open sleigh of Charlotte’s boyfriend Charles. “Be careful,” says Charlotte’s mother to her daughter, “make sure to wrap up in a warm blanket, if you don’t want to freeze out there!” “There is no way, mom,” Charlotte responds, “how can I expect my splendid dress to be seen if I muffle myself up in that ugly blanket? My silken cloak will be quite enough.” The bottom line: Charlotte is found frozen to death by her beloved Charles at the end of their ride on the snow.
Both in England and in the United States, cautionary tales such as this were made very popular by the penchant for grotesque and Gothic settings typical of Victorian times. However, the story of “Young Charlotte” – or “Fair Charlotte,” the alternative title by which it was known at the time – is a particularly fascinating one. The tale became famous in the form of a ballad titled “A Corpse Going to a Ball,” probably penned at the beginning of 1841 by poet, writer, and feminist Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Two years later, her husband, writer and humorist Seba Smith, republished the ballad under his name in a Maine newspaper, contributing to its success. Around the same time, the ballad was also set to music. At least three different tunes are known today, one of which is also shared with another famous ballad, “The False-Hearted Knight”. Here are two performances of the same ballad using two different tunes: the first version, released by Folkway Records in 1960, is sung by Pete Seeger, while the second one was originally included in the album Old Time Country Music Collection (1978) by Grandpa Jones.
“Young Charlotte” soon became popular, and widely circulated in the Northeastern United States and in the Midwest as both a song and as a simple poem. A manuscript copy of the ballad, without musical score, can be found at the Kislak Center, as part of the Charlotte Cushman Club records. We do not know exactly when it was written, but we believe that it belonged to a woman named Harriet L. Poucher, who apparently lived in the second half of the nineteenth century in the village of Manchester, Michigan. Harriet’s name is found on the back of one of the two pages of the manuscript, along with an indication of the place (“Wastinaw [Washtenaw] County, Manchester, Mich.”), a few more first and last names, and a list of terms (“propriety”, “sentiments”, “vicissitudes”, “esteem”, “devotedly”, etc.). Some of these names and words are repeated, and all of them are written in pencil by an apparently different hand, not as sure as the one who penned the ballad on the front of the pages. Did the popular ballad belong to a young lady in the years in which she was learning the art of good writing?
Another aspect seems to confirm this. A Harriet L. Poucher, born in Claverack, NY in 1832, lived in Manchester and died there in 1907. She had probably moved to the West with her parents, also from Claverack, and she married a man also from New York, Increase M. Robison, who died in Manchester in 1912.
Perhaps a teen-aged Harriet, who had not yet become Mrs. Robison, used the manuscript during her schooling to practice both her writing and her reading skills through a very popular song of the time? Of course we cannot be sure about this at the moment, and we don’t know if the Harriet L. Poucher died in Manchester was the same one who possibly owned the manuscript. It is certain, however, that not many Harriet L. Pouchers who lived in Manchester at the time: incorporated in 1835, the village counted only a few hundred inhabitants, and must have seemed to Harriet, now buried in Washtenaw County Cemetery with her husband and their daughter Hattie, no less remote than the dwelling in which the young Charlotte of the tale lived with her family.
The presence of the ballad in rural Michigan, a state that came into existence only in 1837, says much about the popularity of the song and its protagonist. Beginning in the 1850s, cheap porcelain dolls of “Frozen Charlotte” began to be sold in the U.S. and in Europe as fashionable items to be collected or baked into cakes to be consumed at birthdays or special events. All in all, this is to be expected from the same Victorian culture that created necklaces out of human hair and even circulated memento mori with pictures of beloved children and relatives portrayed after their death. But where does Charlotte’s bizarre story come from?
When she published her poem, Elizabeth Oakes Smith also wrote that her ballad was inspired by an article previously published in The New York Observer. Around one year before, in February 1840, an article with the same title appeared in that newspaper. It told of a woman who had allegedly frozen to death on a sleigh ride as she was reaching a ball the night of the previous New Year’s Eve. The whole story was probably a hoax, as The New York Commercial Advertiser and other newspapers across the country revealed only a few weeks later. But in the meantime, the Observer article had been reprinted in several states, including Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, for the amusement of the local readers, including Oakes herself.
The (pseudo)journalist of the Observer might have been inspired by a popular book of the time, which is explicitly mentioned in the original article, but not included in the later reprints of it. A chapter of the novel Passages From the Diary of a Late Physician, by Welsh lawyer and writer Samuel Warren, tells the story of a young lady, also named Charlotte, who decides to go to the ball despite her mother’s advice to stay home so she could fully recover from a long illness. “I will go to Mrs. P_____’s party tonight, if I die for it – that’s flat!” the young woman resolutely responds to her mom. Needless to say, Charlotte eventually dies in her room in front of the looking glass, as she was putting the finishing touches to her makeup. The message of Warren’s story seems to be very similar to that of the later ballad: never put vanity before health and familial advice, lest you perish. “Never have I seen so startling a satire upon human vanity, so repulsive, unsightly, and loathsome a spectacle as a corpse dressed for a ball!” the narrator concludes the story.
In sum: Warren’s novel, published in England between 1832 and 1837, and appearing in the U.S. around the same time, probably inspired the newspaper article which appeared in the Observer in 1840. After having read the article, Oakes wrote a ballad with the same title and published it in 1841. The ballad later circulated throughout the country and in Atlantic Canada either as a simple poem, or accompanied by music. During the same period, somebody in Michigan, maybe another young woman, wrote or came into possession of a copy of the ballad, and probably used it as part of her schooling. Homonymy perhaps played a role in the epilogue of this story. Because the ballad is about a woman named Charlotte, it is only natural to find it in the records of the Charlotte Cushman Club, an organization created in honor of actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) and originally operating in support of touring actresses performing in Philadelphia — the city where the manuscript can be found today.
Cushman might well have heard of the ballad when still alive, but otherwise has not much to do with the story of Frozen Charlotte. Yet, by simply being associated with a china doll, she still tells us a great deal about the processes through which archives (and history) are constantly being made.