For two full weeks, the eastern half of the United States was in the grip of some of the lowest temperatures ever recorded. NASA/Goddard's Laboratory for Atmospheres attributed it to a series of cyclones and a final massive anti-cyclone that moved steadily southward from the Arctic. Even southern cities felt its fury. It was -15 degrees Fahrenheit in Washington, D.C., and -20 degrees in Lexington, Kentucky. The temperature in Tallahassee, Florida, hit -2 degrees.
Blizzards of snow descended along with the cold. More than a foot of snow piled on the coastal regions from the Carolinas to Maine. In Florida, traces of snow fell as far south as Fort Myers. On the southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May received 34 inches of snow. Washington, D.C., had even more, at 34.2 inches.
Josephine only knew she'd never been so cold. She could only spend a few minutes with her beloved piggies before she shivered her way back to the farmhouse as fast as she could.
The old farmhouse was unusually still. The daily sounds of children laughing, arguing, playing, slamming doors, and noisily stomping up and down the stairs were muted. It was cold, even in the kitchen where the black coal-fired iron stove gave off the home's only heat.
Josephine drew as close to the stove as she could, leaving her outerwear on and crowding several siblings who were momentarily forgetting their chores. Her month-old baby brother Eugene lay pale, coughing, swaddled in a basket on a shelf in the oven to keep him warm.
In the big bedroom, Elizabeth lay nearly motionless in the plain metal bed she usually shared with her husband Joseph. Streams of sweat rolled down her flushed cheeks despite the cold. When she coughed, her whole body shook. She normally kept the windows wide open to let in the brisk air, even in winter. Now the windows were tightly shut—the white curtains no longer billowing, hanging limp.
The older girls checked on her regularly, gently placing cool cloths on their mother's forehead, giving her water to bring the fever down, and handing her the tablets of quinine they hoped would restore her health. The family feared Elizabeth was near death.
Josephine's usually rambunctious nature was subdued. With all her heart, she wanted to go back to the shed, to pretend everything was okay, to be comfortable and play with the piggies.
She was used to normal winter cold. From the time she was five years old, she'd driven the horse and wagon five miles to and from Rogers' Coal Bank whenever the family needed a load of coal for the kitchen stove. A bucket full of coal and a small shovel stood next to the stove, to keep the stove replenished. When the bucket was empty, one of the children would go to the basement to get more coal from the coal bin where it was stored. There was no coal delivery, and usually it didn't matter to Josephine whether it was the dead of winter or a blizzard was raging. She would get the coal. But this was different. For one of the few times in her life, she didn't do what she wanted. This day, February 10, 1899, was simply too frigid.
Her mother Elizabeth lingered near death for weeks, but, as the extreme cold subsided, she gradually regained her strength. Josephine's little sister and baby brother weren't as fortunate. They slowly lost ground, their tiny bodies too weak to fight off the illness. First one, then the other, died, taking a piece of Josephine's heart with them. They were laid to rest in tiny caskets near the children the family had lost earlier—Joseph Felix, Mary, and Henry Mathey. Only twelve of the seventeen children now
Josephine was learning just how cold the world could be.
Josephine was the eleventh of Joseph and Elizabeth Mathey's seventeen children. She'd often say, only partly smiling, that her father wanted lots of kids so he could have enough help around the farm.
Joseph was a tenant farmer with a modest plot of land where he raised horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, and grew wheat, corn, potatoes, and other crops. A large barn housed the horses and cows; sheds sheltered the pigs and chickens; an oversized doghouse catered to the family's shaggy black Newfoundland, Rover.
Joseph had come to America as a teenage orphan. He'd grown up on a farm in Champagney, France, a small rural commune nestled in the horseshoe between the scenic Rhine and Soane Rivers that lay below the foothills of the gently sloping Vosges Mountains. Here sheep and cattle grazed in high pastures near fields of blueberries that gave the mountains their distinctive bluish hue.