Wednesday, January 30, 2019
Someone is going to freeze to death Wednesday: don't let it be you
"Freezing to death" is actually a misnomer, since humans begin to die of cold if their core temperature drops below a summery 85, long before ice crystals form.
But it's too common an error to hope to correct now, and with the Chicago area expected to be plunged into a hellish 20 below zero—the high for Wednesday is predicted to be a record 14 below—this seems an apt moment, among the warnings to stay indoors (my plan) or bundle up in layers if necessity or foolishness lures you outside, to give careful consideration to the long tradition of fatal cold, and the rich literature it has inspired.
"Hellish" for instance, was not a casually chosen adjective. Despite its famous flames, Hell is often frozen in Dante's travelogue. In the 9th circle, he comes upon figures encased in ice, describing a scene that will no doubt be reproduced on CTA platforms citywide today: "I saw a thousand faces after that/All purple as a dog's lips from the frost/I still shiver, and always will, at the sight."
And in the lowest pit of Hell, Satan himself is buried to his chest in ice.
But those people are mostly fictional. Browsing over a century plus of Chicago deep freeze death reports, those real souls most apt to die from cold tend to fall into broad categories: the old, the poor, the old and poor The impaired, typically drunk. The mentally impaired are also vulnerable—in January, 1979, two 8-year-old boys boys, clad only in their pajamas, slipped out of the Joseph P. Kennedy School for Exceptional Children in Palos Township, were locked outside and froze to death on the stoop. It was 5 degrees below zero. Nor where they the only state charges to die that year.
Hypothermia as a form of suicide is not unknown. In 1898, Maud Alexander, 30, "concealed herself in the dark entrance of the vacant Horse and Harness Exchange building, 1633 Wabash avenue, last evening, and sought to freeze to death," according to a report in the Tribune. "I want to die," she told the policeman who discovered her and saved her life, explaining that she was "friendless and had no money."
About 25 people die in Cook County every year from exposure to cold. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Illinois is in the top five states for number of cold deaths, though ranks 15th per 100,000 people. About 1,300 people die a year of hypothermia in the United States, 2/3 of those being men, since men are more prone to impairment from substances and what is considered an adventurous spirit.
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