America's Restless Vampires

Thousands of our American ancestors were killed by vampires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, vampires could be blamed for nearly one-quarter of all deaths in North America and vampires remained the leading cause of death throughout the nineteenth century. This vampire did not resemble the clever Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's imagination; this vampire's cloak of invisibility was its smallness. It was so tiny that it could not be seen with the naked eye, which may explain its success as a mysterious killer. The mystery was solved in 1882, the year that Edward Koch announced his discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus. America's vampires actually were—germs!

It is easy to identify the similarities between vampire folklore and the symptoms of tuberculosis. Vampires and victims of consumption, as pulmonary tuberculosis was then called, are the living dead. Vampires are consumption in material form, draining away life slowly and surreptitiously. Victims are walking corpses, red-eyed, pale and wasted, they embody disease and death. They suffer most at night. They awaken, coughing and in pain, sometimes describing a heavy feeling, like someone sitting on the chest. As the disease progresses, ulcers and cavities develop in the lungs and victims begin to cough up blood, which lingers at the corners of the mouth and stains the bedclothes. Family members are alarmed by what they see in the morning when they check on their dying loved one. Something is draining away the blood . . . the life. As the victim fades into death, others in the family begin to complain of the same symptoms. They wonder, Will this horror ever end? How can we stop it?

A diagnosis of consumption amounted to a death sentence. Medical practitioners offered many cures; none worked. Unwilling to do nothing as their loved ones faded away, some families turned to an old folk remedy. They exhumed the bodies of deceased relatives and checked them for signs considered to be extraordinary. Liquid blood in the heart, especially, was interpreted as "fresh" blood, proving that the corpse was responsible for the continuing plague of consumption. To stop the disease, the heart (and sometimes other organs) was cut from the body and burned to ashes. One variant of the practice prescribed that the ashes be fed to any in the family suffering from consumption. Another version was to burn the entire corpse, sometimes specifying that the dying inhale the smoke.

In Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires (2001 & 2009),  I presented a detailed account of my twenty years of research into this practice. My vampire hunt began in 1981 when, as Rhode Island's State Folklorist, I had the opportunity to interview Lewis Everett Peck, a descendant of the family of Mercy Brown, whom I soon discovered was probably the last person exhumed as a vampire in America. Captivated by this case, I began searching for data that would shed some light on the origin and extent of these rituals. I uncovered accounts of nearly twenty vampire incidents in Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, as well as a rich folk tradition that inspired the fictional vampires of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Amy Lowell.

In Food for the Dead, the reader accompanied me on my journey as I uncovered clue after clue in old newspapers and long-forgotten manuscripts, on crumbling gravestones, from the mouths of reluctant interviewees, and even, on one occasion, in the rearranged bones in a newly opened grave.

Upon publication of Food for the Dead, I was confident that I had followed New England's vampire trail to the limits of available resources. I never imagined that a few months later I would be back on the trail with more than thirty new cases to explore, in addition to significant updates for several old ones. From a mummified corpse with a wooden stake through her heart, unearthed in the mountains of southeastern Tennessee, to the fearful search for shroud-eating corpses in a Pennsylvania-German community, the additional data expand our view of America's vampire tradition. The new cases extend the geographical distribution of the tradition, both within and beyond New England. I now know that vampiric exhumations were carried out as far south as North Carolina, westward through Pennsylvania, into Chicago and to Minnesota, and northward to Ontario, Canada. The timeframe for this tradition also has been extended in both directions: I now have cases beginning in 1784 and continuing to 1949. Yes, 1949, the middle of the twentieth century!

Even though vampire cases turn up in several regions across the country, the "Transylvania of America" remained non-Puritan New England—from the outlying towns in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut, up the Connecticut River Valley into Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Maine, and into Upstate New York. The people of this "other New England"—some of them Puritan outcasts or those who became disillusioned with that suffocating religion—were not notably religious in an orthodox sense. Occupying philosophical as well as geographical margins, they were open to a magic world view and participated in various hybrid religions that were unofficial combinations of Christian beliefs and folk practices. (However, an account from Essex County, Massachusetts, the home of Salem Village, notorious for its witch trials in the late seventeenth century, establishes that vampire practices were not entirely excluded from areas of strong Puritan heritage.)

New Englanders long relied on self-treatment and treatment by folk healers, drawing on the lore of herbs and readily available household ingredients passed down in their communities for generations. But they were also aware of other medical traditions. Beginning in in the eighteenth century, itinerant healers—many originally from Germany and Eastern Europe—worked a circuit from New Jersey and Pennsylvania into New England. They set up shop in town, advertised in local newspapers and broadsides (most of their ads included testimonies from cured patients), and moved on when business dropped off or, not infrequently, when run out of town by officials or dissatisfied clients. One of my recently discovered cases pushes the earliest known exhumation in America back to 1784, firmly establishing vampire activity in the era when these foreign, "quack doctors" were plying their trade in the Northeast. Although this unofficial culture of occult beliefs and folk magic has received little attention from historians, it appears to have influenced many, if not most, Americans, beginning in colonial times and continuing through the nineteenth century.

American medicine in the early eighteenth century was unecrtain and changing. Astrology, religion, folk cures, and several kinds of medical systems provided alternative, often competing, approaches to dealing with sickness and healing. The ancient Greek doctrine advanced by Hippocrates remained unchallenged: the human body was regulated by the interplay of the four "humors" of phlegm, choler, bile and blood. To restore balance and good health when these fluids or vapors got out of balance, doctors would flush the digestive tract with purgatives and emetics or bleed the patient. The concept of "vitalism" held that blood, the "paramount humor," contained the essence, or vital spirit, of the creature in which it flowed. Well into the nineteenth century in America, a physician's duties required little, if any, formal training. The following list of self-proclaimed specialists suggests the inclusive and unsettled nature of the healing profession in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: physicians, surgeons, oculists, aurists, bonesetters, animal healers, botanic/Indian healers, pharmaceutical peddlers, medical electricians and apparatus healers, cancer curers, and dentists and surgeon-dentists. Whether treated or not, illnesses ran their natural course and most of the afflicted survived. In that regard, Voltaire (1694-1778) is often quoted, "The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease."

The fact that nearly fifty vampiric events have been documented, and at least twice that number referenced in my collection of American texts, indicates that the practice was not as extraordinary as we might imagine. Reflecting on Woodward's exhumation in 1819, an old-timer observed: "As old people will remember the notion was quite prevalent in those days." A Maine commentator reinforces this observation by deeming the vampire tradition "one of the most popular superstitions of New England." In 1889, Jeremiah Curtin wrote in the Journal of American Folklore, "The old lady told me the belief was quite common when she was a girl, about seventy-five years ago" in Woodstock, Vermont. The handful of cases that have come to light undoubtedly represent a much larger undocumented or undiscovered inventory of events. The "foreign doctor, a quack" who prescribed the vampire ritual in Willington, Connecticut in 1784; the "strolling Indian doctor" who did the same a few years later in Essex County, Massachusetts; the Hungarian miner from Pennsylvania who, with the assistance of his brother, exhumed his boss's body to cure himself of consumption; the hunt for shroud-eating corpses among the Pennsylvania-Dutch; the Polish immigrant in Minnesota who exhumed two of his children, in 1922, in a desperate attempt to save his one surviving son argue for the conclusion that vampire practices made their way to America multiple times, from several different cultural groups, over a long period and in several variations. This conclusion helps explain why the task of defining a vampire, which seems simple on the surface, becomes complicated on closer examination.

All species of deadly beings lurk in the record of folklore. In the ever-changing landscape of this danse macabre, creatures and concepts merge and blend, divide and disperse, only to merge and blend again. While we have been conditioned to think of vampires only as undead corpses who leave their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, worldwide folk tradition is not so clear-cut. The distinctive forms of bringers of death are diversified, yet interconnected. Nor is it just the dead or their ghosts who prey upon the living; demons, witches, succubi, werewolves, and vampires at times are indistinguishable in the folklore record. Traditional accounts of their origins and methods of assault, as well as means to avoid their attacks and identify or destroy them, often do not differentiate among the various supernatural death-dealing creatures. Ultimately, what unites these seemingly diverse folk traditions is the belief that a corpse, possibly animated by an evil spirit, is responsible for an otherwise unexplainable series of deaths. Reduced to its common denominator, the vampire is a classic scapegoat: "a corpse that comes to the attention of the populace at a time of crisis and is taken for the cause of that crisis," as Paul Barber argued in Vampires, Burial, and Death.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, distinctions among magic, religion and science became increasingly important to the American elite. Such refinements still meant little to ordinary people, for whom the borders separating medicine and magic, religion and the occult, were not well defined. Where elite, official and academic culture began to divide the world into a variety of specialties, with their corresponding specialists, the inclusive nature of folk culture persisted. But by 1892, when Mercy Brown's heart was cut from her body and burned, several significant cultural changes had converged to doom the vampire practice in America. The rift between the official world and the folk world had widened, at least from the viewpoint of the "civilization establishment" that included scientists, scholars, businessmen, clergy, politicians and practitioners of the dominant biomedical paradigm (simply "modern medicine," to most of us). The latter were to assume nearly exclusive claim to the title of "doctor" or "physician." Within a span of one-hundred years, the biomedical paradigm had consolidated its authority in the realm of medicine, and its rapid and unprecedented dominance overshadowed the medical pluralism that had been the norm throughout history. The discovery and—in some instances, reluctant—acceptance of the tuberculosis bacillus as the cause of consumption spelled the end of American vampires. As we shall see, however, the practices to defend against them survived well into the twentieth century.

 Many of the actors in America's vampire drama are, and most likely will remain, anonymous. Where sources have provided names, we can begin to put a human face on this tragedy in which communities battled against an unseen adversary that brought them almost certain death. An enlarged genealogical database for both new and existing cases reveals that many of the families directly involved in vampiric activities were  respected pillars of their communities: successful bankers, lawyers, politicians, farmers, skilled tradesmen, and even physicians and clergymen. The case of William Shepard Woodward of Chazy, New York, is a good example. In 1819, about a year and half after he died of consumption at the age of twenty-two, William's corpse was exhumed and burned in an effort to save his sister, Maria, who "was quite feeble and threatened with the same disease." Maria was the wife of Reverend Joel Byington, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Chazy for more than twenty-five years and also a member of Harmony Lodge No. 154, Free and Accepted Masons. Among the three attendants who carried out the ritual were brothers Seth and Chandler Graves (appropriately named, it seems), descendants of Deacon George Graves, one of the original proprietors who founded Hartford, Connecticut, in 1636, under authority of the English Crown. Deacon Graves was a "weaver in comfortable circumstances" and was twice chosen Selectman, as well as Deputy to the General Court (Assembly). Seth Graves was born in 1760 in Durham, Connecticut. After he served in the Revolutionary War, he and his wife, Elizabeth, were among the first settlers of Chazy, arriving on horseback about 1800. Eventually they owned large tracts of land there, along with a hotel and the first saw and grist mills in the town. At the first town meeting in 1804, Seth was chosen one of the two Overseers of the Poor and one of three Pound-Keepers. In 1898, an elderly resident of Chazy recalled that Graves "was a public spirited and benevolent man. He gave the lot on which the Presbyterian church now stands."

The methods used to kill the vampire exemplify the variation that is found in all folk traditions. Various combinations of the following measures are found in America's anti-vampire arsenal: removal and burning of vital organs (particularly the heart), ingesting the ashes (perhaps with other roots or herbs) or wearing them in a box around the neck; burning the entire corpse, sometimes inhaling the smoke; turning the corpse face down and reburying it; searching for and destroying (sometimes by burning), a vine found growing from the corpse or grave; removing the shroud from the mouth of the corpse; and, perhaps (as we shall consider in more detail later), driving a wooden stake through the heart or rearranging the bones of a corpse.

The measure of positioning the legs and head of a corpse into a "skull and crossbones" pattern—which I described in Food for the Dead—needs reexamination. In 1990, I received a phone call from Nick Bellantoni, Connecticut State Archaeologist, who was excavating an unmarked family cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut. Bellantoni said that he was aware of my research on the New England vampire tradition and thought that I might be able to shed some light on one of the burials, which he characterized as "weird." The complete skeleton of a man, the best preserved of the cemetery, had been buried in a crypt with stone slabs lining the sides and top of the coffin. On the lid of the hexagonal, wooden coffin, an arrangement of brass tacks spelled out "JB-55," presumably the initials and age at death of this individual. When the grave was opened, J.B.'s skull and thigh bones were found in a "skull and crossbones" pattern on top of his ribs and vertebrae, which were     also rearranged. An examination of J.B.'s skeletal remains by forensic anthropologist Paul Sledzik revealed lesions on J.B.'s ribs, probably the result of tuberculosis.

The best conclusion that Bellantoni, Sledzik, and I could reach was that J.B. had been exhumed to counteract the spread of tuberculosis. At the time, no other interpretation of his unusual postmortem treatment even approached the coherence of the following scenario: An adult male, J.B., died of pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar infection interpreted as consumption by his family. Several years after the burial, one or more of his family members contracted the disease. As a last resort—to spare the lives of the family and stop consumption from spreading into the community—J.B.'s body was exhumed so that his heart could be burned. When his body was unearthed, however, J.B. was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition. Perhaps his ribs and vertebrae were in disarray as a result of the desperate search for the remains of his heart. Finding no heart, J.B.'s skull and thigh bones were arranged in a "skull and crossbones" pattern, a practice that stretches back to ancient times throughout Europe as means to prevent the dead from returning. But after reading or hearing about my account of J.B., several Freemasons have asked if I considered the possibility that J.B. had been a Mason. My subsequent research into this question shows some intriguing similarities between J.B.'s postmortem treatment and certain burial customs of both the Masons and the Knights Templar.

In Food for the Dead I concluded that Americans who exhumed the corpses of their kinsfolk to stop the spread of consumption did not use, perhaps were unaware of, the term "vampire." My conclusion has been called into question by a recently discovered gravestone in Rhode Island. Simon Whipple Aldrich died in 1841 at the age of twenty-seven. He was preceded in death by a sister who also died at the age of twenty-seven, and followed in death by another sister; she, too, died at the age of twenty-seven. Simon's gravestone had been broken at the base and then cemented into place, revealing only the first two lines of an obviously longer epitaph:

Altho' consumption's vampire grasp
Had seized thy mortal frame,

The detective work of a fellow scholar and vampire researcher has led to the identification of the complete inscription, which was taken from a lengthy poem commemorating the death, in 1838, of Joseph Horace Kimball, a young, but celebrated, abolitionist. The Aldrich family obviously was plagued by consumption, the metaphorical vampire. The following questions, in particular, have been set aside for further exploration: Was this use of "consumption's vampire grasp" only metaphorical, or were corpses actually exhumed? Was Simon, himself, or, indeed, the entire Aldrich family, strongly abolitionist?

The antislavery movement did play a role in the life of an author who was, as far as I can determine, the first to incorporate an unequivocal recounting of an American vampire exhumation into a literary work. Mary Andrews Denison's novel, Home Pictures, published in 1853, includes a chapter entitled "Old Superstition," which opens with the following lines: "One learns many a curious little thing in a village like this. I listened to the narration of a most singular incident yesterday at the house of a neighbor. It seems that there is an old superstition, strongly believed by the credulous even at this day, that if the heart of the last deceased member of a consumptive family is taken from the body and burned, and the ashes reserved as a medicine to be given to the rest in small doses, no other person of that family will die of this terrible scourge." I assume that the ensuing narrative is fictional, although it does have the ring of truth and may well have been inspired by a newspaper account. Denison (1826-1911), who authored more than eighty novels, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a hotbed of abolitionist convictions—and married the Reverend Charles Wheeler Denison, a Baptist minister and editor of the Emancipator, New York's first antislavery journal. Denison's vampire-pioneering novel predates Amy Lowell's poem, "A Dracula of the Hills," by seventy-three years and H. P. Lovecraft's short vampire-based story, "The Shunned House," by eighty-four years.

The appearance of America's authentic vampires in poetry and prose may seem surprising at first glance. After all, it was European literature that first mined the rich vein of vampire folklore—European vampire folklore, of course—which ultimately led, through German Romanticism and Gothic literature, to the vampires of film, television, romance novels, young adult fiction and advertising. These ubiquitous, shape-shifting vampires, with a European pedigree, are the ones that we embrace as they continue to embody the things that we most desire . . . and fear. Although the impact of America's vampires on literature and popular culture does not compare to that of the Old World's undead, it is appreciable and, as we shall see, has been growing in recent years.

One clear message delivered by vampirism, real as well as fictional, is that the human body is a double-edged sword, both life-giving and lethal. A human being who is fully alive and animated with a soul, or one who is dead and crumbling into dust, presents no extraordinary danger. But, within the framework of the vampire tradition, anything in between—the ambiguous corpse—is to be feared. Even people who knew nothing of death-causing germs understood that, if one lost enough blood, one died. So, if blood itself is not the life, it must contain the essence, soul, or spirit of life. This concept, termed  "vitalism," was carried well into the nineteenth century by physicians who viewed blood as the "paramount humor." Vampires, eager to obtain this conveyer of life, sought out its nearest source—their living relatives.

The magical power of blood is one of the two fundamental principles upon which the vampire concept rests. And if life was in the blood, its home was the heart. According to European and European-derived folklore, the heart's blood is the brightest red, which explains why the bright red blood from a consumptive's lung hemorrhages (freshly oxygenated) was seen as blood from the heart. Beliefs concerning the restorative powers of both blood and the heart are ancient. By eating the blood or heart of a slain person, one could acquire his life, soul, courage, power, or other such qualities. In our folklore, the heart of anything is its essence, its center, its soul. Indeed, the heart was long supposed to be not only the seat of passion—and by logical extension, love and courage—but the locus of life itself. It was thus horrifyingly unnatural to discover "fresh" blood in the heart of an exhumed corpse. People understood that blood coagulates following death, but they apparently did not know that blood can liquefy again, depending on the circumstances of death. That blood in its liquid state proclaims the presence of life goes back at least to the Greek conception of life as the ongoing  reduction of liquid inside a person.  A corpse that has decomposed is dry, indicating that death is complete and the corpse is inert. But a corpse that has not sufficiently dried—one with liquid blood still in the heart, say—would be viewed as incompletely dead. The remedy was to remove life's liquid by burning the heart or the entire corpse, thus consummating the drying process. As long as a corpse was a fountain of life, it retained the potential to be an instrument of death.

The second fundamental principle of the vampire concept, the belief in life after death, raises some fundamental questions that transcend time and place and, therefore, speak to what it is to be human: What is death? When is a person truly dead? Can the dead interact with the living? What is the relationship between the impermanent and the eternal aspects of a human being? In the early nineteenth century, a definition of death as the point at which the heart and lungs cease to function, termed the "cardiopulmonary standard," began to displace the long-standing belief that putrefaction (or decomposition) was the decisive sign of death. The older conception persisted into the beginning of the twentieth century, however, as a number of medical practitioners continued to voice misgivings about their ability to objectively determine death. Thus, strangely, both vampire hunters and medical practitioners in pre-twentieth-century America were in agreement that putrefaction was the key for distinguishing death from life.

Contemporary Americans might look back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and see an enormous gap in knowledge, but serious questions concerning the determination of death continue unresolved into the present. For instance, is the "soul" or "vital principle" of life located in a single organ or is it spread throughout a person's organs, tissues and cells? Some in the medical community now are asking, "Does death occur and unique 'personhood' end when a small number of organs, or perhaps only one, permanently cease(s) to function, or must the entire organism go through such a process before death is defined?" A by-product of the medical profession's failure to successfully treat tuberculosis prior to the twentieth century was the preservation of the ambiguous vampire figure, the living dead. Modern medicine's current inability to reach consensus regarding the definition and diagnosis of death has reintroduced the ambiguity of the living dead. The artificial ventilator and the concept of brain death have conjured ancient apprehensions, as one medical ethicist wrote: "Concern about 'bad' deaths—those that are unnatural, accidental, or untimely, or repugnant—is a universal, age-old preoccupation. Technologically orchestrated deaths appear intuitively to many people to be unnatural. We worry that individuals who die bad deaths suffer unduly, and, even though most of us consider such thoughts irrational, even some health-care practitioners may be harrowed by the idea that this suffering will come back to haunt the living."

Blaming the dead for death seems a logical step from the fundamental vampire concept that the dead have a life after death. A cause-and-effect relationship between the dead and death lurks beneath the surface of everyday folklore. Fear that the angry, jealous or vengeful dead will prey upon the living unless certain steps are taken to appease or disable them, probably explains why a reanimated corpse is the primary type of vampire. A common folk belief in both the United States and Great Britain, for example, is that a corpse not stiffening "is a sure sign that death will be knocking pretty soon again at the door of this house for some other member of the family." This belief suggests an uncanny connection between living and dead family members, evoking the scene at the graves of the American vampires, where corpses that appeared to be in an unnatural state were interpreted to be at least signs, if not the actual causes, of the looming death of kin. The inclination of these vampires to infect their near relations with a lethal disease links pre-twentieth century America to a very large community. This core belief is found in Europe, India, Asia, and Africa and is as persistent as it is widespread.

In the vast stretch of history before the twentieth century, death and disease were ever-present and endured. Yet, almost everyone alive in America today was brought up believing in the inevitable conquest of disease and, by extension, death. Vaccines, antibiotics, modern hygiene and aggressive public health campaigns had all but eradicated such feared scourges as tuberculosis, pneumonia, small pox, polio and measles. We seemed to be on the way to a disease-free world. Today, however, some terrible things have shaken our complacency. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and new infectious enemies, such as AIDS, Avian Flu and Swine Flu, have appeared and some old ones, particularly tuberculosis and pneumonia, have reemerged. Our microbial adversaries have shown us the vulnerability even of modern medicine. Humbled by our failure to conquer disease and decipher death, we should acknowledge our kinship with those who endured the fear and uncertainty that tuberculosis embodied in pre-twentieth century America.

Written by Michael Bell,