Vampire incidents seem to have been almost commonplace among some New England communities. Popular authors wrote about it. A town council in Rhode Island voted to allow a man to exhume his daughter’s corpse. Half the population of a Vermont town turned out to witness an exhumation and heart-burning. To these very public renditions of the consumption ritual, we can add a newspaper notice inviting “all interested” to a family’s exhumation. Under the heading, “Bodies to be Exhumed,” the Montrose Democrat twice published the following paid announcement: “The subscriber being the only survivor of a large family of brothers and sisters, all of whom have died of that dread disease, consumption, and whose children are following them by the same disease, had consented that the bodies of some of the first who died may be exhumed to satisfy the belief entertained that it will arrest the further progress of the disease, which is destroying the remaining survivors. The exhumation will take place on Saturday, April 29th, at 10 o’clock A. M., at the burying ground on David Whitney’s land, in Lenox township, this county. This notice is given that all interested may be present. WM. B.. TOURJE Harford, April 10, 1871” William Tourje was sixty-four years of age when the notice was published. Although this event took place in northeastern Pennsylvania, the federal census of 1850 shows that William and his brother, Jonathan, were born in Rhode Island. Between 1817 and 1819, the family relocated from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania. Five weeks after the exhumation, the same newspaper published a letter, submitted by an anonymous “spectator,” describing the ritual in detail. He wrote that “probably a hundred” people attended, including two physicians. On opening the third grave, “behold! a vine was found!! the flesh was all decayed, but everything else remained as when placed in the ground, as near as could be expected; the silk dress and a bosom pin, in which the deceased was buried remaining entire. The vine found, was taken out,” and inspected by the physicians. The spectator’s concluding remarks highlight the desperate situation that led many families to the consumption ritual: “Further investigations were made, but I understand that there is some talk of taking up the wife of Mr. Snyder, the last one buried.—There is in all, of the family, 13 in number, children and grand-children, buried in this year, and one buried in the burying ground at the Baptist church near Elder Tower’s, and all but one at least, have died of consumption, the youngest being a grand-child only three years of age, and only one of eight children now living.”
These vampire incidents (or folk medical practices, or consumption rituals) did not go unnoticed by the literati. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) recorded in his journal, dated 26 September 1859, the following entry: “I have just read of a family in Vermont who, several of the members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs, heart and liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.” Thoreau probably was referring to a case from Winhall, Vermont. The text, which appeared in at least ten newspapers, dated from the 20th to the 29th of September 1859, closely matches Thoreau’s: “A Mrs. Prescott Lawrence, of Winhall, Vt., died a few days since of consumption, and as a member of the family had previously died of the same disease, the family went through the superstitious farce of burning the lungs, heart and liver of the deceased to prevent any more from dying of the same disease.” Thoreau’s interest in this event surely was more than just morbid curiosity. At the time of this entry, he knew he had consumption, which caused his death three years later.