Guest Curators

We would like to welcome our latest Guest Curator, Michael E. Bell!


Michael E. Bell has a Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University, Bloomington; his dissertation topic was African American voodoo beliefs and practices. He has an M.A. in Folklore and Mythology from the University of California at Los Angeles, and a B.A. , with M.A. level course work completed, in Anthropology/Archaeology from the University of Arizona, Tucson. Bell was the Consulting Folklorist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, Providence, Rhode Island, for more than twenty-five years. He has also taught courses in folklore, English, anthropology and American studies at several colleges and universities. His book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, was a BookSense 76 Pick and winner of the Lord Ruthven Assembly Award for Best Nonfiction Book on Vampires. He is currently completing a second book on American vampires, titled The Vampire’s Grasp in New England. Michael Bell and his wife, Carole, split their time between Rhode Island and Texas.

Vampires: New England’s Dirty Little Secret?

Imagine that you’ve had a persistent cough for several days. You wonder, do I have croup or the grippe? Maybe it’s pleurisy or bronchitis, or even pneumonia? But the onset of fever, chills, and pains in your chest and back, especially when you breathe deeply or cough, dashes your hope for a transient malady and quick recovery. You lose your appetite and become emaciated, causing you to tire easily. The night sweats begin. Finally, when you are coughing up blood in increasing quantities, the specter of a somber fate materializes: consumption, a virtual death sentence.

Your local doctor (whoever, in terms of credentials, that might be), if perceptive and humane, informs you, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing more I can do.” You knew that already, but needing hope to offset fear, you and your family weigh options. You eliminate the patent medicines and unscrupulous quacks who prey on fear, selling useless “certain cures.”

Some of your neighbors come to you with stories about how other afflicted families tried an old remedy, hinting that you might give it a try. Their message, perhaps delivered between the lines, is that if you don’t stop it in your family, it will move on to theirs. While the proposed ritual is ghastly, the only viable alternative is for your loved ones to helplessly watch you die.

This imaginary scene was only too real for countless New Englanders and their families during the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, when as many as one in every four deaths was attributed to consumption (in most cases, pulmonary tuberculosis).

What was this old folk remedy? The family began by exhuming the bodies of deceased relatives and checking them for signs considered to be extraordinary, such as “fresh” (that is, liquid) blood in the heart or other vital organs. The organs are removed, burned, and the ashes consumed by the dying consumptive to cure and to ensure that the disease does not spread to other family members. Since this is a folk remedy, it varied from community to community. Other variants include: burning the entire corpse, sometimes inhaling or standing in 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 rearranging the bones, especially the skull, of the corpse.

It would be easy to think of the vampire tradition as “New England’s dirty little secret.” Nearly all of its narrators, including local history writers, journalists, establishment physicians, and scientists, marginalized both the ritual and its performers. The tradition was a “barbaric survival” and its practitioners were “ignorant and superstitious.” But historical records disclose that consumption was an impartial leveler. The families of clergymen, selectmen, and bankers suffered as inexorably as those of farmers and laborers. So, the consumption ritual was performed by members of every social class and income level. And the compilation of case after case (now approaching a hundred) reveals that it certainly was not “little.” That many of these exhumation narratives appeared almost simultaneously in dozens of different newspapers, that the head of a family publicly invited “all interested parties” to attend an exhumation, and that hundreds witnessed some of these rituals, suggests that this “secret” was buried in plain sight. “Dirty?” Yes, New England’s vampire tradition was deemed odious in virtually every narrative context, an interpretive frame that I hope to counterbalance in my upcoming book, The Vampire’s Grasp in New England.

If you are a folklorist or a collector of folklore/popular culture artifacts, please consider becoming a Guest Curator. Your objects will be highlighted here on a rotating basis.

All we ask is that the objects be yours, you have a photograph of the objects, and all or most of the information about the object (see the guidelines below, for more details).

Guest Curator Guidelines:

1. Artifacts must fall within the subject of our website (folklore, folk art, popular culture, etc.

2. Artifacts must be a part of your own personal collection.

3. Submissions must be limited to no more than five artifacts.

4. Submissions must contain a photograph of the artifact, as well as the title, purpose, country of origin, culture , materials, and dimensions of the artifact.

5. We also would like your photograph and a brief biography to accompany the collection.

Please contact, and write Guest Curator in the subject line for further information or with any questions. We cannot wait to highlight your collection!