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.
The Mercy Brown exhumation, which took place on 17 March 1892, in Exeter, Rhode Island, followed the typical pattern: her heart and liver were excised and burned to ashes, which were to be ingested by, Edwin, her dying brother. Edwin died shortly after, but Mercy’s sisters lived on for years. The exhumation of Mercy Brown, and her mother and sister, is by far the most well-known vampire narrative in America. Her story appears in every possible medium, from spoken, written, and printed, to film, video, and the Internet (a search of which yields millions of pages for Mercy Brown). Although her plight is well-documented, and most of the facts surrounding her exhumation are fixed in reliable sources, she and her story have been expanded, compressed, twisted, and pulled into every vampire shape imaginable. The oral narrative of Mercy Brown in its earliest stage of development, however, remains the family narrative that arose soon after her corpse was dissected; it has circulated, in conjunction with parallel community narratives, for more than a hundred years.
More compelling than Mercy’s story, however, is the first-person account of the Reverend Justus Forward (1730-1814), Congregational Minister of Belchertown, Massachusetts for more than fifty-eight years. In a letter to a friend, Forward wrote about embarking on a trip with his daughter, Mercy (not an uncommon name back then), to a nearby town. He describes how she began to hemorrhage, which causes him great concern, especially in light of the fact that three of his daughters had already died of consumption and two others, including Mercy, were ill. He writes: “I had consulted many about opening the graves of some of the deceased, to see whether there were any signs of the dead preying on the living; and though many advised to it, and most thought it awful, yet Dr. Williams . . . and some others spoke in such a manner about it, that some of the family were not soon reconciled to it. However, they consented.” Forward goes on to describe how, on the previous Friday, the grave of his mother-in-law was opened. “She had been buried almost three years,” he writes, and she was “wasted away to a mere skeleton. . . . It was suggested that perhaps she was not the right person.” So she was reburied. Forward continues, “Since I had begun to search, I concluded to search further, and this morning opened the grave of my daughter [Martha Forward Dwight] . . . who had died—the last of my three daughters—almost six years ago. . . . On opening the body, the lungs were not dissolved, but had blood in them. . . . The lungs did not appear as we would suppose they would in a body just dead, but far nearer a state of soundness than could be expected. The liver, I am told, was as sound as the lungs. We put the lungs and liver in a separate box, and buried it in the same grave, ten inches or a foot, above the coffin.” (This variant of the ritual is unique, as far as I know.) Alas, Mercy was not spared, but Forward’s other three children survived the consumption epidemic.
Augmenting the eye-witness accounts of vampire activity in New England is a startling case of actual physical evidence. In 1990, Connecticut State Archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, excavated an unmarked family cemetery, in use from 1757 to about 1830, in the town of Griswold. One of the twenty-nine human remains unearthed in the cemetery, Burial 4, was so extraordinary that it was sent to the Museum of Health and Science for analysis by Paul Sledzik, a forensic anthropologist. 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. The community apparently wanted him to stay put! Bellantoni had never seen anything like it. He said, “It looks like this guy was buried long enough to decompose, dug up, some of his parts were rearranged . . . and then he was buried again.” 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 kind of “skull and crossbones” pattern on top of his ribs and vertebrae, which were also rearranged. Later analysis by Sledzik revealed that J.B.’s ribs contained lesions (or scars) that indicated he had a chronic pulmonary infection, likely tuberculosis. The following scenario is perhaps the most plausible: 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 (or his entire corpse) 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 a search for the remains of his heart. Finding no heart—and with no flesh to burn—J.B.’s skull and thigh bones were rearranged, a practice that has precedent in Europe, including Great Britain. Using his J.B.’s skull as a base model, forensic artist Sharon Long created a reconstruction of his face. You may be staring into the face of one of America’s authentic vampires.
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.
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.”
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.
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