New England Vampire Panic

vampire
Children playing near a hillside gravel mine near Griswold, Connecticut, in 1990, found an unmarked burial site. Police initially thought the burials might be the work of a local serial killer named Michael Ross, and they taped off the area as a crime scene. But the brown, decaying bones turned out to be more than a century old. The Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, soon determined that the hillside contained a colonial-era farm cemetery. New England is full of such unmarked family plots, and the 29 burials were typical of the 1700s and early 1800s.

Even before the excavation began Bellantoni was interested in the grave referred to as Burial Number 4. It was one of only two stone crypts in the cemetery, and it was partially visible from the mine face.

The archaeologist and his team uncovered a skeleton which had been beheaded; skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. Analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.

Nicholas Bellantoni

Nicholas Bellantoni

The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not “J.B.,” as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site. Finally, one colleague asked: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?”

In 1854, in neighboring Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. A few newspaper accounts of these events survived. Had the Griswold grave been desecrated for the same reason?

During his research, Bellantoni made a phone call to Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist, who had been studying New England vampire exhumations. The Griswold case happened about the same time as the other incidents Bell had investigated. And the setting was right. Griswold was rural, agrarian and bordering southern Rhode Island, where multiple exhumations had occurred. Many of the other “vampires,” like J.B., had been disinterred, grotesquely tampered with, and reburied.

Bell told of violated corpses, even the posthumous rib fractures, all of which began to make sense. J.B.’s accusers had likely rummaged around in his chest cavity, hoping to remove, and perhaps to burn, his heart.

Bell has documented about 80 exhumations, reaching as far back as the late 1700s and as far west as Minnesota. But most are concentrated in backwoods New England, in the 1800s.

He believes that hundreds of more cases await discovery. “You read an article that describes an exhumation, and they’ll describe a similar thing that happened at a nearby town,” says Bell.

Bell sifts through handwritten records in town hall basements, consults tombstones, and old cemetery maps, traces obscure genealogies, and interviews descendants. Because the events took place relatively recently, evidence of historic vampires isn’t as scarce as one might imagine. City newspaper reporters wrote about the “Horrible Superstition” on front pages. Even Henry David Thoreau mentions an exhumation in his journal on September 29, 1859.

The public hysteria almost always occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. Indeed, the medical museum’s tests revealed that J.B. had suffered from tuberculosis, or a lung disease very like it. Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and, even though they often received the standard medical diagnosis, the survivors blamed early victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire’s predations.

Exhumed graves

Exhumed graves

The exhumations varied widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure.

Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says.

By the 1890s tuberculosis was rampant. “Consumption,” as it was called, had started to plague New England in the 1730s, a few decades before the first known vampire scares. By the 1800s, when the scares were at their height, the disease was responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths in New England. It was a terrible end, often drawn out over years. The ill suffered high fever, a hacking, bloody cough and a visible wasting away of the body. “The emaciated figure strikes one with terror,” reads one 18th-century description, “the forehead covered with drops of sweat; the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk…the breath offensive, quick and laborious, and the cough so incessant as to scarce allow the wretched sufferer time to tell his complaints.” The symptoms progressed in such a way that it seemed like something was draining the life and blood out of somebody.

Even at the time, New England’s vampire panics struck onlookers as a baffling anachronism. The late 1800s were a period of social and scientific progress. Indeed, many of the Rhode Island exhumations occurred within 20 miles of Newport, high society’s summer nucleus, where the scions of the industrial revolution vacationed. At first, only people who’d lived in or visited the vampire-ridden communities knew about the scandal: “We seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian,” one small-town Connecticut paper wrote in the wake of an 1854 exhumation.

The first known reference to an American vampire scare is a scolding letter to the editor of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, published in June 1784. Councilman Moses Holmes, from the town of Willington, warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it.

While New England’s farmers may have been guided by something like reason, the spiritual climate of the day was also hospitable to vampire rumors. Contrary to their Puritanical reputation, only about 10 percent of rural New Englanders in the 1800s belonged to a church. Rhode Island, originally founded as a haven for religious dissenters, was particularly lax, with Christian missionaries often sent there from more godly communities. “The missionaries come back and lament that there’s no Bible in the home, no church-going whatsoever,” says Linford Fisher, a Brown University colonial historian. “You have people out there essentially in cultural isolation.”

In place of organized worship, superstitions reigned: magical springs with healing powers, dead bodies that bled in the presence of their murderers. People buried shoes by fireplaces, to catch the Devil if he tried to come down the chimney. They nailed horseshoes above doors to ward off evil and carved daisy wheels, a kind of colonial hex sign, into the door frames.

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