Hey! Remember waaay back, when I posted about vampire burials? Well, it turns out that, based on the saved links buried a year deep in my drafts folder, I had meant to post a follow up at some point about vampire burials in America. It occurs to me now, on July 8th, that had I been more on the ball, I could have posted this slightly earlier in honour of America Day, so if you’re American and reading this, just pretend I posted it on July 4th as a thematically appropriate gift of sorts.
If you recall from my previous posts about vampire burials (parts 1 and 2), many of the folk beliefs about vampires are thought to stem from how people interpreted what they were seeing as dead bodies decompose, plus fear and suspicion of people who were seen as deviant or different prior to their deaths, i.e. outsiders, the disabled, the sick, and people who didn’t conform to social expectations. Basically, if you stood out from the crowd in some way, you were very likely to be suspected of being an actual monster/witch/servant of the devil, so it was a good idea to be really nice to your neighbours, lest they mess with your corpse when you died.
Many of the examples of vampire burials come from Europe, and they tend to be pretty old, dating back to the 14th\15th\16th centuries or earlier. However, it turns out that America wasn’t immune to vampires either. European immigrants to the New World obviously brought their culture and folklore with them, and these were, naturally, accompanied by their ghosts and monsters as well because if there’s one thing everybody, everywhere loves, it’s terrifying small children by describing the monsters that will eat them if they misbehave. This, combined with outbreaks of disease, and ignorance of advances in medical knowledge about the spread and treatment of these diseases, contributed to a strong belief in vampires in some parts of rural New England well into the 19th century, which resulted in the occasional ‘vampire panic.’
As we saw with some of the European cases, vampire burials are often associated with outbreaks of disease in the community, and this was no different in the American cases. However, rather than cholera or plague, in 19th century America, the leading cause of vampires seems to have been tuberculosis (TB). Interestingly, if you read a description of a person suffering from TB, you will note distinct similarities between them and the vampires that appear in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the grand-daddy of vampire fiction which was published in the late 1800’s. Like Stoker’s vampires, victims of TB were often pale and drawn, yet still lively — as the disease progressed they would lose weight even though they might remain quite active and continue to go about their lives as normally as possible. The weight-loss associated with TB led the disease becoming known as ‘consumption’ as the sufferer appeared to slowly be consumed by some unseen force which eventually weakened them to the point of death.
One thing about TB (amongst many) that people were unaware of at the time, is that the disease can have a long incubation period before a person starts to show symptoms. As well as being contagious in terms of person-to-person transmission, TB can also live for an extremely long time outside the body. The bacterium that causes TB is very difficult to destroy even with modern sanitation, so for people in rural 19th century New England who didn’t even know what bacteria was, the odds of not catching TB from an infected family member were pretty low, and herein lies the germ (ha ha) of the so-called vampire panics.
By the time one family member died of TB, the chances that they had unwittingly infected multiple relatives (who they often lived in close-quarters with) were pretty high. However, given the sometimes long incubation period, it was not uncommon for surviving-but-infected family members to appear to be fine until weeks, months, or even years after the death of the first family member. Sometimes, surviving family members would began to show consumptive symptoms, particularly the weight-loss and pale skin, and in very unfortunate cases, multiple members of the same family would seemingly sicken and died in rapid succession. Not knowing the ins-and-outs of disease transmission, community members witnessing this would occasionally reach the conclusion that one of the deceased family members was, in fact, returning to feed on his or her relatives, and that the only way to resolve the issue and prevent further consumption was to exhume and destroy the body of whichever family member they assumed was the vampire.
According to the folklore of the time, the correct way to destroy a vampire was to exhume the body and remove the heart. If, upon examination, the heart contained clotted blood, this was taken as proof that the person was a vampire, and the heart was burned (hot tip: a dead person’s heart will nearly always contain blood because that’s kind of how your heart works). In the case of a young lady named Mercy Brown, not only was her heart removed and burned, but the ashes were then fed to her brother who, despite suffering from the same TB that had killed Mercy, was nevertheless in attendance for her exhumation. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) this did not help his condition, and he died shortly afterwards.
In another case, the body of the supposed-vampire, a man who we know simply as “JB” based on the initials on his coffin, was fully decomposed by the time his body was exhumed by the local community. Not to be deterred by the fact that his heart was no longer there (which , based on post-mortem fractures, they double-checked by rooting around in his ribcage), the intrepid vampire hunters instead removed his head and his femurs, rearranging them in a skull-and-crossbones formation, presumably to ensure that his skeleton could no longer get up and wander around, but maybe also because they felt that pirates were preferable to vampires? (The historical record unfortunately remains resolutely silent on this point, alas.)
The interesting thing about these American vampires is the fact that members of their community, and in some cases even their own family members, were concerned enough about the possibility of vampires that they were willing to open a person’s grave and desecrate their body in order to set their minds at ease. If you ask yourself what it would take for you to do that to one of your own family members, it gives you some small idea of how truly freaked out these people must have been by the events happening around them. Faced with the possibility that death (in the form of consumption) might come for them next, they sought to take control of the situation in the only way that they knew how, even though it was gruesome and ultimately futile. Eventually, as living conditions, public health, and access to antibiotics/medical care improved, folk beliefs about vampires faded and the dead were left to rest unmolested as vampires became less scary monsters and more cool, fictional boyfriend. Considering that we now live in a world where Twilight exists, I think the restful dead might have gotten the better deal in this regard.
More about “JB” — Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief
The story of Mercy Brown and the Great New England Vampire Panic