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Monday, October 13, 2014

Vampires - New England and the World

It's almost Halloween, and what better topic could I come up with, than the Vampire?  

I'll admit that I think Bram Stoker's "DRACULA" is one of the greatest fantasy classics ever written.  If you have never read the book, put it on your list.  


"It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the music that he make with that smileless mouth of him. Ah, we men and women are like ropes drawn tight with strain that pull us different ways. Then tears come, and like the rain on the ropes, they brace us up, until perhaps the strain become too great, and we break. But King Laugh he come like the sunshine, and he ease off the strain again, and we bear to go on with our labor, what it may be.”  ~Bram Stoker

Another great read is Anne Rice's "Interview with a Vampire" which gives a great depiction of both the ecstasy and the agony of being a vampire.  

"A little more than a century ago, vampires stalked Rhode Island. Or rather, New England farm families were digging up dead relatives suspected of being vampires and desecrating the bodies in a misguided effort to protect the living. Often these latter-day vampire hunters removed and burned their loved ones’ hearts.

Real Cases from Around the World

The practice of disinterring accused vampires likely began in Eastern Europe, spreading to western countries including France and England in the 1700s, and then to rural New England, where vampire panics were common up through the late 1800s – particularly in Rhode Island.

At home and abroad, vampire scares usually began when a person died – often of a contagious disease, and in New England almost always of tuberculosis – and others in the vicinity began dying, too, usually of the same sickness. Ignorant of germs, people surmised that the dead person had come back to drain family members’ blood, and the exhumation and staking, burning, beheading and whatever else followed (practices varied with geography) were an effort to insulate the community against further harm. Often the vampire-hunters were not disappointed when they pried open the graves: many natural signs of decay, like bloating and bleeding from various orifices, looked like evidence of midnight feasts.
Here are a few  “vampires” from America and elsewhere, the real lives behind our modern legends. 

Peter Plogojowitz: This Serbian villager and accused bloodsucker was exhumed and staked through the heart a few weeks after his death in 1725. In his book, “Vampires, Burial, and Death,” folklorist Paul Barber treats Plogojowitz as the quintessential European vampire, because his exhumation closely follows the broader pattern of the superstition. 

Plogojowitz was the first in his village to die of a sickness, and subsequent local deaths were blamed on his late-night predations. A rather gruesome-sounding autopsy revealed what were considered the tell-tale signs of vampirism:

I did not detect the slightest odor that is otherwise characteristic of the dead, and the body…was completely fresh,” one witness wrote. “The hair and beard… had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it … Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth.

Arnold Paole:  "Arnold Paole was a hajduk who had moved to the village from the Turkish-controlled part of Serbia. He reportedly often mentioned that he had been plagued by a vampire at a location named Gossowa (perhaps Kosovo), but that he had cured himself by eating soil from the vampire's grave and smearing himself with his blood. About 1725, he broke his neck in a fall from a haywagon. Within 20 or 30 days after Paole's death, four persons complained that they had been plagued by him. These people all died shortly thereafter. Ten days later, villagers, advised by their hadnack (a military/administrative title) who had witnessed such events before, opened his grave. They saw that the corpse was undecomposed "and that fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; that the shirt, the covering, and the coffin were completely bloody; that the old nails on his hands and feet, along with the skin, had fallen off, and that new ones had grown". Concluding that Paole was indeed a vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, to which he reacted by groaning and bleeding, and burned the body. They then disinterred Paole's four supposed victims and performed the same procedure, to prevent them from becoming vampires."  ~wiki

Nellie Vaughn: Just 19 years old, she was buried in 1889 in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. Today this so-called vampire is almost as famous as Mercy Brown, whose exhumation was covered by international newspapers. Vaughn’s cemetery has frequently been visited, vandalized and her headstone broken. But in his book, “Food for the Dead,” folklorist and vampire scholar Michael Bell presents evidence suggesting that Vaughn’s is a case of mistaken identity, and that her contemporaries never accused or exhumed her. The superstition probably arose in the last half century or so, and may be a result of confusion with Mercy (who died nearby at a similar date and age) and the admittedly creepy epitaph on Vaughn’s tombstone: “I Am Waiting and Watching For You.”

Frederick Ransom: A Dartmouth College student from a well-respected family in South Woodstock, Vermont, he died of tuberculosis in 1817 and is an example of an educated person ensnared in a vampire panic usually associated with misinformed farmers. Ransom’s father had his body exhumed in the hopes of saving the rest of his family: his heart was burned in a blacksmith’s forge. “However, it did not prove a remedy, for mother, sister, and two brothers died afterward,” Ransom’s surviving brother Daniel later wrote. “It has been related to me that there was a tendency in our family to consumption, and that I…would die with it before I was thirty.” Happily, when Daniel Ransom wrote these words he was more than 80 years old.    ~Source:  Smithsonian.com

The Great New England Vampire Panic:

1793 - Manchester, Vermont - Rachel Harris
In February of 1793, the friends and family of Captain Isaac Burton disinterred the remains of his first wife, Rachel Harris. At least five hundred (maybe as many as a thousand) citizens of Manchester, Vermont, looked on as Timothy Mead removed Rachel’s liver, heart, and lungs and, on Jacob Mead’s blacksmith’s forge, burned them to ashes.

1796 - Cumberland, Rhode Island - Abigail Staples
The members of the Town Council of Cumberland, Rhode Island, gave Stephen Staples permission to exhume the body of his deceased daughter, Abigail Staples, “in order to try an experiment” to save the life of another daughter, Livina Chase. The council stipulated that, after the experiment, Mr. Staples rebury Abigail’s body in a “Deasent Manner.”

circa 1794-98 - Dummerston, Vermont - Last Spaulding child buried
After six or seven of Lt. Spaulding’s family had died of consumption, and another daughter was ill, the body of the last dead child was dug up and the vital organs removed and burned. The daughter recovered and lived many years.

1799 - Exeter, Rhode Island - Sarah Tillinghast
Six of Stukeley Tillinghast’s fourteen children had died of consumption, a seventh was near death, and Stukeley’s wife, Honor, was complaining that Sarah, the first to die, came back at night and caused her “great pain and misery.” A community consultation was convened and it was decided to exhume the bodies of the dead children. One by one, they found the bodies in advanced stages of decomposition, until they got to Sarah, whom they found in a “remarkable condition.” They removed her heart and burned it on a rock in front of the family home. “Peace then came to this afflicted family, but not, however, until a seventh victim had been demanded.”

early 1800s (before 1830) - Griswold, Connecticut - J.B.
In 1990, Connecticut State Archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, was excavating an unmarked family cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut, when he uncovered the complete skeleton of a man whose skull and thigh bones were found in a “skull and crossbones” pattern on top of his ribs and vertebrae. On the lid of the his hexagonal, wooden coffin, an arrangement of brass tacks spelled out “JB-55,” presumably the initials and age at death of this individual. An examination of J.B.’s skeletal remains by forensic anthropologist Paul Sledzik revealed lesions on J.B.’s ribs, probably the result of tuberculosis. Had J.B. been exhumed and his bones rearranged to counteract the spread of tuberculosis?

1807 - Plymouth County, Massachusetts - Last buried sister
Within the single year of 1807, all but the mother and youngest son of fourteen children had died of consumption. Not two months from the death of the thirteenth child, “an amiable girl of about 16 years of age,” the remaining son began to show signs of the dreaded disease.With the consent of the mother, and accompanied by the surviving brother, four persons exhumed the remains of the last buried sister and turn her face down in her coffin. The brother died within two weeks and the mother lived for barely a year.

“A few years before” 1810 - Loudon, New Hampshire - A woman dead eleven years
When the body of a woman who had been dead for eleven years was exhumed, eleven sprouts were discovered growing out of her bones. The people who broke off the sprouts soon died, as did the sick relation.

1810 - Barnstead, New Hampshire - Janey D. Denitt
The remains of Janey D. Denitt, who had died of consumption at the age of twenty-one more than two years previously, were exhumed and examined “to see if any thing had grown upon her Stomach.” This measure was undertaken to save her father who was dying of consumption.

1827 - Foster, RI - Nancy Young
After Nancy Young died at age nineteen in 1827, her sister “commenced a rapid decline in health with sure indications that she must soon follow” Nancy to the grave. When other children in the family began to decline “in the same manner,” her father, Captain Levi Young, asked his neighbors and friends to exhume and burn Nancy’s remains “while all the members of the family gathered around and inhaled the smoke from the burning remains.” This cure apparently did not work, as five more children died.

circa 1830, Woodstock Green, Vermont - A man dead six months
About 1830, the undecayed heart of a man who had died of consumption six months before was burned to ashes in an iron pot in the middle of Woodstock Green, Vermont, in an attempt to save his consumptive brother.

before 1859 - Vermont - The last deceased
Henry David Thoreau recorded in his journal, dated 29 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’s interest in this event must have been more than mere curiosity, for at the time of this entry he knew he had consumption. Thoreau died of the disease three years later.

1854 - Jewett City, Connecticut - Lemuel and Elisha Ray
In1845, Lemuel Ray died of consumption at the age of twenty-four. His father, Horace, died four years later. Then his twenty-six year-old brother, Lemuel, died. By 1854, “the same fatal disease seized upon another son,” Henry Nelson, at which point it was decided to exhume the bodies of Lemuel and Elisha. On May 8th, the family and friends of the deceased, accompanied by various others, proceeded to the burial ground at Jewett City, . . . dug up the bodies of the deceased brothers, and burned them on the spot.” Henry Nelson died soon after.

circa 1874 - Peace Dale, Rhode Island - Daughter of William Rose
About 1874, “Mr. William Rose himself dug up the body of his own daughter, and burned her heart, under the belief that she was wasting away the lives of other members of his family.”

circa 1872-1888 - West Stafford, Connecticut - Unknown
In a family consisting of six sisters, five died in quick succession of “galloping” consumption. “The old superstition in such cases is that the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living.” To back up their belief, residents told of “instances wherein exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, encased in rottening and slimy integuments, and in which, after burning these portions of the defunct, a living relative, else doomed and hastening to the grave, has suddenly and miraculously recovered.” To be effective, they asserted that the ceremony must be conducted at night by a single individual at the open grave.

1892 - Exeter, Rhode Island - Mercy Brown
The wife and a daughter of George T. Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island, died of consumption. Within a few years, his only son, Edwin, began to show the signs of the disease. Soon, his nineteen year-old daughter, Mercy Lena, had contracted the disease, too. She quickly passed away and was buried in the family plot on Chestnut Hill in January of 1892. With no other hope to save his family, and urged by friends and neighbors, Brown agreed to have the bodies of his wife and two daughters exhumed. The mother and eldest daughter were nothing but skeletons, but Mercy, who had been buried for only two months, appeared to have liquid blood in her heart. Attendants at the scene cut out her heart and burned it to ashes on a nearby rock. Edwin was said to have drunk the ashes in water shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, he died two months later.

before 1893 - Ontario, Canada - Unknown
In 1893, writing about “Scottish myths” he had collected in Ontario, Canada, C. S. Fraser noted that he “was a little shocked” to encounter “a horrible vampire story given in explanation of the ravages often made in a family by consumption.”

“in the early years” (sometime before 1898) - Seneca Lake, New York - “A young woman”
An author commented on the vampire practice he found in the Finger Lakes area of Upstate New York. “The superstition of the vampire, that horror of the grave which was supposed to harbor the dead yet derive its sustenance from the living, had one illustration at least about Seneca Lake. . . . In the early years the corpse of a young woman was exhumed, and the heart and other vital parts committed to the flames. . . . Of several sisters, all in succession had wasted away, until one remained and she was ill. Though in the grave for many months, the burned portions of the body were fresh in appearance. The living sister, undoubtedly from mental relief, recovered her health after the event.”   Source: foodforthedead.com

Vampire origins

The most famous vampire is, of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula, though those looking for a historical "real" Dracula often cite Romanian prince Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), after whom Stoker is said to have modeled some aspects of his Dracula character. The characterization of Tepes as a vampire, however, is a distinctly Western one; in Romania, he is viewed not as a blood-drinking sadist but as a national hero. He is also known as Vlad Dracula ("son of the dragon"), a name that comes from his father's membership in the Order of the Dragon, knights who upheld Christianity and defended the empire from the Ottoman Turks.
The vampires most people are familiar with (such as Dracula) are revenants — human corpses that are said to return from the grave to harm the living; these vampires have Slavic origins only a few hundred years old. But other, older, versions of the vampire were not thought to be human at all but instead supernatural, possibly demonic, entities that did not take human form.

Matthew Beresford, author of "From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth" notes that "There are clear foundations for the vampire in the ancient world, and it is impossible to prove when the myth first arose. There are suggestions that the vampire was born out of sorcery in ancient Egypt, a demon summoned into this world from some other." There are many variations of vampires from around the world. There are Asian vampires, such as the Chinese jianshi, evil spirits that attack people and drain their life energy; the blood-drinking Wrathful Deities that appear in the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," and many others.

Creating vampires

Interest and belief in revenants surged in the Middle Ages in Europe. Though in most modern stories the classic way to become a vampire is to be bitten by one, that is a relatively new twist. In his book "Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality," folklorist Paul Barber noted that centuries ago, "Often potential revenants can be identified at birth, usually by some abnormality, some defect, as when a child is born with teeth. Similarly suspicious are children born with an extra nipple (in Romania, for example); with a lack of cartilage in the nose, or a split lower lip (in Russia) … When a child is born with a red caul, or amniotic membrane, covering its head, this was regarded throughout much of Europe as presumptive evidence that it is destined to return from the dead." Such minor deformities were looked upon as evil omens, and it is likely that many infants were killed immediately when these signs were discovered; those who survived grew up bearing the burden of public suspicion.

The belief in vampires stems from superstition and mistaken assumptions about post-mortem decay. The first recorded accounts of vampires follow a consistent pattern: Some unexplained misfortune would befall a person, family, or town — perhaps a drought dried up crops, or an infectious disease struck. Before science could explain weather patterns and germ theory, any bad event for which there was not an obvious cause might be blamed on a vampire. Vampires were one easy answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.

Villagers combined their belief that something had cursed them with fear of the dead, and concluded that perhaps the recently deceased might be responsible, having come back from the graves with evil intent. Graves were unearthed, and surprised villagers often mistook ordinary decomposition processes for supernatural phenomenon. For example, though laypeople might assume that a body would decompose immediately, if the coffin is well sealed and buried in winter, putrefaction might be delayed by weeks or months; intestinal decomposition creates bloating which can force blood up into the mouth, making it look like a dead body has recently sucked blood. These processes are well understood by modern doctors and morticians, but in medieval Europe were taken as unmistakable signs that vampires were real and existed among them.

Vampire protection

A purported "vampire" found in VeniceThe skull of the "vampire of Venice," found in a mass grave with a brick stuck in its jaw. 
In some traditions the best way to stop a vampire is to carry a small bag of salt with you. If you are being chased, you need only to spill the salt on the ground behind you, at which point the vampire is obligated to stop and count each and every grain before continuing the pursuit. If you don't have salt handy, some say that any small granules will do, including birdseed or sand. Others say that there's an unwritten rule of vampire etiquette that they cannot enter a home unless formally invited in.

Centuries ago, it was not uncommon for suspected vampires to be staked in their graves. The idea was to physically pin the vampire to the earth, and the chest was chosen because it's the trunk of the body, not because of any particular symbolic connection to the heart. Other traditional methods of preventing vampires included burying (or re-burying) the bodies face-down and decapitation, which often included stuffing the severed head's mouth with garlic or bricks.

Real vampires

There are, of course, a few truly vampiric animals, including leeches, lampreys and vampire bats. And in all these cases the vampire's intent is to draw enough blood for sustenance, but not enough to kill the host. But what about human vampires? There are certainly many self-identified vampires who participate in gothic-inspired subcultures. Some host vampire-themed book clubs or secret bloodletting rituals; others wear capes or get vampire fang dental implants. But blood drinking is another matter entirely. The problem is that blood is toxic; because it is so rich in iron — and because the human body has difficulty excreting excess iron — anyone who consumes blood regularly runs a real risk of haemochromatosis (iron overdose), which can cause a wide variety of diseases and problems, including liver and nervous system damage.

Vampires have been part of human culture and folklore in different forms for millennia, and the bloodsuckers show no signs of going away any time soon. Unless, of course, the zombie apocalypse wipes them out."  ~ Benjamin Radford/LiveScience