Join me as I cross the Atlantic in search of the undead…
In the best horror film tradition, the gruesome discovery was made by children.
The year was 1990, the place Griswold, Connecticut. A group of local kids were playing near a gravel mine when they came across something that not even the most fertile juvenile imagination might have anticipated: bones, human bones no less, lying just beneath the surface. Local police were summoned and, fearing that they’d uncovered the work of a killer, initially treated the area as a crime scene.
The truth, as it turned out, was stranger. The crumbling, discoloured bones that the children had unearthed turned out to be over a century old, which meant that this was now a job for archaeologists rather than law enforcement. The children’s chance discovery led to the excavation of a colonial-era cemetery: an interesting find for an archaeologist, no doubt, but not something to grab the world’s attention. After all, at first it seemed typical of such sites, with humble farming folk laid to rest as custom dictated.
All apart from one, that is.
As the archaeologists peered inside a stone crypt, they found a skeleton that had been completely rearranged. The head had been removed from the body, and the skull and thighbones had been placed on top of the ribs and vertebrae. There had been other damage, too: the ribs had been smashed, as had the coffin in which the body had originally been buried. All that was known about this mysterious skeleton was that it had belonged to a male, that he had been in his 50s at the time of his death, and that his initials – spelled out on the coffin lid – had been “J.B.”. At first, it was hard to understand why such a lack of respect had been shown toward J.B.’s remains. The humble tomb, possessing no valuables, would hardly have been a likely target for grave robbers or vandals.
Then, gradually, another idea began to take shape. In other New England towns – in Jewett City, Connecticut, for example, or in Manchester, Vermont – there had, from the eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, been a series of vampire panics. Several recently-deceased townspeople, suspected of vampirism, had been exhumed and their remains desecrated. Could this explain the damage inflicted on J.B.’s body?
“God Grant He Lie Still”
From the 1790s to the 1890s, New England – in particular Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont – had been in the grip of a fever, both literal and figurative. The dead of these quiet farming communities did not always rest easy. Sometimes they were thought to rise from their graves by night, and to drain the life from their surviving relatives.
The fever flared up in Vermont when Hulda Burton was said to have been attacked by her dead stepsister, Rachel Harris; it continued to burn in Rhode Island when Abigail Staples was rumoured to be feeding from beyond the grave on her sister Lavinia, and again in Vermont when vampirism was said to have afflicted an entire family, the Spauldings. In Rhode Island, Sarah Tillinghast’s remaining siblings complained that their dead sister was visiting them by night, and before long they too had fallen ill. In South Woodstock, Vermont, Frederick Ransom’s father feared that his dead son would return from the dead and attack his surviving relatives, and so had the body exhumed and the heart burned.
One particularly well-known case was that of Mercy Lena Brown from Rhode Island. Mercy died of a wasting illness in 1892 and was laid to rest. However, her eternal sleep would soon be interrupted. Her brother Edwin was also suffering from a similar disease to that which had taken his sister, and locals believed that one of his deceased family members was preying on him from beyond the grave. When they exhumed Mercy’s corpse, they found it to be surprisingly fresh and free of decomposition, with blood still in the heart. This was taken as evidence of vampirism, that Mercy had become one of the undead and was feeding on her brother.
What happened next was in line with the time-honoured cure, as prescribed by folk medicine. Mercy’s heart and liver were removed and burned, and the ashes were made into a tonic that was fed to her brother. This tonic, it was hoped, would protect him from the attentions of the undead. Perhaps unsurprisingly to most modern readers, the remedy did little good, and Edwin died just two months later.
There is a strange postscript to Mercy Brown’s story. According to some researchers, the case later came to the attention of Bram Stoker, and Mercy became the inspiration for the character of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. Mercy might not have joined the ranks of the undead in reality, but she did attain a form of fictional immortality.
The Plague Explained
Most modern writers, of course, find it hard to believe that the undead were rising from their graves in 18th and 19th century New England. What, then, was the explanation for the vampire panic?
Fortunately for today’s rationalists, a logical account is not hard to find. The symptoms apparently displayed by the victims of the undead, as well as the plague’s tendency to afflict members of the same families, suggest that the real culprit might have been tuberculosis, or consumption. Fever, night sweats, loss of appetite, fatigue and weight loss are amongst the symptoms of consumption, so called because the body appears to be “consumed” by some mysterious, deadly force – a force such as the undead, perhaps.
Still, one might harbour some doubts. Tuberculosis has afflicted humans throughout history; skeletons of prehistoric humans from around 4000 BC have displayed evidence of the disease. Given its widespread nature, agricultural communities during the 18th and 19th centuries would surely have some knowledge of it, and therefore might not be so quick to point to a supernatural explanation.
That said, it is perhaps no coincidence that the New England vampire scare began to ebb away during the last years of the 19th century, at around the same time that Robert Koch identified the bacteria that caused tuberculosis. Probably the only undead that stalk the fields and woods of New England now are of the fictional variety…
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race...
- from The Giaour by Lord Byron
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