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Posted By Michael Bell

Rider then relates the following narrative:

    At the breaking out of the Revolution there dwelt in one of the remoter Rhode Island towns a young man whom we will call Stukeley. He married an excellent woman and settled down in life as a farmer. Industrious, prudent, thrifty, he accumulated a handsome property for a man in his station in life, and comparable to his surroundings. In his family he had likewise prospered, for Mrs. Stukeley meantime had not been idle, having presented her worthy spouse with fourteen children. Numerous and happy were the Stukeley family, and proud was the sire as he rode about the town on his excellent horse, and attired in his homespun jacket of butternut brown, a species of garment which he much affected. So much, indeed, did he affect it that a sobriquet was given him by the townspeople. It grew out of the brown color of his coats. Snuffy Stuke they called him, and by that name he lived, and by it died.

    For many years all things worked well with Snuffy Stuke. His sons and daughters developed finely until some of them had reached the age of man or womanhood. The eldest was a comely daughter, Sarah. One night Snuffy Stuke dreamed a dream, which, when he remembered in the morning, gave him no end of worriment. He dreamed that he possessed a fine orchard, as in truth he did, and that exactly half the trees in it died. The occult meaning hidden in this revelation was beyond the comprehension of Snuffy Stuke, and that was what gave worry to him. Events, however, developed rapidly, and Snuffy Stuke was not kept long in suspense as to the meaning of his singular dream. Sarah, the eldest child, sickened, and her malady, developing into a quick consumption, hurried her into her grave. Sarah was laid away in the family burying ground, and quiet came again to the Stukeley family. But quiet came not to Stukeley. His apprehensions were not buried in the grave of Sarah.

    His unquiet quiet was but of short duration, for soon a second daughter was taken ill precisely as Sarah had been, and as quickly was hurried to the grave. But in the second case there was one symptom or complaint of a startling character, and which was not present in the first case. This was the continual complaint that Sarah came every night and sat upon some portion of the body, causing great pain and misery. So it went on. One after another sickened and died until six were dead, and the seventh, a son, was taken ill. The mother also now complained of these nightly visits of Sarah. These same characteristics were present in every case after the first one. Consternation confronted the stricken household. Evidently something must be done, and that, too, right quickly, to save the remnant of this family. A consultation was called with the most learned people, and it was resolved to exhume the bodies of the six dead children.

Posted By Michael Bell

Sidney S. Rider probably was the foremost, certainly the most prolific, chronicler of Rhode Island history, yet his own biography remains elusive, as Russell J. DeSimone and Erik J. Chaput noted in their article, “Sidney Rider and the Business of Rhode Island History”:

For those who have set out to write about Rhode Island’s rich history, Rider is a familiar name. The size of the ‘Sidney Rider Collection’ at Brown University’s John Hay Library is extensive, often overwhelming those who set out to sift through it. Researchers will encounter more than 15,000 items including books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and newspaper clippings chronicling the founding of the colony in 1636 to the post-Civil War era. However, while researchers may spend months with this material, most know nothing about the man who assembled it.

As I recounted in Food for the Dead, I spent some time with the Rider Collection at Brown University's John Hay Library in early 1983. But I must have been fortunate, indeed, for I located my quarry in about an hour.

I was attempting to assemble as much information as possible that would shed some light on the extraordinary vampire narrative that appeared in Book Notes in 1888, Rider’s long-running periodical on Rhode Island history. Rider’s narrative follows a pattern similar to that employed by George Stetson some eight years later, and by the Providence Journal in 1892:

  •     the definition of vampire;
  •     the historical and geographical distribution of the belief and practice;
  •     the local narrative(s) under consideration;
  •     speculation concerning how the tradition came to New England; and
  •     an attempt to contextualize the incident and summarize its meaning.

Rider sees two European vampire traditions. The first, he maintains, is an earlier form that originated in Eastern Europe (which, today, we might see as the “classic” vampire); the second is the werewolf tradition. According to Rider, the first form

came to this country, and seems to have been prevalent at one time here in Rhode Island. In fact, in may even at this day be held in her remote regions, if, indeed, that term be not inapplicable with the narrow confines of this little State. Strange, even incredible is it that anybody should believe in such absurd superstitions. It is true, nevertheless. There were, and there are now, those who do believe them, and the purpose of this paper is to narrate a case which took place here in Rhode Island at no very remote period. It was of a genuine vampire.

Posted By Michael Bell

 . . . Well, there’s no use in describing the general decay, suffice it that every day for years the two were seen flitting here and flitting there throughout the newspaper offices that congregate on and about Printing House square. After a little they forsook the realms of daily journalism and continued themselves to the festive magazines and weeklies.
    Gradually there were indications of pecuniary pinching.
    The natty dress was no longer visible.
    Evidence of care and trouble showed upon their faces. . . .
    Still They Clung Together,
    and the one time in all my quarter of a century’s knowledge of them that I ever saw him alone, was a week ago Wednesday, when I saw him standing in front of the office of the New York Times, looking irresolutely up and down the street. . . . That very day, it seems, he took his wife, reduced to a simple skeleton, to a cheap tenement on one of the squares of the city, where she died alone, and he, despairing, broken hearted, with his better half sheered away, sought refuge in a cheap hotel on Third avenue, where he, too, some forty-eight hours thereafter, was found dead alone. [“Howard’s Letter,” Boston Globe, 10 April 1887, p. 16]

It is more than ironic that, following his tragic death at the age of fifty-one, on 4 April 1887, Fairfield was interred in the Old West Stafford Cemetery, the scene of the tragic events he wrote about a little more than a decade earlier. His obituary in the Kansas City Times, entitled “An Opium Eater,” ends with the following paragraph: “Divinity, journalism, literature, spiritualism, medicine, veterinary surgery, opium, Bohemianism, scatter-brained inventions, poverty, degradation, death.” [10 April 1887, p. 7]

What does filling in the contextual information regarding the author of the earliest text of this incident have to tell us? He was born and raised in the community where the exhumation was performed; he obviously was aware of, and seemed to value, the oral traditions of this community; his great-grandmother apparently was considered a witch of some sort, so she probably was attuned to whatever supernatural atmosphere existed in the community; and she seems to have been a significant source for some of the lore that Fairfield absorbed while growing up. These elements of his biography appear to reinforce a conclusion that Fairfield either heard about the exhumation through oral tradition or, perhaps, learned of it through some local printed source, such as a newspaper. On the other hand, Fairfield’s apparent misunderstanding (at best) or deliberate misrepresentation (at worst) of several of the topics about which he wrote might lead one to conclude that he was careless with facts and perhaps even blind to them if they did not reinforce his own preconceptions. From this perspective, it is possible that the exhumation story was fabricated by Fairfield.

Posted By Michael Bell

The description of the “old superstition” in the anonymous “Quick Consumption” (1871) is mirrored five years later in Fairfield’s “A Century Ago” (1876): “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; and they quote in evidence apocryphal instances in which exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, incased 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.” Both texts have the exhumation taking place at night by a single individual, which, in the New England tradition, is a remarkably rare occurrence—not to mention a nearly impossible task.

Has forensic linguistics identified the parent of this orphan text, “Quick Consumption”? Regardless of authorship, how do we know that the narrative is fiction? Several features argue that the event did not happen as described. First, none of the named individuals can be found in the records for the town of Stafford: no contemporary birth or death record, federal census entry, or gravestone records the existence of any person identified in the narrative. Second, the patterning of the narrative motifs, seamlessly moving the action forward in regular and predictable steps, belies a sense of reality. Each person dying at three-week intervals, for example, seems just too perfect. The happy ending is just icing on the cake.

Like the events that Fairfield wrote about in the West Stafford cemetery, his own story was not without tragedy. The headlines of his obituary, in the form of a letter penned by a longtime associate at the New York Times, summarized Fairfield’s personal misfortune: “Some of the Many Tragedies of Journalism. Josephine and Francis Gerry Fairfield. Deadly Opium Leads Both to an Untimely End. Bright Writers Whose Lights Went Out Unpleasantly.” The letter related how Fairfield had graduated from college, studied theology, then earned an advanced degree in veterinary medicine. But writing was his calling, as his colleague wrote:

    In 1865 a bright-eyed, fragile-built, clean-cut young man entered journalism in this city. He was well born, well bred, and his education was along broader lines than those of most of us. He had a peculiar mind, which sought information in unusual channels. . . . No sight more common in Printing House square than Fairfield, with his cigar or pipe, a bundle of books or papers under one arm, and his little wife upon the other.

    Then, the brilliant couple began experimenting with opium. His former associate described the dimming of the once-bright lights:

    His work was as brilliant as ever, his articles, whether for magazine, weekly or daily, were as readily accepted as ever, but little by little his manner changed, and as he went so went she.

Posted By Michael Bell

Broadly, Fairfield tends towards repetition for effect, not only in an immediate context, which produces an echoing sensation that intensifies an aura he is attempting to create, but intermittently throughout his narrative, which acts like the incremental repetition of traditional balladry, serving to advance the narrative and heighten some mood. Another noticeable stylistic element is the prominence of ancient trees and old architecture, which often seem to be imbued with ghosts of the past. He begins “A Century Ago” (1876) with a lengthy description of the old houses that connect him to his past. In “Quick Consumption” (1871) he describes the Dunbar family’s habitation in a way that suggests its animate nature (note also the unrelenting repetition of the word “by”): “. . . gray old building after dark; and it was inhabited by bats and by cobwebs and by hooting owls, and by mildew and by mold and by flitting apparitions, and by soundless feet that walked on its moldering floors, and by goblin faces that looked out from its weird, curtainless windows; and over all brooded, bat-like and terrible, the demon of quick consumption” and, “Its blank, odd, eye-like windows, with the goblin faces in them, have ceased to stare into the night.”

One might guess from the passage above that the word “goblin” is highly favored by Fairfield. In his thinly-disguised autobiographical narrative of becoming a writer in New York (“Timothy Tot: A Prose Story with Poetic Passages,”1872), with flashes back to his childhood and education, Fairfield ties the animism of old trees to the imagery of goblins. “There was one gnarled old oak, in particular, west of the house, that always gave me the impression of a thinly disguised goblin, I being in constant anticipation of seeing it take goblin legs and walk off, leaving neither stump nor other vestige of having stood there.” [p. 133] Fairfield uses the word “goblin” no less than a dozen more times in this article: we have “goblin moons” and “goblin hills and woods” [p. 298], and many variations on “goblin old house” [303, 387, 388, 458, 466].

 Looking at word use and phrase patterns, one can see in his two exhumation narratives the similarities of his description of New England’s vampire tradition. In “Quick Consumption” (1871) he writes: “It is one of those weird old superstitions with which the household literature of New England abounds. It is, that the heart of the dead, dying not, by some strange rapport, feeds upon the vitality of the living—the living being thus actually eaten up of the dead; and weird stories are afloat of the dead having been taken up, and there having been found, still red and warm, in the midst of ghastly rottenness, the hearts of some who have died of quick consumption. Whole families have gone of it, one after another, the dead gnawing and feeding upon the vitality of the living, until, as the last dropped into the grave, the red, warm heart in the coffined corpse, having no living relative upon the vitality of whom to feed, has wasted also and died—died at last in its coffin for want of something upon which to prey.”