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Michael Bell
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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.”

Posted By Michael Bell

Fairfield continues filling-in the supernatural folklore as he remembered it, growing up in Stafford, Connecticut:

    . . . memories of the old legend-life when my great-grandmother trotted me on her knee, sorceress though she was, and told me stories of ghosts and wizards, and of the goblins that lived down-cellar in the dark, and the strange voices that had been heard up-garret, while the flames in the huge fireplace crackled and laughed, and made flickering pictures on the wall, by way of illustrating her remarks—such memories as made me afraid of the dark when I was a boy, and caused me to shiver when the wind shook the garret-door of a night, come thronging from every nook in my brain, where they have drowsed so many years that I have deemed them utterly effaced. [pp. 653-55]

Fairfield’s career was not exactly a straight line. After graduating from Gettysburg College and then Hartwick Theological Seminary, he served as a Lutheran minister for two years. He also obtained a degree in veterinary medicine, experimented with improving the microscope, and published theories on a wide range of topics, from the origin of bacteria in the atmosphere to the writings and life of Edgar Allen Poe. After abandoning the pulpit for journalism, he published two books that received a great deal of attention: The Clubs of New York (1873) and Ten Years with Spiritual Mediums (1875).

But the work of the wide-ranging Fairfield was not universally praised. In A Primer of Criticism (1883), Eugene Lemoine Didier pronounced The Clubs of New York “the greatest piece of downright puffery we have ever had the misfortune to encounter.” [p. 37] Didier also wrote, “Mr. Fairfield cannot write simple, pure,—in a word, good English.”An article in the American Monthly Microscopical Journal (2:1, 1881:15) blasted Fairfield’s scientific endeavors with the following assessment: “We have read a number of articles from Mr. Fairfield’s pen, and we do not hesitate to assert that he is either woefully ignorant of science, or else a consummate humbug.” And, if such were possible, Fairfield’s interpretation of Poe was even less well-received. But, no matter how one assesses it, Fairfield’s writing style is readily identifiable. Reading the anonymous story entitled “Quick Consumption” (see entries #s 1-6) leaves little doubt that Fairfield was its author. While I have not applied stylometry to Fairfield’s texts, stylistic evidence (consisting of distinctive recurrent patterns of language preferences, such as word choices, sentence structure, syntax, punctuation, and turns of expression) reinforce the conclusion. Narrative elements also contribute. That both of these narratives— “A Century Ago in New England” and “Quick Consumption”—take place in Fairfield’s hometown, for example, seems beyond the realm of coincidence.

Posted By Michael Bell

One familiar with Cole’s approach to writing his numerous county histories is lead to conclude that he must have found the narrative in some published version; suffice it to say that primary research was not Cole’s modus operandi. Another reasonable hypothesis is that the newspaper article had drawn from the same text that Cole used. At this point, of course, the existence of such a text was purely speculative. A search through various indexes to popular periodicals paid off: Appleton’s Journal for 1876, contained an article entitled, “A Century Ago in New England,” authored by Francis Gerry Fairfield. Cole’s text, published in 1888, appears to have been taken verbatim (without attribution) from Fairfield’s account of the exhumation, which follows:

In the old West Stafford graveyard the tragedy of exhuming a dead body and burning the heart and lungs was once enacted—a weird night-scene. Of a family consisting of six sisters, five had died in rapid 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; 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. The ceremony of cremation of the vitals of the dead must be conducted at night, by a single individual, and at the open grave, in order that the result may be decisive; and most old graveyards could mention nights when they have been thus illuminated; for, no longer since than 1872, the Boston Health Board reports describe a case in which such a midnight cremation was actually performed during that year. [Francis Gerry Fairfield,  “A Century Ago in New England,” Appleton’s Journal 15 (1876:652-656)]

Research showed that Fairfield was born in Stafford, Connecticut, on 18 August 1836. Much of his article focuses on that region of Connecticut and appears to be based heavily on his own reminiscences of growing up with the stories of the older generations. Here is a sampling of what he wrote:

    Ah, days of tokens and omens and revelations! How little our more fastidious civilization comprehends of the wild, stern, and daring psychic lives, of the largeness and heroism, of the gloomy and fantastic religious enthusiasm, that were nurtured in those geometrical old houses, so few of which are left as reminders of the last century! Grand men—large and able men—a little superstitious, perhaps, but all the more picturesque and manly for it! My great-grandmother Washburn had the reputation of being the most accomplished sorceress in all that region, and old people even now tell the legend of her having turned over a heavy oaken sled, loaded four feet high with heavy timbers, by just wishing it, simply because she was offended with amiable Captain Washburn.

Posted By Michael Bell

The text of the Hartford Courant (1915) narrative, “Tragic Legend Of West Stafford Cemetery,” was labelled “special to the Courant.” It should seem at least vaguely familiar.

    ON THE HILL north of the village of West Stafford is an old cemetery well worth visiting. It is the burial place of many of the early settlers of the town who, following the custom of early times, selected an elevated situation on which to build their homes, and the hilltop became the seat of a thriving village. In the olden days two churches stood nearby and the county turnpike passed the place. Near at hand a tavern did a thriving business and the stage drivers changed their horses there. On training days the state militia assembled here and the place was the center of the social activities of that section of the town.

    With  the passing of years, villages sprang up in the valleys and the churches were moved away, one to West Stafford and the other to Stafford Hollow. The tavern long since closed has been torn down and a farmhouse stands on its former site. Some of the old homesteads have been burned and others have gone to decay, until the old cemetery is all that is left to remind one that once there was life here.

    A strange tale is told of a tragic scene enacted in this old cemetery many years ago. Of a family of six sisters living in the village, five had died of consumption. The sixth seemed doomed to follow the others. There was an old superstition in such cases that the vital organs of the dead still retain a flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living. Instances were cited where dead bodies had been exhumed and the vital organs burned, after which a living relative apparently about to die had suddenly and miraculously recovered. In the hope that this might prove true and bring about the recovery of the dying girl, it was determined to exhume the body of the sister last to die and perform the strange rite. The superstition held that to secure the desired results the ceremony must be conducted at night at the open grave by a single individual. No one was willing to undertake the gruesome task, but finally the lover of the sick girl volunteered to do it. He went to the graveyard in the dead of night and dug up the body. Silently he performed the weird autopsy and carried out the strange program in every detail. The story goes that the girl recovered and lived to be a very old woman.

This text provided the specific location of the cemetery (absent in Cole’s text), but it also generated additional questions: At night? Alone? In silence? Exhuming a corpse single-handedly is difficult, a fact one quickly learns when researching exhumations and reading numerous accounts of “resurrections” by body-snatchers. Additionally, there is the ailing girl’s lover finally agreeing to undertake the exhumation. These motifs certainly lend an air of folk tradition, capped off by the afflicted girl living happily ever after (or at least to a ripe old age). Of course, it would have been simple for someone to add these elements precisely for the purpose of “improving” the story. Although this text did little to move the investigation forward, it did at least identify which of West Stafford’s three cemeteries the sisters are (supposedly) interred.

Posted By Michael Bell

The author of “Quick Consumption” concludes his tale:

    A quarter of a century has passed since that night; and Florry’s hair is streaked with faint lines of gray. From that morning she mended rapidly. In fact, she often tells me that she woke up about sunrise, that very morning, with a strange sense of relief, as if something had ceased gnawing internally; and—strange coincidence!—it was at that very same hour that I was standing by the lurid conical crater of the old blast furnace. I had conquered the demon of quick consumption; but whether, in that fit of “hypo,” I hurled a dead heart, or a red, reeking one into the crater, I would not like to be put upon my oath. Only this I remember—there was blood, or else I fancied it, upon the white napkin in which I carried it that long mile of horror.

The place where this tale was situated—Stafford, Connecticut—led me to a familiar story. In Food for the Dead, I had concluded that an exhumation narrative from West Stafford must have occurred sometime before 1888, the year that J. R. Cole published the account in his History of Tolland County, Connecticut. [p. 499] 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,” Cole wrote. 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, the ceremony must be conducted at night by a single individual at the open grave. Implicit in this narrative—as we now have seen in many others—is the notion that whatever “flicker of vitality” is inhabiting the dead relatives somehow transfers itself to the last deceased. The unnamed, implicit evil seems to gravitate to the freshest corpse for its feeding, a logical proposition that explains why the alternate, and equally plausible, proposition that the first to die should be the vampire usually does not hold sway.

This case was difficult to document from the beginning. Several visits to the town’s three cemeteries failed to discover gravestones whose progression of family deaths matched Cole’s description. Lacking a surname certainly did not facilitate the investigation, which, without the intervention of some startling new evidence, appeared to have reached a dead end. Then, years later, I found a text that differed from that of Cole. In 1915 (28 March), the Hartford Courant (p. Z10) published an article entitled “Tragic Legend Of West Stafford Cemetery.” Above the article was a photograph of a cemetery with following subscript: “In This Old Cemetery The Weird Ceremony Is Said To Have Taken Place.”

In the next entry, we will examine the text of this “weird ceremony.”