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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Although they seemed to be vigorous and healthy, within a span of sixteen years nine members of  Leonard Spaulding’s family, including the father, died of consumption. The deaths began with Mary, aged 20, in 1782, continued on a regular basis through the father’s death in 1788, and culminated with the death of the last remaining son, twenty-seven year old Josiah, in December of 1798.

We pick up the story of what happened to the Spaulding family of Dummerston, Vermont in the following account from a published history of the town: “Among the superstitions of those days, we find it was said that a vine or root of some kind grew from coffin to coffin, of those of one family, who died of consumption, and were buried side by side; and when the growing vine had reached the coffin of the last one buried, another one of the family would die; the only way to destroy the influence or effect, was to break the vine; take up the body of the last one buried and burn the vitals, which would be an effectual remedy: Accordingly, the body of the last one buried was dug up and the vitals taken out and burned, and the daughter, it is affirmed, got well and lived many years.”

Looking at the sequence of deaths in the family, it appears that the exhumed body belonged to either Leonard, Jr. (the sixth to die, in 1792) or John (the seventh, who followed his twin brother, Timothy, to the grave in 1793). Apparently the remaining three daughters lived well into maturity.

If the Spaulding family had allowed the vine to enter another grave to infect yet another soul, the curse would have been prolonged, opening the door to an endless chain of death. While I cannot know what the surviving Spauldings were thinking when the vine was cut, nor where they might have learned of the ritual, I can view their act against a background that links them to other, perhaps ancestral, traditions.

Posted By Michael Bell

In 1784, Moses Holmes, the Town Clerk of Willington, Connecticut wrote a letter to a local newspaper complaining about a foreign “quack doctor” who was telling people in town that he could cure consumption. The procedures that he was advocating were “to have the bodies of such as had died to be dug up, and further . . . that out of the breast or vitals might be found a sprout or vine fresh and growing, which, together with the remains of the vitals, being consumed in the fire, would be an effectual cure to the same family.” The doctor apparently convinced a man named Isaac Johnson to exhume the bodies of two of his children—“one had been buried one year and eleven months, the other one year.” Holmes observed, “a third of the same family then sick.” Holmes, an eyewitness to the event, stated that two doctors—doctors Grant and West presumably were “legitimate” doctors—were on the scene to examine the bodies; upon doing so, “not the least discovery could be made.”  Holmes wrote that “under the coffin was sundry small sprouts about one inch in length, then fresh, but most likely was the produce of sorrel seeds which fell under the coffin when put in the earth.” In other words, he was discounting the possibility that anything weird was going on in the graves. Holmes closed his letter by urging that “the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an impostor.”

I first became aware of this incident in June of 2006 when a genealogist and local historian e-mailed me that he had read and enjoyed Food for the Dead. He wrote that he was a librarian at a university in Texas and that my book had prompted him to use his access to numerous databases of primary sources to look for other vampire incidents. He wrote, “I have done a bit of researching in those sources, and there appears to be material you had not seen when you wrote your book.” Over the next several days, he sent references to about a dozen new cases in addition of a couple of updates for old ones. I was absolutely astonished! And grateful, of course.

I set about researching the new cases. I hadn’t gotten too far with the Willington case, when, in March of 2008, the perfect opportunity for field investigation presented itself. A New York-based television producer contacted me about a History Channel show called MonsterQuest. “I’m looking for real-life cases/investigations (unsolved or otherwise) in which a crime aroused suspicions of vampire-involvement that was substantiated (to some degree) by actual physical evidence,” he wrote. “Historical or recent cases will work (domestic or abroad) as long as some physical evidence (even the tiniest bit) exists to back the claims made.” So it was that Connecticut State Archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, and I were to be reunited in front of the cameras.

Posted By Michael Bell

In Food for the Dead I concluded that Americans who exhumed the corpses of their kinsfolk to stop the spread of consumption did not use, perhaps were unaware of, the term “vampire.” My conclusion has been called into question by a recently discovered gravestone in Rhode Island. Simon Whipple Aldrich died in 1841 at the age of twenty-seven. He was preceded in death by a sister who also died at the age of twenty-seven, and followed in death by another sister; she, too, died at the age of twenty-seven. Simon’s gravestone had been broken at the base and then cemented into place, revealing only the first two lines of an obviously longer epitaph:

Altho’ consumption’s vampire grasp
Had seized thy mortal frame,

The detective work of a fellow scholar and vampire researcher has led to the identification of the complete inscription, which was taken from a lengthy poem commemorating the death, in 1838, of Joseph Horace Kimball, a young, but celebrated, abolitionist. The Aldrich family obviously was plagued by consumption, the metaphorical vampire. The following questions, in particular, have been set aside for further exploration: Was this use of “consumption’s vampire grasp” only metaphorical, or were corpses actually exhumed? Was Simon, himself, or, indeed, the entire Aldrich family, strongly abolitionist?

The antislavery movement did play a role in the life of an author who was, as far as I can determine, the first to incorporate an unequivocal recounting of an American vampire exhumation into a literary work. Mary Andrews Denison’s novel, Home Pictures, published in 1853, includes a chapter entitled “Old Superstition,” which opens with the following lines: “One learns many a curious little thing in a village like this. I listened to the narration of a most singular incident yesterday at the house of a neighbor. It seems that there is an old superstition, strongly believed by the credulous even at this day, that if the heart of the last deceased member of a consumptive family is taken from the body and burned, and the ashes reserved as a medicine to be given to the rest in small doses, no other person of that family will die of this terrible scourge.” I assume that the ensuing narrative is fictional, although it does have the ring of truth and may well have been inspired by a newspaper account. Denison (1826-1911), who authored more than eighty novels, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a hotbed of abolitionist convictions—and married the Reverend Charles Wheeler Denison, a Baptist minister and editor of the Emancipator, New York’s first antislavery journal. Denison’s vampire-pioneering novel predates Amy Lowell’s poem, “A Dracula of the Hills,” by seventy-three years and H. P. Lovecraft’s short vampire-based story, “The Shunned House,” by eighty-four years.

The appearance of America’s authentic vampires in poetry and prose may seem surprising at first glance. After all, it was European literature that first mined the rich vein of vampire folklore—European vampire folklore, of course—which ultimately led, through German Romanticism and Gothic literature, to the vampires of film, television, romance novels, young adult fiction and advertising. These ubiquitous, shape-shifting vampires, with a European pedigree, are the ones that we embrace as they continue to embody the things that we most desire . . . and fear. Although the impact of America’s vampires on literature and popular culture does not compare to that of the Old World’s undead, it is appreciable and, as we shall see, has been growing in recent years.

Posted By Michael Bell

The methods used to kill the vampire exemplify the variation that is found in all folk traditions. Various combinations of the following measures are found in America’s anti-vampire arsenal: removal and burning of vital organs (particularly the heart), ingesting the ashes (perhaps with other roots or herbs) or wearing them in a box around the neck; burning the entire corpse, sometimes inhaling the smoke; turning the corpse face down and reburying it; searching for and destroying (sometimes by burning), a vine found growing from the corpse or grave; removing the shroud from the mouth of the corpse; and, perhaps (as we shall consider in more detail later), driving a wooden stake through the heart or rearranging the bones of a corpse.

The measure of positioning the legs and head of a corpse into a “skull and crossbones” pattern—which I described in Food for the Dead—needs reexamination. In 1990, I received a phone call from Nick Bellantoni, Connecticut State Archaeologist, who was excavating an unmarked family cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut. Bellantoni said that he was aware of my research on the New England vampire tradition and thought that I might be able to shed some light on one of the burials, which he characterized as “weird.” The complete skeleton of a man, the best preserved of the cemetery, had been buried in a crypt with stone slabs lining the sides and top of the coffin. On the lid of the hexagonal, wooden coffin, an arrangement of brass tacks spelled out “JB-55,” presumably the initials and age at death of this individual. When the grave was opened, J.B.’s skull and thigh bones were found in a “skull and crossbones” pattern on top of his ribs and vertebrae, which were     also rearranged. 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.

The best conclusion that Bellantoni, Sledzik, and I could reach was that J.B. had been exhumed to counteract the spread of tuberculosis. At the time, no other interpretation of his unusual postmortem treatment even approached the coherence of the following scenario: An adult male, J.B., died of pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar infection interpreted as consumption by his family. Several years after the burial, one or more of his family members contracted the disease. As a last resort—to spare the lives of the family and stop consumption from spreading into the community—J.B.’s body was exhumed so that his heart could be burned. When his body was unearthed, however, J.B. was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition. Perhaps his ribs and vertebrae were in disarray as a result of the desperate search for the remains of his heart. Finding no heart, J.B.’s skull and thigh bones were arranged in a “skull and crossbones” pattern, a practice that stretches back to ancient times throughout Europe as means to prevent the dead from returning. But after reading or hearing about my account of J.B., several Freemasons have asked if I considered the possibility that J.B. had been a Mason. My subsequent research into this question shows some intriguing similarities between J.B.’s postmortem treatment and certain burial customs of both the Masons and the Knights Templar.

Posted By Michael Bell

Beginning in the eighteenth century, distinctions among magic, religion and science became increasingly important to the American elite. Such refinements still meant little to ordinary people, for whom the borders separating medicine and magic, religion and the occult, were not well defined. Where elite, official and academic culture began to divide the world into a variety of specialties, with their corresponding specialists, the inclusive nature of folk culture persisted. But by 1892, when Mercy Brown’s heart was cut from her body and burned, several significant cultural changes had converged to doom the vampire practice in America. The rift between the official world and the folk world had widened, at least from the viewpoint of the “civilization establishment” that included scientists, scholars, businessmen, clergy, politicians and practitioners of the dominant biomedical paradigm (simply “modern medicine,” to most of us). The latter were to assume nearly exclusive claim to the title of “doctor” or “physician.” Within a span of one-hundred years, the biomedical paradigm had consolidated its authority in the realm of medicine, and its rapid and unprecedented dominance overshadowed the medical pluralism that had been the norm throughout history. The discovery and—in some instances, reluctant—acceptance of the tuberculosis bacillus as the cause of consumption spelled the end of American vampires. As we shall see, however, the practices to defend against them survived well into the twentieth century.

 Many of the actors in America’s vampire drama are, and most likely will remain, anonymous. Where sources have provided names, we can begin to put a human face on this tragedy in which communities battled against an unseen adversary that brought them almost certain death. An enlarged genealogical database for both new and existing cases reveals that many of the families directly involved in vampiric activities were  respected pillars of their communities: successful bankers, lawyers, politicians, farmers, skilled tradesmen, and even physicians and clergymen. The case of William Shepard Woodward of Chazy, New York, is a good example. In 1819, about a year and half after he died of consumption at the age of twenty-two, William’s corpse was exhumed and burned in an effort to save his sister, Maria, who “was quite feeble and threatened with the same disease.” Maria was the wife of Reverend Joel Byington, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Chazy for more than twenty-five years and also a member of Harmony Lodge No. 154, Free and Accepted Masons. Among the three attendants who carried out the ritual were brothers Seth and Chandler Graves (appropriately named, it seems), descendants of Deacon George Graves, one of the original proprietors who founded Hartford, Connecticut, in 1636, under authority of the English Crown. Deacon Graves was a “weaver in comfortable circumstances” and was twice chosen Selectman, as well as Deputy to the General Court (Assembly). Seth Graves was born in 1760 in Durham, Connecticut. After he served in the Revolutionary War, he and his wife, Elizabeth, were among the first settlers of Chazy, arriving on horseback about 1800. Eventually they owned large tracts of land there, along with a hotel and the first saw and grist mills in the town. At the first town meeting in 1804, Seth was chosen one of the two Overseers of the Poor and one of three Pound-Keepers. In 1898, an elderly resident of Chazy recalled that Graves “was a public spirited and benevolent man. He gave the lot on which the Presbyterian church now stands.”