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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

Thousands of our American ancestors were killed by vampires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, vampires could be blamed for nearly one-quarter of all deaths in North America and vampires remained the leading cause of death throughout the nineteenth century. This vampire did not resemble the clever Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s imagination; this vampire’s cloak of invisibility was its smallness. It was so tiny that it could not be seen with the naked eye, which may explain its success as a mysterious killer. The mystery was solved in 1882, the year that Edward Koch announced his discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus. America’s vampires actually were—germs!

 

It is easy to identify the similarities between vampire folklore and the symptoms of tuberculosis. Vampires and victims of consumption, as pulmonary tuberculosis was then called, are the living dead. Vampires are consumption in material form, draining away life slowly and surreptitiously. Victims are walking corpses, red-eyed, pale and wasted, they embody disease and death. They suffer most at night. They awaken, coughing and in pain, sometimes describing a heavy feeling, like someone sitting on the chest. As the disease progresses, ulcers and cavities develop in the lungs and victims begin to cough up blood, which lingers at the corners of the mouth and stains the bedclothes. Family members are alarmed by what they see in the morning when they check on their dying loved one. Something is draining away the blood . . . the life. As the victim fades into death, others in the family begin to complain of the same symptoms. They wonder, Will this horror ever end? How can we stop it?