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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

After a couple of months, the production team had worked up an itinerary and scheduled locations. Over the course of three days in mid-May and a follow-up day in June, we were to shoot on location at Willington, Connecticut—in the town hall, library and old cemetery—and also in Rhode Island at the graves of Mercy Brown in Exeter and Simon Whipple Aldrich in North Smithfield. It felt great to be back on the vampire trail after a long break!

Our search in the old cemetery for unmarked graves that could be those of Isaac Johnson’s family, using electro-magnetic imaging, was less successful than our research at the town hall. Although I still haven’t located the graves of the Johnson family, I was able to document their actual existence. According to town records, Isaac Johnson married Elizabeth Beal on July 15, 1756. They had eight children, and two of them match the details provided in Moses Holmes’s letter: Amos died on July 15, 1782 (at the age of 21 years and nine months), one year and eleven months before the exhumations; Elizabeth died on May 18, 1783 (at the age of 18 years and eleven months), one year prior to being exhumed. According to the 1790 census, the Isaac Johnson household included two free white males aged sixteen and older, and seventeen “all other free persons.” Besides his immediate family, Isaac had seventeen other people in the household! No one else in the Willington census had even one! Who were all of these people and what were they doing?

On December 23, 1799, “In the raising of heavy timbers of the new church, Mr. Johnson was killed outright and blood was on the underpinning for a third of a century. Deacon Holt was broken down to the space of three inches in his middle, so he said, and never enjoyed good health again, though he lived to ‘a good old age.’” Isaac’s blood being visible for a generation incorporates the motif known to folklorists as “the ineradicable bloodstain after bloody tragedy” (motif E422., if you’re taking notes). One wonders if this “bloody tragedy” was seen as divine retribution for what some in the community might have viewed as Isaac’s a sacrilegious act fifteen years earlier.

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.”