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Posted By Michael Bell

Earlier (America’s Restless Vampires, Part Four), I briefly touched on an incident in Upstate New York at Chazy, where the body of Shepherd Woodward was exhumed and burned. This event, which occurred in 1819, was recorded in several different sources. The following excerpt is from a newspaper article: “As old people will remember the notion was quite prevalent in those days that from the lungs of a person dying with consumption, there sprouted a growth which proceeding through the earth communicated the consumption to the blood relatives of the deceased, and that the only way to save the lives of surviving relatives who were predisposed to consumption was to burn the body.”

Once again, the murderous vine appears. In this case, it is explicitly blamed for spreading the disease. The vine originates in the lungs, which are infected with consumption, then proceeds to contaminate other blood relatives. This appears to be a rudimentary explanation for the contagious aspect of tuberculosis. In the context of not knowing about microscopic germs, it seems to be a logical, or at least plausible, notion.


Another account of this incident, written prior to 1886, had some details not present in other sources: “After much debate and mature deliberation, the consultation of the elderly bodies of large experience and observation, it was decided to exhume the body of Mr. Woodward and commit it to the flames, so a few days after the burial, Messrs. Chandler Graves, Aaron Adams and Seth Graves took up the remains in the night with lanterns dimly burning, and placed them on a pile near the burial-ground, where they were consumed by fire. Among those who observed their proceedings were Mariette and Maria Carver, who was attracted by their lanterns in the burying-ground, and went out to see what was being done, but were required to return. Maria is still living, the wife of Henry Gregory. But we do not learn that the “cremation” prolonged the life of Mr. Woodward’s sister, who soon after fell a victim to the same disease.” Unfortunately, she died two years after her brother.

By the way, this is one of a very few exhumations that was undertaken at night. I wonder what the young sisters, Mariette and Maria, thought of the scene that they witnessed?

 
Posted By Michael Bell

An expanded, more accessible genealogical database has helped me to see beyond just the places, names and dates of these events. I can imagine the anguished faces of those who confronted a relentless and mysterious killer. The father of Annie Dennett (not “Janey Dennit” as Reverend Place wrote), Moses Dennett, was born in 1758. Moses’ Great-Great Grandfather came to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from England with his brother between 1660 and 1670. His Great Grandfather was a blacksmith in Portsmouth for many years, accumulating considerable property for those days. At one time it was said that he was the richest man in Portsmouth.

Moses, a tailor by trade, moved to Barnstead from Portsmouth about 1769. His log house was deep in the woods on high ground facing northwest and stood on the spot occupied by his descendants as late as 1908. Moses and his wife, Betsey Nutter, had four children: Polly, born in 1782, lived for eighty years; Hannah, born two years later, lived to the age of seventy-five; and Annie was born in 1786 and died on March 27, 1807, three-and-a-half years before her exhumation, described by Reverend Place. The fourth child, Charles, was born in 1788 and lived at least long enough to be married.

For years after moving to Barnstead, Moses brought all of his provisions on horseback from Dover, following a trail blazed through the forest. It was recorded that he usually left a small boy, presumably Charles, with his wife. One time the boy grew tired of the isolation and ran away to Dover, leaving Mrs. Dennett alone in her cabin for several days and nights, “to be entertained by the howling wolves and the bleak storms of winter.” The historical record indicates that Moses kept an excellent farm and served in Colonel Dike’s regiment for a short time in 1777, during the Revolutionary War.

Sadly, Moses died on December 28, 1810, not even three months after Reverend Place’s visit to Barnstead.

The very same day, Reverend Place heard an account of a similar occurrence some years before in Loudon, a few miles to the west. After his sermon, the people there told him about an incident similar to the one he had encountered in Barnstead. The body of a woman who had been dead for eleven years was exhumed by the Shakers in that community. They found that eleven sprouts had grown out of the bones—“ principally from the Stomach bone,” according to Place’s account. Another sprout had also grown from the top of her skull. Place was told that the sprouts resmebled those that grew from potatoes that were stored in the cellar. The people told him that “the persons that broke off those things Soon died” and that “it was all to no purpose to the Sick relation.”