User Profile
Michael Bell
McKinney, Te...

Recent Entries

You have 672570 hits.

Latest Comments

You are currently viewing archive for February 2015
Posted By Michael Bell

A companion to the form of cultural evolution endorsed by Stetson is the notion of “survivals,” which are the leftovers from previous stages of evolution that are carried into a higher level of culture, but, lacking their original context, are devoid of meaningful connections to their current culture; they are merely the unconnected behaviors—beliefs, practices, texts, symbols, etc.—from an irrational past. Quoting Conway (obviously, Moncure Daniel Conway), Stetson writes “Mr Conway remarks of this vampire belief that ‘it is, perhaps, the most formidable survival of demonic superstition now existing in the world.’”  The evolutionary theory implicitly endorsed by Stetson  provided a rationale—a “scientific” basis—for the establishment medical doctors, historians, and popular press to belittle the vampire practice. Most of these individuals practiced the establishment religion, Christianity, that was founded on the belief that a virgin gave birth to the son of a deity who subsequently was killed but returned to life. To commemorate his existence and enter into communion with him, adherents regularly consume portions of his body and blood, at least symbolically. One may wonder how, if held to the same standards of rationality, those beliefs would withstand the same sort of “scientific” scrutiny as the “primitive survivals” that included vampire practices. The issue, of course, is “civilization” not granting to “others” the same ability to contextualize their behaviors in relation to the various cultural systems available in every human culture. Depending on the situation, people may choose to be spiritual as well as scientific or empirical, to be literal or symbolic, to work or play, and so on.

Regarding the definition of a vampire, Stetson is a “lumper.” Others, such as Alan Dundes, are “splitters,” viewing the vampire as strictly an Eastern-European phenomenon. Stetson seems to embrace “the general belief that the vampire is a spirit which leaves its dead body in the grave to visit and torment the living,” a view that gives this type of malignant revenant a universal existence. His discussion of its universality is a meandering hodgepodge of narratives, some well-known, from around the world,  that finally settles on the following vague statement: “The character, purpose, and manner of the vampire manifestations depend, like its designation, upon environment and the plane of culture.”

Posted By Michael Bell

The historical heart of the Globe narrative is George Stetson’s article, which says so much yet so little at the same time. In “The Animistic Vampire in New England,” Stetson gives us the stories of vampiric exhumations, but titillates us with vague allusions to people and places. By 1896, when both Stetson’s and the Globe’s articles were published, the story of Mercy Brown had been circulating widely for nearly four years. Since Stetson’s article is probably the seminal narrative of New England’s vampire tradition, we can learn a great deal by examining him and his narrative.

Stetson provides no explicit description of his approach to gathering the material for this article, but it seems plain from his text that he visited Rhode Island to engage in fieldwork, which, in this sense, entailed talking to people who were willing to share information regarding exhumations that they either recalled firsthand or had heard about in the community. Shortly before his article was published in the American Anthropologist, Stetson carried on correspondence with Rhode Island publisher and historian, Sydney S. Rider. It was Rider who, in 1888, had authored “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island” [Book Notes 5(7):37-39], in which the story of Sarah Tillinghast’s return from dead first appeared in print. Stetson wrote in one of his letters to Rider: “I found in R. I. the last summer a dozen or more well authenticated cases of families that had followed the demands of the superstition and was told on excellent authority that the area of its adherents is not particularly limited.” Since Stetson’s letter was dated December, 1895, he must have been conducting fieldwork in Rhode Island during the summer of 1895. In his first letter, dated two days prior to the second, Stetson had written, “I found in the neighborhood of Exeter Hill last summer a dozen or more families who had shown their faith in it [“the vampire superstition”] by exhuming the dead.”

If Stetson consulted published materials for his local texts, he did so without making that plain. And, while the article’s title suggests that the scope of his work includes all of New England, Stetson’s New England narratives appear to be restricted to Rhode Island. At a time when anthropology was an emerging discipline, relying on previously collected and published data—“armchair anthropology,” as it has been dubbed—Stetson’s foray into the field, though seemingly haphazard and superficial by today’s standards, was unusual if not ground-breaking. His interpretation of the vampire practice, however, is perfectly aligned to the views of late nineteenth-century anthropology, which were founded on Edward B. Tylor’s concept of the evolution of human culture through several stages, from savagery and barbarism to civilization. The opening sentence of Stetson’s article presupposes the naïveté of the people responsible for the creation of the vampire: “The belief in the vampire and the whole family of demons has its origin in the animism, spiritism, or personification of the barbarian, who, unable to distinguish the objective from the subjective, ascribes good and evil influences and all natural phenomena to good and evil spirits.”

Posted By Michael Bell

Other connections between the tale of Mehitable and that of Sarah are not evident from the published texts alone, which prompts me to conclude that the Globe author interviewed residents of Exeter, just as he implied at various points in his narrative. I wonder if he heard oral versions of the narrative that Rider had published. My research of Rider’s tale led me to Tillinghast as Sarah’s surname and to the western slope of Pine Hill as the location of both the family’s residence and their cemetery. I also learned that Sarah died in 1799, a date that better corresponds to the “100 years earlier” of the 1896 Globe narrative than “near the beginning of the Revolution” that Rider cites. Still, the question remains: Did the Globe author hear this tale from residents of Exeter, then change the names of its characters and embellish their roles?

Whatever their ultimate grounding in history, it is plain that the tales of Mehitable and Godlove Arnold are parodies, and it is possible that they reveal more than the anonymous author intended or even, perhaps, understood. The powerful pull of the Old World vampire was based not just on its lengthy and romantic pedigree but also its visual presence. South County’s tradition (shared throughout New England) could not provide the corporeal revenant overtly feeding on blood. If the local folklore seemed too tepid for a sustainable narrative in the context of popular print media, authors of fiction could turn to a folk tradition that not only was (and is) more widely known and accepted, but—and here’s the crucial element—also provided a richer palette for portrayal. (The Globe article appeared a scant year before this palette was fully realized by Bram Stoker in Dracula.) The literary vampire tradition, fashioned from strands of European folklore and history, became the generally accepted canon of vampirism. Selecting from a flowing stream of oral tradition, authors preserved the enticing motifs like miniatures frozen in glass, suspended without time or place.

Folklorist Richard M. Dorson refers to fictional folksy narratives, such as those that appear in “Believe in Vampires,” as “subliterature,” as though they do not quite measure up to real literature. In “The Identification of Folklore in American Literature,” [JAF 1957:5] Dorson argued, “The dark and somber theme of supernatural legends merits as much attention as the current of humorous exaggeration in our literary and subliterary history.” The Globe article, while not unique in combining the supernatural with the humorous, does stand out in that regard. Such humorous pieces were common fare in nineteenth-century popular periodicals, though most were typically shorter anecdotes, either sprinkled throughout a newspaper’s pages or, more often, grouped under a column of similar strange but humorous incidents. The humor arises from caricature (burlesque) of the of the rustic country or backwoods bumpkin. To have the broad appeal necessary for a successful newspaper narrative, the stereotypes on display had to be accessible to the general reader. The criteria that shape historical facts to fit a predetermined mold hold for both yokel and vampire. Since the “joke” is shared implicitly by the reader—at least that is the underlying assumption of the writer—there is no need to label the narrative as satire and not news. Newspaper readers, unlike scholars, were not too concerned with sorting out history from hokum.

Posted By Michael Bell

The Globe’s narrative of Mercy Brown may have been more history than hokum, but the same cannot be said of its other vampire narratives. The one about the two families living on the western slope of Pine Hill in Exeter, about 100 years earlier, is intriguing because it recalls a narrative published by Sidney Rider in 1888. In the Globe account, Mehitable Brown died of consumption before she and her fiance, Isaiah Nichols, could marry. Isaiah soon developed consumption, too. “One night, not long before his death, his mother heard a peculiar groan coming from his room, and what was her horror on entering to see Mehitable, who had turned vampire, sucking Isaiah’s blood. . . . She said not a word, and when the mother came out of her swoon Mehitable had vanished.”

Here is a summary of Rider’s tale: Near the beginning of the Revolution, in a remote Rhode Island town, a young man named Stukeley married and created a prosperous farm and large family. All was going well until Sarah, his oldest and most beautiful daughter, died of a quick consumption. Soon after, a second daughter became ill, just as Sarah had. But there was a new and disturbing complaint from the second child: Sarah came at night and “sat upon some portion of the body, causing great pain and misery.” So it went, until one after another of Stuckeley’s children had sickened and died. By the time Stuckeley’s wife began to complain of Sarah’s nightly visits, six of their fourteen children had died and a seventh was ill. A community consultation was convened and it was decided to go to the family cemetery and exhume the bodies of the dead children. As they unearthed the children, one by one, they found the bodies in advanced stages of decomposition—until they got to Sarah. Her eyes were opened and fixed, her hair and nails had grown, and her heart was filled with fresh red blood. They removed her heart and burned it on a rock in front of the family home. After the bodies were returned to their graves, “peace then came to this afflicted family, but not, however, until a seventh victim had been demanded.” (See Food for the Dead, pp. 65-75.)

One striking similarity between these two tales, which separates them from other historical New England vampire narratives, is the corporeal revenant: both Sarah and Mehitable returned from the grave in bodily form to drain life from the living. Both authors explicitly invoke European vampire folklore (filtered through literary tradition), in which no credible vampire would make an appearance without actually making an appearance. There would be none of this astral-vampire thing of draining life while remaining in the grave.

Posted By Michael Bell

The narrative ground between vampire history and hokum is occupied by folklore and literature. Sodom is a good place to begin untangling these intertwined contexts, since that is the dateline of the Globe article. Yes, there is a Sodom, Rhode Island. I was there, at the end of Sodom Trail, in town of Exeter, on November 18, 1981, to interview Lewis “Everett” Peck, a descendent of the Brown family. “Too small to be on the map” is how the anonymous author of the Globe article described Sodom. “There were once four or five houses here,” he wrote in 1896, “but now there are not nearly so many.” At the beginning of our interview, Peck presented me with a yellowed clipping (coincidentally dated 1896) that included text, photographs, and a map. Peck asked me to read aloud the text under the map: “Half a mile from here, in a locality called Sodom, is the site of what is claimed to have been among the first cotton or woolen mills established in this state. . . . Only two families reside in the hamlet.” Everett interjected, “Yeah, and I’m one.” The Sodom Mill Historic and Archeological District had been established as a National Register District the year before our interview. A topographic map included in the nomination form shows the old farmhouse at the end of Sodom Trail (where Peck was living), along with the ruins of the 1814 mill, located just to the south on the mill pond created by a damn on Sodom Brook. Sodom obviously was not too small to be some maps.

The arc of the Brown family’s exhumation story published in the Globe is essentially the same as presented in two Providence Journal articles that appeared just days after the exhumations of March 17, 1892. George Brown was a farmer who trained trotting horses, and, by all accounts, he resisted the “old-time superstition” about curing consumption. It was only after several entreaties from kin and neighbors that he assented to the exhumations, which were, indeed, overseen by Dr. Metcalf. But the narratives diverge in significant ways. Since Edwin was Brown’s only son, Edwin could not have been preyed on by “his brother and sister.” The Globe article failed to mention that George Brown’s wife, Mary Eliza, had also died of consumption, and that her body was exhumed, along with those of her two daughters, Mary Olive and Mercy Lena. The corpses of the mother and Mary Olive were badly decomposed; since the only vital organs that contained blood were those of Mercy, it was her heart and liver that were burned to ashes. No one interviewed by the Providence Journal seemed to know whether or not Edwin ingested the ashes, but he did die in May. Jennie was recently married when she died at the age of eighteen in 1895. Records have not revealed the fate of Annie, although an unsourced family tree shows her dying of tuberculosis, also in 1895. Hattie married and lived for many years; her father, George Brown, died at her residence in 1922.