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Posted By Michael Bell

Even the faintest trace of evidence can lead to an extraordinary discovery. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but that doesn’t stop me from searching; I follow all leads as far as I can. When I hit a dead end or just become exhausted and exasperated, I put that trail on hold and go on to something else. It’s a lot like doing crossword puzzles, which I really enjoy. If you put a puzzle aside for awhile and then come back to it, sometimes the answer just pops out at you. Maybe the brain needs a break, an incubation period when it’s not focusing on the problem so that its out-of-awareness mode can work on a solution while you turn your attention to another issue.

That’s a roundabout way of admitting that I haven’t found much to go on with the vampire case from Saco, Maine. So, hoping that the few tidbits I have uncovered are ruminating deep within my brain, I’m embracing another, equally vague, incident. The following account was published in 1898 by newspaperman John Corbett in his book, The Lake Country: An Annal of Olden Days in Central New York:

“The superstition of the vampire, that horror of the grave which was supposed to harbor the dead yet derive its sustenance from the living, had one illustration at least about Seneca Lake. Down the western shore not many miles from its head, in the early years the corpse of a young woman was exhumed, and the heart and other vital parts committed to the flames. The grewsome tale comports in a remarkable manner with the general sayings in regard to vampires. Of several sisters, all in succession had wasted away, until one remained and she was ill. Though in the grave for many months, the burned portions of the body were fresh in appearance. The living sister, undoubtedly from mental relief, recovered her health after the event.”

Not much to go on, particularly since Corbett included no references whatsoever. Had he provided his source for this “grewsome tale,” I would have had a trail to follow. But, taking what I’m given, I read through the surrounding text of Corbett’s entry, giving special attention to his chapters on folklore and religion. An excerpt from the latter reminded me of why that region of New York was labeled the “burned-over district,” as one cult after another took root, flourished, and declined, only to be replaced by another.

Here’s how Corbett expressed it: “The vagaries of religious belief have had striking illustrations in Central New York, not however to prosper long at the place of inception. The Friends whose deeds about Lake Keuka Outlet are now ancient annals, had faith that Jemima Wilkinson was controlled by the Divine Spirit in propagating the tenet that celibacy was indispensable to a pure life. Mormon Hill near the north line of Ontario county, is the pretended place of discovery by Joseph Smith in 1827, of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, and Brigham Young, after living for a time west of the head of Seneca Lake, resided long at Canandaigua. The Oneida Community, established by John H. Noyes in 1847, held all things in common up to 1879, when their peculiar family relations were abandoned.”

Jemima Wilkinson! I know that name. This trail leads back to Rhode Island. Could she and her followers—many also from Rhode Island—have taken the vampire tradition with them to Central New York? How could I even approach answering this question?

 
Posted By Michael Bell

While families afflicted with consumption took matters into their own hands, the medical establishment continued the fruitless search for a cure, mainly by attempting to identify the cause of the disease. But, the elusive nature of consumption thwarted these efforts, pitting theory against theory in a seemingly endless pageant of futility. One major theory proposed that consumption was caused by environmental conditions. Dr. Henry I. Bowditch of Massachusetts, for example, argued that living in damp, especially cold and damp, places was the major cause of consumption. In an 1862 publication, Bowditch presented pages and pages of testimony and statistical correlations, including many sad case histories of entire families being wiped out, to “prove” his “law.”  One of his few happy stories described how a member of an afflicted family was spared because he spent most of his time at sea, away from the boggy farm. Of course, Bowditch and his colleagues had no way of knowing that the mariner probably avoided consumption because he wasn’t living in a household infected with the tuberculosis germ.

I read through Bowditch’s anecdotal evidence several times, looking for passages that suggested possible vampiric activities, such as exhumations or the burning of vital organs, before my eye finally caught the word, “disinterred.” In this citation, Bowditch described the experiences of a colleague, Dr. J. L. Allen, of Saco, Maine. Bowditch wrote that Allen, “a practitioner of long standing,” had noticed two ridges of land that were identical in every respect save for the amount of moisture in the soil. “Almost every family has been decimated on the wet part, while almost all upon the dry portion have escaped. . . . One ridge is quite dry, the other is literally filled with springs. Nowhere can a spade be driven a few feet into the ground, without meeting water.”

The next sentence in Bowditch’s discussion spoke volumes to me:  “In fact, in former times, the superstitious frequently had their friends, who had died of consumption, disinterred, and Dr. Allen invariably found the coffins filled with water, however shallow may have been the graves.” This brief passage does not refer to any specific instance that I might be able to investigate, nor does it provide specifics regarding what procedures were followed after disinterment, but it strongly suggests that vampires were being sought “in former times.” And just as tantalizing, it is plain from this passage that a medical doctor, Dr. Allen, himself, was routinely present at the exhumations. Why was he there? Simply to add weight to the thesis that damp conditions caused consumption? Or was he there at the request of the families and friends, apparently seeking vampires among the deceased? These questions cannot be answered with certainty at this time; however, I think we CAN conclude that, to the people living in the area of Saco, Maine, vampiric exhumations were neither rare nor extraordinary in the early years.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

“I found this very interesting as a piece of Poe folklore, but I’m pretty sure it’s a hoax,” he wrote. Then he added, “The New York Sun was the paper Poe published his ‘Balloon Hoax’ in, by the way.”

Aha! So Poe himself had perpetrated a hoax in the very same newspaper seventy years earlier! The Balloon Hoax appeared in the Sun on April 13, 1844. The article authored by Poe described balloonist Monck Mason’s seventy-five hour trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a lighter-than-air-balloon. The fact that Mason was a well-known European balloonist, combined with Poe’s skillful use of detail, created a very credible narrative.

The chain of hoaxes, and coincidences, continues back in time. Poe may have perpetrated his Balloon Hoax in retaliation for an earlier hoax published in—you guessed it—the New York Sun. When the “Great Moon Hoax” appeared over a six-day period in 1835, Poe was offended, believing that some of his earlier writing about discovering life on the moon had been plagiarized by the series’ author. It turns out that the author of the hoax was—what a coincidence—Richard Adams Locke, Poe’s editor when “The Balloon-Hoax” was published.

I wondered what other coincidences I would find if I checked out the authors of the Sun’s 1914 revelation of Poe’s lost “poisonous vampire plant” manuscript, Royal Dixon and Raymond Comstock. Well, it just so happens that Dixon was born in—where else but?—Huntsville, Texas, the location of the state prison and cemetery where Poe’s manuscript was unearthed. Furthermore, Dixon and Comstock co-authored an article published in a popular periodical in October of 1914 entitled “The Folk-Lore of Plants,” Part II: “ Wicked or Irreligious Plants and Their Superstitions.” And in his book, The Human Side of Plants, also published in 1914, Dixon acknowledged “his sincere indebtedness to Mr. Raymond Comstock for encouragement in the pursuance of this work, for critical readings, and for suggestions and advice, which have contributed materially to the production of this book.” Would an article about a vampire plant appearing in a here-to-fore undiscovered Poe story have stimulated sales of his book?

In The Human Side of Plants, Dixon asserts that “We know now that plants have even minds and souls, with which to think and worship.” Are their minds and souls sometimes those of humans who have had them driven from their bodies by unscrupulous men seeking immortality, as in the story attributed to Poe? I think the following lines, written by Dixon in his chapter “Plants that Rob, Plunder, and Murder”—taken together with the rest of the circumstantial evidence I've presented—argue that Dixon and Comstock, not Poe, penned the story of the “poisonous vampire plant”:

“Yet, strangely enough, there are few of these more unscrupulous parasites which are unbeautiful to see; most of them are among the most lovely of the plant species. Their flowers, swaying far up among the honest, dull leaves of some righteous, sturdy tree, seem to be luring their less attractive neighbours out of the straight and narrow path of virtuous industry into the blossoming glory of parasitic idleness. With their gracefully twining bodies and their beautiful flowers, they are like human vampires clinging to their victims, gloating over their conquest, and shamelessly flaunting their ill-won charms into the faces of their fellow-plants.”

 
Posted By Michael Bell

“Did Poe’s Annabel Lee have a brother? Was her name really Leigh, but written ‘Lee’ by the poet to disguise her identity?

“The convict burying ground of the penitentiary at Huntsville, Texas, appears to have been a resting place for one of the fantastic creations of Edgar Allan Poe’s grotesquely morbid mind—a story that seems to bear a strange relation to the poem.”

Thus begins the New York Sun article that purports to have found a lost Poe short story. While digging in the prison cemetery, the story goes, an old oak chest, cornered with copper and “decayed, worm eaten, rusted with years of interment,” was uncovered. Almost miraculously, it “seemed to have come to light just as its inner lining was yielding to the ravages of time and decay as if to discharge its treasures now that it could no longer protect them.” Of the four papers found in the box, one “contained the faint autograph: ‘William Leigh, of Maryland,’ and the note: ‘A crazy missive from my friend E. P.’”—evidence, the article’s authors assert, that “seems to point at once to the connection between ‘E. P.’ and Edgar Allan Poe. It is rather amusing to notice the classification of the story as a ‘crazy missive.’ This was quite in accordance with the public opinion of the works of Edgar Allan Poe during his lifetime.

“How could Poe have been especially interested in William Leigh, of Maryland? His tragic death also occurred in Baltimore. There is a curious similarity between the names of Poe’s beautiful Annabel Lee and ‘E. P.’s’ friend William Leigh. Was this similarity more than coincidence? Could the Annabel Lee of the poem have really been Annabel Leigh, the sister or relative of William Leigh?  And could thus a friendship between the two men have sprung up?”

Before presenting the undamaged portion of the manuscript, the authors admit that, “Whether or not it is the child of Edgar Allan Poe’s brain must remain a mystery,” but hedge their bets by arguing that, because of “its fantastic conception” and “splendid execution, it seems that hardly another brain could have created a work so nearly in accord with the morbidly grewsome [sic] writings of Allan Poe.”

Does the story really stack up to those that we know were authored by Poe? To help answer this question, I asked a friend—an English professor who teaches Poe—what she thought of the “poisonous vampire vine.” Her reply seemed to come down on the side of hoax:  “I haven’t heard of such an item. Certainly the ‘evidence’ of it’s being Poe’s production which is cited in the accompanying article is thin. And the fact that much is summary—the giving of the elixir to the protagonist’s wife and sons especially—makes me suspicious. Poe had a tendency to include at the center of such tales a beautiful doomed woman, and this piece, in consigning the woman to exposition, misses a HUGE opportunity to trod the Poe-preferred ‘beautiful doomed’ path! The section which reads ‘Thy pride has caused thee to seek out things that men should never know’ sounds a bit ham-handed, theme-wise, but then Poe could be ham-handed.”

She suggested that I send the newspaper article to the editors of two of the leading journals devoted to Poe and his works. The very short note of the one who responded actually became an important piece in the puzzle I was beginning to assemble.