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Posted By Michael Bell

The tale, “Quick Consumption,” continues:

    “How is she, doctor!” I asked, expectantly. “And what can be the matter? Grief, I suppose—the old lady was very fond of her husband.” Dr. Bloupil shook his head ominously. Poor man! as Mr. Dickens would say; it was all that could be done under the circumstances, and he did it well. An odor of drugs exhaled from the person of the Galen of the little town, as he shook himself, like a great shaggy dog, and sat down.

    “Hopeless case, I’m afraid,” grumbled the oracular Bloupil. “Seems to be something like a rapid consumption.” Dr. Bloupil picked up his well-worn saddlebags, and went out. For once, he had guessed right. In less than two weeks from that time, Mrs. Calhoun was dead and buried. I remember the exact date when word was brought into my little office that Mrs. Calhoun was dead. It was October 31st, 1851.

    “Exactly three weeks,” I muttered to myself as I counted up the days. A vague terror, as I remembered the legend of the Dunbar family, made my knees shake with apprehension for—for—Florence.

    The funeral was over, and the three lonesome girls moped and moaned in the old house on the hill. Hetty had been the one to take care of her mother, and was the more wearied-out-looking of the three. As to Hannah and Florry, they were still strong and rosy and hale.

    “I’m so tired—so tired!” moaned pallid Hetty—it had been two weeks since the death of her mother—“I’ll just lie down on the bed in the old bedroom, and rest.” Poor Hetty, she did lie down, but she never got up again. She simply wasted, wasted, wasted away, until there was nothing left for vitality to feed upon; and then the candle of vitality flickered and flickered in its poor, pale socket, and finally went out. Poor Hetty, she wasted and wasted—so fast you could almost see her waste—for a whole week; and then she died. In the press of business, I had not been up there at the old house on the hill for four days.The date I remember as distinctly as though it had been yesterday: it was November 20th, 1851, when word was left at my office that Hetty was dead. Hetty Calhoun dead—it was not two months before that she was the happiest and most girlish of all the little party at the September picnic. I ran into the office of Dr. Bloupil, breathlessly. I think I looked my questions, instead of asking them.

    “Yes, yes!” grunted old Bloupil, “very strange—very—same symptoms in mother and daughter. Simply a wasting, wasting, wasting away; and no help for it. I tell you, Mr. Merrick,” blurted the doctor, suddenly, “drugs have had no more effect than water on those two women; and I’ve given them both drugs enough to have stocked the medical box of a regiment.

Posted By Michael Bell

The tale of “Quick Consumption” continues:

    There is a superstition connected with it. It is one of those weird old superstitions with which the household literature of New England abounds. It is, that the heart of the dead, dying not, by some strange rapport, feeds upon the vitality of the living—the living being thus actually eaten up of the dead; and weird stories are afloat of the dead having been taken up, and there having been found, still red and warm, in the midst of ghastly rottenness, the hearts of some who have died of quick consumption. Whole families have gone of it, one after another, the dead gnawing and feeding upon the vitality of the living, until, as the last dropped into the grave, the red, warm heart in the coffined corpse, having no living relative upon the vitality of whom to feed, has wasted also and died—died at last in its coffin for want of something upon which to prey.

    They were three of the prettiest girls in Stafford—Hetty and Hannah and Florence Calhoun—and would have been termed twins, but that they had been three at a birth instead of two. I was engaged to Florence, and the day had been set for the wedding. I had just hung out my shingle, “W. F. MERRICK, ATTORNEY AND COUNSELOR-AT-LAW,” upon the corner of a little cottage-like building in the village, and was accounted a promising young lawyer. I remember distinctly the exact dimensions and anatomy of that shingle. It had words in gold lettering upon a black ground, a foot and a half long by one-third that in width, bordered with a gold edging. Of course, I intended to marry Florence, and settle down, as the phrase is, in the little, old, caterpillar-going town. I might possibly be sent to the State Senate, Connecticut, in the course of a few years; and this latter, I may add, was the limit and Ultima Thule of my ambition.

    The old gentleman, Mr. Calhoun—he was an awkward stick, and always walked as if he had just bought a new pair of legs and hadn’t had time to get used to them—dropped suddenly, and in a few days was dead—dropped into the grave without apparent reason why, for he was a hale old man of fifty—and left the old farm to his heirs and Mrs. Calhoun. I remember the date of the old man’s death distinctly. It was October 10th, 1843—over twenty-eight years since. Mrs. Calhoun, so the neighbors said, had been overtasked in taking care of the old gentleman. But rest seemed to benefit her health very little, if at all. I saw her ten days after Mr. Calhoun’s death, and she was even more emaciated and weary-looking than ever.

    The doctor was in daily attendance, and happened to be at the house when I called.

Posted By Michael Bell

Stylometry is a formal linguistic analysis of distinctive recurrent patterns of language preferences, such as word choices, sentence structure, syntax, punctuation, and turns of expression. It has been applied to notable works and authors, from the Bible and Shakespeare to the Federalist Papers. As far as I know, no one has yet analyzed the work of Francis Gerry Fairfield. Should that day arrive, I am certain that the following narrative, entitled “Quick Consumption: An Every-Day Story of New England,” which appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of 1871, will be attributed to him:

    I remember hearing my father speak of the matter on one occasion—and he did it with tears in his eyes—as to how, in the case of a family named Dunbar, living in a little, squatty, unpainted farmhouse, not a mile and a half from the old homestead, the legend of the quick consumption had been fulfilled. The family consisted of William Dunbar—“Old Dunbar,” as he was familiarly called in the neighborhood—a little, limping, bent-double, dried-up old man; Mrs. Dunbar, quite as desiccated and anatomical as the old gentleman himself; and six boys, apparently healthy, robust young men, of ages running from eighteen to thirty. The old gentleman died first; and, in exactly three weeks after, the neighbors were called to attend the funeral of the old lady. Exactly three weeks! For one member of a family to die exactly three weeks after another is one of the coincidences of quick consumption. It means simply that the whole family is fated. It means doom.

They all died—those Dunbar boys—died, one after another, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest; and strangely enough, it happened that it was exactly three weeks to a day from funeral to funeral, until the last one of the Dunbar family had been put under ground. And then the old farmhouse waxed grayer and grayer, and wasted and wasted, and seemed to be going off of quick consumption, too; and strange, flickering lights were seen by night at the weird windows—so the neighbors said—and nobody, for his soul, dared to pass the gray old building after dark; and it was inhabited by bats and by cobwebs and by hooting owls, and by mildew and by mold and by flitting apparitions, and by soundless feet that walked on its moldering floors, and by goblin faces that looked out from its weird, curtainless windows; and over all brooded, bat-like and terrible, the demon of quick consumption. The old building has fallen to pieces since; and even the cellar has been filled up; and rank and tall waves the grass where once stood the gray farmhouse of the Dunbar family. Its blank, odd, eye-like windows, with the goblin faces in them, have ceased to stare into the night.

    They all died, too, of the same disease, the one just three weeks to a day after the other—died of the visitation of that terrible demon, which nobody in the whole town of Stafford ever mentions without shuddering—died of quick consumption.

Posted By Michael Bell

Dr. Metcalf apparently confirmed Stetson’s conclusion that vampire exhumations were not extraordinary in Exeter and surrounding communities: “Dr —— declares the superstition to be prevalent in all the isolated districts of southern Rhode Island, and that many instances of its survival can be found in the large centers of population. In the village now being considered [i.e., Exeter] known exhumations have been made in five families, in the village previously named [i.e., South Kingstown] in three families, and in two adjoining villages in two families.”

Stetson seems almost prescient when he concludes that, “It does not by any means absolutely follow that this barbarous superstition has a stronger hold in Rhode Island than in any other part of the country. Peculiar conditions have caused its manifestation and survival there, and similar ones are likely to produce it elsewhere.” [p. 10]

The educational and professional background of George Rochford Stetson (1833-1923) is elusive. He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on November 28, 1833. By the time he was forty-one years of age, he had accumulated enough wealth as a leather merchant in Boston that he was able to retire. He and his wife began traveling, eventually relocating to Washington, D. C. Freed from the constraints of the business world, Stetson pursued his interests in literary and scientific topics, especially anthropology. His publications disclose an overriding concern with the intersection of race, intelligence, and education. He has been labeled a eugenicist, a view that was not extreme in the late nineteenth century; for many intellectuals, it was a natural and practical application of evolutionary theory: both the human species and culture could move forward through selective breeding, a view that seemed to dovetail logically with the then current anthropological theory of cultural evolution. The meaning that Stetson drew from New England’s vampire tradition is apparent against this background: “It is an extraordinary instance of a barbaric superstition outcropping in and coexisting with a high general culture, . . . and which is not so uncommon, if rarely so extremely aggravated, crude, and painful.” [p. 7] In Stetson’s view, civilization had not fulfilled its promise, and the vampire tradition was yet another “illustration of the remarkable tenacity and continuity of a superstition through centuries of intellectual progress from a lower to a higher culture, and of the impotency of the latter to entirely eradicate from itself the traditional beliefs, customs, habits, observances, and impressions of the former.” [p. 10] A death notice published by the Anthropological Society of Washington indicated that George Stetson died on May 31, 1923.

Posted By Michael Bell

Stetson writes:

In the same village resides Mr ——, an intelligent man, by trade a mason, who is a living witness of the superstition and of the efficacy of the treatment of the dead which it prescribes. He informed me that he had lost two brothers by consumption. Upon the attack of the second brother his father was advised by Mr ——, the head of the family before mentioned, to take up the first body and burn its heart, but the brother attacked objected to the sacrilege and in consequence subsequently died. When he was attacked by the disease in his turn, ——’s advice prevailed, and the body of the brother last dead was accordingly exhumed, and, “living” blood being found in the heart and in circulation, it was cremated, and the sufferer began immediately to mend and stood before me a hale, hearty, and vigorous man of fifty years. When questioned as to his understanding of the miraculous influence, he could suggest nothing and did not recognize the superstition even by name. He remembered that the doctors did not believe in its efficacy, but he and many others did. His father saw the brother’s body and the arterial blood. [pp. 8-9]

The other incident described by Stetson undoubtedly is that of Mercy Brown, which appeared in newspapers in March of 1892, a little more than three years prior to Stetson’s visit to the community. While Stetson’s time frame of “within two years” is a bit off, other corresponding details help cement the connection; these include a doctor at the scene, Harold Metcalf (“who made the autopsy”), the reported fact that Mercy’s father, George, initially objected to the exhumation but finally consented in the face of pressure from his extended family and neighbors, and the subsequent death of another family member (Mercy’s brother, Edwin):

At ——, a small isolated village of scattered houses in a farming population, distant fifteen or twenty miles from Newport and eight or ten from Stuart’s birthplace, there have been made within fifty years a half dozen or more exhumations. The most recent was made within two years, in the family of ——. The mother and four children had already succumbed to consumption, and the child most recently deceased (within six months) was, in obedience to the superstition, exhumed and the heart burned. Dr ——, who made the autopsy, stated that he found the body in the usual condition after an interment of that length of time. I learned that others of the family have since died, and one is now very low with the dreaded disease. The doctor remarked that he had consented to the autopsy only after the pressing solicitation of the surviving children, who were patients of his, the father at first objecting, but finally, under continued pressure, yielding.