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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

For our purposes, Stetson’s discussion of the New England vampire tradition is the crux of the article. “In New England the vampire superstition is unknown by its proper name,” he asserted. “It is there believed that consumption is not a physical but a spiritual disease, obsession, or visitation; that as long as the body of a dead consumptive relative has blood in its heart it is proof that an occult influence steals from it for death and is at work draining the blood of the living into the heart of the dead and causing his rapid decline.” To halt the family’s decimation, “the body is exhumed, the heart burned, and the ashes scattered.” Throughout the article, Stetson clearly is groping to explain the existence of the vampire practice in New England. He wonders: Was it a “mysterious survival,” a continuation of some previous, more primitive cultural trait? Was it the result of “occult transmission,” surreptitiously passed down in the region? Or was it a “remarkable atavism,” some sort of strange reversion to an earlier tradition? In the end, he concedes defeat: “Of the origin of this superstition in Rhode Island or in other parts of the United States we are ignorant; it is in all probability an exotic like ourselves, originating in the mythographic period of the Aryan and Semitic peoples, although legends and superstitions of a somewhat similar character may be found among the American Indians.”

Although he sees southern Rhode Island as place on the decline, his discomfort in finding vampire exhumations in “civilized” New England is palpable. Stetson settles on South County’s detachment from the mainstream establishment culture to account for the survival of the “barbarous superstition”: “Naturally, in such isolated conditions the superstitions of a much lower culture have maintained their place and are likely to keep it and perpetuate it, despite the church, the public school, and the weekly newspaper.”

Stetson indicates that he heard about exhumations being undertaken by about a dozen families in vicinity of his fieldwork. Yet, he provides narratives for only two, both of which had found their way into the popular press. His first case seems likely to be that of William Rose, which first appeared in a Providence newspaper account in 1872. Stetson’s account is a good, if not perfect, match for the family of William Rose, who was a mason residing near Saunderstown, just north of Narragansett Pier.