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Posted By Michael Bell

“You must be Ned’s boy,” an old man said to me once. “I knew your father. Yes, I knew your great-grandfather and all his family, and I’m going to tell you something that will surprise you.

“You probably don’t know it, but if a family is dying off of consumption, the disease goes no farther after one of the members of the family has been buried face down.

“I was at the funeral of your great-uncle John. He died of old-fashioned consumption just as other members of the family before him. I was one of several who made up our minds to stop the run of consumption in that family, so we stayed in the cemetery until the relatives had gone, then we lifted the casket from the open grave and turned it over. So your great-uncle John was buried face down, and it ended consumption in that family.”

This conversation sounds like it could have come from an episode of “Leave it to Beaver”—except for the topic, of course, which is anything but Beaverish; it’s just plain odd . I found this excerpted conversation when I was reading an article on folk medicine in an old issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The circularity of the chain of research that leads to something pertinent often amazes me. I was directed to the NEJM article by an entry in the UCLA Archive of American Folk Medicine.

This archive of thousands and thousands of records was begun by Professor Wayland D. Hand (1907-1986) in the 1940s. Hand, a long-time professor of German and Folklore at UCLA, edited the materials that eventually were published as two volumes (“Popular Beliefs and Superstitions”) of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Duke University Press, 1961, 1964). With these data as the foundation for the archive, Hand extracted information from the writings of medical practitioners dating to the late 18th century. He also obtained data from scientific journals, popular magazines, newspapers, and historical sources (diaries, travel accounts, treatises on plants and animals) over the past 200 years. More than 3,200 published works served as sources for archive holdings. Other materials came from field collections in archives at UCLA, Detroit University, Pan American University, UC Berkeley, Sacramento State, and the University of Oregon.

When I was a graduate student in the Folklore & Mythology Program at UCLA (1969-1972), I was a Research Assistant for Hand. My task was to sort stacks of 4x6" cards, placing them into pigeon holes that were organized according to disease, injury, or condition. Different therapies were filed alphabetically with each illness. As it states in the History of the Archive: “Duplicate cards were needed for purposes of cross referencing, creating nearly one million records in order to access the database of about 210,000 distinct treatments.” So, it does amaze me that my research has taken me back to an entry that I very well might have read and sorted forty years ago. If only I had remembered  this particular entry, I could have saved myself a significant amount of research time!

Now, back to the odd conversation. It appeared in one of the earliest issues of Yankee magazine. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate an archived copy of the issue. I have sent off an inquiry to the folks at Yankee and am waiting for a reply. In the meantime, does anyone out there hoard old issues of this magazine? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Posted By Michael Bell

During his investigation into the Concord exhumations, Chris Stonestreet uncovered facts not included in the newspapers. His search of the baptism registry of the Lutheran Church showed that Maggie, the older of the two exhumed daughters of General Means, was baptized three years prior to her death. Eugenia was not listed in the registry. Since she was about six months old when she died, Eugenia probably contracted the disease just before she was to be baptized.

Stonestreet’s research also indicated that, shortly after Nugent began hawking his homemade remedies, “some in the black community started whispering about people visiting the colored cemetery in the early night. Frightened, they passed along the information to the authorities, yet the reports were not taken seriously.” All of this changed, however, when “it was reported that a man and several accomplices were seen exhuming the bodies of two children in the Lutheran Church’s cemetery.”

Some observations: Nugent was buried “rather unceremoniously . . . in old field near town”—that is, outside the bounds of consecrated ground: shades of how other outcasts were treated. The state of medical “science” at that time is revealed in: “The Physicians made a post-mortem examination of his body, and were of the opinion that he died from exhaustion, not fright as has been represented.” The newspaper article that concluded “measles” probably got it right.

The following issues deserve a more in-depth discussion than I can provide in this blog:

  •   The apparent fact that Nugent began his series of exhumations in African-American cemeteries recalls the “night doctors” or “night riders” of folk tradition. In Night Riders in Black Folk History, Gladys-Marie Fry writes: “The term ‘night doctor’ (derived from the fact that victims were sought only at night) applies to both students of medicine, who supposedly stole cadavers from which to learn about body processes, and professional thieves, who sold stolen bodies—living and dead—to physicians for medical research.” Prior to the Civil War, stories of the “night riders” were used by Southern whites as a means of social control, to keep slaves from slipping away during the night. Little wonder that reports of grave-robbing in the black community “were not taken seriously” by the authorities. It was only when the graves in a white cemetery were disturbed that the community was galvanized to take action.

  •   The use of human remains for medicinal purposes is both ancient and widespread. The concept obviously underlies the vampire tradition as it was practiced in America; but there is a larger context that connects a number of other traditions, including the one that produced Dr. Nugent and his ilk. In some belief systems, including that of European witchcraft, the remains of unbaptized children have been deemed especially efficacious or miraculous. Of course, there is the larger, lurking issue of cannibalism.“Medicinal cannibalism has been documented in European medical literature since at least the first century A.D.,” wrote Beth Conklin in Consuming Grief. “Besides blood, Europeans consumed human flesh, heart, bones . . . , and other body parts and body products.” These substances were used to treat a variety of diseases, from epilepsy to arthritis.

I am actively researching these topics for my book, The Vampire’s Grasp: America’s Restless Dead (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Posted By Michael Bell

A letter to the Carolina Watchman provided details that did not appear in the first account, including the following:

“About twelve months ago a man by the name of A. L. Nugent, hailing from the neighborhood of Salem, came to this place in the capacity of a clock repairer. He seemed to be quite industrious, and seemed to understand his business. He followed this occupation very closely, until about four or five months since, when all at once he turned his attention to ‘doctoring,’ especially for Rheumatism. Emboldened by the success of his imposition, he at length entered a wider field, professing to cure all sorts of diseases, and pretending to be a skillful astronomer, &c. He also professed to be a Baptist Preacher. In fact he was an imposter and humbug.

“About a month ago, or little more, Gen. Means lost two very interesting little daughters, within a week of each other, with malignant measles, and they were interred in the Lutheran Church Yard. Some two weeks since the report began to be circulated, first among the negroes, that the graves had been robbed by this man Nugent, which was treated as an idle rumor. But the rumor continuing to spread, and gathering as it went more evidence of its being a fact, it was at last thought necessary to have the graves re-opened. This was done on last Tuesday week, and they were found empty. Both of the bodies of these lovely children, together with the coffins, were gone. The people of the village en mass, were now excited to the highest pitch; and several of our best citizens went immediately to charge this human hyena, with the outrageous desecration, and endeavor, if possible, to recover the bodies. He confessed the deed with great composure, but said he had burnt the bodies. The ashes and a portion of the bones, were found, such as pieces of the skulls, teeth &c., and small pieces of the coffin.

“Nugent, at the time, was sick in bed, having had measles, complicated with delirium tremens and Bronchitis. But for this circumstance, nothing would have restrained the excited citizens from visiting the guilty wretch with swift and even-handed justice. As it was, he was arrested by warrant from a magistrate, tried while in bed, and committed to the custody of the sheriff. On his trial, he said on oath, that a young man by the name of Jno. Baugus, a shoemaker, who had since gone to South Carolina, had taken up the first body and brought it to his room; that he, alone, had taken up the other. Several other persons, he said, had been in his room while he was cutting up (dissecting, he called it) the bodies; but none had any thing to do with it but Baugus and himself. He confessed further, that Baugus and himself had attempted to raise the body of Mr. Cannon’s negro, but daylight surprised them.

“The next day, after the trial, he died, rather unexpectedly. The Physicians made a post-mortem examination of his body, and were of the opinion that he died from exhaustion, not fright as has been represented. He was then buried, rather unceremoniously it is true, but as decently as he deserved, in an old field near town, by the deputy sheriff.

“Baugus was decoyed from South Carolina to Charlotte, and is now in jail there.”

As we will see in the next entry, Chris Stonestreet’s research corroborates much of what has been written in the newspapers. But some of the details he uncovered raise a number of provocative questions.

Posted By Michael Bell

If ingesting the ashes obtained from burning any human heart can be used to cure consumption—and, thus, the vampire/scapegoat disappears from the picture—we enter the murky waters of a commodification that ceases to be compassionate and, instead, becomes predatory.

This change in context, and meaning, is well-illustrated in the following text I found in several newspapers published a few years before the Civil War:

“Horrible Disclosures.—The Charlotte, N. C. Democrat, of the 12th inst. says: We learn that a great excitement has prevailed in the neighboring village of Concord during the past week, caused by the discovery that several children, who died recently, had been disinterred and their bodies removed.

“A quack doctor, known by the name of Nugent, applied to a man to assist him in taking up a child that had been buried a few days before.  The man made the request known, and intimated that two little girls, daughters of a very respectable gentleman residing in the vicinity, had been removed from their graves by this man Nugent for the purpose of extricating medicinal properties from their flesh and bones.

“To ascertain the truth of the rumor, the father had the graves re-opened, and found the coffins and bodies missing. Of course this created a deep sensation, and we are informed that it was determined to inflict summary punishment up Nugent; but on visiting his house he was found very sick and in a dying condition. One report says that he took poison, after learning that his operations were known to the public—and another, that he died from disease contracted from frequent handling of decomposed bodies.

“Nugent died on Wednesday last. He made a statement before death that he had exhumed about sixteen dead bodies in Concord and elsewhere, and after using them (for making medicine) he burned the flesh, coffins and everything to prevent detection. His ash pile was examined, and teeth and bones found therein.

“His theory appears to have been that a medicine could be made by boiling the liver of a human being that would cure liver complaint; and so with regard to other diseases.”

I sent a copy of the article to a friend, Chris Stonestreet, who is also a historian living in the town of Concord, North Carolina, where this event occurred. Over the next several months, Chris was able to fill in many of the blanks in this story. He even wrote an article about it for the local newspaper. Next time, we’ll take a look at this enriched context and attempt to sort through some possible meanings.

Posted By Michael Bell

“But perhaps it may be suggested  that the name witch (Angana, Hexe) had got into the story by accident; and that not a witch in our sense of the word, but a ghost from the dead, is really meant. There might be something to be said for this if there were any substantial distinction to be made between ghosts and witches and fairies. In the tales and superstitions discussed in the present volume we have found no distinction. Whether it be child-stealing, transformation, midnight meetings, possession and gift of enchanted objects, spell-binding, or whatever function, or habit, or power be predicted of one, it will be found to be common to all three. I conclude, therefore, that they are all three of the same nature.”

Those are the words of British folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland, taken from his 1891 classic study, The Science of Fairy Tales (p. 348). Had Hartland been more familiar with vampires, he might have added them into his mix, as well. I argued in Food for the Dead that Vampire lore, in New England, was a regional variant of a worldwide tradition, with particularly close ties to European practices. Once we remove Dracula’s shadow, we can see, lurking in the folkloric countryside, a host of supernatural creatures, including demoted goddesses, demons, devils, witches, hags, ghosts, vampires and werewolves. In the ever-changing landscape of this danse macabre, creatures and concepts merge and blend, divide and disperse. Ultimately, what unites these seemingly diverse folk traditions is the belief that a corpse, possibly animated by an evil spirit, is responsible for an otherwise inexplicable sequence of deaths. Reduced to its common denominator, the vampire is a classic scapegoat.

But, what about the folk medical side of vampirism? While the vampire tradition of Eastern Europe is woven into the fabric of ancient cultural systems and addresses all aspects of vampirism—from why one becomes a vampire to methods for destroying it—America’s tradition was reduced to a folk medical practice. This pragmatic tendency toward commodification—in this instance, a literal, but compassionate, “eating the other”—is exemplified in a reference I recently discovered in an old history of a small town not far from Boston, Massachusetts. “Almost, if not quite, within the memory of the present generation, in a town adjacent . . . , pills made from ashes obtained from burning a human heart have repeatedly been administered as a cure for consumption.” This extreme distillation of an ancient and complex vampire tradition seems to take the vampires, themselves, out of the picture. Will any human heart do? If so, then the scapegoat seems to have vanished and we find ourselves in a very different context. Next time, I’ll share an example from that context.