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Posted By Michael Bell

A printed version of a tale that the authors maintain is a legend circulating in Bradley County links the staked, “petrified” woman to a “vampire chair.” The narrative begins with a discussion of a chair-making tradition in Eastern Tennessee, focusing, in particular, on the “mule-ear” chairs made by brothers Eli and Jacob Odom during the early 1800s. Their chairs became so renowned for durability that, by 1840, they lined the long front porches of resort hotels and were being sold to wealthy homeowners in Chattanooga.

One of the chairs found its way into the small cabin of a woman who lived on a ridge above the Hiwassee River, near Charleston, Tennessee. “This woman was nobody’s sweet little old lady,” the authors write, because she “was a vampire.” The authors offer no explanation for labeling her a vampire, and then relate that “there is no record of her exploits” or why her neighbors killed her. If she was, indeed, regarded as a vampire, I think it’s obvious why she might have been killed.

The piece of wood that had been used to stake the woman’s heart was “a cradle-lathed post, a bottom leg support, from one of the chairs that had been in the woman’s cabin. . . . The chair had been crafted by brothers Eli and Jacob from Shell Creek.” While the woman’s cabin feel into disrepair, the prized chair was repaired and began a long round of circulating. No one wanted to keep it long, for anyone who sits in the chair “is held fast for at time, against one’s will, until a scratch appears on a forearm or bare leg, and blood drips to the floor. Only after a drop of blood stains the floor or the ground under the chair, is the occupant capable of fleeing from the chair.” People are afraid to destroy the chair, lest they bring down a curse upon themselves. So, the vampire chair continues to circulate.

What should we make of this animated chair? While researching the possible background to the American vampire tradition, I found two stories from Wales (published in 1909) about a vampire chair (there is also a vampire bed in this collection). As far as I know, there are no other versions of this story, or even of inanimate objects being inhabited by—or actually being, in themselves—vampires. So, I wonder how this motif might have turned up in Bradley County, Tennessee. Was there any significant Welsh immigration to the area?

If anyone in Eastern Tennessee (or anywhere else, for that matter) can shed some light on any aspect of this fascinating narrative, I would love to hear from you.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

Shortly before World War I, just east of Charleston, Tennessee, a work crew widening the road with picks and shovels made a strange discovery—an old, unmarked grave containing the “petrified” remains of an adult woman with a wooden stake, also “petrified,” driven through her heart. Staking a corpse, of course, is the stereotypical method for dispatching a vampire. But I have never encountered a case of staking a suspected vampire in America—and the number of vampire incidents I’ve documented to date is about sixty. These cases are invariably associated with epidemics of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis). The procedures for dealing with suspected corpses are part of folklore, so they vary from community to community. But the most common procedure, after exhuming corpses and identifying the vampire, is cutting out the heart and burning it to ashes. Sometimes the person who is being victimized by the vampire (that is, dying of consumption) is instructed to ingest the ashes.

I’m wondering if this trail might lead to at least two dramatic conclusions:

1. What has appeared to be a vampire tradition found in New England and its cultural extensions, also was practiced well to the south, in Appalachia;

2. Driving a wooden stake through the heart of a suspected vampire—a procedure for vanquishing a vampire found in Eastern Europe (not to mention novels and films)— actually was employed in America, too.

Before jumping to conclusions about vampires, however, I need to point out that staking does make an appearance—sparse, to be sure—in other contexts of America’s historical record. In 1728, Massachusetts passed a law stipulating that anyone killed in a duel “shall not be allowed Christian burial,” but should be buried without a coffin, “with a stake drove through the Body.” An earlier law (seventeenth century) in Massachusetts stipulated that suicides were to be denied burial in Christian ground; instead, they were to be “Buried in some Common High-way . . . and a Cart-load of Stones laid upon the Grave.” I found English precedent for this law, which stipulates that both suicides and “persons who fell in duels” shall be buried at the crossroads and staked.

In 1688, in Massachusetts, an Indian servant hung himself and was ordered to be buried “by the Highway with a Stake through his Grave.” In 1796, in New York, a mariner who was about to be tried for murder hung himself and was “sentenced to be buried in the High Way at the upper End of the Bowry Lane, with a Stake stuck through his Body."

So, perhaps the “petrified” woman actually was a suicide. I can’t imagine a woman duelling, but I haven’t researched that possibility yet.The stipulation that suicides be buried near a highway or at the crossroads also might explain her corpse being found in close proximity to the road that was being widened.

Researching the vague reference to this event has, of course, uncovered additional, but complicating, aspects. I’ll set the stage for my next entry by telling you that an associated narrative includes some rather startling details, including a “vampire chair.”

 
Posted By Michael Bell

I’ve been researching—and re-searching—the vampire incidents I’ve found at a furious pace in a last-ditch effort to put some sort of time limit on this process. My addiction to research has given me some insight into what it must be like to have a gambling addiction. I know the odds of finding a “new” vampire incident are small, but my mind tells me that if I can just sort through these 15,000 newspaper articles that contain certain key words, I might find two or three additional exhumations. The thrill of finding even one drives me to endure a tedium that would send a normal person over the edge. (I know what you may be thinking, and we’re not going there.)

To date, that total number of vampire exhumations I’ve found is around sixty, still mostly in New England and its cultural extensions, such as Upstate New York. One case outside of this area continues to elude me. Two brothers from a small town in Pennsylvania were arrested for exhuming the body of one brother’s boss. That brother was ill with consumption. His boss had died of consumption. So the obvious conclusion was that the boss was responsible for the illness. (How bad is it when your boss continues to ruin your life even when he’s dead? The worst of all possible worlds.) The brothers were never prosecuted, because of “allowances being made for their ignorance. In spite of the burning of the boss’ heart, the consumptive . . . , although he professed at first to feel perfectly well, died not long afterward.”

Of course, as is the case more often than not, there were no names, or even dates, in the reference I found. I sent a copy of the text of the incident to the county’s historian, writing that I had several questions I was hoping he might be able to answer or, if not, I hoped he may be able to direct me to someone in the community who could shed some light on this interesting narrative. I asked if he was familiar with this story, if there were archives of a local newspaper where this account might have appeared, and if there would there be arrest records kept from that era (sometime in the 1800s).

His response was not encouraging. After telling me that he hadn’t heard anything about this incident, he wrote: “There probably is no name connected to [the] event is there? The civil and criminal court cases all go back to 1813. The problem would be like hunting a needle in a haystack without a name. Was there any name even a first one mentioned or name of the boss?” No. No.

Ha! Hunting a needle in a haystack, as if I’m not familiar with that process. Actually, my thinking about that is, with the right technology, one could find a needle in a haystack. A powerful electromagnet, for example, could facilitate the hunt; it might take only days—perhaps just hours—to find the needle. That sums up how I see the recent electronic, digital technology helping me do this research.

As I write in the new preface to Food for the Dead, “Vampire hunters of centuries past visited morgues and cemeteries in search of their undead prey.  The morgues I search are old newspaper archives and long-forgotten local histories, where the stories of vampires whose bodies were exhumed and examined lie waiting to be rediscovered. My task is to find them and bring them back to life. Since the first copies of Food for the Dead became available in 2001, the Internet has grown into a web of communication whose pervasive scope was unimaginable a mere decade ago.  Access to the enormous amount of data now available online has allowed my research to expand wider, deeper and faster than was possible when I was writing the first edition.”

Of course, all of this technology only serves to feed my addiction.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

No, I haven’t been dead, so I am not a revenant. I am returning to this blog after a year’s hiatus, during which I moved from Rhode Island to Texas (for winters), wrote a new preface for a new edition of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires—which is being published by Wesleyan University Press (WUP) and will be available before Halloween—, and signed a contract with WUP to write a second book on America’s vampires. So, The Vampire’s Grasp: America’s Restless Dead, the focal point of this blog, is scheduled for release in late 2012.

Not blogging for those months gave me time to reflect on the purpose of this blog. I concluded that I was doing what people typically do when, enmeshed in an established medium, they find themselves in a new one: they continue doing what they always did in the old medium. The early days of television, for example, were simply a continuation of radio programs, with sight added to sound. It took some time for TV to be understood as more than an extension of radio; to realize that there had been a paradigm shift and that the old exemplars simply were unable to fill the space offered by the new medium. A blog is not a book: a book is a product; blogging is a process.

The bottom line is that I will not be posting excerpts from the book I am writing. I will be blogging about the process of writing the book, which entails doing research, organizing (and reorganizing) material, thinking out loud, asking questions, interpreting, making guesses, evaluating those guesses, trying to construct meaningful contexts.

I am inviting you to become part of this process.

If all of this seems too abstract, don’t worry. We will still be talking about vampires.