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Posted By Michael Bell

One familiar with Cole’s approach to writing his numerous county histories is lead to conclude that he must have found the narrative in some published version; suffice it to say that primary research was not Cole’s modus operandi. Another reasonable hypothesis is that the newspaper article had drawn from the same text that Cole used. At this point, of course, the existence of such a text was purely speculative. A search through various indexes to popular periodicals paid off: Appleton’s Journal for 1876, contained an article entitled, “A Century Ago in New England,” authored by Francis Gerry Fairfield. Cole’s text, published in 1888, appears to have been taken verbatim (without attribution) from Fairfield’s account of the exhumation, which follows:

In the old West Stafford graveyard the tragedy of exhuming a dead body and burning the heart and lungs was once enacted—a weird night-scene. Of a family consisting of six sisters, five had died in rapid succession of galloping consumption. The old superstition in such cases is that the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality, and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living; and they quote in evidence apocryphal instances in which exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, incased in rottening and slimy integuments, and in which, after burning these portions of the defunct, a living relative, else doomed and hastening to the grave, has suddenly and miraculously recovered. The ceremony of cremation of the vitals of the dead must be conducted at night, by a single individual, and at the open grave, in order that the result may be decisive; and most old graveyards could mention nights when they have been thus illuminated; for, no longer since than 1872, the Boston Health Board reports describe a case in which such a midnight cremation was actually performed during that year. [Francis Gerry Fairfield,  “A Century Ago in New England,” Appleton’s Journal 15 (1876:652-656)]

Research showed that Fairfield was born in Stafford, Connecticut, on 18 August 1836. Much of his article focuses on that region of Connecticut and appears to be based heavily on his own reminiscences of growing up with the stories of the older generations. Here is a sampling of what he wrote:

    Ah, days of tokens and omens and revelations! How little our more fastidious civilization comprehends of the wild, stern, and daring psychic lives, of the largeness and heroism, of the gloomy and fantastic religious enthusiasm, that were nurtured in those geometrical old houses, so few of which are left as reminders of the last century! Grand men—large and able men—a little superstitious, perhaps, but all the more picturesque and manly for it! My great-grandmother Washburn had the reputation of being the most accomplished sorceress in all that region, and old people even now tell the legend of her having turned over a heavy oaken sled, loaded four feet high with heavy timbers, by just wishing it, simply because she was offended with amiable Captain Washburn.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

The text of the Hartford Courant (1915) narrative, “Tragic Legend Of West Stafford Cemetery,” was labelled “special to the Courant.” It should seem at least vaguely familiar.

    ON THE HILL north of the village of West Stafford is an old cemetery well worth visiting. It is the burial place of many of the early settlers of the town who, following the custom of early times, selected an elevated situation on which to build their homes, and the hilltop became the seat of a thriving village. In the olden days two churches stood nearby and the county turnpike passed the place. Near at hand a tavern did a thriving business and the stage drivers changed their horses there. On training days the state militia assembled here and the place was the center of the social activities of that section of the town.

    With  the passing of years, villages sprang up in the valleys and the churches were moved away, one to West Stafford and the other to Stafford Hollow. The tavern long since closed has been torn down and a farmhouse stands on its former site. Some of the old homesteads have been burned and others have gone to decay, until the old cemetery is all that is left to remind one that once there was life here.

    A strange tale is told of a tragic scene enacted in this old cemetery many years ago. Of a family of six sisters living in the village, five had died of consumption. The sixth seemed doomed to follow the others. There was an old superstition in such cases that the vital organs of the dead still retain a flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living. Instances were cited where dead bodies had been exhumed and the vital organs burned, after which a living relative apparently about to die had suddenly and miraculously recovered. In the hope that this might prove true and bring about the recovery of the dying girl, it was determined to exhume the body of the sister last to die and perform the strange rite. The superstition held that to secure the desired results the ceremony must be conducted at night at the open grave by a single individual. No one was willing to undertake the gruesome task, but finally the lover of the sick girl volunteered to do it. He went to the graveyard in the dead of night and dug up the body. Silently he performed the weird autopsy and carried out the strange program in every detail. The story goes that the girl recovered and lived to be a very old woman.

This text provided the specific location of the cemetery (absent in Cole’s text), but it also generated additional questions: At night? Alone? In silence? Exhuming a corpse single-handedly is difficult, a fact one quickly learns when researching exhumations and reading numerous accounts of “resurrections” by body-snatchers. Additionally, there is the ailing girl’s lover finally agreeing to undertake the exhumation. These motifs certainly lend an air of folk tradition, capped off by the afflicted girl living happily ever after (or at least to a ripe old age). Of course, it would have been simple for someone to add these elements precisely for the purpose of “improving” the story. Although this text did little to move the investigation forward, it did at least identify which of West Stafford’s three cemeteries the sisters are (supposedly) interred.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

The author of “Quick Consumption” concludes his tale:


    A quarter of a century has passed since that night; and Florry’s hair is streaked with faint lines of gray. From that morning she mended rapidly. In fact, she often tells me that she woke up about sunrise, that very morning, with a strange sense of relief, as if something had ceased gnawing internally; and—strange coincidence!—it was at that very same hour that I was standing by the lurid conical crater of the old blast furnace. I had conquered the demon of quick consumption; but whether, in that fit of “hypo,” I hurled a dead heart, or a red, reeking one into the crater, I would not like to be put upon my oath. Only this I remember—there was blood, or else I fancied it, upon the white napkin in which I carried it that long mile of horror.


The place where this tale was situated—Stafford, Connecticut—led me to a familiar story. In Food for the Dead, I had concluded that an exhumation narrative from West Stafford must have occurred sometime before 1888, the year that J. R. Cole published the account in his History of Tolland County, Connecticut. [p. 499] In a family consisting of six sisters, five died in quick succession of galloping consumption. “The old superstition in such cases is that the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living,” Cole wrote. To back up their belief, residents told of “instances wherein exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, encased in rottening and slimy integuments, and in which, after burning these portions of the defunct, a living relative, else doomed and hastening to the grave, has suddenly and miraculously recovered.” To be effective, they asserted, the ceremony must be conducted at night by a single individual at the open grave. Implicit in this narrative—as we now have seen in many others—is the notion that whatever “flicker of vitality” is inhabiting the dead relatives somehow transfers itself to the last deceased. The unnamed, implicit evil seems to gravitate to the freshest corpse for its feeding, a logical proposition that explains why the alternate, and equally plausible, proposition that the first to die should be the vampire usually does not hold sway.


This case was difficult to document from the beginning. Several visits to the town’s three cemeteries failed to discover gravestones whose progression of family deaths matched Cole’s description. Lacking a surname certainly did not facilitate the investigation, which, without the intervention of some startling new evidence, appeared to have reached a dead end. Then, years later, I found a text that differed from that of Cole. In 1915 (28 March), the Hartford Courant (p. Z10) published an article entitled “Tragic Legend Of West Stafford Cemetery.” Above the article was a photograph of a cemetery with following subscript: “In This Old Cemetery The Weird Ceremony Is Said To Have Taken Place.”


In the next entry, we will examine the text of this “weird ceremony.”

 
Posted By Michael Bell

The morning after the funeral— the fourth funeral it was—poor Florry came down to breakfast pale as a ghost.
    “I saw it last night, Willie,” she said, drearily; “I saw it last night; only it was Hannah this time, and she kept beckoning to me with her long, bony finger—bony, just as it was in her coffin.”
    “Pshaw! pshaw, Florry!” I returned, laughingly. “It was mere ‘hypo’—you’re getting very nervous.”
    “‘Hypo’ or not, I saw it, just as Hannah saw poor Hatty; just as Hetty saw mother;” and, in one week from that day, Florry, now Mrs. Merrick—for I had insisted upon our immediate marriage, with a strange pertinacity—sank down upon the same bed, so tired.
    “So tired!” she gasped, wearily; and I knew that Dr. Bloupil’s rapid consumption had just two weeks more to gnaw at her vitals. Even the grouty old doctor shook his head more sadly than was his wont.
    “No use,” muttered he, monosyllabically. “Beyond human skill already.”
     It was a week after Dr. Bloupil’s last visit. I had scarcely slept for at least four days, and at last sank into a profound slumber. I dreamed strangely, weirdly, luridly. In my dream I was digging—digging for something in the old graveyard; and as I dug, my eye caught the inscription on a white tombstone, standing effectually in the moonlight. It was: “Hannah Calhoun—born, April 17, 1831; died, December 21, 1851; aged 20 years, 8 months and 4 days.” I woke up in a cold perspiration. Florry was sleeping heavily; but as, so wan and wasted she looked by candlelight! Her hand lay on the white counterpane, like the mere shadow of a hand. It was so thin and filmy, that it seemed as if I could see through it, into the white counterpane beneath. I got up softly, and in less than an hour was digging furiously, with bar and pickax and spade, in the old graveyard, exactly where I had found myself digging in my dream. I went there almost like one in a trance. It was my feet that went on their own instinct. I simply went with them. Hours—hours in that white moonlight I dug on, regardless of everything, save the one mad whim of “hypo” that possessed me. The spade struck something solid. I knew it must be Hannah’s coffin, and worked on nervously, furiously. I tugged at the coffin; my strength seemed almost superhuman. It yielded, and I dragged it to the surface of the ground, and pried it open with the sharp corner of the spade. She lay there in the white moonlight—the dead Hannah—and a horrible scent of rottenness in my nostrils nauseated me. The corpse crumbled—crumbled as I began to remove the white grave-clothes, reeking with horrible mildew. But I found it at last. It was—or so I fancied—a red, warm, human heart, lounging prone upon the bare, fleshless spinal column in the middle of the coffin; and I laughed a wild, nervous, goblin laugh, as I lifted it, still red and warm, and, I fancied, reeking, from the carrion which was its envelope. Hours—hours in that white moonlight I worked on; and the blood-red morning was in the east when, having replaced coffin and covering, I left the little graveyard at the back of the village, with a horrible something done up carefully in a white napkin. I stole into the village—nobody was yet up—and into the lurid, terrible crater of the old blast furnace I hurled, as if mad, the red, warm, beating burden of a human heart.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

“A sort of rapid consumption, I’d have to call it, if I called it anything,” continued the doctor. “I’m no surgeon, or I should insist upon having a post-mortem.”

    A third funeral; and Hetty Calhoun was buried in the little cemetery just out of the village, where all the village fathers and mothers slumbered—undisturbed by the busy tramp of the civilization of the century which respects not even graves, and runs railroads through graveyards—and seemed likely so to slumber for centuries at least. Poor Hetty! I saw her in her coffin. She was absolutely wasted to skin and bones, as if some horrible something had eaten away, buzzard-like, every ounce of flesh from that grinning anatomy—as if, in fact, some horrible vampire had sucked the arteries of vitality dry, leaving of her nothing but a mere withered anatomical framework.

    I returned to my office the day after the funeral, haunted with a vague horror, and thinking, half-fancying, perhaps, that I saw the symptoms in the deadly pallor of Hannah’s face. I had had a long, quiet talk with Florry, not having, however, mentioned the legend of the Dunbar family of course; but having hinted to her, pleaded and implored that she and Hannah would leave the old house on the hill, at least for a few days. Florry would have consented; but Hannah shook her head mournfully.

    “I wouldn’t like to leave the old homestead just now,” she negatived, with a shake of the head. “Besides, I dreamed of seeing poor dead Hetty last night, and she begged me, oh, so piteously, not to. It was just so with Hetty, the very night after mother died. She dreamed she saw mother.”

    Florry and I looked up with sudden apprehension. Hannah had the old wearied-out look on her face I had seen on Hetty’s not six days before—only it was yet scarcely developed; and there was a vague, far-off look in her eyes. The worm of ephemera—the demon of quick consumption was, I fancied, already gnawing internally; and, more than this, I was sure that she knew or expected it. Dr. Bloupil’s simple prescription was tonics. He might as well have prescribed tonics for a corpse; in about three weeks—exactly three weeks, as I remember it—Hannah was dead. It was the old, old story: took to her bed, and wasted, wasted, wasted away to nothing, so that you could almost see the process. It was a disease that really had no symptoms, except that the patient wasted away without apparent cause. No hetic fever, no hacking cough, no tubercular disease—nothing upon which or to which to tie the thread of a rational diagnosis. Only a deadly wasting away, and a funeral.

    Poor Florry, she was frantic with grief; and with that grief was mingled a certain sense of superstitious awe and terror. From the day of Hannah’s funeral I did not leave the old house for six hours at once.