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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

No stories today (well, maybe an excerpt or two) because I need to stop telling stories and get to work. I have to make sense of all of these fascinating narratives. I’ve been poring over the sixty or so vampire incidents that I now have collected, looking for patterns and correlations in the various procedures employed in the rituals. I’ve tentatively identified four basic types of actions: 1. An inaugural action in which the ritual performers confront the corpse or corpses; 2. A diagnostic action that leads the performers to conclude that a corpse is either inert or a threat to the living; 3. A transformational action that is intended to neutralize or eliminate the threat; 4. A healing action to restore the health of those whose consumption is blamed on the threatening corpse.

The inaugural action almost invariably consists of exhuming the suspected corpse or corpses. The following excerpt from Yankee magazine is one of the few exceptions where a corpse did not need to be exhumed: “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.”

Diagnostic actions, which sometimes are bypassed,  usually entail examining the corpse for undecayed flesh or “fresh” (liquid) blood in the “vitals” (the heart, lungs and liver) or, more rarely, looking for a vine or sprouts growing from the corpse or in the coffin. Transformational actions include burning the corpse or burying it face down or burning any or all of the vitals. When a vine or sprout is involved, it is cut and then may be burned or buried, sometimes with the corpse or the vitals. When healing actions are stipulated, they prescribe inhaling or standing in the smoke of the burning corpse or ingesting the ashes from the burned vitals. In one variant, unique as far as I know,  a man wore the ashes from his deceased brother’s heart in small box suspended from a string around his neck.

Posted By Michael Bell

On the road for the next four days. Hope to avoid vampires along the way!

Posted By Michael Bell

The other vampire tale that Ruth Ann Musick included in The Telltale Lilac Bush was collected in 1957 from a Yugoslav American. Like “Footprints in the Snow,” “Draga’s Return” is a tale that was brought to West Virginia from Eastern Europe, probably no earlier than 1900. As Musick wrote in “European Folktales in West Virginia,” Midwest Folklore 6(1956):27: “Many of the stories told in West Virginia—and there are hundreds—were brought over from Europe by prospective miners in the early 1900’s” who kept alive “most of the folktales heard in their childhood, by re-telling them to their children and relatives.” Realistically, there doesn’t seem to be any possible connection between the vampire attack reported in the late 1860s and the vampire tales collected by Musick.

But one tale with vampiric overtones, which Musick collected from Carol Felosa, of Shinnston, in 1963, goes further back into West Virginia history. It was told to Felosa by a woman who learned it from her father-in-law about 1890. Here is the story of  “Old Gopher”:

“About 1890, John Sweeney, a prosperous cattle buyer and owner of one of the biggest farms in the northwestern Shinnston area, lived in a large two-story brick house in Shinnston.

“One day he heard of some fine cattle in the lower part of West Virginia for sale at a very reasonable price, and taking some money from the bank, he set out to buy them. He had told all his friends where he was going, so the whole town of Shinnston and the outlying communities knew of the proposed trip. What they did not know was the amount of money he would have with him.

“Mr. Sweeney started on his trip about the first week in March. Ordinarily, he should have been back in about two weeks or a month at the most. When he had not returned in about six weeks, his friends began to worry about him. They wrote letters to the stockyard where he was to buy the cattle. About a week later, a letter arrived at the mayor’s office in Shinnston saying that no one at the stockyard had ever seen Mr. Sweeney.

“This news shocked the whole area. What could have happened?

“On the thirtieth of April a strange occurrence was reported. Ben Ashcraft said he was driving his team of horses across a stream that went through the Sweeney place. When he got in the middle of the bridge, a black figure tried to stop his wagon. The figure jumped on the wagon as the horses fled. It told Mr. Ashcraft that it would not rest until the day that Mr. Sweeney’s murderer was drowned in the stream. It then disappeared.

“From then on, the same thing happened to every man that went over the bridge. Whenever young boys would cross this bridge, they would not be able to eat for two or three says, if they had seen “Old Gopher,” as the ghost was called.

“These were not the only mysterious things to happen. Strange things were seen at the Sweeney house. Cows would sail around the house. Old Gopher and a witch would fly about in the trees. Men would  walk in line, carrying their heads in their hands. Books would move from one table to another in the library. A man with a knife in his heart and a chain around his neck would lie in a chair screaming.No fire or even a pipe could be lighted on this property.

“Everytime anyone would attempt to set foot on the bridge, he would see Old Gopher crying in the middle of it.

“One day a man who had never been seen by anyone in the area was found drowned in the stream. Around his neck were wounds like those that might be left by a vampire. That same day the Sweeney place mysteriously burned down. The fire destroyed the entire farm, although it never so much as burned a blade of grass on neighboring farms. Old Gopher had avenged his murder as he said he would.”

Was Old Gopher an avenging vampire? A vampire-like ghost? Perhaps the ghost of Sweeney, himself?

Posted By Michael Bell

Ruth Ann Musick (1897—1974) was an America folklorist who specialized in traditions of West Virginia. She collected and published at least two vampire tales, both of which are included in her book, The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales (University of Kentucky Press, 1965). Following is “Footprints in the Snow,” collected in Grant Town, WV, in 1959:

In the quiet little village of Lutza in western Hungary lived Stefan Lutza, whose grandparents had founded the village over a hundred years before. Stefan followed the family tradition by becoming the mayor of the village that bore his name. It was the custom for the mayor to live in the big house that overlooked the village and to give shelter to all travelers that entered Lutza. But six years had passed, and no one had come to visit the mayor and his pretty young wife, Esther.

Then one winter there came a knock on the door at midnight.

The snow was still falling as Esther got out of her warm bed. “I’ll answer the door,” she told her husband. “You go and see if the guest room is in order.”

Stefan knew that he should be the one to answer the door and Esther to attend to the guest room, but he knew that she always was delighted when she met people for the first time. So, without offering a word of protest, he wrapped a heavy robe around his body and headed for the guest room.

“I’ll make him stay until the snow melts,” Esther said to herself.

She didn’t know why she knew the knocker was a man. She gave her hair an extra pat and then opened the door. Through the snow a tall, dark stranger emerged into the light of the room. The two figures stood silently for some time, and then, as if the whole thing had been agreed upon, Esther and the dark stranger departed into the falling snow.

Alarmed that she had not appeared with the guest, Stefan called out for his wife. Getting no reply, he dropped his robe on the floor and hurried down the single flight of stairs. The door was wide open and white snowflakes fell lazily on the floor. From the lamp he was holding he could see tiny footsteps leading down the winding path. Stefan followed them, walking for nearly an hour before he realized that he, too, was barefooted.

He swung the lantern around and discovered he was in the village graveyard. Frightened, he ran more feverishly than ever along the single track of footprints, until they entered one of the tombs. Even before Stefan opened the wooden casket, he knew that the tomb belonged to his family. The casket lettering read, “Piztau Lutza, 1782-1852, settled and founded the village of Lutza in 1799.” It was empty, except for shredded black rags that had once served as the clothing of his grandfather.

What happened that night Stefan could never say for sure. When he finally got back to the house, he was so tired that he decided to get some sleep and continue the search in the morning. As he lay down on the bed, he was aware of somebody breathing beside him. Grabbing the lantern, he held it close to the breathing figure. It was his wife Esther!

“What is it, Stefan? she said, sitting up. Then noticing the red feet, she said, “Where have you been?”

Had Stefan been only dreaming and imagined all this? But how did the tomb door get opened? And how did the tiny red marks get on Esther’s neck?

The figure Esther described, the one she had seen in her dreams, was that of Piztau Lutza, a man who had been dead for over a hundred years.

Posted By Michael Bell

“A young man who boards at one of our most respectable boarding houses has for some weeks past been growing weak and pale from loss of blood during the night. For some time he could not imagine the cause of the lassitude he felt every morning, but about a week ago he discovered a small puncture on his arm from which it was evident that blood had been drawn, and every morning thereafter he found a new puncture upon some fleshy portion of his body. He was mystified as to how these punctures were made, and what made them.

“For several nights he remained awake late in the night for the purpose of solving the mystery, but such was his weak condition he invariably became exhausted and fell asleep before morning, and always found a fresh puncture. He got an acquaintance to sleep with him, but becoming tired of watching he, too, fell asleep, and in the morning there was a fresh puncture upon both of them which so alarmed his acquaintance that he refused to sleep in that room again. Between the loss of blood and his anxiety to know the cause of it, the young man was nearly crazed, and he was an object of solicitude to his friends, who sympathised with him in his distress, and advised a change of scene, but such was the fascination with which he had become imbued that nothing they could say could induce him to forego his determination to remain and clear up the mystery. A few nights ago he was awoke by a stinging sensation in his arm between the elbow and the shoulder, and instantly reached his hand to the spot, but could feel nothing, and although a light was burning in the room could see nothing—The old superstition of vampires at once became fixed upon his mind, and he resolved to leave the house which he did the next morning, repairing to another part of the city. Strange to say since his change of quarters he has not been visited by the midnight blood-sucker, and is fast regaining his health. Since his story has become known, we have heard of several other persons who occupied the same room, that were visited in the same way, but they never stayed more than a few nights before they left the house, and said nothing about it for fear of injuring the reputation of the house. We have given the facts as they were related to us, and have no reason to doubt the veracity of the parties.”

I just stumbled on this vampire story last week as I was researching an unrelated incident; it appeared in a Wheeling, West Virginia, newspaper shortly after the close of the Civil War. The narrative was preceded by the following introduction: “There is an old superstition, dating back to the Greeks and Romans, that bodies of persons who die under sentence of excommunication do not decay, but devour their own flesh, and during the night leave their graves and suck the blood of living persons. The old superstition has been revived in this city under extraordinary circumstances.”

Extraordinary, indeed, because the vast majority of vampire incidents in America—those that have been reported as actual events, at least—do not follow this “classic nocturnal assault” pattern, even though this is the image that most of us conjure up when we hear the word “vampire.” This tale from West Virginia easily could have come from Eastern Europe or, even more likely, a fictional setting, such as a nineteenth-century short story or novel, a twentieth-century movie, or a contemporary TV show.

 Next: I DID come across some vampire tales in West Virginia long before I found this one. Could there be any sort of connection?