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Posted By Michael Bell

The description of the “old superstition” in the anonymous “Quick Consumption” (1871) is mirrored five years later in Fairfield’s “A Century Ago” (1876): “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.” Both texts have the exhumation taking place at night by a single individual, which, in the New England tradition, is a remarkably rare occurrence—not to mention a nearly impossible task.

Has forensic linguistics identified the parent of this orphan text, “Quick Consumption”? Regardless of authorship, how do we know that the narrative is fiction? Several features argue that the event did not happen as described. First, none of the named individuals can be found in the records for the town of Stafford: no contemporary birth or death record, federal census entry, or gravestone records the existence of any person identified in the narrative. Second, the patterning of the narrative motifs, seamlessly moving the action forward in regular and predictable steps, belies a sense of reality. Each person dying at three-week intervals, for example, seems just too perfect. The happy ending is just icing on the cake.

Like the events that Fairfield wrote about in the West Stafford cemetery, his own story was not without tragedy. The headlines of his obituary, in the form of a letter penned by a longtime associate at the New York Times, summarized Fairfield’s personal misfortune: “Some of the Many Tragedies of Journalism. Josephine and Francis Gerry Fairfield. Deadly Opium Leads Both to an Untimely End. Bright Writers Whose Lights Went Out Unpleasantly.” The letter related how Fairfield had graduated from college, studied theology, then earned an advanced degree in veterinary medicine. But writing was his calling, as his colleague wrote:

    In 1865 a bright-eyed, fragile-built, clean-cut young man entered journalism in this city. He was well born, well bred, and his education was along broader lines than those of most of us. He had a peculiar mind, which sought information in unusual channels. . . . No sight more common in Printing House square than Fairfield, with his cigar or pipe, a bundle of books or papers under one arm, and his little wife upon the other.

    Then, the brilliant couple began experimenting with opium. His former associate described the dimming of the once-bright lights:

    His work was as brilliant as ever, his articles, whether for magazine, weekly or daily, were as readily accepted as ever, but little by little his manner changed, and as he went so went she.

Posted By Michael Bell

Broadly, Fairfield tends towards repetition for effect, not only in an immediate context, which produces an echoing sensation that intensifies an aura he is attempting to create, but intermittently throughout his narrative, which acts like the incremental repetition of traditional balladry, serving to advance the narrative and heighten some mood. Another noticeable stylistic element is the prominence of ancient trees and old architecture, which often seem to be imbued with ghosts of the past. He begins “A Century Ago” (1876) with a lengthy description of the old houses that connect him to his past. In “Quick Consumption” (1871) he describes the Dunbar family’s habitation in a way that suggests its animate nature (note also the unrelenting repetition of the word “by”): “. . . gray old building after dark; and it was inhabited by bats and by cobwebs and by hooting owls, and by mildew and by mold and by flitting apparitions, and by soundless feet that walked on its moldering floors, and by goblin faces that looked out from its weird, curtainless windows; and over all brooded, bat-like and terrible, the demon of quick consumption” and, “Its blank, odd, eye-like windows, with the goblin faces in them, have ceased to stare into the night.”

One might guess from the passage above that the word “goblin” is highly favored by Fairfield. In his thinly-disguised autobiographical narrative of becoming a writer in New York (“Timothy Tot: A Prose Story with Poetic Passages,”1872), with flashes back to his childhood and education, Fairfield ties the animism of old trees to the imagery of goblins. “There was one gnarled old oak, in particular, west of the house, that always gave me the impression of a thinly disguised goblin, I being in constant anticipation of seeing it take goblin legs and walk off, leaving neither stump nor other vestige of having stood there.” [p. 133] Fairfield uses the word “goblin” no less than a dozen more times in this article: we have “goblin moons” and “goblin hills and woods” [p. 298], and many variations on “goblin old house” [303, 387, 388, 458, 466].

 Looking at word use and phrase patterns, one can see in his two exhumation narratives the similarities of his description of New England’s vampire tradition. In “Quick Consumption” (1871) he writes: “It is one of those weird old superstitions with which the household literature of New England abounds. It is, that the heart of the dead, dying not, by some strange rapport, feeds upon the vitality of the living—the living being thus actually eaten up of the dead; and weird stories are afloat of the dead having been taken up, and there having been found, still red and warm, in the midst of ghastly rottenness, the hearts of some who have died of quick consumption. Whole families have gone of it, one after another, the dead gnawing and feeding upon the vitality of the living, until, as the last dropped into the grave, the red, warm heart in the coffined corpse, having no living relative upon the vitality of whom to feed, has wasted also and died—died at last in its coffin for want of something upon which to prey.”

Posted By Michael Bell

Fairfield continues filling-in the supernatural folklore as he remembered it, growing up in Stafford, Connecticut:

    . . . memories of the old legend-life when my great-grandmother trotted me on her knee, sorceress though she was, and told me stories of ghosts and wizards, and of the goblins that lived down-cellar in the dark, and the strange voices that had been heard up-garret, while the flames in the huge fireplace crackled and laughed, and made flickering pictures on the wall, by way of illustrating her remarks—such memories as made me afraid of the dark when I was a boy, and caused me to shiver when the wind shook the garret-door of a night, come thronging from every nook in my brain, where they have drowsed so many years that I have deemed them utterly effaced. [pp. 653-55]

Fairfield’s career was not exactly a straight line. After graduating from Gettysburg College and then Hartwick Theological Seminary, he served as a Lutheran minister for two years. He also obtained a degree in veterinary medicine, experimented with improving the microscope, and published theories on a wide range of topics, from the origin of bacteria in the atmosphere to the writings and life of Edgar Allen Poe. After abandoning the pulpit for journalism, he published two books that received a great deal of attention: The Clubs of New York (1873) and Ten Years with Spiritual Mediums (1875).

But the work of the wide-ranging Fairfield was not universally praised. In A Primer of Criticism (1883), Eugene Lemoine Didier pronounced The Clubs of New York “the greatest piece of downright puffery we have ever had the misfortune to encounter.” [p. 37] Didier also wrote, “Mr. Fairfield cannot write simple, pure,—in a word, good English.”An article in the American Monthly Microscopical Journal (2:1, 1881:15) blasted Fairfield’s scientific endeavors with the following assessment: “We have read a number of articles from Mr. Fairfield’s pen, and we do not hesitate to assert that he is either woefully ignorant of science, or else a consummate humbug.” And, if such were possible, Fairfield’s interpretation of Poe was even less well-received. But, no matter how one assesses it, Fairfield’s writing style is readily identifiable. Reading the anonymous story entitled “Quick Consumption” (see entries #s 1-6) leaves little doubt that Fairfield was its author. While I have not applied stylometry to Fairfield’s texts, stylistic evidence (consisting of distinctive recurrent patterns of language preferences, such as word choices, sentence structure, syntax, punctuation, and turns of expression) reinforce the conclusion. Narrative elements also contribute. That both of these narratives— “A Century Ago in New England” and “Quick Consumption”—take place in Fairfield’s hometown, for example, seems beyond the realm of coincidence.