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Posted By Michael Bell

On September 3, 1810, Enoch Hayes Place, a twenty-four year old Freewill Baptist Minister, set out for Vermont from southeastern New Hampshire to preach the word of the Lord. On that same day, he began a daily journal that he would keep for fifty-five years. Place had begun preaching three years earlier, a mere month after being converted, having been caught up in the sweeping religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. A farmer, teacher, and strong advocate for education and the anti-slavery and temperance movements, Place remained, for most of his life, a minister in and around Strafford, New Hampshire.

Less than two days into his journey to spread the gospel, Place witnessed a “melincolly sight . . . as I never Saw before,” as he recorded in his journal. In his entry for September 4th, he writes about visiting, with Parson Georges, a brother Dennitts who was down with consumption. He was asked by Esquire Hodgdon and others to “attend the takeing up the remains of Janey D. Denitt, who had been dead over two years, (she died with the Consumption AE 21. She was the daughter of the beforementioned Sick brother—The people had a desire to see if any thing had grown upon her Stomach—Accordingly I attended. this morning wednesday Sep 5th a little after the breake of day with Br George, and a number of the neighbors. They opened the grave and it was a Solemn Sight indeed. A young Brother by the name of Adams examined the mouldy Specticle, but found nothing as they Supposed they Should. . . .There was but a little left except bones and part of the Vitals.”

I was happy to see that Reverend Place’s description of the exhumation included the actual names of the people involved. I thought this trail might not be the dead end that so many others had been. When I set about researching Janey Denitt’s exhumation, I had no idea that I would still be following this trail ten years later.

Posted By Michael Bell

Lt. Spaulding, a veteran of the French and Indian War, settled in Dummerston in 1772. This farmer, carpenter and trader (selling, among other items, sugar, nutmeg, rum, and an occasional “pot of syder”) became the town’s first representative to the state legislature. At this time, families were streaming into Vermont to settle on land that cost next to nothing. But property disputes, with claims and counter claims, were still raging when the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington on April 19, 1775. Were those really the first shots? An early history of the town of Dummerston reported that “Lt. Spaulding was the first man here, to start with his gun for the fight at Westminster, Mar. 13, 1775. He was knocked down and wounded in that skirmish.”

At Westminster, just north of Dummerston, a sheriff’s posse fired on a mob of farmers who were trying to stop the court in that town from doing business. The farmers, many of whom were indebted, believed that the courts were allied with wealthy speculators who were trying to divest them of their land. Although Vermont’s “Westminster Massacre” preceded Lexington by more than a month, it didn’t involve British soldiers per se (though the posse has been characterized as “officers of the crown”).

So, Spaulding, already a war veteran, jumped into the American War for Independence as early as anyone. He fought at the battle of Bennington, close enough to his home that his wife could hear the sounds of battle. It was a stinging defeat for the British, most of whom were either killed or captured. The previous year, Spaulding had been wounded in the thigh at the battle of White Plains. The musket ball “remained in his leg as long as he lived; and was troublesome at times.”

For his service in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, Lt. Spaulding received a grant of land “lying west of Lake Champlain in New York state,” which obviously he was never able to occupy. I noted the irony that a man, though wounded several times, survived terrible battles fighting Indian, French, British and Hessian soldiers, but finally succumbed, in 1788, to a microscopic organism.

Posted By Michael Bell

Although they seemed to be vigorous and healthy, within a span of sixteen years nine members of  Leonard Spaulding’s family, including the father, died of consumption. The deaths began with Mary, aged 20, in 1782, continued on a regular basis through the father’s death in 1788, and culminated with the death of the last remaining son, twenty-seven year old Josiah, in December of 1798.

We pick up the story of what happened to the Spaulding family of Dummerston, Vermont in the following account from a published history of the town: “Among the superstitions of those days, we find it was said that a vine or root of some kind grew from coffin to coffin, of those of one family, who died of consumption, and were buried side by side; and when the growing vine had reached the coffin of the last one buried, another one of the family would die; the only way to destroy the influence or effect, was to break the vine; take up the body of the last one buried and burn the vitals, which would be an effectual remedy: Accordingly, the body of the last one buried was dug up and the vitals taken out and burned, and the daughter, it is affirmed, got well and lived many years.”

Looking at the sequence of deaths in the family, it appears that the exhumed body belonged to either Leonard, Jr. (the sixth to die, in 1792) or John (the seventh, who followed his twin brother, Timothy, to the grave in 1793). Apparently the remaining three daughters lived well into maturity.

If the Spaulding family had allowed the vine to enter another grave to infect yet another soul, the curse would have been prolonged, opening the door to an endless chain of death. While I cannot know what the surviving Spauldings were thinking when the vine was cut, nor where they might have learned of the ritual, I can view their act against a background that links them to other, perhaps ancestral, traditions.

Posted By Michael Bell

After a couple of months, the production team had worked up an itinerary and scheduled locations. Over the course of three days in mid-May and a follow-up day in June, we were to shoot on location at Willington, Connecticut—in the town hall, library and old cemetery—and also in Rhode Island at the graves of Mercy Brown in Exeter and Simon Whipple Aldrich in North Smithfield. It felt great to be back on the vampire trail after a long break!

Our search in the old cemetery for unmarked graves that could be those of Isaac Johnson’s family, using electro-magnetic imaging, was less successful than our research at the town hall. Although I still haven’t located the graves of the Johnson family, I was able to document their actual existence. According to town records, Isaac Johnson married Elizabeth Beal on July 15, 1756. They had eight children, and two of them match the details provided in Moses Holmes’s letter: Amos died on July 15, 1782 (at the age of 21 years and nine months), one year and eleven months before the exhumations; Elizabeth died on May 18, 1783 (at the age of 18 years and eleven months), one year prior to being exhumed. According to the 1790 census, the Isaac Johnson household included two free white males aged sixteen and older, and seventeen “all other free persons.” Besides his immediate family, Isaac had seventeen other people in the household! No one else in the Willington census had even one! Who were all of these people and what were they doing?

On December 23, 1799, “In the raising of heavy timbers of the new church, Mr. Johnson was killed outright and blood was on the underpinning for a third of a century. Deacon Holt was broken down to the space of three inches in his middle, so he said, and never enjoyed good health again, though he lived to ‘a good old age.’” Isaac’s blood being visible for a generation incorporates the motif known to folklorists as “the ineradicable bloodstain after bloody tragedy” (motif E422., if you’re taking notes). One wonders if this “bloody tragedy” was seen as divine retribution for what some in the community might have viewed as Isaac’s a sacrilegious act fifteen years earlier.

Posted By Michael Bell

In 1784, Moses Holmes, the Town Clerk of Willington, Connecticut wrote a letter to a local newspaper complaining about a foreign “quack doctor” who was telling people in town that he could cure consumption. The procedures that he was advocating were “to have the bodies of such as had died to be dug up, and further . . . that out of the breast or vitals might be found a sprout or vine fresh and growing, which, together with the remains of the vitals, being consumed in the fire, would be an effectual cure to the same family.” The doctor apparently convinced a man named Isaac Johnson to exhume the bodies of two of his children—“one had been buried one year and eleven months, the other one year.” Holmes observed, “a third of the same family then sick.” Holmes, an eyewitness to the event, stated that two doctors—doctors Grant and West presumably were “legitimate” doctors—were on the scene to examine the bodies; upon doing so, “not the least discovery could be made.”  Holmes wrote that “under the coffin was sundry small sprouts about one inch in length, then fresh, but most likely was the produce of sorrel seeds which fell under the coffin when put in the earth.” In other words, he was discounting the possibility that anything weird was going on in the graves. Holmes closed his letter by urging that “the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an impostor.”

I first became aware of this incident in June of 2006 when a genealogist and local historian e-mailed me that he had read and enjoyed Food for the Dead. He wrote that he was a librarian at a university in Texas and that my book had prompted him to use his access to numerous databases of primary sources to look for other vampire incidents. He wrote, “I have done a bit of researching in those sources, and there appears to be material you had not seen when you wrote your book.” Over the next several days, he sent references to about a dozen new cases in addition of a couple of updates for old ones. I was absolutely astonished! And grateful, of course.

I set about researching the new cases. I hadn’t gotten too far with the Willington case, when, in March of 2008, the perfect opportunity for field investigation presented itself. A New York-based television producer contacted me about a History Channel show called MonsterQuest. “I’m looking for real-life cases/investigations (unsolved or otherwise) in which a crime aroused suspicions of vampire-involvement that was substantiated (to some degree) by actual physical evidence,” he wrote. “Historical or recent cases will work (domestic or abroad) as long as some physical evidence (even the tiniest bit) exists to back the claims made.” So it was that Connecticut State Archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, and I were to be reunited in front of the cameras.