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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Beginning in the eighteenth century, distinctions among magic, religion and science became increasingly important to the American elite. Such refinements still meant little to ordinary people, for whom the borders separating medicine and magic, religion and the occult, were not well defined. Where elite, official and academic culture began to divide the world into a variety of specialties, with their corresponding specialists, the inclusive nature of folk culture persisted. But by 1892, when Mercy Brown’s heart was cut from her body and burned, several significant cultural changes had converged to doom the vampire practice in America. The rift between the official world and the folk world had widened, at least from the viewpoint of the “civilization establishment” that included scientists, scholars, businessmen, clergy, politicians and practitioners of the dominant biomedical paradigm (simply “modern medicine,” to most of us). The latter were to assume nearly exclusive claim to the title of “doctor” or “physician.” Within a span of one-hundred years, the biomedical paradigm had consolidated its authority in the realm of medicine, and its rapid and unprecedented dominance overshadowed the medical pluralism that had been the norm throughout history. The discovery and—in some instances, reluctant—acceptance of the tuberculosis bacillus as the cause of consumption spelled the end of American vampires. As we shall see, however, the practices to defend against them survived well into the twentieth century.

 Many of the actors in America’s vampire drama are, and most likely will remain, anonymous. Where sources have provided names, we can begin to put a human face on this tragedy in which communities battled against an unseen adversary that brought them almost certain death. An enlarged genealogical database for both new and existing cases reveals that many of the families directly involved in vampiric activities were  respected pillars of their communities: successful bankers, lawyers, politicians, farmers, skilled tradesmen, and even physicians and clergymen. The case of William Shepard Woodward of Chazy, New York, is a good example. In 1819, about a year and half after he died of consumption at the age of twenty-two, William’s corpse was exhumed and burned in an effort to save his sister, Maria, who “was quite feeble and threatened with the same disease.” Maria was the wife of Reverend Joel Byington, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Chazy for more than twenty-five years and also a member of Harmony Lodge No. 154, Free and Accepted Masons. Among the three attendants who carried out the ritual were brothers Seth and Chandler Graves (appropriately named, it seems), descendants of Deacon George Graves, one of the original proprietors who founded Hartford, Connecticut, in 1636, under authority of the English Crown. Deacon Graves was a “weaver in comfortable circumstances” and was twice chosen Selectman, as well as Deputy to the General Court (Assembly). Seth Graves was born in 1760 in Durham, Connecticut. After he served in the Revolutionary War, he and his wife, Elizabeth, were among the first settlers of Chazy, arriving on horseback about 1800. Eventually they owned large tracts of land there, along with a hotel and the first saw and grist mills in the town. At the first town meeting in 1804, Seth was chosen one of the two Overseers of the Poor and one of three Pound-Keepers. In 1898, an elderly resident of Chazy recalled that Graves “was a public spirited and benevolent man. He gave the lot on which the Presbyterian church now stands.”

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