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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Even the faintest trace of evidence can lead to an extraordinary discovery. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but that doesn’t stop me from searching; I follow all leads as far as I can. When I hit a dead end or just become exhausted and exasperated, I put that trail on hold and go on to something else. It’s a lot like doing crossword puzzles, which I really enjoy. If you put a puzzle aside for awhile and then come back to it, sometimes the answer just pops out at you. Maybe the brain needs a break, an incubation period when it’s not focusing on the problem so that its out-of-awareness mode can work on a solution while you turn your attention to another issue.

That’s a roundabout way of admitting that I haven’t found much to go on with the vampire case from Saco, Maine. So, hoping that the few tidbits I have uncovered are ruminating deep within my brain, I’m embracing another, equally vague, incident. The following account was published in 1898 by newspaperman John Corbett in his book, The Lake Country: An Annal of Olden Days in Central New York:

“The superstition of the vampire, that horror of the grave which was supposed to harbor the dead yet derive its sustenance from the living, had one illustration at least about Seneca Lake. Down the western shore not many miles from its head, in the early years the corpse of a young woman was exhumed, and the heart and other vital parts committed to the flames. The grewsome tale comports in a remarkable manner with the general sayings in regard to vampires. Of several sisters, all in succession had wasted away, until one remained and she was ill. Though in the grave for many months, the burned portions of the body were fresh in appearance. The living sister, undoubtedly from mental relief, recovered her health after the event.”

Not much to go on, particularly since Corbett included no references whatsoever. Had he provided his source for this “grewsome tale,” I would have had a trail to follow. But, taking what I’m given, I read through the surrounding text of Corbett’s entry, giving special attention to his chapters on folklore and religion. An excerpt from the latter reminded me of why that region of New York was labeled the “burned-over district,” as one cult after another took root, flourished, and declined, only to be replaced by another.

Here’s how Corbett expressed it: “The vagaries of religious belief have had striking illustrations in Central New York, not however to prosper long at the place of inception. The Friends whose deeds about Lake Keuka Outlet are now ancient annals, had faith that Jemima Wilkinson was controlled by the Divine Spirit in propagating the tenet that celibacy was indispensable to a pure life. Mormon Hill near the north line of Ontario county, is the pretended place of discovery by Joseph Smith in 1827, of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, and Brigham Young, after living for a time west of the head of Seneca Lake, resided long at Canandaigua. The Oneida Community, established by John H. Noyes in 1847, held all things in common up to 1879, when their peculiar family relations were abandoned.”

Jemima Wilkinson! I know that name. This trail leads back to Rhode Island. Could she and her followers—many also from Rhode Island—have taken the vampire tradition with them to Central New York? How could I even approach answering this question?

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