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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Shortly before World War I, just east of Charleston, Tennessee, a work crew widening the road with picks and shovels made a strange discovery—an old, unmarked grave containing the “petrified” remains of an adult woman with a wooden stake, also “petrified,” driven through her heart. Staking a corpse, of course, is the stereotypical method for dispatching a vampire. But I have never encountered a case of staking a suspected vampire in America—and the number of vampire incidents I’ve documented to date is about sixty. These cases are invariably associated with epidemics of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis). The procedures for dealing with suspected corpses are part of folklore, so they vary from community to community. But the most common procedure, after exhuming corpses and identifying the vampire, is cutting out the heart and burning it to ashes. Sometimes the person who is being victimized by the vampire (that is, dying of consumption) is instructed to ingest the ashes.

I’m wondering if this trail might lead to at least two dramatic conclusions:

1. What has appeared to be a vampire tradition found in New England and its cultural extensions, also was practiced well to the south, in Appalachia;

2. Driving a wooden stake through the heart of a suspected vampire—a procedure for vanquishing a vampire found in Eastern Europe (not to mention novels and films)— actually was employed in America, too.

Before jumping to conclusions about vampires, however, I need to point out that staking does make an appearance—sparse, to be sure—in other contexts of America’s historical record. In 1728, Massachusetts passed a law stipulating that anyone killed in a duel “shall not be allowed Christian burial,” but should be buried without a coffin, “with a stake drove through the Body.” An earlier law (seventeenth century) in Massachusetts stipulated that suicides were to be denied burial in Christian ground; instead, they were to be “Buried in some Common High-way . . . and a Cart-load of Stones laid upon the Grave.” I found English precedent for this law, which stipulates that both suicides and “persons who fell in duels” shall be buried at the crossroads and staked.

In 1688, in Massachusetts, an Indian servant hung himself and was ordered to be buried “by the Highway with a Stake through his Grave.” In 1796, in New York, a mariner who was about to be tried for murder hung himself and was “sentenced to be buried in the High Way at the upper End of the Bowry Lane, with a Stake stuck through his Body."

So, perhaps the “petrified” woman actually was a suicide. I can’t imagine a woman duelling, but I haven’t researched that possibility yet.The stipulation that suicides be buried near a highway or at the crossroads also might explain her corpse being found in close proximity to the road that was being widened.

Researching the vague reference to this event has, of course, uncovered additional, but complicating, aspects. I’ll set the stage for my next entry by telling you that an associated narrative includes some rather startling details, including a “vampire chair.”

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