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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

If ingesting the ashes obtained from burning any human heart can be used to cure consumption—and, thus, the vampire/scapegoat disappears from the picture—we enter the murky waters of a commodification that ceases to be compassionate and, instead, becomes predatory.

This change in context, and meaning, is well-illustrated in the following text I found in several newspapers published a few years before the Civil War:

“Horrible Disclosures.—The Charlotte, N. C. Democrat, of the 12th inst. says: We learn that a great excitement has prevailed in the neighboring village of Concord during the past week, caused by the discovery that several children, who died recently, had been disinterred and their bodies removed.

“A quack doctor, known by the name of Nugent, applied to a man to assist him in taking up a child that had been buried a few days before.  The man made the request known, and intimated that two little girls, daughters of a very respectable gentleman residing in the vicinity, had been removed from their graves by this man Nugent for the purpose of extricating medicinal properties from their flesh and bones.

“To ascertain the truth of the rumor, the father had the graves re-opened, and found the coffins and bodies missing. Of course this created a deep sensation, and we are informed that it was determined to inflict summary punishment up Nugent; but on visiting his house he was found very sick and in a dying condition. One report says that he took poison, after learning that his operations were known to the public—and another, that he died from disease contracted from frequent handling of decomposed bodies.

“Nugent died on Wednesday last. He made a statement before death that he had exhumed about sixteen dead bodies in Concord and elsewhere, and after using them (for making medicine) he burned the flesh, coffins and everything to prevent detection. His ash pile was examined, and teeth and bones found therein.

“His theory appears to have been that a medicine could be made by boiling the liver of a human being that would cure liver complaint; and so with regard to other diseases.”

I sent a copy of the article to a friend, Chris Stonestreet, who is also a historian living in the town of Concord, North Carolina, where this event occurred. Over the next several months, Chris was able to fill in many of the blanks in this story. He even wrote an article about it for the local newspaper. Next time, we’ll take a look at this enriched context and attempt to sort through some possible meanings.

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