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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

During his investigation into the Concord exhumations, Chris Stonestreet uncovered facts not included in the newspapers. His search of the baptism registry of the Lutheran Church showed that Maggie, the older of the two exhumed daughters of General Means, was baptized three years prior to her death. Eugenia was not listed in the registry. Since she was about six months old when she died, Eugenia probably contracted the disease just before she was to be baptized.

Stonestreet’s research also indicated that, shortly after Nugent began hawking his homemade remedies, “some in the black community started whispering about people visiting the colored cemetery in the early night. Frightened, they passed along the information to the authorities, yet the reports were not taken seriously.” All of this changed, however, when “it was reported that a man and several accomplices were seen exhuming the bodies of two children in the Lutheran Church’s cemetery.”

Some observations: Nugent was buried “rather unceremoniously . . . in old field near town”—that is, outside the bounds of consecrated ground: shades of how other outcasts were treated. The state of medical “science” at that time is revealed in: “The Physicians made a post-mortem examination of his body, and were of the opinion that he died from exhaustion, not fright as has been represented.” The newspaper article that concluded “measles” probably got it right.

The following issues deserve a more in-depth discussion than I can provide in this blog:

  •   The apparent fact that Nugent began his series of exhumations in African-American cemeteries recalls the “night doctors” or “night riders” of folk tradition. In Night Riders in Black Folk History, Gladys-Marie Fry writes: “The term ‘night doctor’ (derived from the fact that victims were sought only at night) applies to both students of medicine, who supposedly stole cadavers from which to learn about body processes, and professional thieves, who sold stolen bodies—living and dead—to physicians for medical research.” Prior to the Civil War, stories of the “night riders” were used by Southern whites as a means of social control, to keep slaves from slipping away during the night. Little wonder that reports of grave-robbing in the black community “were not taken seriously” by the authorities. It was only when the graves in a white cemetery were disturbed that the community was galvanized to take action.

  •   The use of human remains for medicinal purposes is both ancient and widespread. The concept obviously underlies the vampire tradition as it was practiced in America; but there is a larger context that connects a number of other traditions, including the one that produced Dr. Nugent and his ilk. In some belief systems, including that of European witchcraft, the remains of unbaptized children have been deemed especially efficacious or miraculous. Of course, there is the larger, lurking issue of cannibalism.“Medicinal cannibalism has been documented in European medical literature since at least the first century A.D.,” wrote Beth Conklin in Consuming Grief. “Besides blood, Europeans consumed human flesh, heart, bones . . . , and other body parts and body products.” These substances were used to treat a variety of diseases, from epilepsy to arthritis.

I am actively researching these topics for my book, The Vampire’s Grasp: America’s Restless Dead (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

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