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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

The historical heart of the Globe narrative is George Stetson’s article, which says so much yet so little at the same time. In “The Animistic Vampire in New England,” Stetson gives us the stories of vampiric exhumations, but titillates us with vague allusions to people and places. By 1896, when both Stetson’s and the Globe’s articles were published, the story of Mercy Brown had been circulating widely for nearly four years. Since Stetson’s article is probably the seminal narrative of New England’s vampire tradition, we can learn a great deal by examining him and his narrative.

Stetson provides no explicit description of his approach to gathering the material for this article, but it seems plain from his text that he visited Rhode Island to engage in fieldwork, which, in this sense, entailed talking to people who were willing to share information regarding exhumations that they either recalled firsthand or had heard about in the community. Shortly before his article was published in the American Anthropologist, Stetson carried on correspondence with Rhode Island publisher and historian, Sydney S. Rider. It was Rider who, in 1888, had authored “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island” [Book Notes 5(7):37-39], in which the story of Sarah Tillinghast’s return from dead first appeared in print. Stetson wrote in one of his letters to Rider: “I found in R. I. the last summer a dozen or more well authenticated cases of families that had followed the demands of the superstition and was told on excellent authority that the area of its adherents is not particularly limited.” Since Stetson’s letter was dated December, 1895, he must have been conducting fieldwork in Rhode Island during the summer of 1895. In his first letter, dated two days prior to the second, Stetson had written, “I found in the neighborhood of Exeter Hill last summer a dozen or more families who had shown their faith in it [“the vampire superstition”] by exhuming the dead.”

If Stetson consulted published materials for his local texts, he did so without making that plain. And, while the article’s title suggests that the scope of his work includes all of New England, Stetson’s New England narratives appear to be restricted to Rhode Island. At a time when anthropology was an emerging discipline, relying on previously collected and published data—“armchair anthropology,” as it has been dubbed—Stetson’s foray into the field, though seemingly haphazard and superficial by today’s standards, was unusual if not ground-breaking. His interpretation of the vampire practice, however, is perfectly aligned to the views of late nineteenth-century anthropology, which were founded on Edward B. Tylor’s concept of the evolution of human culture through several stages, from savagery and barbarism to civilization. The opening sentence of Stetson’s article presupposes the naïveté of the people responsible for the creation of the vampire: “The belief in the vampire and the whole family of demons has its origin in the animism, spiritism, or personification of the barbarian, who, unable to distinguish the objective from the subjective, ascribes good and evil influences and all natural phenomena to good and evil spirits.”

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