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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Dr. Metcalf apparently confirmed Stetson’s conclusion that vampire exhumations were not extraordinary in Exeter and surrounding communities: “Dr —— declares the superstition to be prevalent in all the isolated districts of southern Rhode Island, and that many instances of its survival can be found in the large centers of population. In the village now being considered [i.e., Exeter] known exhumations have been made in five families, in the village previously named [i.e., South Kingstown] in three families, and in two adjoining villages in two families.”

Stetson seems almost prescient when he concludes that, “It does not by any means absolutely follow that this barbarous superstition has a stronger hold in Rhode Island than in any other part of the country. Peculiar conditions have caused its manifestation and survival there, and similar ones are likely to produce it elsewhere.” [p. 10]

The educational and professional background of George Rochford Stetson (1833-1923) is elusive. He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on November 28, 1833. By the time he was forty-one years of age, he had accumulated enough wealth as a leather merchant in Boston that he was able to retire. He and his wife began traveling, eventually relocating to Washington, D. C. Freed from the constraints of the business world, Stetson pursued his interests in literary and scientific topics, especially anthropology. His publications disclose an overriding concern with the intersection of race, intelligence, and education. He has been labeled a eugenicist, a view that was not extreme in the late nineteenth century; for many intellectuals, it was a natural and practical application of evolutionary theory: both the human species and culture could move forward through selective breeding, a view that seemed to dovetail logically with the then current anthropological theory of cultural evolution. The meaning that Stetson drew from New England’s vampire tradition is apparent against this background: “It is an extraordinary instance of a barbaric superstition outcropping in and coexisting with a high general culture, . . . and which is not so uncommon, if rarely so extremely aggravated, crude, and painful.” [p. 7] In Stetson’s view, civilization had not fulfilled its promise, and the vampire tradition was yet another “illustration of the remarkable tenacity and continuity of a superstition through centuries of intellectual progress from a lower to a higher culture, and of the impotency of the latter to entirely eradicate from itself the traditional beliefs, customs, habits, observances, and impressions of the former.” [p. 10] A death notice published by the Anthropological Society of Washington indicated that George Stetson died on May 31, 1923.

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