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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

The author of “Quick Consumption” concludes his tale:

    A quarter of a century has passed since that night; and Florry’s hair is streaked with faint lines of gray. From that morning she mended rapidly. In fact, she often tells me that she woke up about sunrise, that very morning, with a strange sense of relief, as if something had ceased gnawing internally; and—strange coincidence!—it was at that very same hour that I was standing by the lurid conical crater of the old blast furnace. I had conquered the demon of quick consumption; but whether, in that fit of “hypo,” I hurled a dead heart, or a red, reeking one into the crater, I would not like to be put upon my oath. Only this I remember—there was blood, or else I fancied it, upon the white napkin in which I carried it that long mile of horror.

The place where this tale was situated—Stafford, Connecticut—led me to a familiar story. In Food for the Dead, I had concluded that an exhumation narrative from West Stafford must have occurred sometime before 1888, the year that J. R. Cole published the account in his History of Tolland County, Connecticut. [p. 499] In a family consisting of six sisters, five died in quick succession of galloping consumption. “The old superstition in such cases is that the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living,” Cole wrote. To back up their belief, residents told of “instances wherein exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, encased in rottening and slimy integuments, and in which, after burning these portions of the defunct, a living relative, else doomed and hastening to the grave, has suddenly and miraculously recovered.” To be effective, they asserted, the ceremony must be conducted at night by a single individual at the open grave. Implicit in this narrative—as we now have seen in many others—is the notion that whatever “flicker of vitality” is inhabiting the dead relatives somehow transfers itself to the last deceased. The unnamed, implicit evil seems to gravitate to the freshest corpse for its feeding, a logical proposition that explains why the alternate, and equally plausible, proposition that the first to die should be the vampire usually does not hold sway.

This case was difficult to document from the beginning. Several visits to the town’s three cemeteries failed to discover gravestones whose progression of family deaths matched Cole’s description. Lacking a surname certainly did not facilitate the investigation, which, without the intervention of some startling new evidence, appeared to have reached a dead end. Then, years later, I found a text that differed from that of Cole. In 1915 (28 March), the Hartford Courant (p. Z10) published an article entitled “Tragic Legend Of West Stafford Cemetery.” Above the article was a photograph of a cemetery with following subscript: “In This Old Cemetery The Weird Ceremony Is Said To Have Taken Place.”

In the next entry, we will examine the text of this “weird ceremony.”

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