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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

One familiar with Cole’s approach to writing his numerous county histories is lead to conclude that he must have found the narrative in some published version; suffice it to say that primary research was not Cole’s modus operandi. Another reasonable hypothesis is that the newspaper article had drawn from the same text that Cole used. At this point, of course, the existence of such a text was purely speculative. A search through various indexes to popular periodicals paid off: Appleton’s Journal for 1876, contained an article entitled, “A Century Ago in New England,” authored by Francis Gerry Fairfield. Cole’s text, published in 1888, appears to have been taken verbatim (without attribution) from Fairfield’s account of the exhumation, which follows:

In the old West Stafford graveyard the tragedy of exhuming a dead body and burning the heart and lungs was once enacted—a weird night-scene. Of a family consisting of six sisters, five had died in rapid 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; and they quote in evidence apocryphal instances in which exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, incased 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. The ceremony of cremation of the vitals of the dead must be conducted at night, by a single individual, and at the open grave, in order that the result may be decisive; and most old graveyards could mention nights when they have been thus illuminated; for, no longer since than 1872, the Boston Health Board reports describe a case in which such a midnight cremation was actually performed during that year. [Francis Gerry Fairfield,  “A Century Ago in New England,” Appleton’s Journal 15 (1876:652-656)]

Research showed that Fairfield was born in Stafford, Connecticut, on 18 August 1836. Much of his article focuses on that region of Connecticut and appears to be based heavily on his own reminiscences of growing up with the stories of the older generations. Here is a sampling of what he wrote:

    Ah, days of tokens and omens and revelations! How little our more fastidious civilization comprehends of the wild, stern, and daring psychic lives, of the largeness and heroism, of the gloomy and fantastic religious enthusiasm, that were nurtured in those geometrical old houses, so few of which are left as reminders of the last century! Grand men—large and able men—a little superstitious, perhaps, but all the more picturesque and manly for it! My great-grandmother Washburn had the reputation of being the most accomplished sorceress in all that region, and old people even now tell the legend of her having turned over a heavy oaken sled, loaded four feet high with heavy timbers, by just wishing it, simply because she was offended with amiable Captain Washburn.

 
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