The Salem Vampires and Death in New England

Michael E. Bell
Michael E. Bell

Early New Englanders accepted a variety of harmful spirits and viewed illness as a result of supernatural or irrational causes, ranging from witchcraft to the predestinarian notion that “God causes sickness.” God and witchcraft were not mutually exclusive. Although many of the Puritans’ miraculous “providences” concerned ghosts and revenants, the role of the supernatural was strictly bounded by Puritan orthodoxy.

The witchcraft outbreak of 1692 in Salem Village followed a hard winter and an epidemic of smallpox, both of which served as proof, to a self-righteous few, that “a group of witches has allied themselves with Satan to destroy the Church of God and set up the kingdom of the Devil.” But this common foundation, linking a contagious disease to supernatural agency, shared by both Puritans and vampire hunters, diverges in context and interpretation. Understanding why the vampire practice took hold in certain parts of New England but not others requires examination of remote areas where vampire accounts appear in the record and alternative worldviews held sway. John Brooke begins his investigation of the occult in early New England with the observation that “modern scholars have found magic in New England an incoherent jumble because they […] have viewed it from the perspective of New England’s majority culture.” Historians of this era also have directed most of their attention to this Calvinist-based majority culture, which includes the Puritans.

The other New England, radiating from outlying towns in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, occupied geographic and philosophical margins. It extended up the Connecticut River Valley into Vermont and New Hampshire, reaching into southern Maine. This territory, surrounding the Puritan lands, includes precisely those areas where a supernatural worldview coexisted with Protestant ideology and, not coincidentally, where the vampire tradition has been documented. The residents of these areas were, in John Brooke’s words, “close spiritual kin to the sectarians of revolutionary England” who rejected any connection between church and state, advanced doctrines of a miraculous restitution of the true church and state, advocated free will and universal salvation, and at its extreme announced a perfectionist ideal of human divinity. As the work of John Edward Christopher Hill, Keith Vivian Thomas, and many others have amply demonstrated, the sectarian theologies of the Radical Reformation and the radical wing of English Revolution accommodated and “perpetuated what we classify as magical or occult beliefs.”

These New Englanders were not especially religious in an orthodox sense. Indeed, during the colonial and early national periods, 85 to 90 percent of New England’s white population did not belong to any church. Although unchurched, many of these New Englanders were nonetheless spiritual and participated in various hybrid religions that were unofficial combinations of Christian beliefs and folk practices. These other New Englanders experimented with a worldview that tapped into alchemy, astrology, divination, seeing stones, dowsing, and other practices that Puritans viewed as diabolical. Certainly, vampire procedures would have been off-limits, too. But non-Puritan Protestants reconciled such acts in the same way that they could, with equal ease and no apparent contradiction, consult bibles and preachers as well as almanacks and astrologers. For them, as John Brooke noted, the relationship between religion and the occult was more symbiotic and less contested; “[…] the occult generated not court testimony and executions, but quiet routine and continuity. It is even possible to go so far as to propose that the sectarian environment acted as a reservoir for much of the fragmentary occult floating around seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England.

This other New England was the heartland of the Quakers and Shakers and the source of later religious sects, such as the Mormons and the Oneida Community (both of whose founders were from Vermont), that developed in central New York’s “Burned-over District,” so named because of its successive waves of unorthodox religious and spiritual movements based on idiosyncratic interpretations of Protestantism and imbued with an appealing supernaturalism.

The magical worldview crosscut social distinctions, including class, religion, and ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Along with the home remedies and supernatural lore that had been handed down in their own families and communities, people encountered the traditions of other groups. John Brooke describes how “a series of cunning folk, born in the folds of sectarian religion,” carried the occult tradition into the nineteenth-century. The prevailing, general interest in supernatural topics is recorded, for example, in newspaper advertisements that show itinerant lecturers, many originally from Germany and Eastern Dollarspe, making the circuit from New Jersey and Pennsylvania into New England. Although this culture has received scant attention from historians, it appears to have touched many, if not most, Americans prior to the early 1800s. In his examination of the New England roots of early Mormonism, Dennis Michael Quinn acknowledges that “without statistical sampling and opinion polls, it is impossible to know the actual extent of occult beliefs and magic practices among Americans during any time period.” Even so, Dennis Michael Quinn argues that anti-occult rhetoric by early American opinion-makers (clergy, legislators, jurists, newspaper editors, book authors) may have been the embattled effort of an elite minority to convert a vastly larger populace that was sympathetic to the occult. “[…] At any rate, literary sources and material culture show that occult beliefs and folk magic had widespread manifestations among educated and religious Americans from colonial times to the eve of the twentieth-century.”

A tantalizing inkling of this regard for the occult makes a subtle appearance in the official records of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Following is a transcription of the entry for the Town Council meeting of February 8th, 1796: “Mr Stephen Staples of Cumberland appeared before this Council and prayed that he might have liberty granted unto him to dig up the body of his Dofter [sic] Abigail Staples, late of Cumberland, single woman deceased, in order to try an experiment on Livina Chace, wife of Stephen Chace which said livina was sister to the said Abigail.”

Although those unfamiliar with New England’s vampire tradition might be puzzled by this entry, the etymology of the word experiment points toward a solution and strengthens the vampire interpretation. From the Latin experimentum (“a trial, test”) through Old French, the word entered English as a magician’s term, often used interchangeably with magic. As late as the seventeenth-century, according to Lynn Thorndike, “Medical cases and prescriptions were still spoken of as experiments.” The Cumberland entry suggests that exhumation for medical purposes was not entirely marginalized and could even be incorporated into the official social fabric of some communities.

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