These questions, which transcend time and place and, therefore, speak to what it is to be human, concerned pre-twentieth-century New Englanders facing a terrible tuberculosis epidemic. By 1800, one in 250 people in the Eastern United States of America was dying of pulmonary tuberculosis, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all deaths (Dubos and Dubos 1952:9–10; Rothman 1994:2). Despite an abundance of cures offered by an eclectic mix of practitioners, a diagnosis of consumption — as pulmonary tuberculosis was then called — was a virtual death sentence. Not willing to simply watch as their families sickened and died, some New Englanders resorted to a folk remedy that directed them to exhume the bodies of deceased relatives and check them for signs considered to be extraordinary. For example, liquid, or so-called fresh blood in the heart was taken as a sign that it was the corpse that might be responsible for the continuing plague of consumption. To stem any further spread of the disease, the heart (and, sometimes, other organs) was cut from the body and burned to ashes. Often it was stipulated that the ashes be fed to anyone in the family suffering from consumption. A variant of this practice was to burn the entire corpse, sometimes having those afflicted inhale the smoke.
The most recent and best-documented incident occurred in Exeter, Rhode Island. In December of 1883, the wife of George T. Brown, Mary Eliza Brown, died of consumption. Seven months later, his 20-year-old daughter, Mary Olive Brown, succumbed. Within a few years, his only son, Edwin Brown, was diagnosed with consumption. By then, it was obvious that Brown’s 19-year-old daughter, Mercy Lena Brown, also was ill. Her consumption was diagnosed as the “galloping” variety, and she quickly died and was entombed in the family vault on Chestnut Hill in January of 1892.
With no other hope to save his remaining family members, and pressured by friends and neighbours, George T. Brown turned to the folk remedy, even though he reportedly had no faith in its efficacy. On Wednesday, March 17th, 1892, according to the Providence Journal: “four men […] unearthed the remains of Mrs Brown. […] Some of the muscles and flesh still existed in a mummified state, but there were no signs of blood in the heart. The body of the first daughter, [Mary] Olive, was then taken out of the grave, but only a skeleton, with a thick growth of hair, remained.”
“Finally, the body of [Mercy] Lena, the second daughter, was removed from the tomb, where it had been placed till spring. The body was in a fairly well-preserved state. […] The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found, which was what might be expected at that stage of decomposition. The liver showed no blood, though it was in a well-preserved state. These two organs were removed, and a fire being kindled in the cemetery, they were reduced to ashes, and the attendants seemed satisfied.”
“The old superstition of the natives of Exeter, and also believed in other farming communities, is […] that, so long as the heart contains blood, so long will any of the immediate family who are suffering from consumption continue to grow worse; but, if the heart is burned that the patient will get better. And to make the cure certain the ashes of the heart and liver should be eaten by the person afflicted.” [1892a:3]
Edwin Brown was said to have drunk the ashes in the water shortly thereafter, but to no avail, as he died two months later.
The Providence Journal, noting that “all mention of ‘the vampire’ is omitted from this account” because the local correspondent “failed to get to the bottom of the superstition,” placed the Mercy Brown event in the context of European vampire practices by quoting the Century Dictionary’s definition of vampire as “a kind of spectral being or ghost still possessing a human body, which, according to a superstition existing among the Slavic and other races of the lower Danube, leaves the grave during the night, and maintains a semblance of life by sucking the warm blood of men and women while they are asleep” (Providence Journal 1892a:3). Although the procedures employed in New England to identify and dispatch a “vampire” have identical counterparts in Eastern Europe (Murgoci 1926), the New England tradition is much less elaborate.
Many aspects of vampirism absent in New England are addressed in the European tradition, including why someone is likely to become a vampire, how to ward off a vampire, and what precautions one might take to prevent a person from becoming a vampire (see Dundes 1980). In New England, accounts of the traditional focus on the medical or curative aspects, which are invariably associated with consumption. Supernatural elements connecting the deceased to their dying kin tend to be vague: No credible account describes a corpse actually leaving the grave to suck blood, and there is little evidence to suggest that those involved in the practice referred to it as “vampirism” or to the suspected corpse as a “vampire,” although newspaper accounts used this term to refer to the practice. Of course, I must stress here that accounts of these incidents were not made by trained ethnographers, or even by — in most cases, and by any standard of measurement — uninterested parties.
To date, I have identified more than twenty vampire incidents in New England. The documentation that establishes the vampire practice is diverse, including eyewitness accounts, family stories, local legends, newspaper articles, local histories, town records, journal entries, unpublished correspondence, genealogies, gravestones, and even actual human remains (see Bell 2001).
The evidence suggests that the vampire practice was not uncommon in certain parts of New England during the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, a time of significant transformations in the cultural and social fabric of the region. Changing conceptions of illness and death are particularly germane to the interpretation of this practice.