More than 200 years after the Salem Witch Trials, ripples of another hysteria struck New England: the fear of vampires. During the 19th century, the spread of tuberculosis, or consumption, claimed the lives of entire families in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of the Northeast.
Between 1786—when health officials first began recording mortality rates—and 1800, the disease claimed 2 percent of New England’s population.
The death toll was not only terrifying—it was also a horrific way to die. “Consumptives lost weight, coughed up blood, their skin turned ashen and sometimes died a slow death—almost as if something was ‘sucking the life’ out of them,” says retired Connecticut state archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni.
New Englanders didn’t deny the reality of consumption. But before the germ theory, at a time when physicians were unable to explain how certain infectious diseases were spread, hopeless villagers believed that some of those who perished from consumption preyed upon their living family members. Some described New England vampires as a microbe or “bacterium with fangs.”
Exhuming the Dead to Stop Vampire Attacks
To prevent an ongoing vampire attack and the disease from spreading, panicked citizens dug up bodies and performed various rituals, including burning internal organs.
One such exhumation took place in March 1892 at the Chestnut Hill cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island. Local people brought shovels and picks and, together, exhumed the corpses of Mary Brown and her daughters, 20-year-old Mary Olive and 19-year-old Mercy Lena.
Each of the women had grown sickly, wasting away and eventually succumbing to a mysterious affliction. Doctors thought they knew the cause of death, but the concerned citizens had another theory.
George Brown was among those who believed something “more” might be lurking on his farm. Shortly after Mercy Lena passed away, his son Edwin fell ill too. Desperate to save the last of his kin, George gave the townspeople permission to dig up the bodies of his wife and daughters.
Once unearthed, the crowd discovered that the corpses of Mary and Mary Olive had rotted away. Mercy’s body, on the other hand, was “oddly well preserved" despite lying in a crypt for several months. It looked as if her hair and nails had grown, and, when pierced, her delicate skin still contained drops of blood. For those who had gathered, these telltale signs confirmed their suspicions. Mercy was a vampire.
A village doctor witnessed the makeshift graveside autopsy and reiterated the suspected cause of death. He explained how the cold New England weather would have kept her body preserved. The townspeople wouldn’t listen. Panicked, they removed Mercy’s heart and burned it on a nearby rock. It is believed that, in ritualistic fashion, Edwin then consumed the ashes. Unfortunately, it did nothing to slow the progression of his illness. The young salesclerk died a few months later.
The Brown exhumations in Rhode Island, known then as “The Vampire Capital of America,” was just one among tens of similar exhumations throughout New England at the time. Henry David Thoreau even mentions one in an 1859 journal.
Vampire Myth Likely Inspired 1897 Novel, 'Dracula'
Bram Stoker, perhaps feeding on these fears, published his novel, Dracula, in 1897. He described the vampire character as a spectral being or ghost possessing a human body who left the grave at night to suck the blood from the living. The "vampires" feared in New England took on a less fantastical but still terrifying form.
“The authentic image of New England’s ‘vampires’ would be a corpse that did not appear to have been completely decomposed; one that had ‘fresh’ (that is, liquid) blood in its heart or other vital organs—which indicated that the corpse had been inhabited by some sort of evil (spiritual, not corporeal) that was draining the life from living family members,” says Michael Bell, a folklorist and author of the book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.
People believed that the spiritual connection that some suspected vampires had with their living relatives allowed them to gain access to their victims without even leaving their graves.
The practice of exhuming the deceased to halt the evil practice of vampires was likely introduced to New England by traveling healers from eastern Europe and Germany. One clue, says Bell, is a 1784 letter to the editor published in a Willington, Connecticut newspaper in which a town official complained about a foreign “quack doctor” who was promoting the consumption ritual and had induced a townsman to exhume the bodies of two his children.
Bell has documented over 80 vampire rituals in New England, and continues to uncover new cases. He estimates the practice began no later than 1784 and persisted through at least 1892. The evidence also suggests that this practice was known and accepted, and sometimes actually endorsed, by the community-at-large, by town authorities and even by clergymen.
After Exhumation, Rituals Varied by Region
In parts of Massachusetts and Maine, bodies were simply flipped over and left alone. In Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont, villagers burned the hearts and livers from bodies of suspected vampires. In the 1990s, archaeologists discovered 29 skeletons in a gravel pit in Griswold, Connecticut, which had once served as a colonial-era graveyard. The bodies showed signs of tuberculosis and had been rearranged into skull-and-crossbones patterns. The case, known as The Jewett City Vampires, revealed one of the more unusual consumption rituals.
“If enough time had passed and there was nothing but skeletal remains and no sign of soft tissue, they [New Englanders] had to make a decision as to whether the corpse was undead,” Bellantoni explains. If villagers believed they had uncovered the undead, they would re-arrange the bones by decapitation and sometimes uproot the legs to prevent the vampire from leaving the grave.
The vampire folk belief started winding down by the end of the 19th century, when German physician and microbiologist Robert Koch identified the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis. Science then slowly began to replace folklore in explaining disease that had claimed so many lives and devastated families.
“These people in early New England history were just trying to stop the deaths,” says Bellantoni. “They were desperate and, when all else failed, some families were willing to go into the graves if it meant saving themselves and their families.”