Long before there were antibiotics, lung-collapsing surgical operations or even mountaintop sanitariums, rural New Englanders may have devised a macabre treatment for people suffering from tuberculosis (TB).
The therapy involved the exhumation of a TB victim’s body and the manipulation — occasionally desecration — of the remains. This, the practitioners believed, would stop transmission of the disease to surviving family members and neighbors, and slow the decline of those already infected.
That, at least, is the theory propounded by several anthropologists who have employed their analysis of a 19th century grave from Connecticut to interpret tales of “vampires” in early New England.
Most European folk cultures contain stories about people who, though officially dead, periodically rise from the grave and harm the living. In order to protect the latter these “undead” must be killed, immobilized or incapacitated.
The modern idea of the vampire has almost entirely been taken over by the image of Dracula, the ardent, formally dressed nobleman who will undoubtedly make many appearances on Sunday night, Halloween. The vampires of folklore, however, were a far more heterogeneous crew.
Usually of peasant stock, they had gained their benighted state by having been suicides, alcoholics, the first victims of epidemics, babies born with teeth, or by having any of several other marks of misfortune, which differed from culture to culture. Only some sucked blood. In many cases, the undead drained life from a victim solely through the act of psychological possession.
References from Folklore
[Click here to read more about the Mercy Brown Vampire Legend]
New England folklore contains occasional references to the undead, and the efforts to dispatch them. In one of the better known ones, a pre-Revolution Rhode Island farmer, named Stukeley, had 14 children. The eldest, Sarah, died. In succession five more died, each complaining of visitations by Sarah during their illnesses.
When a seventh child became ill, Stukeley dug up all the bodies. Five were decomposing, but Sarah, the longest dead, lay with her eyes open and had red blood in her heart. She was judged a vampire, and her heart was removed and burned. The ill child died, but the seven remaining Stukeley offspring lived, according to the account.
Though the folk tales call people such as Sarah “vampires,” they may not have been viewed as such by contemporaries. Some researchers believe the idea is largely a dramatic way of describing the effects of a chronic illness whose symptoms resemble those that might be produced by a blood-sucking vampire. Desecration of their bodies was a combination of therapeutics and spiritualism.
“In my eyes, this is really a folk medical practice,” said Michael Bell, an anthropologist with the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, who has studied the tradition. “What the people involved were trying to do was stem the tide of a contagious disease. They were following what was obviously a very ancient practice. The people never called it vampirism.”
The tuberculosis connection was suggested by the contents of a grave that was exposed by erosion in the town of Griswold, Connecticut in 1990. The bones had been rearranged after death, with the skull separated from the vertebral column and the femurs, or thigh bones, moved up from their anatomical location and crossed on the chest.
The bones, as well as those from 28 other graves at the burial site, were sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a branch of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, they were analyzed by pathologists and anthropologists before being reburied.
The jumbled skeleton, the best preserved of the lot, belonged to a middle-aged man. The scientists noticed unusual erosions on the inner surface of several ribs.
As it happened, the current director of the museum, a pathologist and anthropologist named Marc S. Micozzi, had published a paper in 1984 explaining the origin of such rib abnormalities.
Micozzi and a colleague had examined 445 skeletons of people who died of tuberculosis early this century, and whose bones are now housed at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Thirty-nine of the specimens had rib erosions. Of those, 31 were known to have had TB of the lungs — the most common, but not the only, organs infected by the bacterium — and the rest were strongly suspected of having TB there. In contrast, skeletons of people who had died of non-tuberculosis lung infections showed no rib abnormalities.
The anthropologists studying the Griswold remains deduced this man had had TB, and that his body — or perhaps only his skeleton — had been decapitated and dismembered after death for some purpose.
The researchers — Paul S. Sledzik and Allison Webb Willcox of the National Museum of Health and Medicine and Nicholas Bellantoni, the Connecticut state archaeologist — turned to the accounts of New England “vampires.”
Few primary sources exist. Most accounts come from newspaper reports and books of popular folklore. Using these and, in a few cases, genealogical records, the team put together 10 cases in which there is evidence that historical people, all victims of “consumption” (as TB was called at the time), had been exhumed and their bodies tampered with in some way.
TB is only mildly contagious. Transmission, however, is favored by the sort of conditions common in agrarian New England: large families, often marginally nourished, who shared crowded indoor quarters for long periods. The disease often ran through a family, with successive members developing the fevers, anemia, weight loss and debilitation characteristic of the disease. The very term “consumption” suggests a slow erosion of vitality.
In several cases, hearts, lungs and other vital organs were removed and burned, often with the explicitly stated purpose of protecting the living. Sometimes, family and friends intentionally inhaled the smoke from these fires. In the most recent case — from Rhode Island in 1892 — a man drank a potion made from the ashes of his dead sister’s burned heart.
‘Like Taking the Hair of the Dog’
“It is sort of homeopathic magic, like taking the hair of the dog that bit you,” said Bell. “It’s what an inoculation is, and in that sense is not that far removed from current scientific thinking.”
That exhumation might have been socially acceptable practice is suggested by an entry in the town records from Cumberland, R.I., in 1796, that recently came to the anthropologist’s attention.
“Mr. Stephen Staples of Cumberland appeared before this body and prayed that he might have liberty granted unto him to dig up the body of his daughter, Abigail Staples, late of Cumberland, single woman, deceased, in order to try an experiment on Lavina Chace, wife of Stephen Chace, which said Lavina was sister to the said Abigail, deceased. Which being duly considered it is voted and resolved that the said Stephen Staples have liberty to dig up the body of the said Abigail, deceased, and after trying the experiment as aforesaid that he bury the body of the said Abigail in a decent manner.”
No details of the “experiment” are given, though Bell surmises that it involved some sort of manipulation or immolation for medical purposes.
Sledzik said he believes further research will uncover many more examples. He doubts the practice was simply the result of a few families’ delusions.
“I just think there are too many cases that are too similar. I think the better explanation is that there is a cultural tradition for this kind of belief,” he said.
Sledzik will discuss vampirism, and Willcox will discuss mummies, in a lecture at the museum at 7:30 p.m. Friday and again on at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The lectures are co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates program, and admission will be charged.
New Englanders of the 18th and 19th centuries may occasionally have manipulated the bodies of the dead — perhaps to keep the deceased from rising up and preying on the living. That idea is supported by the contents of a grave that eroded to the surface of a gravel pit in Griswold, Conn., in 1990. The grave contained a male skeleton (presumably from the early 19th century) whose bones had been disturbed. Examination of the ribs by pathologists suggested the man had a chronic lung disease, probably tuberculosis.
The belief that the dead can on occasion drain life from the living is an ancient one that found its most famous and dramatic expression in Dracula, whose story was popularized in an 1897 novel by the Irish writer Bram Stoker.
Though cinematic vampires literally suck the blood of their victims, vampires of many folk cultures weaken their victims in less obvious ways. New England’s “vampires” may have been viewed as transmitters of tuberculosis, a disease characterized by physical wasting and pallor.
Metal tacks in the remains of the coffin spelled “JB-55.” Anthropologists surmise that the letters represent the man’s initials and age at death, though the actual identity of the body has not been established.
The grave of the tuberculosis victim was found in eastern Connecticut, though both historical and folkloric accounts of post-mortem manipulation of the dead also come from Rhode Island and Vermont.
The bones of the man in the Connecticut grave had been jumbled. The skull was removed from the neck vertebrae, and the thigh bones were moved to the head of the coffin. Whether their crossed position is significant is not known.^
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[Images: “The Vampire of Croglin Grange” artist unknown (Wikipedia) pbs.org; missedhistory.com; Pinterest; Lore by Aaron Manke.]