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.
The 19th-century New England “Vampire Panic” resulted from an outbreak of tuberculosis and a fight between burgeoning scientific theories and old-world superstition. Read more here:
New England Vampires
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.