By Chelsey Baggot.
The idea of vampirism is often romanticized in today’s age. Shining, beautiful creatures grace the pages of our books and movies, promising us an elegant, immortal life. But such a view of vampires wasn’t always the case. During the late 18th Century, the idea of sucking the life force out of others was associated with terminal illness and death and gave root to a wave of vampire panic that spread throughout Europe and America.
With time and new advances in medicine, connections between illness and the mythical creatures often found in folklore ceased. But many strange superstitions and macabre rituals were all too common before then.
Age of the Vampire
While Tuberculosis is no longer considered a common disease in the developed world, it was extremely prevalent during the late 1700s. Caused by bacteria, Tuberculosis affects the lungs, and is lethal if not treated. The disease is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, allowing the bacteria to travel to other people. Those who contract the disease experience chronic coughing, fever, blood in their mucus and weight loss.
This infectious disease has affected humans since ancient times, but really took its toll during the 1780s throughout New England. Then known as consumption, because of the way its victims wasted away, the disease began to spread and infect entire towns. By the year 1800, two percent of New England’s population had perished from the disease. Nobody yet knew that consumption was spread through the air, so when one person in a family contracted it, it didn’t take long for their other family members to follow. Bacteria was a new, and largely debated concept at this time. Those who began showing symptoms of consumption were often sent out of cities to milder climates. While this sometimes helped alleviate symptoms in the infected, it also helped to further spread the disease across the country.
Fear ran rampant during this time. It was estimated that between seventy and ninety percent of the United States population carried traces of consumption in their bodies. Scared and helpless, people began taking drastic measures in order to help rid their loved ones of the disease.
And so began the vampire panic.
In 1784, a New England newspaper published a story about a strange doctor who had discovered a most unusual cure for consumption. The Johnson family, out of Willington, Connecticut, had begun to suffer from the disease. After two family members died, the doctor instructed Isaac Johnson to dig up their bodies and search for signs of plant growth. When one of the bodies did, indeed, have a common herb growing out of it, the doctor told Isaac that he should burn the herb, as well as his family member’s remaining organs, in order to rid his family of the disease once and for all. While Isaac found this suggestion to be utterly deplorable, those who read the newspaper article viewed it with more open minds.
Nobody quite wanted to believe that the souls of their loved ones were draining those of the living, but that is precisely what the article was suggesting. Those who had died from tuberculosis were desperate to live again, thus they drained the strength out of their loved ones. The doctor suggested that burning the organs of the dead would help keep consumption from spreading. The dead were described as vampires, sucking away at the living until there was nothing left. It’s important to note that most people didn’t take this belief as an exact truth. Rather, it was a superstitious act—a last resort as others fell ill.
According to these new superstitions, there were usually tell-tale signs when a spirit of the dead was praying upon the living. If a loved one had recently passed, it was vital to exhume the body and inspect it. If liquid blood could be found, or the body looked to be in better preservation than seemed possible, then a number of rituals had to be performed.
Some were relatively simple to perform, such as turning the corpse so it lay on its stomach. People believed this deterred the spirit of the dead from escaping from the grave. Others thought that the dead would still be able to come after the living unless their vital organs, such as their heart and liver, were burned. Some burned the entire corpse for good measure. It is believed that some even ate the ashes as a means of reclaiming the strength they had lost.
The Death of Mercy Brown
Born and raised in the small town of Exeter, Rhode Island, Mercy Lena Brown was just 19 years of age when she succumbed to consumption in the cold winter month of January 1892. Her mother and sister had died years before of the same illness, and all that now remained of the Brown family was George, the father and Edwin, Mercy’s older brother. Edwin, who had already shown symptoms of consumption, had left New England years before for Colorado Springs in hope that the climate would improve his health. Upon hearing of his sister’s ill health he traveled home, with newspapers at the time reporting that Edwin was “in a dying condition”. With his youngest daughter dead and his only surviving child dangerously ill, George, urged on by friends and neighbors, took desperate action against the diabolical forces preying upon his family.
According to newspaper reports, George and a party of men first exhumed the bodies his wife and eldest daughter. After finding nothing but bones they then turned to Mercy’s body which had been kept in a nearby crypt until the winter thaw and a suitable grave could be dug. Upon her exhumation, they discovered her body was in a fairly well-preserved state with almost no decomposition. Removing her liver and heart they burned the organs and then fed the ashes to Edwin in hopes it would restore his stolen health. He died less than two months later.
As vampire lore continued to spread during the early 19th Century, rumors and stories hailed from Russia and Eastern Europe. Accounts of these unseen forces and the various methods to combat them were often printed in publications and made widely available. They spoke of rituals that were taking place overseas, just as in the America, Europeans were also facing an onslaught of consumption. Bodies began to be dug back up and burned. Some were even stabbed with stakes if the bodies were deemed to be in too good of a condition.
George Stetson, an anthropologist, studied these rituals and found connections ranging from Russia all the way to the Caribbean. He published an article on his findings in 1896, stating that these ritualistic practices began to spread after a few individuals connected their recovery with the cremation of their loved ones. This, accompanied by numerous other folkloric stories about werewolves, and witchcraft, were a popular topic of conversation and newspaper articles during this time in American and European history. People were obsessed not only with death but also the supernatural. One such man who shared this obsession was Bram Stoker. In 1896, while working as a stage manager for a theater company touring the United States, he came to read Stetson’s report. One year later he published Dracula.
Over time, scientists and doctors began to better understand bacteria, and how germs are spread. With this updated knowledge, people began to realize that tuberculosis was spread through the air and that whole families could be prone to falling ill due to their close proximity to each other. Once this was understood, treatment centers were created for the sick, and less people became infected. By 1906, the first immunization against tuberculosis had been developed and the practice of exhuming bodies died out, leaving those who perished to be left to lie peacefully in their graves once more.
And of Mercy Brown, her grave resides to this day in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, shaded from the sun beneath an evergreen tree. Visitors from around the world come to visit and leave small trinkets such a plastic vampire teeth on her grave, a mark of remembrance for the New England vampire.
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