June 01, 2014

A Case of Consumptive Vampirism in Plymouth

Today I was researching an old story about a witch's curse, but came upon something so gruesome I thought I'd share it this week. The witch's curse will show up next week.

What I came upon was a newspaper account of consumptive vampirism in early 19th century Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Consumption, or what we now call tuberculosis, was an untreatable scourge at that time. The article states,

It is well known to those who are acquainted with that section of our country, that nearly one half of its inhabitants die of a consumption, occasioned by the chilly humidity of their atmosphere, and the long prevalence of easterly winds. The inhabitants of the village (or town, as it is there called) to which I allude, were particularly exposed to this scourge; and I have seen, at one time, one of every fifty of its inhabitants gliding down to the grave, with all the certainty which characterizes this insiduous foe of the human family.

The article, which appeared in an 1824 edition of a Philadelphia publication called The United States Gazette, goes on to describe a large family in an unnamed village which suffered particularly hard from consumption. There were fourteen children in the family, but by 1809 all members except the mother, youngest daughter, and one burly son had died from the disease. The daugher, who was sixteen, died later that year and her brother soon contracted consumption as well.

Many New Englanders of the time believed that the corpse of someone who died of consumption would feed on a living family member, giving that person the disease while the corpse remained fresh and vibrant in the grave. Several villagers came to the mother and expressed their fear to her - that her dead daughter was feeding on her remaining son.

I should have added, that it was believed, that if the body thus supernaturally nourished in the grave, should be raised and turned over in the coffin, its depredations upon the survivor would necessarily cease. The consent of the mother being obtained, it was agreed that four persons, attended by the surviving and complaining brother, should, at sunrise the next day, dig up the remains of the last buried sister. 

The author of the article seems to have accompanied the son and the four villagers to the dead daughter's grave, because he relates what he saw when they opened the coffin:

Yes, I saw the visage of one, who had been long the tenant of a silent grave, lit up with the brilliancy of youthful health. The cheek was full to dimpling, and a rich profusion of hair shaded her cold forehead, while some of the richest curls floated upon her unconscious breast. The large blue eye had scarcely lost its brilliancy, and the livid fullness of her lips seemed almost to say "loose me and let go."

Although they apparently turned the sister's corpse face down, this ritual action had no effect on the brother's illness. The shock of seeing his sister was more than he could bear and he died two weeks later. The mother survived for only another year before she too died from the disease. The author notes that the family's fourteen graves were often shown to visitors.

We now know that tuberculosis is caused by bacteria, but I think it's interesting that the author of the article thinks it is caused by damp New England weather. He calls the villagers superstitious even though his explanation of the disease is equally wrong.

Turning the corpse face down or is an ancient tradition found around the world. Murderers and other criminals were often buried this way, and I think the symbolism is obvious. By pointing the face downwards, the community is directing the dangerous dead person to go down into the land of the dead and leave the world of the living alone. Unfortunately for this Plymouth County family it didn't work.

Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell has an entire book about New England vampirism called Food for the Dead. In some parts of New England, people believed that turning a corpse over was not sufficient to stop it from feeding on a relative. Instead, the living person suffering from consumption needed to incinerate and eat their vampiric dead relative's heart, lungs, or liver. Yikes! It seems hard to believe that something like that happened here, but Bell documents dozens of cases. Sometimes the good old days weren't that good.


Anonymous said...

'Food For The Dead' is a fantastic book and, being from Rhode Island, of particular interest to me. It's a point of pride to live in the vampire capital of the world.

Blue Salvucci said...

I agree, that is a great book; well told and thorough. Though I don't often comment, I adore this blog and read it regularly. When is your book coming out?

Peter Muise said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment. Maybe Rhode Island should change its nickname from the Ocean State to the Vampire State?

Peter Muise said...

Blue, thanks for reading the blog. I'm glad there are people out there who share my interests!

The book (Legends and Lore of the North Shore) is supposed to come out in mid-July. I've seen the final proofs and I really like the design and layout. I'll definitely make an announcement when it comes out.