In Rhode Island, state folklorist Michael E Bell, who has found evidence of a least 16 such cases taking place from the mid-18th century to the late 19th century, has made extensive studies of the subject. If you want to know more about New England vampire beliefs than you'll find on this blog, read his book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. You should also visit his Food for the Dead and Quahog folklore sites.
On March 19, 1892, the Providence Journal carried a front page story about the exhumation, written in the classic overblown style of the journalism of its day. It exclaimed over the superstitions that led to the horrors of the rituals performed on the remains of Mercy, a 19-year-old woman who had lived and died in Exeter.
The Brown family had experienced a number of deaths from consumption, as tuberculosis was known then. Her mother had died of the disease, her sister in 1888, and her brother had fallen ill with it as well. Mercy caught it and died in January 1892.
The article in the Providence Journal used the term "vampire," but Bell has said this word was not used by the families or communities that practiced these rituals.
Whatever they named those who came from the grave, the belief — especially in families where mulitiple deaths occurred in a short space of time — was that in some manner the dead were drawing their sustenance from the living. The way to "kill" the one who was feeding on the others was through these rituals.
Before going into the nature of these rituals and some of the stories associated with them, let's take a quick look at the history and current status of the real cause of those deaths, tuberculosis.
For many centuries, tuberculosis was one of the most widespread of deadly diseases. The bacteria that causes it has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 BCE. In 19th century Europe, as many as one in four deaths were caused by this disease.
Far ahead of his time, in 1720 English physician Benjamin Marten first theorized that "wonderfully minute living creatures" might be causing it.
In 1854, Hermann Brehmer, a Silesian botany student cured of the disease after following his physician's recommendation of a change of climate, went on to study medicine and presented a paper, Tuberculosis is a Curable Disease, and started a sanatorium. This became the model for other facilities for TB patients, and was a major step in efforts to fight the disease.
In 1865, Jean-Antoine Villemin of France proved that TB could be transferred from humans to cattle and cattle to rabbits. It was proof that a microorganism was causing the disease.
In 1882, Robert Koch discovered a staining technique that allowed him to see that microorganism — Mycobacterium tuberculosis— under a microscope.
The development of X-rays helped in the study of the disease, but it was not until 1944 that the first effective antibiotic for the treatment of human TB cases were developed. Further progress in developing anti-TB drugs continued to be made over the next decades. Death rates dropped in industrialized countries until the mid-1980s.
TB is still causing deaths today — although curable, it causes 1.6 million deaths worldwide every year. Experts believe that 10 million people in the U.S. are currently infected — and one in ten of those infected will develop the disease. (The remaining 90% will not get the disease or infect others.)
The American Lung Association notes:
It is not easy to become infected with tuberculosis. Usually a person has to be close to someone with TB disease for a long period of time. TB is usually spread between family members, close friends, and people who work or live together. TB is spread most easily in closed spaces over a long period of time.Consider family life in rural farming communities in the 18th and 19th centuries -- small homes, several siblings often sharing the same bed, the whole family working and living together. Add to this the long-held belief that drafts and fresh air were unhealthy. Put these and other factors together, and one sees why a family like Mercy Brown's fell prey to this disease.
Many of the points I've discussed here are part of the story I wrote with Paul Sledzik, "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow."
More tomorrow on how consumption, exhumations, the history of medicine, and vampires served as not only the inspiration for the story, but also its central conflict....