Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Vampire, Resumed

Is it still Tuesday anywhere in the world? No? I apologize. Got back home from a trip out of town (where I got some writing done) and conked out for most of the day yesterday.

But to go back to the story of the story...

You'll recall that when Paul Sledzik and other researchers and anthropologists went to work on the recovery of the Walton Cemetery near Griswold, Connecticut, they found a coffin on the lid of which "JB-55" was spelled out in tacks, and within, remains that had clearly been altered after an exhumation -- the skull and large leg bones rearranged into a skull and crossbones configuration. They were the bones of a male who was probably 50-55 years old when he died, so it is likely that his initials were "JB" and his age at death was 55.

JB's bones showed lesions that are caused by tuberculosis. Sledzik and Bellatoni noted:

No other cases of tuberculosis were noted in the remains from the cemetery. Two burials are believed to be related to "JB." Both burials, a 45- to 55-year-old female and a 13- to 14-year-old subadult, were buried in a manner similar to "JB" and had the initials "IB-45" and "NB-13" spelled, respectively, in tacks on the coffin lid....

To date, 12 historic accounts documenting vampire beliefs and activities in 18th and 19th century New England have been located... These accounts are found in southern and western Rhode Island, central-southern Vermont, southeastern
Massachusetts, and eastern Connecticut, and range in time from the late 1700s to the late 1800s. Eleven of the 12 accounts denote consumption as the cause of death of the vampire and any deceased relatives....
[From "Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief," which appeared in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1994.]

An 1801 history of Griswold noted that in the previous 25 years, many people in the area had died of consumption (another name for tuberculosis).

Saying vampires caused consumption was a way to explain the deaths of several people in the same family from the disease. (For more on the history of the treatment of TB, see this post. To get an idea of where matters stood on germ theory, look here.) These New Englanders' beliefs about vampires were probably related in some ways to the beliefs of the European communities from which they or their ancestors immigrated, but as often happens when communities are separated, folk beliefs take on new features in new places.

Those who suffered from consumption did indeed seem to be consumed -- they grew pale and thin, and often coughed up blood, which stained their mouths and lips. Despite this, they remained active and had appetites. If their disease was blamed on a vampire, in the minds of believers, clearly the vampire was feeding from them, but leaving them alive. In New England this was a family affair, not one of caped aristocrats luring unsuspecting strangers into their castles.

As little understood as consumption were the causes of changes in a body after death and burial. A grave opened to "examine" a suspected vampire might reveal a body that had bloated (assumed to have fed), an appearance of hair and fingernail growth after death, blood draining from the mouth, and blood or fluid in the heart. These are now known to be aspects of natural decomposition, but in the New England folk belief, blood in the heart of the deceased was a sign of a vampire, who could only be "killed" by the removal and burning of the heart. (A family member might be required to eat the ashes.) If the heart had decomposed, rearrangement of the skull and bones would disrupt the vampire's ability to "walk."

If you'd like to read a few stories about these rituals, check out the book I mentioned previously, by folklorist Michael Bell. Or these sites:

The Jewett City Vampires
Rhode Island Vampires
Stories from the New Standard Times
Vampires of Rhode Island

In the late spring of 1998, four years after his study of "JB-55" had been published, I visited Washington D.C. and met with my friend Paul Sledzik. Over a late Tex-Mex lunch, we began to talk about short stories, and what might be potential short story material....

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