In 1859, three years prior to his death, Henry David Thoreau wrote a peculiar entry in his diary: “I have just read of a family in Vermont who, several of the members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs, heart and liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”
Burning internal organs of a recently deceased family member? In rural New England, it wasn’t as uncommon as you might think. The reason was simple: a great fear of vampires.
Now, in 19th century New England, we’re not talking about the Dracula-type vampires of Europe that swoop down on unsuspecting ladies and leave them as dry husks on the cobblestone streets of Romania. No, the vampires in New England were a more subtle sort. They lay in their graves and sucked the life out of their family members.
Of course, the real culprit here was tuberculosis, a disease that tends to attack the lungs. Those who are afflicted experience a rather miserable, drawn out demise. The are wracked with fierce, bloody coughing which deprives them of sleep. The diseased are left with dark sunken eyes and gradually wither away before distraught families and friends. In the mid-1800s, the cause of this death was unknown and frankly scared the dickens out of people.
New Englanders have historically believed in supernatural beings. The Puritans were certain that demons were active and present in the world, culminating in the spectacular Salem witch trials. Though the trials sparked questioning of both Puritans and worldly beliefs in New England, leading to the embracing of the enlightenment, the country folk didn’t give up superstitions as easily. When tuberculosis began to spread in the region, debate raged over the cause. Some speculated that alcohol was to blame while others pointed to associating with those pesky poor people. Cures ranged from drinking brown sugar and water to riding horses. Perhaps if you rode fast enough, the demon making you sick would fall off.
Those cures didn’t help, unless you fell off the horse whilst riding and met your demise through injury. As devastating as tuberculosis is, it also plays a tricky game. Often, those who are in close contact with the dying also became infected but remain asymptomatic for a number of years. Then, seemingly without cause, a family member of a long decease relative is struck down by the mysterious plague again.
Throughout New England, villagers turned to ministers and asked the same question: “Might some devil be working from the grave?” Something was sucking the life from people, and odds were good(ish) the culprit was a deceased family member bent on revenge. Being a region that leaves nothing to chance (like independence and changing lanes on the highway), from Connecticut to Vermont a war was waged in the cemeteries, war that followed this pattern:
- Graves were dug up. This was done in the secrecy of night (normally in the more populated areas) or in the open as a town event.
- The body was rearranged. Skulls were removed from the body to prevent extra-tomb wanderings.
- Organs were burned. A number of reports, including that of Thoreau, describe this event. Villagers would remove the heart, lungs, and the liver, just to be safe. The heart would be checked for fresh blood, then burned, with the smoke inhaled to fortify the living against the dead.
The whole situation is even more disturbing when one considers it was family members that were being dug up. “Hey gramps, we didn’t expect to see you again, but we’re worried you’re a vampire. Just to be sure, we’re going to violate your corpse and burn your organs.”
In 1892, the most famous case occurred in Exeter, R.I. Mercy Brown had been dead for a number of months, just the latest member of the Brown family to be stricken by the mysterious plight. Mercy’s brother Edwin became ill and family members, desperate for respite, decided to dig up their relatives to determine who the vampire was. Mercy, unlike the skeletons in neighboring graves, looked fresh. Not only that, after a close analysis by a doctor, it was determined her heart contained fresh blood. Vampire. Her heart was promptly put ablaze. Alas, in spite of all efforts, Edwin died two months later.
The Brown case attracted international news coverage, something New England authorities weren’t particularly proud of. The Boston Daily Globe suggested that inbreeding resulted in such barbaric practices, while the British papers turned up their collective noses and denied their nation was the catalyst for such traditions.
In 1882, Robert Koch, a Prussian doctor, discovered the cause of tuberculosis, a bacteria. Following his discovery, a number of years passed before vampire accusations to subsided in New England. Subside they did, and finally the deceased were allowed to rest, with confidence that their organs wouldn’t be toasted by their cousins.
For more information, as well as the source for much of this article, check out this from Smithsonian Magazine: The Great New England Vampire Panic