Historic Vampires

While researching the tale of Mercy Brown for the Cemetery Stories post, I read that she was the only accused vampire ever exhumed in the United States. The very idea that this is a notable fact gave me the willies. Is this so common in other countries? As it turns out, exhumation over supernatural suspicions happened quite often in our history, and many people have been accused of vampirism during their lives. There are so many such people that I limited this list to examples of the different reasons people became known as vampires. Warning: these stories are all gruesome.

The Serial Killer: Vincenzo Verzeni

Vincenzo Verzeni of Bergamo, Italy, was a serial killer who derived sexual pleasure from the act of murder by strangulation and from drinking blood and eating the entrails of the deceased. He was called The Vampire Strangler of Bergamo in the press. In 1873 he was arrested for attempted murder after an interrupted attempt at strangling at teenage girl. Verzeni was found guilty of two murders and several attempted murders and was sentenced to hard labor for life at a psychiatric hospital. He died in custody in 1918.

The Torture Victim: Clara Geisslerin

Clara Geisslerin was a 69-year-old widow in the town of Gelnhausen, Germany when she was accused of witchcraft in 1597. Among the charges were graverobbing, murder, and consorting with demons. Under torture (by thumbscrews and the rack), she confessed to sexual relations with demons in the form of animals and to drinking the blood of sixty children that she had killed. She also named twenty other women who were guilty. However, Geisslerin recanted her confession when the torture was stopped. Local authorities, fearing for her soul, resumed the torture a second time. Geisslerin again confessed, adding that she had conceived many children with the demons and had killed them all. She recanted once more as soon as she was taken off the rack, and told her accusers that God would be their judge. The other twenty suspects had been questioned and implicated Geisslerin by then, so the old woman was tortured a third time. A confession was once again elicited, but Geisslerin could not recant this time because she died under the pressure. The judges in the case attributed her death to the devil, who did not want Geisslerin to disclose any further details. Case closed.

The Deceased: Arnold Paole

Arnold Paole was a Serbian soldier who lived a relatively undistinguished life, but became a famous vampire after his death from a fall around the year 1725. Paole had told a tale of how he was once bitten by a vampire in Turkey, but that he had taken steps to reverse the curse, which involved eating soil from the vampire's grave and smearing himself with the vampire's blood. That tale was remembered by those left behind in the village of Medve?a. Within a month of his death, four people reported that Paole had attacked them; all four died soon after. Paole was, of course, blamed for their deaths and his body was exhumed. Expecting to find a skeleton, the villagers were shocked to find he looked rather fresh (after all, Paole had only been buried a few weeks earlier). The appearance of fresh blood at his mouth and the lack of decomposition convinced them that he was, indeed, a vampire. When they drove a stake through the body, Paole's corpse groaned and emitted blood. The villagers then burned the body. They then exhumed the four "victims" and, wonder of wonders, found they, too, were not yet decomposed. They were all staked and then burned.

A few years later in 1731, more than a dozen Medveda citizens died of a mysterious malady. Two of the dead had been to Turkey and brought back tales of vampires, and one had reported she had eaten meat from a sheep that Arnold Paole (or possibly one of his "victims") had slaughtered. The regional authorities sent a contagious disease expert to investigate. He found no evidence of a disease, but suspected rampant malnutrition as the cause of the deaths. The villagers, however, were convinced of a vampire curse. Once again, all the victims were dug up from their graves. Some were found to be in a "vampire condition" (not decomposed). Those bodies were beheaded and burned. Others that were observed to be rotting were reburied as innocent.

The Butcher: Fritz Haarmann

German serial killer Fritz Haarmann became known as the Butcher of Hanover and the Vampire of Hanover as well when his crimes came to light in 1924. Children playing near a river found a stash of human bones, which led to a search and discovery of more than 500 body parts in varying stages of decay. Haarmann had served time as a pedophile and dealer in stolen goods (including black market meat), so he was one of many suspects. He was also a police informant. Haarmann was arrested in the act of luring a boy into his apartment, and a search of the premises turned up bloodstains and some possessions belonging to missing boys. His defense? The blood was from his black market butchering business! Haarmann later confessed to raping, killing, and butchering "between 50 and 70" young men. He was found guilty of 24 murders and suspected of several others, and was executed by beheading in 1925. It was never proved conclusively that the meat he sold was from his victims, but that's what many believe.

The Necrophiliac: Francois Bertrand

Sergeant Francois Bertrand of the French Army earned the nickname the Vampire of Montparnasse by his habit of graverobbing for pleasure in the 1840s. Bertrand had been a model soldier. He also felt an attraction to dead bodies, and would invade cemeteries to dig them up. Bertrand was not attracted to male corpses, but often had to dig up several bodies in order to find a female. Those he would mutilate, often after gratifying himself sexually. He sometimes bit or tasted the flesh as well. His compulsion led him to cemeteries all over France, wherever his unit was stationed, but he was arrested for his activities in Montparnasse. Bertrand was court-martialed and convicted only of damage to state property for violating the graves. After serving his one-year sentence, Bertrand committed suicide in 1850.

The Tyrant: Vlad III

Vlad the Impaler was the ruler of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462 (plus two other short reigns). The region is now part of Romania. He is remembered most for his atrocities while consolidating his power, expanding his realm, and defending it against enemies. Between 40,000 and 100,000 of his enemies were tortured and killed by impalement, a very painful and public method of death. Vlad was known to take pleasure in the procedure. The nickname Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler in English) was bestowed after his death in 1476. Vlad's father, Vlad II, took the name Dracul from the organization called the Order of the Dragon (Dracul is Romanian for "the dragon"). The Romanian suffix "ulea" means "son of," so Vlad III was sometimes called Dracula. Bram Stoker used the name for his fictional vampire, which is how Vlad became associated with vampirism. Christopher Lee, who played Dracula in several Hammer Horror films, portrayed Vlad III in a 1975 documentary.

See also: Historic Werewolves and Real Monsters: The Science Behind the Legends

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.


As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.


A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.


Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.


The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.


The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 


All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.

A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.

Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.

American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.

Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.

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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.


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