How Tuberculosis Inspired the 19th-Century New England Vampire Panic

Jenkins via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jenkins via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On March 19, 1892, the Evening Herald of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania printed a story describing what it called a “horrible superstition.”

A young man named Edwin Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island had been suffering from illness for some time. His mother and eldest sister had died from the same disease, then called “consumption” because of the way its victims wasted away (and now known as tuberculosis). Edwin traveled from Exeter to Colorado Springs—a popular destination due to its dry climate and specialized disease treatment centers—but his health did not improve. While he was away, his sister Mercy also became ill and quickly died.

When Edwin returned home after Mercy’s death, his health declined. His desperate father turned to an old folk belief: When members of the same family waste away from consumption, it could be because one of the deceased was draining the life force of their living relatives.

With a doctor and some neighbors in tow, Edwin and Mercy’s father exhumed the bodies of each family member who had died of the illness. He found skeletons in the graves of his wife and eldest daughter, and a doctor found Mercy’s remains, which had been interred for nine weeks and looked relatively normal in its decay.

However, liquid blood was found in Mercy’s heart and liver. Although the doctor said this was fairly standard and not a sign of the supernatural, the organs were removed and cremated before Mercy was reburied, just in case. But the exhumation and cremation did nothing for Edwin Brown’s disease: He died two months later.

Newspapers were quick to connect these folk rituals with vampire legends, especially those of Eastern Europe. Vampire stories from all over were printed on the front pages of 19th-century New England, describing similar rituals in distant locations. Like the New Englanders, people in remote parts of Europe were exhuming bodies when people fell ill, and burning or planting stakes in those that seemed too full of life.

But the New Englanders who took part in these rituals didn’t necessarily believe there was a supernatural cause of their family members’ illness, as author and folklorist Michael E. Bell writes in his book Food for the Dead. Although some may have harbored beliefs about vampires, many were simply desperate, and unwilling to leave untried any remedy that might save the lives of those they loved—even an outlandish or gruesome method.

Tuberculosis was entrenched in the Americas even before the United States existed as a country. President George Washington himself likely fought the disease after contracting it from his brother—ironically, on a trip taken to Barbados in an attempt to treat Lawrence Washington’s illness, according to medical historian Howard Markel of the University of Michigan.

Washington wasn’t alone. Other notable American sufferers of tuberculosis included James Monroe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, John “Doc” Holliday, and Helen Hunt Jackson.

In 1786, when health officials first began recording mortality rates connected to the deadly infection, Massachusetts alone recorded 300 consumption deaths for every 100,000 residents. Between that year and 1800, tuberculosis killed 2 percent of New England’s population. In many cases, living in the same home was enough for the disease to spread throughout an entire family. It was estimated that anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the U.S. population had latent or active tuberculosis infections.

Today, most people understand that tuberculosis is spread through the air, by breathing in bacteria coughed up by people with active infections in their lungs or throats. There are vaccines, though they’re rarely used in the U.S., and treatments for those who contract active tuberculosis infections.

In the 1800s, however, germ theory was only just beginning to gain supporters among the medical community. Doctors were still arguing over the causes of tuberculosis in 1895, and treatment mainly consisted of leaving large cities like New York and Boston, where the disease ran rampant, for places like Pasadena, California and Colorado Springs, where the climate was supposed to help ease the symptoms. Until the rise of the sanatoria movement (basically, rest-oriented treatment centers) at the end of the 19th century, few medical treatments worked. Even sanatoria only helped some patients.

As tuberculosis spread from the cities out into the countryside, people didn’t know what caused it or how to stop it. In some New England towns, such as Lynn, Massachusetts, it was the leading cause of death, Bell says. Entire families were wiped out, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who caught the illness.

It was not a pleasant way to die. Symptoms included wasting, night sweats, and fatigue, and a persistent cough that sometimes produced white phlegm or foamy blood. Occasionally, the cough turned into hemorrhaging. Those who caught it could not know if they would eventually recover, painfully waste away over the course of years, or die in a matter of months from the “galloping” form of the disease. If they did recover, there was always the fear that the illness would return.

“Cholera, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, influenza, and measles were fast-burning epidemics that appeared, killed, and then went dormant as immunities kicked in,” Bell says. Tuberculosis did not. It was an unrelenting fact of life in the 1800s. With no other explanations, people turned to the supernatural to understand the epidemic, and to offer hope of a cure.

Enter the vampire.

The vampire legend may have made its way into New England as an early version of the unproven “miracle cure” for tuberculosis. In 1784, a newspaper published a letter about a foreign “quack doctor” who had been spreading an unusual cure for consumption. According to the letter, when a third member of the Willington, Connecticut family of Isaac Johnson contracted the disease, the quack doctor advised him to dig up two family members who had already died of the illness. The bodies were inspected for any sprouting plants, and the letter writer—who said he was an eyewitness—reported that sorrel was found. The doctor advised the Johnson family to burn the sorrel with the vital organs to remove sickness from his family, an idea the letter-writer called an imposture.

But those who had lost multiple loved ones, and faced losing more, were willing to try anyway.

Anthropologist George R. Stetson later connected the New England beliefs to similar rituals from Russia, Hungary, Prussia, and Serbia, as well as other parts of Europe, ancient Greece and the Caribbean. In his 1896 article The Animistic Vampire in New England, Stetson described the case of one unnamed mason who credited his own health to the ritual. The man had two brothers who had contracted tuberculosis. When the first died, a respected member of the community suggested the family burn his vital organs to save the second brother. The second brother protested and the ritual wasn't done; he continued to sicken and die. When the mason got sick, the second brother was exhumed, and “living blood” was found. A cremation was held (it’s unclear if it was just the blood or the full body that was burned), and the mason soon recovered.

New England vampires were not the supernatural revenants of novels like Dracula, who rose from the dead as walking corpses to drain blood from the living, Bell told mental_floss. Instead, they were believed to drain the life force of their loved ones through some spiritual connection that continued even after death.

“The ‘vampires’ in the New England tradition were not the reanimated corpses, bodily leaving their graves to suck the blood of living relatives, that we know from European folklore, filtered through Gothic literature and popular culture,” Bell says. “New England’s ‘microbes with fangs’ (as one medical practitioner recently termed them) were, however, just as fearful and deadly as the fictional Dracula.”

If a body was exhumed and liquid blood could be found, or it seemed to be far better preserved than expected, one of a number of rituals were performed, including burning the corpse (and sometimes inhaling the smoke); rearranging the corpse or turning it upside down and reburying it; or burning vital organs like the heart and liver. Occasionally, Bell says, the ashes were consumed by family members afflicted with tuberculosis.

One of the more remarkable cases Bell has discovered is that of the Rev. Justus Forward and his daughter Mercy (no relation to Mercy Brown). In 1788, the minister had already lost three daughters to consumption; Mercy and another sister were fighting the illness. As Mercy Forward traveled to a neighboring town with her father one day, she began to hemorrhage.

Forward was reluctant to try opening the graves of his deceased family members, but allowed himself to be convinced, willing to do anything to save his daughter. His mother-in-law’s grave was opened first, without result. However, he soon found a grave that fit the requirements. Bell relays a portion of a letter written by Forward:

“Since I had begun to search, I concluded to search further ... and this morning opened the grave of my daughter ... who had died—the last of my three daughters—almost six years ago ... On opening the body, the lungs were not dissolved, but had blood in them, though not fresh, but clotted. The lungs did not appear as we would suppose they would in a body just dead, but far nearer a state of soundness than could be expected. The liver, I am told, was as sound as the lungs. We put the lungs and liver in a separate box, and buried it in the same grave, ten inches or a foot, above the coffin.”

The act didn’t save Mercy, Bell says, but Forward’s other children seemed to recover. And the willingness of Forward and his family to attempt the ritual impartially helped to relieve fear in his community, Bell notes: “He ultimately authorized a ritual that, in effect, reestablished social stability, essentially proclaiming that the dead were, indeed, dead once again.”

There were other cases, too:

At the end of the 19th century, Daniel Ransom wrote in his memoirs about his brother Frederick, a Dartmouth College student who died of tuberculosis in 1817. The boys’ father worried that Frederick would feed on the rest of the family, and had Frederick exhumed and his heart burned at a blacksmith’s forge. The cure didn’t work, however, and Daniel Ransom lost his mother and three siblings over the next several years.

In the 1850s, Henry Ray of Jewett City, Connecticut dug up the bodies of his brothers and had them burned when he, too, contracted tuberculosis. In a nearby case, a grave belonging to someone known only as “J.B.” was broken into—possibly by family members or friends, who often conducted the rituals—and the skeletal remains were rearranged into a skull and crossbones shape. Researchers speculate that it might have been done to stop J.B. from becoming a vampire, or because he was blamed for a living person’s illness.

Henry David Thoreau wrote of another case in his journal in September 1859: “The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont—who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”

These tales found their way into newspapers throughout the U.S., along with European tales of vampires, werewolves, and witches, reflecting the late 19th century’s fascination with the afterlife and the supernatural. Such stories from New England may even have inspired Bram Stoker’s story of Dracula.

The rituals continued until Mercy Brown’s exhumation in 1892, 10 years after Robert Koch discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis. Eventually, germ theory began to take hold, and contagion was better understood. Infection rates began to go down as hygiene and nutrition improved.

But until then, people were often willing to cling to any chance for themselves and their loved ones under the “gnawing sense of hopelessness” those with the disease lived with, Bell says:

“In short, for the pragmatic Yankee, the bottom line was, ‘What do I have to do to stop this scourge?’ The ritual was a folk remedy rather than an elaborated detailed belief system."

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

9 Surprising Facts About the Scientific Study of Sex

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

The scientific study of sex is much more exciting than an awkward sex ed class. While writing my book Sex Weird-o-Pedia, these were some of the most interesting facts about science and sex that I came across.

1. Some sex researchers didn't want their findings to get into the wrong hands.

The pioneering sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing didn’t want his knowledge in the hands of ordinary folk. So he wrote Psychopathia Sexualis, the founding document of modern sexology—which was published in Germany in 1886 then translated and published in English in 1939—in Latin to discourage regular Joes (and/or Janes) from reading it.

2. You burn more calories mowing the lawn than you do having sex.

Young woman poses for selfie while mowing the lawn
Alina Rosanova/iStock via Getty Images

Sex might seem strenuous when things get hot and heavy, but it's usually not that great of a workout. You'd have to go at it for nearly 200 minutes to burn as much energy having sex as you do during a 30-minute run. Even mowing the lawn burns about three times more calories than sex. According to the British Heart Foundation, sex burns about the same amount of energy per minute as ironing clothes.

3. A surprising number of mothers claim to be virgins.

In a 2013 study of several thousand pregnant women in the U.S. published by BMJ, about 1 percent of the participants claimed they were virgins when they gave birth. This, of course, calls into question the veracity of studies that rely on self-reported sexual behaviors.

4. Penicillin may have ignited the sexual revolution.

One economist says that penicillin, and not the birth control pill, was the real enabler of the sexual revolution. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2013 shows that penicillin contributed to a 75 percent decline in the number of deaths caused by syphilis from 1947 to 1957. Since the new treatment made sex safer, people started having riskier sex, which resulted in increases in the numbers of children born out of wedlock and teenage pregnancies.

5. Twins can have different dads.

A photo of fraternal twins
Aleksandr Zhurilo/iStock via Getty Images

While it is very rare, it is possible for fraternal twins to have two different fathers. What’s more common is for a rom-com to be based on this scenario.

6. Gender may influence how people handle sexual jealousy.

Research from evolutionary psychologists indicates that people’s gender influences how they react to sexual jealousy. For men, they react more strongly to sexual unfaithfulness than emotional infidelity. For women, it is the reverse. The theory behind these behaviors comes back to evolution: Males who were intolerant toward their wives becoming sexually active with other men were less likely to become an object of derision and more likely to see their own genes pass onto future generations. Women who prevented their husbands from emotionally bonding with other women reduced the chances of the men spending their resources on other women.

7. One of Ivan Pavlov's colleagues created his own (slightly x-rated) conditioning experiment with dogs.

You’re probably aware of Russian researcher Ivan Pavlov and his famous conditioning experiment in which he trained a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. What you might not know is that one of Pavlov’s American students, W. Horsley Gantt, conditioned dogs to become sexually aroused when they heard specific tones. The experiment, according to Mandy Merck's In Your Face: 9 Sexual Studies, was intended "to study conflicts of the drives between ... experimentally induced anxiety states and sexual excitement."

8. Couples whose first child is a girl are more likely to get divorced.

Parents pay attention to their phones instead of their daughter
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Married couples whose first child is a girl are more likely to get divorced than those whose first child is a boy. Scientists are split as to why this is. One theory is that female embryos are better able to endure maternal stress than male embryos, so pregnant women in unhappy marriages are less likely to have a miscarriage if the child they are bearing is a girl. But once they have a daughter, these couples are more likely to split up since there were already fissures in their relationship prior to the child’s birth.

9. There's a link between pubic hair and STIs.

A downside of pubic grooming is that it might raise STI risk. In a study conducted by a University of Texas scholar, people who regularly shaved their pubic areas contracted STIs about 80 percent more often than those who never shaved down there. One suggestion is that those who regularly shave are more likely to tear their skin, making it easier for viruses to enter the body.

Ross Benes is the author of Sex Weird-o-Pedia: The Ultimate Book of Shocking, Scandalous, and Incredibly Bizarre Sex Facts.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER