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

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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."

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
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As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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Is Death by Guillotine Painless?
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Is death by guillotine painless?

Roger Kryson:

Death by guillotine would be painless because it immediately severs the nerves from your spinal cord to brain. The clean cut would paralyze you after severing your vertebrae, so pain receptors would no longer send signals as your nerves are severed and your body is non-functional. This is, of course, assuming you’re alive after having your head completely chopped off by a 10-pound blade accelerating at speeds of 40 mph, which you wouldn't be. You wouldn't even feel the cold touch of the blade as it sliced into your neck hair; it would be too fast.

For those saying that spasms have been witnessed after execution by guillotine, it should be noted that spasms such as involuntary jerks, eye fluttering, and twitches can occur up to five minutes after death. This is because the brain suffocates, but it does not mean the presence of pain is there. Many people who pass away naturally and painlessly in a hospital bed will twitch, their eyes flutter, and even have bowel movements minutes after death. Once you are dead, you can't “feel” anything, including pain. As for studies mentioned about brain activity continuing in rats after severing of the head, the same goes. Brain activity can still be present after death, but that does not mean the subject is alive, nor [does it have] the defined senses of feeling.

The guillotine was such an effective fear-mongering tool because it didn't focus on pain and suffering, but rather punishment. The idea was you're going to literally just be wiped off the face of the Earth for your crime—you're not even going to be allowed the few extra minutes of torture. The idea of dwelling in a dark cave before being escorted out blindfolded, having your neck placed on a board with a bucket to catch your severed head, and being executed by the drop of the blade and nothing else … it's a jarring realization of just how unsympathetic death is.

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