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."

The Long Stride of Tony Little, Infomercial Titan

Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Tony Little didn’t see it coming. It was 1983, and the aspiring bodybuilder and future Gazelle pitchman was living in Tampa Bay, Florida, winding down his training for the Mr. America competition that was coming up in just six weeks. While driving to the gym, Little stopped at a red light and waited. Suddenly, a school bus materialized on his left, plowing into Little's vehicle and crumpling his driver’s side door.

Dazed and running on adrenaline, Little got out and sprinted over to find the bus was full of children. After seeing that none of the kids were seriously hurt, he promptly passed out. When Little later awoke, he was in the hospital, where he was handed a laundry list of the injuries he had sustained. There were two herniated discs, a cracked vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, and a dislocated knee. He struggled to maintain his physique in the weight room and made only a perfunctory appearance at that year's Mr. America competition. Little's dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder had been derailed courtesy of an errant school bus, whose driver had been drunk.

Though it took some time, Little eventually overcame the setback, pivoting from his original goal of being a champion bodybuilder to becoming one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the history of televised advertising. Before he did that, however, he would have to recover from another car accident.

 

For someone so devoted to physical achievement, Little was constantly being undercut by obstacles. During a high school football game, Little—who was a star player on his team in Ohio—ended up tearing the cartilage in his knee after he collided with future NFL player Rob Lytle. From that point on, Little's knee popped out of place whenever he stepped onto the field or went to gym class.

Tony Little is photographed at the premiere of Vh1's 'Celebrity Paranormal Project' in Hollywood, California in 2006
John M. Heller, Getty Images

In There’s Always a Way, his 2009 autobiography, Little wrote about how that injury—and the loss of a potential athletic scholarship—caused him to act out. A friend of his stole a Firebird and took Little for a joyride. When they were caught, Little took the blame; as he was under 18, Little figured he would get by with a slap on the wrist, while his older friend might be tried and convicted of a serious crime as an adult. According to Little, the judge gave him a pass on the condition that he relocate to Tampa Bay, where he could live with his uncle and put some distance between himself and the negative influences in his life. Little agreed.

Because of his previous injury, Little was unable to play football after making the move to Florida; instead, he devoted himself to his new high school’s weight room, where a bad knee was not nearly as limiting. After graduating, he pursued bodybuilding, earning the titles of Junior Mr. America and Mr. Florida. Little envisioned a future where he would be a fitness personality, selling his own line of supplements when he wasn't competing professionally.

The school bus changed all that. Little, who was now unable to train at the level such serious competition required, retreated to his condo, where he said he relied on painkillers to numb the physical and emotional pain of the accident. More misfortune followed: Little accidentally sat in a pool of chemicals at a friend’s manufacturing plant, suffering burns. He also had a bout with meningitis.

While Little was convalescing from this string of ailments and accidents, he saw Jane Fonda on television, trumpeting her line of workout videos. Little was intrigued: Maybe he didn’t need to have bodybuilding credentials to reach a wider audience. Maybe his enthusiastic approach to motivating people would be enough.

By now it was the mid-1980s, and a very good time to get into televised pitching. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which deregulated paid airtime for cable networks. Herbalife was the first to sign up, airing an infomercial for their line of nutritional products. Soon, stations were broadcasting all kinds of paid programs. Exercise advice and equipment pitches were abundant, a kind of throwback to department stores that used to feature product demonstrations. It was not enough to read about a Soloflex, which used resistance bands to strengthen muscles. It was better to see it in action.

Now that he was back in shape, Little was ready to make his mark. He was told by his local cable access channel that he could buy 15 half-hours of airtime for $5500. To raise the money, Little started a cleaning service for gyms and health clubs. After airing installments of an exercise program, he was picked up by the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Little made his HSN debut in 1987. With his energetic pitch and trademark ponytail, he sold 400 workout videos in four hours.

 

Little was on the home-shopping and infomercial circuit for years before landing his breakthrough project. In 1996, the Ohio-based company Fitness Quest was preparing to launch their Gazelle, an elliptical trainer that could raise the heart rate without any impact on joints. People used their hands and feet to move in a long stride that felt effortless.

Little felt he would be the perfect spokesperson for the Gazelle and entered into an arrangement with Bob Schnabel, the company's president. The night before the infomercial was scheduled to shoot, Little was driving when he got into another serious car accident that required 200 stitches in his face. Little called Schnabel to break the news, and was told he’d have to be replaced.

Tony Little demonstrates a Gazelle during an MTV upfront presentation in New York in 2016
Mike Coppola, Getty Images for MTV

Undaunted, Little flew from Florida to Ohio to speak to Schnabel in person. By insisting that he could make the story inspirational (and that he could cover up his injuries with make-up), Little managed to convince Schnabel to proceed with the infomercial as planned. The Gazelle ended up with $1.5 billion in revenue, with Little’s other ventures—Cheeks sandals, bison meat, and a therapeutic pillow—bringing the total sales of his endorsed products to more than $3 billion. Little later reprised his Gazelle pitch for a Geico commercial, which also served as a stealth ad for the machine—which is still on the market.

While pitching wound up being relatively low-impact, it was not completely without problems. Little once said that the accumulation of appearances—more than 10,000 in all—has done some damage to his neck because of constantly having to swivel his head between the camera and the model demonstrating his product.

Those appearances have made Little synonymous with the machine. In 2013, the Smithsonian's National Zoo wondered what to name their new baby gazelle. The answer: Little Tony.

What You Should Know About Necrotizing Fasciitis, the 'Flesh-Eating' Infection

DragonImages/iStock via Getty Images
DragonImages/iStock via Getty Images

You’ve likely stumbled across one of several recent news stories describing cases of necrotizing fasciitis, or “flesh-eating bacteria.” The condition can follow exposure to certain bacteria in public beaches, pools, or rivers. This July, a man in Okaloosa County, Florida with a compromised immune system died after going into local waters. Just two weeks before, a 12-year-old girl was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis after scraping her foot in Pompano Beach, Florida. The stories and their disturbing imagery spread on social media, inviting questions over the condition and how it can be avoided.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by different strains of bacteria, with group A Streptococcus (strep) being the most common. When group A strep enters the body through a break in the skin like a cut or burn, a serious and rapidly spreading infection can develop. People will have a high fever, severe pain at the site of exposure, and eventual tissue destruction, which gives the condition its name. Necrotizing is to cause the death of tissue, while fasciitis is inflammation of the fascia, or tissue under the skin.

Because necrotizing fasciitis spreads so quickly, it’s crucial for people to seek medical attention immediately if they see early symptoms: rapid swelling and redness that spreads from a cut or burn, fever, and severe pain. Doctors can diagnose the infection using tissue biopsies, blood work, or imaging of the infected site, though they’ll almost always initiate treatment immediately. IV antibiotics, surgery to excise dead tissue, and blood transfusions are all used in an attempt to resolve the infection.

Even with care, necrotizing fasciitis can lead to complications like organ failure or sepsis. An estimated one in three people who are diagnosed with the condition die.

Fortunately, the condition is extremely rare in the United States, with an estimated 700 to 1200 cases confirmed each year. The CDC acknowledges, however, that the number is likely an low estimate.

Because group A strep can be found in water, the CDC advises people to avoid going into public waters with any kind of open wound. This applies to both public beaches and rivers as well as swimming pools or hot tubs. Chlorination is no guarantee against group A strep. Any cut or other wound should always be cleaned with soap and water. It’s especially important that people with compromised immune systems from illness, diabetes, cancer, or another conditions be exceedingly careful.

Rising ocean temperatures may make necrotizing fasciitis more common, unfortunately. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that warmer water temperatures in Delaware Bay has allowed another kind of bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, to flourish, resulting in five cases of necrotizing fasciitis in 2017 and 2018. Previously, only one case had been confirmed since 2008. Florida is also known to harbor group A strep in seawater.

But, owing to its rarity, necrotizing fasciitis should not overly concern people with healthy immune systems and unbroken skin. If you suffer a cut with a reddened area accompanied by severe pain and fever, however, seek medical evaluation right away.

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