an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 10, March 2013, ISSN 1552-5112
American Vampires and the Ongoing Ambiguity of Death
On July 21, 1788,
the Congregational minister of
During his heart-stricken attempt to save the last remnants of his family, the course of action resorted to by Forward— a graduate of Yale University, who also served as his town’s medical doctor early in his fifty-six year tenure as its minister— was not an arcane or arbitrary ritual dreamed up by some sort of weird wizard (which is how such incidents increasingly were portrayed in American periodicals as the country became more “civilized” and “scientific”). No, it was an ancient folk remedy—often labeled“vampirism” by outsiders—that required exhuming the bodies of deceased relatives and checking them for signs considered to be extraordinary, usually “fresh” blood (that is, liquid blood) in the heart or other vital organs. As in all folk traditions, there were a variety of methods used to kill the vampire and cure its victims. From the late eighteenth century and continuing into the mid-twentieth century, various combinations of the following measures were employed by Americans desperate to halt the relentless onslaught of consumption:
You may have noticed that the exact procedures carried out by Justus Forward are not on the list above; as far as I now am aware, reburying vital organs in a separate container, apart from the corpse, is unique in the American tradition.
The number of
vampire incidents—or, I think, more accurately, therapeutic exhumations—I’ve
uncovered in the Northeastern United States (and to a lesser extent, in the
In February of
1793, the friends and family of Captain Isaac Burton, of
At the Cumberland, Rhode Island, Town Council meeting of February 8, 1796, Stephen Staples was “granted liberty” to exhume the body of his daughter, Abigail, to “try an experiment” in an attempt to save another daughter, Livina, provided that he rebury Abigail’s body in a “Deasent Manner.” 
One of the most
poignant cases appeared in an old history of the town of
These texts are a few among many that reveal
an almost routine acceptance of therapeutic exhumations, showing that they
were not necessarily marginalized, but were, indeed, part of the official
social fabric of some communities. The texts also disclose that the tiny tuberculosis
microbe was a great leveler. The families of clergymen, selectmen, and bankers
died just as inexorably as those of farmers and laborers. If there was any
selection going on, it was not according to class, social standing, or income:
young people, especially females, took the brunt of this wasting disease.
the 1700s, tuberculosis infections had begun to increase dramatically in the
Northeast. By 1800, almost twenty-five percent of all deaths were blamed on
consumption (in most cases, probably pulmonary tuberculosis). It remained
the leading cause of death in
an article in the Chicago Tribune that recounted the 1892 exhumation of Mercy
What is it about consumption that would lead the rational human mind to posit the existence of a vampire? What do vampires and tuberculosis germs have to do with each other? One possible link may reside in how closely accounts of vampire attacks correspond with the symptoms of consumption. Victims of consumption suffered most at night. They awakened coughing and in pain; sometimes they described a heavy feeling, as though someone had been sitting on their chest. As the disease progressed, ulcers and cavities developed in the lungs and victims began to cough up blood, which lingered at the corners of their mouth and stained their bedclothes. As they faded into death, others in the family began to complain of the same symptoms. Death, itself, appeared to be contagious. In an essay on pulmonary tuberculosis, written in 1799, doctor Thomas Beddoes described a consumptive patient who could be the very picture of the classic vampire depicted in history, legend, novels, and film (you might imagine Count Orlock from the film Nosferatu, for instance): “The emaciated figure strikes one with terror; the forehead covered with drops of sweat; the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk; the little fat that raised them in their orbits entirely wasted; the pulse quick and tremulous; the nails long, bending over the ends of the fingers; the palms of the hand dry and painfully hot to the touch; the breath offensive, quick and laborious.”  Both consumptives and vampires are the living dead. Consumptives are walking corpses, waiting to take their final labored breath. Pale and wasted, they embody disease and death. Vampires provide a corporeal image for consumption, giving shape to the unseen evil that slowly drains away life.
If we concede that the rational human mind can accept the possibility of a corpse preying on its living relatives, we still must ask how the corpse could infect them with consumption. We are in murky territory here, since the documenting texts are not (perhaps cannot be) explicit concerning this crucial question. Beneath the attempts to explain how the vampire process works—usually offered by outside commentators who appear to be interpreting verbal texts supplied by local informants—lies a matter-of-fact frame of mind characteristic of the practical Yankee. This pragmatic is more concerned with ending a plague than speculating about the modus operandi of supernatural forces or creatures, as exemplified in the following text, collected in the late nineteenth century by folklorist John McNab Currier (a Vermont native and physician): “If the lungs of a brother or sister who died of consumption be burned, the ashes will cure the living members of the family affected with that disease.”  Texts that do address the issue of process tend to posit some shadowy, unseen connection between the corpse and its prey: in the American vampire tradition, the lethal visitation is immaterial or spiritual rather than an explicit, corporeal assault by a mobile corpse. George Stetson, in his 1896 article in the American Anthropologist, expressed the frighteningly formless nature of this affliction:
excerpts from American vampire texts reinforce Stetson’s assertion:. . . "victims
of vampires who work by charm, draining the blood by slow draughts as they
lie in their graves
. . . his or
her “vitals,” meaning by that term the lungs, heart, and liver, became animated
after burial and came back to earth in invisible form to prey upon the “vitals”
of others in the family
. . . in some
mysterious way the dead, or the diseases of the dead, may feed upon the living,
. . . diseases have their seat in the vitals of the body
are undeniably opaque, yet one can discern the inquiring and rational human
mind in the background. The text of an exhumation in the Connecticut River
Valley in 1869 seems to evoke the invisible powers of electricity, which,
following the path of numerous emerging “modern sciences,” became a metaphor
for any strong, somewhat-mystical power at that time: “The reason assigned
[for the continuing deaths in the family] was that there was a sort of vital
current existing between the living and dead—that these organs in the dead
body that contained fresh blood and appeared to be alive, would continue to
live until the vitality of the living subject was exhausted, unless said organs
were taken out and consumed by fire.”
An account from
an 1867 incident in
During the last
winter, a young man named Henry Cole, a resident of Jay Hill, Maine, died
of consumption, being the second one in the same family to fall a victim to
this great scourge of
The referenced “sympathetic link” foreshadows Sir James George Frazer’s later elaboration of “sympathetic magic” in his Golden Bough. “Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious,” he wrote in 1890, “may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science . . . to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.” 
record shows that early humans had formed ongoing bonds with their deceased
companions. And, for better or worse, all human cultures continue to maintain
connections to the dead. Anthropologist Sergei Kan proposed the central position
of symbolic immortality, which is “a continuous symbolic relationship between
our finite individual lives and what has gone before us and what will come
As we have seen,
vampire cases incarnate a continuous link that is devastating to the living
and must be destroyed to return the family and community to their proper order.
Ending this evil relationship is accomplished by conducting an additional,
or secondary, mortuary ritual (the burial itself being the first, or primary,
ritual). The primary and secondary disposal of the remains of the dead—termed
“double obsequies” by anthropologists—affirms that “the process of the corpse’s
decay, the mourning regulations imposed on the bereaved and the transformation
of the spirit of the deceased parallel each other. Once the corpse has fully
deteriorated or has been destroyed by human means and the double obsequies
carried out, mourning comes to an end and the spirit of the deceased is firmly
established in its new existence.”
mortuary ritual carried out in
Death, or more precisely, the demarcation between life and death, is at the center of the vampire tradition (in any of its variants). When frightened people exhumed the body of a deceased relative, they were looking for signs that would either reassure them that death was complete or alert them that they needed to take further steps to extinguish whatever “flicker of vitality” remained within the problematic corpse. Reverend Justus Forward made it clear in his letter that the remains of his mother-in-law, Martha Dicksinson, did not appear to those present—including medical doctors—to be suspiciously fresh: her face had collapsed and her lungs were in an advanced stage of decomposition. When the exhumers proceeded to Forward’s daughter, Martha Dwight, the following day, Forward wrote that he was unable to speculate on whether the state of her corpse was natural, as he had no experience with viewing corpses after interment. In a postscript to his letter, Forward implied that Dr. Scott— “who opened the body”—also had no experience with human cadavers. Dr. Scott’s supposition about the appearance of Martha Dwight’s lungs and liver—“in such a state as he should suppose they would in a creature which was opened and hung up till it began to taint”—reads like an analogy to dressing wild game or slaughtering farm stock. His only direct reference to human physiology was when he compared the blood found in her lungs to “blood drawn from a person’s arm that has stood 26 hours.”  Dr. Scott undoubtedly was intimately familiar with drawing human blood, as bloodletting was a core medical procedure at that time.
It is plain in Forward’s account, as in most of the other vampire narratives, that those involved in therapeutic exhumations viewed putrefaction as the condition that separated life from death. A corpse that had not sufficiently decomposed was viewed, at best, as ambiguous and therefore a threat to the living. The crucial test of whether a satisfactory level of putrefaction had occurred was the absence of liquid blood (interpreted as “fresh” blood) in the vital organs, especially the heart. As Paul Barber explained in Vampires, Burial, and Death, “Presumably the vampire-killers expected the blood to remain coagulated,” but “were astonished to find that it was ‘fresh’.” Barber elaborated this point, arguing that the appearance of blood in liquid form “is no cause for surprise.” Blood “does coagulate after death, but then, depending on how death occurred, it either remains coagulated or liquifies once again.”  But the exhumers who found liquid blood—having no access to the reassuring science referenced by Barber—were astonished. They were making judgments based on an ancient and widespread folk principle that told them “liquid proclaims life,” an axiom that goes back at least to the Greek conception of “life as the gradual diminishing of liquid inside a man.” 
“From dust to
dust” was more than a proverb or popular religious/funereal aphorism: it encapsulated
an entire theory, a folk model about the balanced, never-ending, dry-wet-dry
cycle of life. The early
Putrefaction as “the definitive sign of death” was shared by both the folk and the biomedical cultural systems, undoubtedly because it was regarded as a path of no return. In her book, Twice Dead, which addresses contemporary issues concerning the demarcation of death in context of organ transplants, Margaret Lock asserts that “biological death has always been recognized on the basis of changes to the body that are judged irreversible.”  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the biomedical community began to embrace the cardiopulmonary standard, which marks death as the point at which the heart and lungs cease to function. However, as Lock observed, the older conception persisted into the beginning of the twentieth century as “eminent practitioners continued to have doubts about their ability to objectively assess death and insisted that ‘nothing short of putrefaction could distinguish death from life’.”  The medical establishment’s doubts about their ability to fix with certainty the point of death—we can picture the nervous physician holding a feather in front of the patient’s nose—was reflected in the fear of premature burial among many of the general populace. Indeed, premature burial even has been offered as a reason for the origin of belief in vampires. How many people, if any, actually were buried alive has been hotly debated. But, whether factually based or not, people acted on their fearful beliefs, and an entire commercial industry was created to give people the peace of mind that they could signal from the grave to the living, “I’m not dead yet!” in case that became their horrible fate.
Contemporary Americans might look back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with smugness and see an enormous gap in knowledge; yet, as Lock has clearly demonstrated, “the complexities of unresolvable questions about the determination of death” continue into the present, and the ambiguities that plagued early New Englanders have returned.  Some questions, like the vampires themselves, will not rest easy. The medical profession’s failure to understand and successfully treat tuberculosis prior to the twentieth century nourished the belief in vampires. A different sort of failure by the biomedical paradigm has reintroduced the ambiguous living dead. In Lock’s words, “These fundamental issues remain unresolved because key concepts that we recognize as life, such as personhood, cannot be measured by medical devices. The work of doctors in the early twentieth century to medicalize death and make foolproof its assessment have not withstood the test of time or the invention of the artificial ventilator.”  When Lock discusses the current concept of brain death, we cannot help but picture the disturbing vampire image: “The new death, with its ambiguous figure of the living cadaver, has rekindled doubts about error and premature declarations of death.” Her concluding remarks on “locating biological death” echo the ancient, often anxious, unbroken sympathetic links to the dead: “Concern about ‘bad’ deaths—those that are unnatural, accidental, or untimely, or repugnant—is a universal, age-old preoccupation. Technologically orchestrated deaths appear intuitively to many people to be unnatural. We worry that individuals who die bad deaths suffer unduly, and, even though most of us consider such thoughts irrational, even some health-care practitioners may be harrowed by the idea that this suffering will come back to haunt the living.” 
In response to the current ambiguity and controversy surrounding the concept of brain death, some physicians have advocated a return to the traditional cardiopulmonary standard, arguing that death is a biological event rather than a process requiring social consensus. Lock observes, “The point at which irreversibility can be confidently declared has been moved earlier and earlier over the years as a result of systematized application of medical knowledge and technologies.”  Neurologist Robert Taylor, quoted in Lock, asserts that the “proper” biological definition of death is “the event that separates the process of dying from the process of disintegration” and that, therefore, the “proper criterion” of death is the “permanent cessation of the circulation of blood”—a formulation that seems implicit in the vampire hunters’ search for liquid blood in the heart, taken as evidence that “fresh” blood was still flowing and death was therefore incomplete. 
By the time that Mercy Brown’s heart was removed from her corpse and burned, in 1892, significant cultural changes had converged to render the vampire practice obsolete (if not completely abandoned): Edward Koch had announced his discovery of the tuberculosis microbe, and more and more people were embracing embalming and interment by mortuary professionals as the preferred method for treating deceased relatives. Among the elites, there was a growing perception that “civilization” was poised to win the war against “superstition”—and vampires did virtually disappear from American cemeteries. But ambiguous corpses have returned in a contemporary setting: living cadavers attached to artificial ventilators in intensive care units. In 1788, Reverend Justice Forward wondered if the (un)dead in the cemeteries were preying on the living. Today’s ambiguous corpses lying in the ICU have prompted many people to question if the living are preying on the (un)dead. “What’s past is prologue”—and death continues to mystify.
Note: I addressed variants of these ideas in “Vampires and Death in New England, 1784 to 1892” in “Becoming Dead: The Entangled Agencies of the Dearly Departed,” a special edition of Anthropology and Humanism 31(2006), pp. 124-140, edited by Bilinda S. Straight; and in “American Vampires: The Ongoing Ambiguity of Death,” an unpublished paper delivered at the conference, “Vampires: Myths of the Past and the Future,” November 2, 2011, at The Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of London. A more detailed interpretation of the American vampire tradition can be found in my book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires (Wesleyan University Press, 2011).
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 10, March 2013, ISSN 1552-5112
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Pettibone, “The Early History of
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