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



Michael E. Bell


On July 21, 1788, the Congregational minister of Belchertown, Massachusetts confided his suspicions that a deceased family member was feeding on its living kin. In a letter to Colonel Elijah Williams of Stockbridge, Reverend Justus Forward described his “great concern” when his daughter began “bleeding inwardly” as they journeyed to Stratford. He wrote that his anxiety was that of a parent “whose family was so wasted with consumption—three dead with it, and two more in imminent danger of death.” Forward described how he “had consulted many about opening the graves of some of the deceased, to see whether there were any signs of the dead preying on the living.” He continued that, although “many advised to it, and most thought it awful,” others, including Dr. Williams of Hatfield, “spoke in such a manner about it, that some of the family were not soon reconciled to it.” Despite their objections, however, “they consented, and last Friday mother Dickinson’s grave was opened. She had been buried almost three years.” In an apparent allusion to a similar case, Forward noted that “nothing appeared like what was represented in Mr. Smith’s son.” Martha Dickinson, Forward’s mother-in-law, “was wasted away to a mere skeleton when she died.” In an almost clinical description, Forward described what they saw when the grave was opened: “The coffin had moisture in it towards the foot, face fallen in to the bones, the lungs, consuming as fast as any part, did not properly adhere together but seemed like meal a little wettish. Dr. Scott of this town opened the body. We did not try to separate the lungs from the body, but buried it again.” Someone in the gathering “suggested that perhaps she was not the right person.” Undaunted by this setback, Forward “concluded to search further.” On Monday morning, the day his letter was dated, he “opened the grave” of his married daughter, Martha Dwight, “who had died . . . almost six years ago.” When they cut into her body, they discovered that “the lungs were not dissolved, but had blood in them, though not fresh, but clotted.” However, Forward continued, “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.” Apparently convinced that they had found the malevolent corpse, they “put the lungs and liver in a separate box, and buried it in the same grave, ten inches or a foot, above the coffin.” [1]

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:

  • removal and burning of vital organs—particularly the heart—sometimes, ingesting the ashes;
  • burning the entire corpse, sometimes inhaling or standing in the smoke;
  • turning the corpse face down and reburying it;
  • searching for, and destroying (sometimes by burning), a vine found growing from the corpse;
  • removing the shroud from the mouth of the corpse;
  • rearranging the bones, especially the skull, of the corpse.

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 South and Midwest) now totals more than eighty. The documentation that establishes the practice is diverse, including eye witness accounts, family stories, local legends, newspaper articles, local histories, town records, journal entries, personal correspondence, genealogies, gravestones, and even actual human remains. The evidence suggests that therapeutic exhumations probably were not uncommon, especially in New England, during the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s. As the following examples indicate, the evidence also shows that, in the early years, at least, this practice was known to and accepted, sometimes actually endorsed, by the community-at-large, by town officials, by medical doctors, and, as we have just seen, even by clergymen.

In February of 1793, the friends and family of Captain Isaac Burton, of Manchester, Vermont, disinterred the remains of his first wife, Rachel, who, “not long after they were married . . . went into a decline and after a year or so . . . died of consumption.” Burton had remarried Hulda Powel, who was described as “a very healthy, good-looking girl.” But Hulda’s heath soon began to deteriorate, and “when she was in the last stages of consumption, a strange infatuation took possession of the minds of the connections and friends of the family. They were induced to believe that if the vitals of the first wife could be consumed by being burned in a charcoal fire it would effect a cure of the sick second wife. . . . They took out the liver, heart, and lungs, what remained of them, and burned them to ashes on the blacksmith’s forge of Jacob Mead. . . . Such was the excitement that from five hundred to one thousand people were present. This account was furnished me by an eye witness of the transaction.” [2]

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.” [3]

In Woodstock, Vermont, about 1830, the Corwin family had a deceased brother’s body exhumed and examined. Finding his heart “undecayed, and containing liquid blood,” the heart was removed and burned to ashes in an iron pot. According to an elderly woman, who witnessed this event as a young girl, the ceremony “was attended by a large concourse of people.” It was “conducted by the selectmen, attended by some of the prominent citizens of the village then residing on the common. . . . old men of renown, sound minded fathers among the community, discreet careful men.” Moreover,  “There was a general consensus of opinion among all the physicians at that time practicing in Woodstock . . . that this was a case of assured vampirism.” [4]

One of the most poignant cases appeared in an old history of the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. The preemptive action urged by the dying girl, embedded in the following text derived from a family story, probably occurred about 1794: “When that fell destroyer, consumption, broke into a family circle and began to bear away its victims in slow but sure succession, humiliating the most self-confident physicians with a sense of their impotence, there often came to light a strange delusion—the vulgar belief that if the heart of one who had died with that disease were burned, and the members of the household inhaled the fumes from it, they would escape the doom hanging over them. There is a well-attested tradition that about a century ago, in a consumptive-stricken family of Harvard already bereft of eight or more of it's youth, a dying girl extracted from friends a solemn promise that her heart should be consumed for the benefit of her sisters, and her last wish was duly carried out. One of these sisters at least survived to acknowledge to her inquisitive granddaughter who heard this tradition, that the story was essentially true.” [5]

 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. [6] During 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 North America throughout the entire nineteenth century, where a diagnosis of consumption amounted to a death sentence.

Responding to an article in the Chicago Tribune that recounted the 1892 exhumation of Mercy Brown, in Exeter, Rhode Island—one of the last, and certainly the most well-known, American vampire incident—an anonymous letter writer revealed a farsighted understanding of the relationship between tuberculosis microbes and vampires, effectively bridging the widening gulf between science and folklore. In his letter, titled “Vampires and Bacteria,” the writer noted that “the vampire is invisible, and its ravages are supposed to be unpreventable by any ordinary means, the most effectual method being to exhume the corpse, burn it, and administer the ashes in some form to the afflicted survivors.” His observation that the vampire tradition “is an idea which can be traced back a long way in the history of human thought” seems accurate and not at all extraordinary. But his next statement is an attention grabber: “strangely enough,” he continued, the vampire idea “may be one of those which prove to have a foundation in truth just about the time that the world gets ready to reject it as a fallacy.” He preempted the anticipated objections to this startling supposition by admitting that, while “we cannot now consent to believe in the existence of a huge vampire capable of rendering itself invisible while it preys upon its victim, . . . the microscope has revealed . . . a little one equally destructive, though too small to be seen with the naked eye.” Science now was aware of “the existence of myriads of these little entities feeding on the larger animal organisms and literally killing them off by inches.” Moreover, he wrote, science also “has shown that consumption is the leader in a list of diseases which are directly traceable to the ravages of these minute creatures. They are not called vampires, but that matters little” because “bacilli . . . are but different names for micro-organisms which prey on the air passages and air cells of the human frame, and number their victims by the thousand where the vampire used to be supposed responsible for the death of a single individual.” While these tiny “specks on the slide of a microscope . . . may not be able to pass from the corpse within the grave to the yet living body outside, . . . it is proven they can and do move from one animate body to another, being transmissible in more than one way, and that they thus carry the seeds of death far and wide, sometimes through many successive generations.” So the writer sees “these sequences of apparent folly and ascertained truth” as a process inherently capable of leading to empirically validated propositions. In the late nineteenth century—as scholars such as E. B. Tylor and Sir James George Frazer viewed superstition as a “bastard science” surviving from earlier stages of cultural evolution—this anonymous author stood virtually alone in finding a rational common ground in the human mind that could generate and sanction both superstition and science: “It would be too much to say that the vampire superstition was the parent of the bacillus discovery, but it may be exactly true that the latter would never have been made but for the constitution of the human mind, which sets it to inquire into the causation of things, and makes it so anxious for an explanation that it will accept a foolish one in preference to none. . . . Looking at the matter in this light we may regard the conception of a vampire as the legitimate predecessor of the knowledge recently acquired about the bacteria and their work in decimating the race by causing the class of diseases at the head of which stands consumption as the most pronounced example of the devastation wrought by those minute organisms.” [7]

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.” [8] 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.” [9] 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:


In New England the vampire superstition is unknown by its proper name. It is believed that consumption is not a physical but a spiritual disease, obsession, or visitation; that as long as the body of a dead consumptive relative has blood in its heart it is proof that an occult influence steals from it for death and is at work draining the blood of the living into the heart of the dead and causing his rapid decline. [10]


The following 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[11] . . . 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[12] . . . 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[13] [Denison, Frederic 1878 Westerly and Its Witnesses. Providence, RI: J. A. & R. A. Reid p. 255 (under the heading of “Cremation”)]. . . the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living."[14]


These connections 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.” [15] An account from an 1867 incident in Grafton, New York, appears to explain the then generally accepted hereditary aspects of consumption: “. . . the decaying vitals of that body are continually emitting the elements of that disease, which the surviving relatives will receive, and thereby generation after generation will be followed by that dreadful scourge.” [16] A text that was published in 1869 invokes an intriguing “popular theory” that links deceased and living family members:


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 New England. Another member of the family, Frederick, a brother of Henry, is now supposed to be in the last stages of consumption, and in order to stay the ravages of the disease the body of Henry has been disinterred for the purpose of removing and burning the heart, this being supposed to be a sovereign remedy, the popular theory being that there exists between blood relations a sympathetic link which death does not entirely sever, and which, unless interrupted, oftentimes works injury to the living and sometimes results in death. [17]


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.” [18]

The archaeological 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 after.” [19] 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.” [20] The secondary mortuary ritual carried out in North America was intended to identify which corpse had not “fully deteriorated” and therefore was yet to be “firmly established in its new existence.” Burning the corpse or its heart ended the unnatural relationship between dead and living kin and, in a practical sense, completed the mourning, thus allowing the living to leave “otherworldly concerns” and return to their “more mundane concerns.”

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.” [21] 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.” [22] 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.” [23]

“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 New England medical community continued to put faith (and it was faith-based) in the ancient theory of Hippocrates that the four “humors” of phlegm, choler, bile, and blood controlled the human body. A person became ill when these fluids or vapors went out of balance. Physicians would purge the digestive tract with cathartics and emetics or bleed the patient to restore balance and good health. Both the scientific and folk idea systems regarded blood as the principal humor; it contained the essence, or vital spirit, of the creature in which it flowed. And if blood was the river of life, the heart was its wellspring and reservoir. Margaret Lock’s observation that, “For several centuries, the heart was usually . . . understood as the organ that governed human life and all vital principles” distinguishes a necessary foundation for New England’s vampire practice: the heart’s blood. [24] Physicians and laymen alike believed that the bright red (that is, oxygenated) blood from a consumptive’s lung hemorrhages came directly from the heart. When vampire hunters encountered liquid blood in the vital organs of a corpse, they believed that death was incomplete. Burning hastened the necessary and irreversible drying process. The narrative recounting Rachel Harris Burton’s exhumation in Woodstock, Vermont, clearly shows how these long-held ideas were instantiated through application in actual social situations: “If a person died of consumption and one of the family . . . was attacked soon after, people . . . opened the grave at once and examined the heart; if bloodless and decaying, the disease was supposed to be from some other cause, and the heart was restored to its body; but if the heart was fresh and contained liquid blood, it was feeding on the life of the sick person. In all such cases, they burned the heart to ashes.” [25]

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.” [26] 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’.” [27] 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. [28] 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.” [29] 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.” [30]

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.” [31] 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. [32]

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





[1]. “A Curious Old Letter,” Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 10 September 1877, 1.

[2]. John S. Pettibone, “The Early History of Manchester,” Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society 1 (1930): 158.

[3]. “Cumberland Town Council Records,” Town Council Meeting of 8 February 1796 (Cumberland, Rhode Island, 1796).

[4]. Rockwell Stephens, “They Burned the Vampire’s Heart to Ashes,” Vermont Life 21, no. 1 (1966): 47.

[5]. Henry S. Nourse, History of the Town of Harvard Massachusetts, 1731–1893 (Harvard, MA: Printed for Warren Hapgood, 1894), 104–5.

[6]. Alan C. Swedlund, Shadows in the Valley: A Cultural History of Illness, Death, and Loss in New England, 1840–1916 (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), 197–99.

[7]. “Vampires and Bacteria,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 June 1892, 28.

[8]. Rene Dubos and Jean Dubos, The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man and Society (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1952), 118, Brown (Sci) RC310 D82.

[9]. John McNab Currier, “Contributions to New England Folk-Lore,” Journal of American Folklore 4, no. 14 (1891): 253.

[10]. George R. Stetson, “The Animistic Vampire in New England,” American Anthropologist 9, no. 1 (1896): 3.

[11]. Charles M. Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1896), 76–77.

[12]. Adaline M. Tirrell, “Legends of Hampshire Hills—Old Nahum Had His Jokes,” Springfield Republican, 25 August 1929, 4 E.

[13]. Frederic Denison, Westerly and Its Witnesses (Providence, RI: J. A. & R. A. Reid, 1878), 255.

[14]. J. R. Cole, The History of Tolland County, Connecticut (New York: W. W. Preston & Co., 1888), 499.

[15]. “Singular Superstition in Western Massachusetts,” Greenville Argus, 1 October 1869, 1.

[16]. “Horrible Superstition,” Adams Sentinel, 29 January 1867, 1.

[17]. Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 20 September 1869, 3.

[18]. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1911–15), vol. 3, p. 12.

[19]. Sergei Kan, Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century (Washington D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 15.

[20]. Kan, p. 13.

[21]. “A Curious Old Letter,” Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 10 September 1877, 1.

[22]. Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 114.

[23]. Alan Dundes, “Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye: An Essay in Indo-European and Semitic Worldview,” in Interpreting Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1980), 102.

[24]. Margaret Lock, Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 74.

[25]. Jeremiah Curtin, “European Folk-Lore in the United States,” Journal of American Folklore 2, no. 4 (1889): 58–59.

[26]. Lock, p. 41.

[27]. Lock, p. 66.

[28]. Lock, p. 74.

[29]. Lock, p. 75.

[30]. Lock, p. 75.

[31]. Lock, p. 41.

[32]. Lock, p. 59.