Somehow last week I stumbled across this absolutely fascinating article at Smithsonian.com about various New England towns exhuming and burning parts of corpses during the mid- to late-1800s, all because of a fear that certain former members of these towns were undead, and taking it out on the citizenry. Skeletons that have clearly been posthumously messed with—beheaded, for instance, with the skull resting atop the ribcage—have been discovered, but there are also news reports of such events. It is, I must say, simultaneously macabre and car-crash-can’t-look-away. An excerpt:
In 1854, in neighboring Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. A few newspaper accounts of these events survived.
…Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. …Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and—even though they often received the standard medical diagnosis—the survivors blamed early victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire’s predations.
The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)
Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
Gee, I’m glad to hear that!
The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses and their children. “Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative,” (folklorist Michael) Bell says.
Mr. Bell, according to the article, has been investigating the “vampire” exhumations for three decades, and has discovered evidence of 80 exhumations, some as far west as Minnesota; he suspects many, many more such exhumations happened. The article goes into the case of Mercy Lena Brown in some great and sad detail.
…some neighbors, likely fearful for their own health, weren’t content with prayers. Several approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all, instead secretly feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin,” as the Providence Journal later summarized. If the offending corpse—the Journal uses the term “vampire” in some stories but the locals seemed not to—was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbors asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.
Gracious. Imagine being George Brown!
Like Mr. Bell, I find the real history of the vampire myth to be very intriguing; Twilight and its ilk are absolutely not my thing; I prefer the old-school view of vampires as irredeemably evil. Dracula was a monster, not a misunderstood lover; indeed, Stoker meant his vampire to be symbolic of the very forces of hell assaulting a group of principled people. As others wiser than I have pointed out, vampires, like other monsters, are important cultural touchstones that are nearly universal; we need them as they were originally created, not as exotic cousins to be lusted after (to say nothing of admired). To be honest, the whole ‘vampires are really cool and hot’ thing we’ve seen in recent years is quite bothersome to me. I’m fully aware, of course, that my old-fashioned opinion is unpopular and sniggered at as, well, old-fashioned; this is all well and good, as opinions are, as we know, like belly buttons.
This might be a bit much for a photographer’s blog, but there is true evil in this world, whether we like it, admit it, or not. Hence we see evil represented so often and in so many ways throughout myth, legend, literature, and art. It unsettles me a little to know that so many will call another person with an opposing viewpoint ‘evil’ without even trying to understand the other’s perspective—yet the same people will swoon over fictional vampires, not even considering that vampires were intended to be a living embodiment of death and destruction of decent human beings. Myth and legend are dissected, but their purpose is not really thought about anymore.
The universality of creatures such as vampires, nasty old crones, dragons, witches, and fairies (good and bad) makes me wonder, too, if having these scapegoats in our stories and legends makes it easier for us to confront real evil in the real, breathing world, particularly if the tales we’ve heard show individuals and groups facing and defeating the evil—or sacrificing their own lives to it in order to save others.
Coming immediately to mind is the impressive scene in Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty where Prince Philip confronts Maleficent. Maleficent, the witch (a magnificent villain, really!), crowed ‘Now you shall do battle with me, oh Prince, and all the powers of hell’, and she meant it. Even so, Prince Philip risked and very nearly lost his life in those fires to save the woman he loved. In contrast to Maleficent’s powers of hell, curses, and clouds of doom, Philip fought back with courage, selflessness, and a late bit of help from the fairies—whose telling charm told the ‘Sword of Truth’ to put death to evil so good might continue. Even had Philip died in his attempt, we would uphold him as a man of extraordinary bravery and very fine character, a man worth emulating—after all, this is a man willing to charge into battle unarmed and continued fighting an enormous dragon breathing green fire after losing his shield.
Sleeping Beauty is a very simple tale: evil and good are clearly demarcated, and virtue is triumphant over great evil in the end. Our cynical and charmless postmodern society may snort derisively at stories such as Sleeping Beauty, but it’s hard to deny that simple stories such as this speak to something deep within us whether we like or dismiss them.
It is also interesting that though we know throughout the story Maleficent is the most malicious of creatures, when it comes time for the final battle, she assumes the form of another perilous creature generally acknowledged as having great hostility toward humanity—that of a fearsome dragon. Now, imagine the difference had Maleficent retained her human female form—truly evil witch though she was—when Prince Philip struck the sword into her heart.
It is, to be sure, quite sensible of mankind to portray evil (or even that which we consider evil) in fantastical forms such as vampires—which really and truly are wholly evil. Instead of pointing our finger directly at the Other, we are forced to think things through so we can allegorize the danger.
In our present age, we see a bizarre and almost forced form of cultural amnesia, in which the throat-devouring, blood-sucking, murdering vampire is the good guy rescuing kittens and the whole town trying to protect its daughters are the mean old guys who want to ban dancing. Again, there is evil, great evil, in our world—but is it possible that by turning those things meant to represent the depths of utterly abhorrent evil into good and even desirable neighbors, we not only strip our long-held culture into a (bleak) shell of what it once was, we are left unable to really recognize true danger by its various degrees—or even at all? For if the greatest of fairytales are anything, they are training wheels for the young.
Yes, what these folks in 1800s New England did was irrational (though as author Abigail Tucker notes, those surviving in the tiny town must have been absolutely terrified, and we all know that such fear can spread, leading us to do remarkably unreasonable things—I found myself feeling sorry for all of them, living with such fear and worse, such awful choices to make). Yet
looking at the world around us, despite what we surely consider our more advanced knowledge, so often we seem more willing to believe lies even when they fly in the face of the truth. Are we really so much smarter than our ancestors? These New Englanders were, as the Smithsonian article notes, rather heathen and superstitious—a boogeyman behind every elderberry bush, as it were—but they did not deny real danger when it appeared. If for a moment we imagine ourselves in their shoes, lacking today’s medical understanding of the situation, watching family, friends, and neighbors die with bizarre symptoms, we would probably agree that though their fear of vampires being the cause was wildly misplaced, it wasn’t unjustified—unexplained, painful death being a fearsome thing indeed.
So often I see our contemporaries afraid or unwilling to call evil what it is—evil. Instead, we pussyfoot around it, as if worried about insulting something so dangerous, often even when it has been shown, undeniably, again and again, that a dire danger waits outside our door. There are not even allegorical attempts to admit the truth—as we see in books like Dracula.
Before we smirk at the perceived silliness of those New Englanders in the 1800s, exhuming the bodies of young women and burning their hearts or beheading and rearranging the limbs of corpses, we should at least admit that the townspeople were unafraid to deal with evil. Yes, they were wrong about the vampires, and did an awful thing by disturbing their dead neighbors, but they did look danger in the eye and take action, instead of, say, sacrificing a freedom, a virgin, or just plain leaving town—or worst of all, ignoring a very real hazard by glossing over it. That, at least, I think we can admire.