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Keywords:

  • Folk beliefs;
  • Infectious disease;
  • Tuberculosis;
  • Taphonomy;
  • Social pathology

Abstract

Folk beliefs associated with death and disease can impact on the bioarcheological record. Unusual postmortem actions by humans and distinctive paleopathological evidence may be clues to these beliefs. This report presents bioarcheological and paleopathological evidence in support of a 19th century New England folk belief in vampires with a particular reference to a colonial period burial. The New England folk belief in vampires revolves around the ability of a deceased tuberculosis victim to return from the dead as a vampire and cause the “wasting away” of the surviving relatives. To stop the actions of the vampire, the body of the consumptive was exhumed and disrupted in various ways. Twelve historic accounts of this activity indicate that the belief was not uncommon in 19th century New England. This creative interpretation of contagion is consistent with the etiology of tuberculosis.

Three pieces of evidence are important in this case. The skeleton of a 50- to 55-year-old male from a mid-19th century Connecticut cemetery exhibiting pulmonary tuberculosis rib lesions are discussed. In addition, certain bones in the skeleton were rearranged after decomposition was complete. A historic vampire account from the same time period and geographical location place the belief within the parameters of the cemetery. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.