Vampires and Death in New England, 1784 to 1892
Article first published online: 28 JUN 2008
Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 31, Issue 2, pages 124–140, December 2006
How to Cite
Bell, M. E. (2006), Vampires and Death in New England, 1784 to 1892. Anthropology and Humanism, 31: 124–140. doi: 10.1525/ahu.2006.31.2.124
- Issue published online: 31 OCT 2008
- Article first published online: 28 JUN 2008
During the 18th and 19th centuries, New England was in the grip of a terrible tuberculosis epidemic. During the 19th century, this disease was the leading cause of death in the Eastern United States, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all deaths. Despite an abundance of cures offered by an eclectic mix of practitioners, a diagnosis of consumption—as pulmonary tuberculosis was then called—was the equivalent of a death sentence. Not willing to simply watch as, one after another, their family members died, some New Englanders resorted to an old folk remedy whose roots surely must rest in Europe. Called vampirism by outsiders (a term that may never have been used by those within the communities themselves) this remedy required exhuming the bodies of deceased relatives and checking them for “unnatural” signs, such as “fresh” blood in the heart. The implicit belief was that one of the relatives was not completely dead and was maintaining some semblance of a life by draining the vital force from living relatives.
All of the more than 20 cases documented in New England occurred in areas outside of the Puritan heartland of Massachusetts and contiguous Connecticut—“fringe” areas that were Separatist, Tolerant, or unspecified in terms of religious affiliation. Perhaps surprisingly, from 85 to 90 percent of white New Englanders of this era were “unchurched,” many practicing various hybrid religions that have been classified as “folk” in the sense that they were unofficial combinations of Christian beliefs and various folk practices of the kind often disparagingly referred to as “superstitions.” Interpreting the vampire practice through diverse strands of evidence, including eye witness accounts, family stories, local legends, newspaper articles, local histories, town records, journal entries, unpublished correspondence, genealogies, and even actual human remains reveals that to many New Englanders the border between life and death was indeed far more fragile and ill defined than histories that are based solely on conventional sources have suggested.