Everyone is pretty much familiar with the Salem witch trials, which took place in New England in 1692. But this is far from the only “supernatural” panic that spread through New England in the years since its colonization by Europeans, and many tiny old cemeteries and long-forgotten family burial plots dotted throughout the area contain the headless and rearranged corpses to prove it. For in the early to late 1800s, New England was swept up in a vampire panic, and exhumed many bodies of family and other members of the community in the belief that they were disease-causing “vampires.”
In 1854, in Jewett City, Connecticut, the people of the town exhumed and desecrated several bodies in the belief that they were rising from the dead. The nature of what was done to the body tended to vary by state—sometimes they just flipped the body over, some chopped off heads, others staked the bodies into the ground or even cut out and burned their hearts. The heart burning was apparently very popular in Vermont. This story is in the town history for 1793 in Manchester, Vermont: “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. It was the month of February and good sleighing.” Most of the proof of these panics comes through similar writings and newspaper stories, and the only actual body that proves it was found in 1990 in Griswold, Connecticut, a town neighbouring Jewett City. The body of a 50-year-old man was found, with its head cut off and the bones completely rearranged.
But why would these people dig up the bodies of their loved ones? What scared them so much they felt compelled to do this? It should be recalled that during this time period doctors couldn’t even use cadavers for medical research, because the desecration of the dead was such a grievous sin. Even though New England at the time wasn’t as God-fearing as we assume it was, this was accepted as fact. The key to this mystery is that these panics tended to occur during major tuberculosis outbreaks. When they tested the body found at Griswold, it was found the man had probably died of tuberculosis or a similar lung disease. It’s a wasting disease, and it spreads through the air, so simply talking to someone who has it means you can get it. And small farming communities often lived very closely, so it was very easy for it to spread through an entire household, and then through the whole town. It can also lie dormant, and it can be years before they fall ill. The bacteria that cause the disease weren’t identified until 1894, and drugs to treat it weren’t available until the 1940s. So, catching it was essentially a death sentence, and it’s likely that this superstition was the only thing making these communities feel like they had any control over the disease.
The most famous account of these “Yankee vampires” would be that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. She died in 1892, so fairly late for this kind of panic (most took place in the mid-1800s), but it was heavily publicized, and may have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, because it even made the papers in England. She was 19 by the time she died, but her mother and sister had died of TB when she was young. The year she died, the town was hit so badly by an outbreak that half the population had died or left. It was practically a ghost town. Her brother had also fallen ill and, after Lena’s death, the remainder of the townsfolk convinced her father that maybe one of his family members was still alive and preying on the rest of the town from beyond the grave. They dug up the bodies of his daughters and wife, but because it was winter, Lena’s body still looked as fresh as the day it went in. They removed her heart and liver and burned it, and fed the ashes to her sick brother in the hope it was the miracle cure he needed, but he died two months later.
If you’d like to know more about this little bit of hidden history, check out The Smithsonian‘s blog.