New England farmers in the 19th century fell prey to the belief that vampires stalked their families. They thought the dead rose from the grave to drain the life from their living families. And they thought they had a solution: dig up the dead, remove their hearts and burn them.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. That’s because the real culprit was tuberculosis.
Then called consumption, it causes its victims to waste away slowly until they die.
People then didn’t understand that consumption was an infectious disease. It could spread easily among rural families cramped together in farmhouses during the winter.
New England’s folk customs about vampires came from Europe and crossed the Atlantic shortly after the American Revolution.
Archaeologists and historians say the old European folk belief spread from the late 1700s to the late 1800s through southern and western Rhode Island, central-southern Vermont, southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut.
There are at least 12 historic accounts of panic about vampires. In each case, New Englanders dug up the dead and destroyed their internal organs to stop the spread of the disease.
Different communities treated suspected vampires differently. Some simply flipped them over in their graves n Plymouth, Mass., and some Maine communities.
In Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island residents burned vampires’ hearts, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure.
One case of vampire panic, which Henry David Thoreau wrote about, happened in 1817 in Woodstock, Vt. Daniel Ransom was three years old when his brother Frederick, a Dartmouth student, died of consumption.
Daniel Ransom recollected his family had a tendency to tuberculosis. “It was said that if the heart of one of the family who died of consumption was taken out and burned, others would be free from it,” he wrote. “And Father, having some faith in the remedy, had the heart of Frederick taken out after he had been buried, and it was burned in Captain Pearson’s blacksmith forge.”
The remedy failed. Daniel Ransom’s mother, sister and two brothers died of consumption afterward.
Mercy Lena Brown also fell victim to the vampire belief in 1892, toward the end of the New England panic.
She and her sisters died of tuberculosis in Exeter, R.I., and their brother Edwin came down with the disease. Their father gave permission to exhume the bodies. So villagers and the local doctor dug up Mary, Mary Olive and Mercy.
The first two had decomposed, but the more recently buried Mercy had not – probably because of the winter cold. Her heart also had blood in it, which they took as a sign she was feasting on brother Edwin. They removed her heart from her body, burned it, mixed it with water and gave it to Edwin to drink. He died two months later.
A reporter for the Providence Journal covered Mercy Brown’s exhumation, and the story spread. It reached newspapers in England, and it may even have inspired Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula.
Griswold Gravel Pit
In the 1990s, archaeologists studied the remains of an unusual skeleton found in a gravel pit in Griswold, Conn. The gravel pit had once served as a colonial cemetery, and someone had beheaded the skeleton and arranged it in a skull-and-crossbones pattern.
Archaeologists Paul Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni concluded the skeleton was another victim of the New England vampire panic.
The two archaeologists cited as evidence the May 20, 1854 issue of the Norwich Courier. The newspaper reported Horace Ray of Griswold had died of consumption. Then two of his grown-up sons died of the disease, and another son came down with it.
The family decided to dig up the two brothers and burn them on the spot. They did it, ‘because the dead were supposed to feed upon the living.’ They believed, ‘so long as the dead body in the grave remained undecomposed, either wholly or in part, the surviving members of the family must continue to furnish substance on which the dead body could feed.’
…it was with the pure intent of protecting the living that the decomposing bodies of Lemuel and Elisha were dug up and burned immediately. Although it appears the body of Joseph Sr. was spared, it was believed the incendiary action did the trick — history does not record a specific date for Henry’s demise, so it’s thought that he survived his affliction.
Images: Mercy Brown headstone by Josh McGinn-Flickr. This story about vampires was updated in 2019.