J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 05, 2020

A Voice against “the sanguinary vampyres”

As I wrote yesterday, on 1 Apr 1765 the Boston Evening-Post ran a front-page article about vampires cribbed from an account of traveling in Germany published twenty years before. The Fleet brothers could have picked up that item from the Connecticut Courant.

That article prompted a stern response, as long as the original article, in the form of a letter “To the Publishers of the Boston Evening-Post.” So far as I know, this is the only writing about vampires to come out of colonial New England, or all of colonial America.

The letter started with the motto “Si populus vult decepi decipiatur” (If people are willing to be deceived, let them be deceived). After discussing the news business and how page-filling “speculation” can produce “useful knowledge” or “benevolent sentiments,” the letter gets to the point in paragraph 4:
…what an injudicious choice of speculation is that publish’d in the Boston Evening-Post of the 1st instant? Can any person capable of exercising his reason, once imagine, that the surprising account of those spectres called Vampyres, has any possible tendency to promote the forementioned very worthy purposes? nay, is it not rather plainly calculated, to frighten old women and children, to amuse the ignorant and superstitious, and the promote deism and infidelity in the world? Most certainly, neither the publishers themselves, nor any sober man and good christian, can believe there is one word of truth, in all that long, surprising, and terrific account exhibited in the aforesaid paper.

Besides, how ridiculous as well as impious must it be, to suppose that the Supreme Being would commit the keys of death to infernal spirits and demons, and suffer them to drag dead bodies of men from their graves, and make them instruments to destroy the living?

For my own part, I can as soon give credence to the most fabulous stories of witches and spectres, of demons and goblins stalking by moon-light; or believe the whole phenomena of the Salem witchcraft; the incubusses, the succubusses, the preternatural teats; with all the trumpery and wonders of the invisible world: Or the scene of witchcraft open’d at Woodstock, a few years ago, when 132 stones of different sizes, were said to be thrown into a room (close shut up) by the agency of infernal spirits;——I say, I can as soon give credit to all this, as to the surprising account of the sanguinary vampyres.
Of course all the Boston newspaper’s readers knew about the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692-93, which had become a notorious embarrassment for the New England Puritan leadership.

The “Woodstock” scene probably meant a legend from Woodstock, England, in 1649. In 1747 the British Magazine published a “Genuine History of the Good Devil of Woodstock,” which purported to debunk the myth. (H. A. Evans revealed that article itself to be a fraud in Notes and Queries in 1903.) Thus, for a well-read Bostonian in 1765, both the Woodstock and Salem stories were delusions and frauds, not real supernatural mysteries.

The letter thus declared the supernatural stories from central Europe about vampires were ridiculous on their face and conflicted with the supernatural system most people in Boston already shared.

But the writer didn’t leave it there. He (or she) dug into the original article’s scriptural references:
The remarks upon these incredible stories, may not be concluded without observing, that they are wickedly and profanely pretended to be supported and confirmed by sundry texts of sacred scripture: which, the the reader will be at pains to examine, he will find no more to the purpose, than the story of the witch of Endor, or that of Balaam’s Ass;—or in the account of the tour which the devil made on the unenlightened part of the globe. . . .

If the first broachers of the story under consideration, instead of prostituting those texts of cannonical scripture, to support their fiction, they refer’d their readers to a story in the apocrypha, it had been nearer the point, and something more to their purpose. The story may be read by the curious, in the 6th 7th and 8th chapters of the book of Tobit.
In those chapters an angel tells Tobias, “Touching the heart and the liver [of a fish], if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any, we must make a smoke thereof before the man or the woman, and the party shall be no more vexed.“ By doing so, Tobias survives a night with a young woman who had been promised to “seven men,” but they “all died in the marriage chamber.” That story wasn’t precisely like the vampire myth but had unmistakable similarities.

So what was the point of that final paragraph? One interpretation might be that vampire stories were as false as scripture that good Protestants had rejected, but the letter writer didn’t drive home that point. Another is that those vampire stories actually had some support in ancient religious literature, but that went against the message of the rest of the essay. I suspect that the letter writer just couldn’t resist showing off his (or her) scholarly knowledge of the Bible.

COMING UP: After the war.

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