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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Monday, November 30, 2015

“The dead siphoning life from their relatives”

On Thursday, 3 December, Clark University in Worcester will host a seminar with Brian Carroll on “The Introduction of Vampire Belief to New England.”

I’ve got your attention now, don’t I? Here’s the event description:
Between 1782 and 1820, New Englanders suspected severe outbreaks of tuberculosis were caused by the spirits of the dead siphoning life from their relatives. In order to stop the spread of the disease, they exhumed the corpses they thought responsible, burned their hearts, and made a medicine from the ashes.

Originally a European belief, the practice was brought to the region during the American Revolution by German military physicians serving in Hessian regiments. Many became itinerant doctors in the aftermath of the war and taught Americans to believe in the undead. But vampire belief in America was medicalized—turned from a folk belief into a cutting-edge medical procedure. The exhumations were conducted like autopsies and doctors used “science” to identify and destroy supposed vampires. American doctors quickly caught on and began using it as a cure for the deadly wasting disease.
This is separate from, though perhaps related to, the vampire fear in Jewett City, Connecticut, in 1854.

Carroll is Assistant Professor of History and American Indian Studies at Central Washington University. He flew to New England to be an American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, which co-sponsors this seminar series along with the history departments at Clark, Brown, and the University of Connecticut.

This seminar will start at 4:00 P.M. in the Rare Book Room of Goddard Library on the Clark campus. There will be refreshments provided before the paper. If you plan to attend, please email Paul Erickson by the end of the workday today so he’ll know what to expect.


G. Lovely said...

No need to invoke German doctors, as was discussed in a recent episode of PBS's "Secrets of the Dead", the practice of excavating the undead was apparently common in Britain not that long before the Pilgrims arrived. See:


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link to that show. It talks about Anglo-Saxon and medieval England, but says, “their beliefs in the walking dead seemed to fade away by about the year 1200.” So there’s a big gap before the Pilgrims came to America, and another before the period this seminar will address. We might say that folk beliefs can survive without being documented, but in this case the main evidence is the odd burials, and archeologists don't seem to be coming up (!) with any more in the intevening centuries.

That said, the element of the seminar description I was most dubious about was “Hessian doctors.” A lot of Germans in the early U.S. of A. seem to have been remembered as Hessians, whether or not they had any connection to the king’s army.

MaryJeanAdams said...

I can imagine this during the 1500 and 1600s in Colonial America, but 1700 and 1800s too? I never would have guessed. Makes me wonder if the practice was common across all "classes" of people. I just can't imagine the founding fathers (most of them anyway) thinking their ancestors were going to suck the life from them.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not going to be able to attend this seminar, so this supposition is just based on reading the description and linked material. It looks like there was an old belief in Anglo-Saxon England and in parts of the continent that cutting off a corpse's head and burning the heart would stop that dead person from sucking other people's blood. Around 1800, those practices had a revival in rural New England with some twists. The ashes of the heart were now turned into medicine. And the presentation of the "cure" might have been based on the latest science: stuff about unhealthy miasmas infecting other people instead of the dead walking. It would be interesting to know if those practices were confined to rural areas, and if any establishment doctors argued against them (if only for the sake of business).

Unknown said...

Wow! Would love to know what "sorts" really believed in this as Paul Revere had a son that died of consumption during this timespan. We've never heard anything about vampires in New England. Paul Revere hunting werewolves, sure. See: http://www.amazon.com/Revere-Revolution-Silver-Ed-Lavallee/dp/1932386599

J. L. Bell said...

I've got Revere: Revolution in Silver, but have never found much to say about it. Well, I usually have nothing negative to say about sideburns, but I think there are too many in that book.

Mary Blauss Edwards said...

Rhode Island folklorist Michael E. Bell's Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires http://www.amazon.com/Food-Dead-Trail-Englands-Vampires/dp/0819571709 is the definitive work on these early New England exhumations. A great read!