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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Wednesday, January 08, 2020

A Double Exhumation in 1784 Connecticut

On 22 June 1784, the Connecticut Courant ran an article which has become highly significant for hunters of vampires and vampire lore. It read:
WHEREAS of late years there has been advanced for a certainty, by a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner, that a certain cure may be had for a consumption, where any of the same family had before that time died with the same disease; directing to have the bodies of such as had died to be dug up, and further said that out of the breast or vitals might be found a sprout or vine fresh and growing, which, together with the remains of the vitals being consumed in the fire, would be an effectual cure to the same family:----

And such direction so far gained credit, that in one instance, the experiment was thoroughly made in Willington, on the first day of June instant, two bodies were dug up which belonged to the family of Mr. Isaac Johnson of that place, they both died with the consumption, one had been buried one year and eleven months, the other one year, a third of the same family then sick---

on full examination of the then small remains by two doctors then present, viz. Doctors Grant and West, not the least discovery could be made; and to prevent misrepresentations of the facts, I being an eye witness, that under the coffin was sundry small sprouts about one inch in length then fresh, but most likely was the produce of sorrel feeds which fell under the coffin when put in the earth.

And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.

June 1784.
The Connecticut Courant had mentioned vampires back in 1765, as described here. Sometime around then, printer Thomas Green brought on little George Goodwin (1757-1844) as an apprentice, and by 1784 Goodwin was co-publisher of the paper. However, Green and his first partner, Ebenezer Watson, had died, and there’s no indication that anyone in the print shop remembered the earlier article. It’s significant that this item did not include the word “vampyre,” though the belief in the value of digging up, examining, and burning a body was the same.

Moses Holmes’s report was reprinted in the Pennsylvania Packet and Salem Gazette on 29 June, and possibly in other American newspapers. It’s the earliest evidence that any New Englanders seriously entertained a belief in vampires of the sort described by European authors earlier in the century—as dead people who sapped the lives of those close to them from within their graves.

In the expanded edition of Food for the Dead, Michael Bell described finding records of Isaac Johnson of Willington, Connecticut. This man was born in Windham in 1735, married in Willington in 1756, and died in Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1808. His gravestone appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

Isaac and his wife Elizabeth had two children die within the specified period: Amos (1760-1782) and Elizabeth (1764-1783). There may have been other children sick at the time; this genealogy page for Isaac doesn’t include all the names that appear in Willington baptismal records published in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1913.

Amos Johnson was the right age to have fought in the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, there were multiple men of that name in Connecticut records, so I can’t connect him with any particular company.

Bell reported that he couldn’t find the Johnson children’s graves in Willington. He did, however, find that on the 1790 U.S. census the household included two white males over age sixteen, no white males under sixteen, two white females, no slaves, and seventeen “other free persons”—far more than any other home in the town. That’s unusual, but what it means is unclear.

This newspaper article also offers evidence for Brian Carroll’s thesis that the vampirism belief was brought to America by Hessian military surgeons. As The Travels of three English Gentlemen, from Venice to Hamburgh account shows, belief in such vampires was established in Hesse by 1734. Hessian prisoners of war were housed in Tolland, next to Willington, during the war. Was the unnamed “Quack Doctor, a foreigner,” mentioned in the article one of those Germans?

TOMORROW: The other doctors on the scene.

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