Vampires of New England
America has long been fascinated with vampires. From the 1930s "Dracula," to Anne Rice's "Interview with a Vampire" in the 70s, to more recent fare: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Twilight," and "The Vampire Diaries." It seems we just can't get enough of these blood-draining ghouls.
But did you know that New England has a vampire history of its own? It's a history that speaks to the fears that swept over rural communities in the 18th and 19th centuries when the ills of its citizens were blamed on walking dead among them. Here's a taste of this long-fanged folklore you can really sink your teeth into.
In the late 1700s, South County apple farmer Stukely Tillinghast had a recurring nightmare. According to Bob Curran's book, "Mysterious Celtic Mythology in American Folklore," Stukely dreamt that he was walking through his orchard when he heard his daughter Sarah, calling him.
He saw her standing by a tree, but a furious wind came up blinding him with blowing dirt and leaves. When he looked again, Sarah was gone though he still heard her calling from far away. A scent of decay filled his nostrils and he saw that half of his orchard was dead, with decaying fruit and rotted trees lying on the ground, and all the while, Sarah called.
In the fall of 1795, Sarah, one of 14 children and just 19 years old, became ill with consumption and died. Although this was not uncommon, what happened next was. Many of Sarah's siblings also became ill with consumption and all dreamt of Sarah visiting them before they died.
As Curran's book recounts, 14-year-old Adris Tillinghast, herself sick with consumption, told her parents: "I awakened out of my sleep around midnight by a sweet sound which seemed like bells ringing far away. I rose and went to the window but could see nothing. The bells sounded again and I opened the window to hear them more clearly and saw Sarah standing in the yard below. She called to me, throwing wide her arms as if to embrace me, and when I turned she was in the room with me but I know not how she got there. She enfolded me in her arms and I felt a great coldness and a weight upon my chest."
Eerily, Stukely had also awakened around the same time to see Sarah in his room, standing at the foot of his bed with, as Curran describes it, "blood-flecked lips; then was gone like a phantom." Within a few months of these visitations, Adris died, following Sarah and four other siblings who died of consumption before her, to their graves.
Soon after a son, Ezra, became ill with the disease as well as Stukely's wife, Honor. Word spread through the surrounding community of the deaths in the Tillinghast family, and rumors began that Sarah was a vampire, taken to draining the life's blood from her family members until they died. The entire Community was gripped in terror.
Stukely took action. Based on the folklore of the region, he believed that the only way to kill a vampire was to remove and burn its heart. So, with the help of other farmers, he went to the cemetery where Sarah and her siblings were buried.
Unearthing the coffins, they discovered that Sarah's siblings showed expected signs of decomposition. But, to their horror, when they looked in Sarah's coffin they could see no decomposition; her body looked as fresh as the day of her burial. Her eyes were open in a fixed stare and blood was discovered in her heart and veins.
Stukely knew what he must do. He cut out his daughter's heart and burned it where he stood. Although Ezra died a few days later, Honor recovered, and none of Stukely's remaining children died. The horror was over but Stukely's recurring dream had come true, he'd lost half his orchard, half his children, before the episode ended.
Mercy Lena Brown
A century later, another family suffered the ravages of consumption. George and Mary Brown and their children lived in Exeter, RI. Mary and their eldest daughter, Mary Olive, died of the disease in the 1880s. In 1890, their son Edwin became ill. He was sent to Colorado to be cured but to no avail. In 1891 he returned to Exeter expecting to die. The same year, his sister Mercy contracted the "galloping" form of the illness and died in January 1892. She was buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery.
After Mercy's death, Edwin grew sicker and George Brown was desperate to save his only son. The townspeople panicked; believing that one of the dead Brown family had become a vampire and was responsible for Edwin's turn for the worse.
Smithsonian Magazine writer Abigail Tucker interviewed Dr. Michael Bell - the country's leading expert on vampire folklore - for an article titled "The Great New England Vampire Panic." Bell explained that the townspeople convinced George that one of the Brown women could be feasting "on the living tissues and blood of Edwin," and they need only exhume the corpses to discover the truth.
As Bell tells the story, one morning in March 1892, a group of men exhumed the bodies - George had given them permission - and found that the mother and Mary Olive's bodies were "barely more than bones." Mercy's body, however, "was in a fairly well-preserved state," reaon enough to burn her heart on a rock nearby, then they mixed the ashes in a potion to feed to Edwin to restore his health. According to Bell, "...folklore said that destroying the heart of a vampire would kill it, and by consuming the remains of the vampire's heart the spell would be broken and the victim would get well."
But the bizarre remedy didn't work; Edwin died less than two months later.
Today we know that the variances in decomposition witnessed by the families and townspeople in these cases were normal. In fact, even the blood they found in the corpses is not that unusual. But without the benefit of modern science, they used folk remedies they knew to fight an unseen and deadly enemy which wrought havoc in their families and community.
If you want to delve more deeply into the topic, Bell's book, "Food for the Dead," is a great place to start. It traces the foundations of belief in vampires and reveals its reach throughout New England. The book includes an interview with a descendant of Mercy Brown, and explores documents and newspaper accounts of the incident as well as that of many other suspected vampires of the 18th and 19th centuries. To buy the book or follow Bell's blog, go to foodforthedead.com.
Mercy Brown gravestone | Josh MGinn | flickr.com
Skull and crossbones | Bill Selak | Flickr.com
Cemetary background | Istockphoto.com
Girl | Istockphoto.com
Food for the Dead book cover | Michael Bell