The Bloody Truth About Vampires
Vampires are fodder for books, movies, and Halloween costumes. But for hundreds of years, they were scapegoats for disease.
The traits of modern-day vampires are pretty well established. They have fangs, drink human blood, and can’t see themselves in mirrors. They can be warded off with garlic, or killed with a stake through the heart. Some, like Dracula, are aristocrats who live in castles.
But vampires didn’t start out so clearly defined. Scholars suspect that the modern conception of these Halloween monsters evolved from various traditional beliefs that were held throughout Europe. These beliefs centered around the fear that the dead, once buried, could still harm the living.
Often, these legends arose from a misunderstanding of how bodies decompose. As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer. And as internal organs break down, a dark “purge fluid” can leak out of the nose and mouth. People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.
Bloody corpses weren’t the only cause for suspicion. Before people understood how certain diseases spread, they sometimes imagined vampires were behind the unseen forces slowly ravaging their communities. “The one constant in the evolution of vampire legend has been its close association with disease,” writes Mark Collins Jenkins in his book Vampire Forensics. Trying to kill vampires, or prevent them from feeding, was a way for people to feel as though they had some control over disease.
Vampires of Europe
Because of this, vampire scares tended to coincide with outbreaks of the plague. In 2006, archaeologists unearthed a 16th-century skull in Venice, Italy, that had been buried among plague victims with a brick in its mouth. The brick was likely a burial tactic to prevent strega—Italian vampires or witches—from leaving the grave to eat people.
Not all vampires were thought to physically leave their grave. In northern Germany, the Nachzehrer, or “after-devourers,” stayed in the ground, chewing on their burial shrouds. Again, this belief likely has to do with purge fluid, which could cause the shroud to sag or tear, creating the illusion that a corpse had been chewing it.
These stationary masticators were still thought to cause trouble aboveground, and were also believed to be most active during outbreaks of the plague. In the 1679 tract “On the Chewing Dead,” a Protestant theologian accused the Nachzehrer of harming their surviving family members through occult processes. He wrote that people could stop them by exhuming the body and stuffing its mouth with soil, and maybe a stone and a coin for good measure. Without the ability to chew, the tract claimed, the corpse would die of starvation.
Tales of vampires continued to flourish in southern and eastern European nations in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the chagrin of some leaders. By the mid-18th century, Pope Benedict XIV declared that vampires were “fallacious fictions of human fantasy,” and the Hapsburg ruler Maria Theresa condemned vampire beliefs as “superstition and fraud.”
Still, anti-vampire efforts continued. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, one of the last big vampire scares occurred in 19th century New England, two centuries after the infamous Salem witch trials.
From the Old World to the New
In 1892, 19-year-old Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, died of tuberculosis, then known as consumption. Her mother and sister were already dead, and her brother Edwin was sick. Concerned neighbors worried that one of the recently deceased Brown women might be harming Edwin from the grave.
When they opened Mercy Brown’s grave, they found blood in her mouth and her heart and took this to be a sign of vampirism (though they didn’t call it that). The neighbors burned Mercy’s heart and mixed the ashes into a potion for Edwin to drink—a common anti-vampire tactic. The potion was meant to heal him; instead, he died a few months later.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Folklorist and Food for the Dead author Michael Bell estimates that there are 60 known examples of anti-vampire rituals in 18th- and 19th-century New England, and several others elsewhere in the country. These rituals were most common in eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island, says Brian Carroll, a history professor at Central Washington University who is writing a book on the subject.
Carroll believes these anti-vampire rituals were “introduced as a medical procedure at the time of the American Revolution” by German doctors who worked for the Hessian forces. Because of this, he thinks the New England vampires were based on the German Nachzehrer. Unlike blood-sucking Romanian vampires, New England’s vampires stayed in their grave, harming the living through “sympathetic magic” from afar, he argues.
Bell, however, believes anti-vampire practices in New England came from many places and that the suspected New England vampires were actually more akin to Romanian vampires than the Nachzehrer. Like Romanians, New Englanders “were looking for liquid blood in the vital organs, not evidence of shroud chewing,” he says. The anti-vampire remedy of “cutting the heart out, burning it to ashes, and giving the ashes to the sick person or sick people” was also practiced in Romania.
Whatever the source of these beliefs in New England, they were driven by the same social concerns as those before them: a fear of disease and a desire to contain it.
During the vampire panic in New England, vampires were finding a new role in European books like The Vampyre (1819), Carmilla (1871-72), and Dracula (1897), as well as in vampire-themed plays. Though drawn from folk legends and past vampire scares, these aristocratic, sexual vampires were more like the vampires we know today.
Vampire panics died down in the 20th century as these fictional monsters replaced folk beliefs (and as medical knowledge improved); however, there was a strange resurgence in the late 1960s, when Seán Manchester, the president of the British Occult Society, said that a vampire was causing people to see strange things in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
Newspapers had already covered reports of a tall figure with burning eyes and other spectral sights floating in the cemetery, and journalists quickly picked up Manchester’s theory that these sightings were the work of an eastern European vampire. Newspapers even embellished his claims a bit, calling the figure a “king vampire,” or writing that the vampire had practiced black magic in Romania before traveling to London in his coffin.
In 1970, Manchester told a TV news team that he planned to exercise the vampire on Friday the 13th. That night, hundreds of young people turned up at Highgate Cemetery to see him perform an exorcism (which he ended up not doing).
The Highgate panic wasn’t a case of vampires being scapegoated for disease but rather a media sensation and an instance of “legend tripping” (young people going to a supposedly haunted place to test their bravery).
In the history of vampire legends, the Highgate incident is a modern phenomenon. It has less to do with the desire to control a community’s health and a lot more in common with modern scares, like the creepy clown sightings that went viral this year—even if people don’t believe it, they’re still drawn to the hype.
Meet the Real-Life Vampires of New England and Abroad
A little more than a century ago, vampires stalked Rhode Island. Or rather, New England farm families were digging up dead relatives suspected of being vampires and desecrating the bodies in a misguided effort to protect the living. Often these latter-day vampire hunters removed and burned their loved ones’ hearts.
Though the corpses were typically re-buried, modern scholars continue to unearth the stories of real-life “vampires,” whose historic tragedies underlie classics like Dracula as well as Hollywood’s latest guilty pleasures.
The practice of disinterring accused vampires likely began in Eastern Europe, spreading to western countries including France and England in the 1700s, and then to rural New England, where vampire panics were common up through the late 1800s – particularly in Rhode Island.
At home and abroad, vampire scares usually began when a person died – often of a contagious disease, and in New England almost always of tuberculosis – and others in the vicinity began dying, too, usually of the same sickness. Ignorant of germs, people surmised that the dead person had come back to drain family members’ blood, and the exhumation and staking, burning, beheading and whatever else followed (practices varied with geography) were an effort to insulate the community against further harm. Often the vampire-hunters were not disappointed when they pried open the graves: many natural signs of decay, like bloating and bleeding from various orifices, looked like evidence of midnight feasts.
Here are a few “vampires” from America and elsewhere, the real lives behind our modern legends.
This Serbian villager and accused bloodsucker was exhumed and staked through the heart a few weeks after his death in 1725. In his book, “Vampires, Burial, and Death,” folklorist Paul Barber treats Plogojowitz as the quintessential European vampire, because his exhumation closely follows the broader pattern of the superstition.
Plogojowitz was the first in his village to die of a sickness, and subsequent local deaths were blamed on his late-night predations. A rather gruesome-sounding autopsy revealed what were considered the tell-tale signs of vampirism:
“I did not detect the slightest odor that is otherwise characteristic of the dead, and the body…was completely fresh,” one witness wrote. “The hair and beard… had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it … Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth.”
In the early 18th century, this rural Serbian broke his neck after a fall from a hay wagon. Like many others before him, he was accused of posthumous vampirism and exhumed after a series of deaths in his village; many of his supposed victims were dug up as well. Austrian military authorities in control of the region investigated the deaths, and their published account was widely circulated. Paole’s case is thus credited with spreading the vampire superstition to Western Europe, where it took hold before reaching the New World.
Just 19 years old, she was buried in 1889 in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. Today this so-called vampire is almost as famous as Mercy Brown, whose exhumation was covered by international newspapers. Vaughn’s cemetery has frequently been visited, vandalized and her headstone broken. But in his book, “Food for the Dead,” folklorist and vampire scholar Michael Bell presents evidence suggesting that Vaughn’s is a case of mistaken identity, and that her contemporaries never accused or exhumed her. The superstition probably arose in the last half century or so, and may be a result of confusion with Mercy (who died nearby at a similar date and age) and the admittedly creepy epitaph on Vaughn’s tombstone: “I Am Waiting and Watching For You.”
A Dartmouth College student from a well-respected family in South Woodstock, Vermont, he died of tuberculosis in 1817 and is an example of an educated person ensnared in a vampire panic usually associated with misinformed farmers. Ransom’s father had his body exhumed in the hopes of saving the rest of his family: his heart was burned in a blacksmith’s forge. “However, it did not prove a remedy, for mother, sister, and two brothers died afterward,” Ransom’s surviving brother Daniel later wrote. “It has been related to me that there was a tendency in our family to consumption, and that I…would die with it before I was thirty.” Happily, when Daniel Ransom wrote these words he was more than 80 years old.
Bristoe Congdon’s Child:
A man named Bristoe Congdon and several of his children died of tuberculosis in Rhode Island in the 1800s. “The body of one of the children was exhumed,” one source wrote, “and the vital parts were burned in obedience to the dicta of this shallow and disgusting superstition.” Though it’s not entirely clear whether Congdon was African-American or American Indian, the case was the first that folklorist Michael Bell has found suggesting that the vampire tradition crossed racial lines.