January 12, 2012 12:16:03
Posted By Michael Bell
Currier describes the story circle of bygone days. Can Internet social media—chat rooms, Facebook, podcasts, Twitter, social blogs, forums—ever replace the face-to-face sharing of community narratives? How about a group video call on Skype? Well, Skype may be as close as we can get, electronically, to an actual story circle. But how different these two contexts are! When you Skype, can you feel the warmth of the “roaring and snapping fire”? Can you smell the bean-porridge cooking in the pot? I could go on and on enumerating the qualitative differences between yesterday’s enfolding storytelling setting and today’s barren digital environment, but I think Currier’s own words paint the best picture:
One of the most memorable and pleasant occasions in my youthful days was one winter evening, when some of our friends came in for a visit. The family occupied one large room, on one side of which was a large brick fire-place; in this was a good roaring and snapping fire, which afforded sufficient light without any candles. Our family and friends sat in a semi-circle around the fire. There had just been a heavy snow-storm, and the trees were covered with snow. The full moon rose through the snow-laden evergreens, and shone brightly into our room through the east windows. Over the hard-wood fire, on the crane, hung a pot of bean-porridge, from which we all commenced our supper, each one stepping up and dipping out what one wished, and returning to one’s seat in the semi-circle; the last course being pumpkin-pie and cheese. Later in the evening we had popped corn, butternuts, apples, and cider. In the course of this rural visit several ghosts and witch stories were related, half to keep up the conversation, and half to make those stare who might take stock in their genuineness. Some of those that were related, on that occasion and at other times, I will relate as I heard them.
A woman of the neighborhood was at my father's house one evening, when some singular noise turned her attention to the subject of witchcraft, and I heard her relate, in substance, the following account: “I was out alone in the door-yard one bright moonlight evening last summer, gathering up some chips to build a fire with the next morning, when I heard several female voices, talking and laughing merrily, apparently coming down the road. They seemed to be rapidly approaching, and I waited to see who they were; when they got near me, I could see no one, but they were heard directly overhead in the air: I looked up and saw nothing but the bright stars. I could hear their talking and laughing as they passed along overhead. Their voices grew fainter and fainter as they passed off in an opposite direction from whence they came, until I could hear them no longer.”
This woman was free to state, with perfect confidence, that these voices were a company of witches going through the air to some unoccupied house to hold a frolic and have a dance. She believed they could go invisibly in spirit, separate from the body, and were possessed with muscular power, equal if not superior to that in the body, to perform any diabolical acts they might fancy. And, however decrepit they might be in the body, they were as lively and bouyant in the spirit as they ever were in their youthful days.
AND MORE TO COME . . .
January 3, 2012 06:59:09
Posted By Michael Bell
If the lungs of a brother or sister who has died of consumption be burned, the ashes will cure the living members of the family affected with that disease. (Grafton County.)
That is the contribution of Dr. John McNab Currier to the vampire folklore of New England. For anyone who likes texts—and certainly that includes me—this is thin gruel, indeed. What I really long for in my search for vampire incidents, of course, are descriptions of concrete events; the more detail, the better. But a generalized statement such as Currier provides is far better than nothing. Perhaps there is more here than a first glance suggests.
First, we now know that sometime prior to 1889—the date of Currier’s brief article in the Journal of American Folklore—someone in Grafton County, New Hampshire, was aware that there was a folk prescription for consumption that used the ashes from the burned lungs of a deceased sibling. I think we can make an educated guess that the ashes were to be ingested, a tentative conclusion that seems justified in that Currier himself was a physician who undoubtedly wrote many prescriptions. How else would the ashes be employed? If they were to be buried, worn as an amulet, scattered to the winds, or dealt with in any other manner, surely Currier would have included that in this entry.
Second, lacking an explicit narrative does not preclude building a context around the meager text. What might we reconstruct beginning with what Currier has given us?
Actually, Currier has served a generous portion of information in his three short notes to the Journal of American Folklore that were published in 1889, 1891 and 1893. He begins with some personal history that includes a wonderful description of evening story circles around the blazing hearth:
In the year 1800 my father purchased one hundred acres of “wild land” in Grafton County, New Hampshire, lying upon the Connecticut River. For many years he struggled in the virgin forests, and paid for his farm; afterwards adding to it, by purchase, other lots of land partially cleared. He endured many hardships of pioneer life, without much of a chance for education; and it was not until the early settlers had paid for their farms, and had raised a surplus of produce, that any great interest was taken in educational matters. In such neighborhoods it was not strange that myths, beliefs in witchcraft, and reliance upon signs, should exist in a certain measure. Visiting among the neighbors was very common, particularly on autumn and winter evenings, without formality or invitation. Their “latch-strings were always out,” and when the rap was heard at the door the almost invariable reply was, the welcome words: “Walk in.” Conversation was on farming interests, politics, religion, neighborhood gossip, the “district school,” and now and then a bit of folklore received their attention, and that, too, without any reserve.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
December 19, 2011 03:49:57
Posted By Michael Bell
Since this poem runs to about 500 lines, I’ve edited it. Below is a mere skeleton of the original, fleshy poem. You can read it in its entirety here.
Delivered at an oyster supper given by Dr. and Mrs. Sanford to the members of the Castleton Medical and Surgical Clinic, on the evening of November 29, 1879.
BY JOHN M. CURRIER, M. D.
These studious emetics gathered in,
With knives, and saws, and forceps,
Around dead human frames and bones,
To learn their relations and structure,
Whoever died for miles around,
Was sure to adorn these tables,
A cherished wife was laid in her tomb,
In the wildwoods of Hubbardton,
The sexton, when a few days had passed,
Went to the grave of his friend,
And discovered his mark disturbed;
Resurrection had commenced
As the news went from door to door,
These rustics started for the graveyard,
The sexton raised the coffin lid,
The coffin was empty! the body stolen!
These rustic Hubbardtonians collected
Into rank and file for duty;
Three regiments were formed,
Regiments of one hundred each,
These three mighty, rustic armies
Surrounded Castleton Medical College;
And demanded unconditional surrender
The Dean stood in the door and said:
“Whoever enters this building
Must walk over my dead body.”
Sheriff Dike then informed the Dean
That he had legal papers to make a search
To find the body of the faithful wife,
But where was the key, said the Dean;
The key that unlocks the college door;
While the key was in his pocket,
The busy students inside dissecting,
Cut the head from off the corpse,
The body was secreted behind a board,
A board that was nailed in place,
A student of great composure,
Took the head under his cloak,
Walked through the crowd unsuspected,
And hid away his prize in a hay loft,
The doors were opened, the search began,
Such ghastly sights! such human merchandise!
No learned anatomist in any college
Could tell a youth from an adult;
Could tell a Negro from a Yankee;
Could tell a Squaw from a Scotchman;
So the sheriff told the husband,
To identify his beloved wife,
The students offered these raiders
Bones and flesh enough to make a wife
If they would quietly take them and depart
A suspicious nail-head revealed the secret,
The body of the wife stolen from the graveyard,
They pulled up a board from the floor,
And saw the body of the missing wife,
The headless body of the exhumed woman,
By way of compromise with these raiders.
The students offered to throw in the head
If they would leave this land in peace,
They picked up this human merchandise,
Packed it in a box on some straw,
These three mighty armies fell into line.
They formed one grand procession,
They took up their long line of march
To the wildwoods of Hubbardton,
Next: The connection of the poet, John M. Currier, M.D., to vampires.
December 8, 2011 03:12:19
Posted By Michael Bell
The following passage from the preface provides the background to Currier’s poem:
“At the annual meeting of the Rutland County Medical and Surgical Society, held at the Otter Creek House in Pittsford, July 9, 1879, Dr. James Sanford of Castleton delivered an able and interesting address, entitled ‘Reminiscences of Castleton Medical College,’ in which he referred to the raid of the citizens of Hubbardton on Castleton Medical College to recover the body of Mrs. Penfield Churchill, which had been stolen from the graveyard in Hubbardton. The society voted unanimously to have it printed in the Rutland Herald & Globe. Many of the old students who had attended this once famous institution read the address, and some of them at once challenged the doctor’s date of the raid, and wrote to him accordingly. On looking into the matter a little closer no one could be found who was absolutely sure his date was right, or at least there was such discrepancy of opinions that the doctor did not know on whom to rely. This uncertainty continued until the next regular meeting of the Rutland County Medical and Surgical Society, which was held in Castleton, October 9, 1879. Several toasts were offered and responded to at the dinner table by various members. ‘The extinct Medical Colleges of the State’ was responded to by Dr. Sanford in a short and humorous speech, in which he again alluded to the Hubbardton Raid, and proposed, as Dr. Currier was interested in all antiquarian matters, to give him one silver ‘Buzzard’ dollar if he would find out the exact date of the raid.
“Soon after this meeting Dr. Currier found several copies of a newspaper printed in 1830, giving the true date of the transaction, and thus setting the matter at rest.”
A succinct summary of the event itself appears in “Grave robbing in New England” by Frederick C. Waite, setting the scene for the poem:
“. . . the grave of a woman at Hubbardton, Vermont, in Rutland County, was found empty. At daylight on Monday, November 29, 1830, a body of three hundred men, in three divisions, one led by the sheriff of the county, started from Hubbardton and marching five miles to Castleton, surrounded the medical college building at nine o’clock. Entrance was delayed for some time on the plea of the dean that he had lost the key. A committee of the attackers was permitted to enter and searched the building and was about to leave when one of them noticed a loose nail in a board of the wainscoting—one writer says it was the floor—and tearing off the boards found the body of a woman which could not be identified because it had been decapitated.
Meanwhile a student had passed through the crowd of attackers walking leisurely with an unnoticed bundle under his overcoat, which he took to a neighboring barn and deposited in the haymow. The sheriff demanded the missing head. The dean said it would be produced if the sheriff would pledge that no arrests would be made. This pledge having been given, the student made another leisurely trip to the haymow and, returning with a bundle under his overcoat, handed it to the sheriff. The body was taken back to Hubbardton and returned to its grave.”
Next, finally some poetry.
December 3, 2011 11:30:12
Posted By Michael Bell
In the new preface to Food for the Dead (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), I attempted to unravel the following description of a vampire exhumation provided by Moncure Daniel Conway in his 1879 book, Demonology and Devil-Lore: “Dr. Dyer, an eminent physician of Chicago, Illinois, told me (1875) that a case occurred in that city within his personal knowledge, where the body of a woman who had died of consumption was taken out of the grave and the lungs burned, under a belief that she was drawing after her into the grave some of her surviving relatives.” It took a fair amount of digging, but I was able to learn quite a bit about both Dyer and Conway.
I wrote that Dyer “doubtless was well-positioned to know something about vampires, having been born in 1808 in Vermont, a state well-acquainted with vampire exhumations at the time. At age fifteen, Dyer attended the Castleton Academy, then graduated in 1830 with honors in the medical course from Middlebury College. . . . Dyer . . . probably had firsthand experience with exhumations while a medical student. In those days, human cadavers used by medical students who were studying anatomy were hard to come by and, therefore, the practice of grave robbing apparently was not uncommon. An incident dubbed the ‘Churchill riots’ found student spokesman Dyer confronting an angry mob who were demanding the return of the corpse of a recently interred young woman that had been stolen from the nearby town of Churchill and traced to students at the Castleton Medical Academy.”
The correction is that “Churchill” was the surname of the young woman whose body was stolen by the medical students, not the name of the town. The town actually was Hubbardton, and, indeed, several sources refer to the “Churchill Riots” as the “Hubbardton Raid.” While researching an unrelated case (at least, I thought so at the time), I came across an engaging little pamphlet with a title nearly as lengthy as its contents: Song of Hubbardton Raid, Delivered on the 50th Anniversary of the Raid of the Citizens of Hubbardton, Vermont, on Castleton Medical College, Held at the Residence of J. Sanford, M. D., Castleton, Vt., November 29, 1879. I was startled when I read the author’s name—John M. Currier, M. D.—for I had been acquainted with his rather humble contribution to New England’s vampire tradition for nearly thirty years (more on Currier later). The monograph’s preface sets the stage for the Currier’s commemorative poem, written in the style of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” that occupies the bulk of the publication.
Next, we take a look some relevant passages from the preface and stanzas from the poem.