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Posted By Michael Bell

“The New England fancy does not seem to have risen to these picturesque eminences. If it did not, there is a mere drawing of like to like, the influence of the dead man ‘draws upon’ the living members of his family, he does not apparently come to them in visible and tangible shape, and bite them, as in Theophile Gautier’s romance, ‘La Morte Amoureuse,’ which almost makes us in love with a pretty vampire. If Hawthorne had come across the belief at home, he might have found in it the subject of a tale, but New England is about the very last place in which we should have expected to find the superstition. If it exists on the Mississippi, Mark Twain could not have omitted it from the various folklore faiths of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But among all their grewsome ideas, partly negro, partly Red Indian, partly English, and, indeed, universal, not a word is said about vampirism. If Mr. Stetson or some other discreet and learned person would made wider inquiries, we might know more. In the meantime I venture to regard the New England vampire as a fresh and spontaneous flower of an universal form of fancy, expressing itself in the doctrine of sympathies. It does no harm, as only the dead are burned, whereas the Irish belief in fairies led not long ago to the burning of a living woman, supposed to be not herself—her real self was in Fairyland—but a changeling, a fairy substitute. Burning is a bad method; it is better to wait till you see the real person, and then throw a dirk, or a carving knife will do, over his or her left shoulder. Meanwhile, New Englanders would save expense and trouble by cremating the dead at first; not burying them. The process would give pluck and confidence to the survivors, and make them less liable to disease. Anything is better for the health than perpetual fear of the ‘not dead,’ who are not ghosts, but victims of suspended animation. There is a pleasant anecdote current to the effect that an Egyptian mummy in the British Museum was photographed lately, and that there were living eyes in the dead head. But he has not yet walked out of his glass case and bitten Dr. Budge!”

While Lang’s tone obviously is wryly humorous—tongue in cheek—I don’t think that we need to conclude that Stetson’s vampire informants were having fun with him, too. But that is just what Lang seems to suggest in the following statement:

“This looks like myth, perhaps the dead were not exhumed and burned at all, but the myth attests the local belief that hereditary disease is caused by the vampirism of the deceased. . . . If this Mason was not ‘playing it low’ on Mr. Stetson, we must accept the existence of the belief and practice. But nothing is more usual than to hoax archaeologists and anthropologists who are looked on as fair game by rural humorists.” I’m not sure why Lang misinterprets “mason” (as in stone mason) as “Mason” (as in Freemasonary). My genealogical research showed that several men associated with exhumations in southern Rhode Island were stone masons.

“One is rather inclined to think that the Yankee vampire was neither derived from modern neurotic novels and such tales as Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla,’ nor from an old English superstition, brought from home by the Puritans, but is rather a thing spontaneously and independently evolved by the descendants of the Puritans.”

Since I’ve now discovered about sixty cases of exhumations in the Northeast, I think there is no doubt that people weren’t simply “playing it low” on Stetson, the anthropologist who collected and published the vampire stories that Lang discusses. I also believe that this greatly augmented data base suggests that the vampire practice was not “independently evolved” but was imported from Europe. I do agree with Lang that the Yankee vampires did not come from English traditions.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

On the road for the next four days. Hopefully dodging high water and vampires!

 
Posted By Michael Bell

Andrew Lang’s 1904 British take on New England’s vampires contintues:

“The ____ family is among its well-to-do and most intelligent inhabitants. One member of the family had some years since lost children by consumption, and by common report claimed to have saved those surviving by exhumation and cremation of the dead.” This looks like myth, perhaps the dead were not exhumed and burned at all, but the myth attests the local belief that hereditary disease is caused by the vampirism of the deceased. Something more like evidence, however,is given by Mr. ____, a Mason, who lost two brothers by consumption. He told Mr. Stetson that the head of the family already mentioned advised his father to dig up the first brother who died and burn his heart, but this was thought sacrilegious, and a second brother died. He was dug up, “and ‘living’ blood being found in the heart and in circulation, it was cremated,” in consequence of which the Mason, Mr. Stetson’s informant, retained his health. If this Mason was not “playing it low” on Mr. Stetson, we must accept the existence of the belief and practice. But nothing is more usual than to hoax archaeologists and anthropologists who are looked on as fair game by rural humorists.

At another village not far from Newport there have been six or eight cases of cases of vampirism and exhumation in the fast fifty years. One case occurred in 1894. The physician who examined the body found nothing unusual. The doctor said that the belief was common enough in Rhode Island, “which has had the ordinary New England educational advantages.” Mr. Stetson quotes Buckle to the effect that “superstition is the curse of Scotland,” like the nine of diamonds, usually known by that name. In point of fact, drink, not superstition, is the curse of Scotland. The mere belief in second sight (if that is to be called “superstition”) does no harm, and, if the vampire belief exists north of Tweed, I have never found a case of it in highlands or lowlands. If it reached New England, it probably came over from the eastern counties, with the Puritans, but I have never me a vampire in the folklore of the eastern counties, nor in the works of the Mathers, who knew what was to be known about New England beliefs in early colonial days. The red Indian tales of “Weendigoes” refer to cannibalism, not to vampirism, and the Puritans can hardly have picked up the vampire creed from their savage neighbors.

“One is rather inclined to think that the Yankee vampire was neither derived from modern neurotic novels and such tales as Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” nor from an old English superstition, brought from home by the Puritans, but is rather a thing spontaneously and independently evolved by the descendants of the Puritans. The problem before them was to account for hereditary diseases, such as consumption. Never having heard of bacilli and microbes, the populace conceived that there was an influence in the dead man calling his kinfolk toward him. We are told no tales by Mr. Stetson about the vampire being seen and run to earth as he goes his rounds, a story usual in Eastern Europe and in Greece and the Slavonic countries where vampires are most common.

 
Posted By Michael Bell

I come across the most interesting things when I’m searching old newspapers, such as the article that was published in the London Post in 1904 entitled “The Common Vampire.” It was written by Andrew Lang (1844-1912), the Scottish poet, novelist, literary critic and historian. Folklorists, however, know him best as a collector of folktales (or fairy tales, if you must) and a scholar of mythology, ritual and religion. His Post article is fascinating because it provides a British take on the New England vampire tradition. Here’s the first installment:

Mr. Bram Stoker lately added to the gayety of nations by a romance about vampires named “Dracula.” Vampires, these scourges of nature, were represented as having made great strides in culture. They had large balances at their banks, and one vampire employed two firms of family soliciters. They extended their sphere of influence from the Carpathians to Hampstead Heath, and a delicate question arose, I think, as to the extradition of criminous vampires. In childhood, in consequence of information received from somebody who ought to have known better, I took an anxious interest in vampires. They were clearly a bad class of ghosts, for ghosts seldom bite, and when they do the bite is not infectious. The vampire’s virus, on the other hand, is infectious; by preference he or she attacks his nearest and dearest, who, in turn, become vampires, so that whole neighborhoods are worse than decimated, Dom Calmet records in the case of some Hungarian districts.These were agitating facts, but on inquiry I could only find one case of vampirism in our islands, that of a monk of Melrose. The epidemic was stamped out by vigorous measures, though in our days of immigrant pauper aliens our medical authorities cannot be too careful.

I have but lately learned, however, that though the vampire was so scarce even in medieval England, he is still common in New England, as in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Mr. George R. Stetson, in the American Anthroplogist (1896) gives some gruesome information about the American variety of the species. “In New England the body is exhumed, the heart burned, and the ashes scattered.” The towns of Exeter, Foster, East Greenwich, and others are the center and focus of the malady. Here agriculture is notably depressed. “It is the tramping ground of the book agent, the chromo peddler” (whoever he may be), “the patent medicine man, and the home of the erotic and neurotic modern novel.”

Thus the region, except as regards farm produce, seems to be highly cultivated, intellectually, “and suggest the almost criminal neglect of the conservators of public education to give instruction to our farming youth in a more scientific and more practical agriculture.” But when education has enabled the farmer to take delight in neurotic novels and to peruse “Sir Richard Calmady,” what more can be asked? Indeed, one does not see that neurotic novels, so far, encourage a belief in vampirism, which some rather look on as a survival from a medieval belief never popular in Old England, though William of Malmesbury, a learned critic, does touch on the subject philosophically. The first case given in an unnamed village, let us call it Berlinopolis-super-Mare, in the neighborhood of Newport.