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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

One learns many a curious little thing in a village like this. I listened to the narration of a most singular incident yesterday at the house of a neighbor.

It seems that there is an old superstition, strongly believed by the credulous even at this day, that if the heart of the last deceased member of a consumptive family is taken from the body and burned, and the ashes reserved as a medicine to be given to the rest in small doses, no other person of that family will die of this terrible scourge. Various reasons are assigned as causes for belief in the efficacy of this curious experiment. Among them, one that in that dead heart there is a drop of blood which retains its color and freshness, by preying upon the vitality of those connected to it when living, by natural ties.

Several members of a large and respectable family had been early taken from earth by consumption; and, after following the body of an amiable sister to its final resting-place, the survivors met to talk over past events, and to mourn together for their loss. Each brother and sister felt the hectic glow, with its fitful fever feeding on their cheeks—each knew that the seeds of an insidious disorder were deeply sown in their feeble constitutions. They painfully realized how hopelessly doomed they were to certain and early death.

Among the matters discussed was a proposition, made by a friend of the family some time previous, to test the efficacy of this strange remedy—the roasted heart of the buried sister. No wonder they shuddered as they thought of it, standing sorrowfully together, a little remnant, soon to be uselessly laid by—nor that they each and all shrunk back from the idea of eating their own flesh and blood. But one after another they submitted to the alternative. The physician was consulted, and requested to apply the knife to the corpse after it should be taken out of the tomb. He hesitated, and persuaded them to relinquish the idea, at once senseless and heathenish, and they desisted. But another fell a victim to the disorder, and they determined, at all events, to perform what they considered their duty.

Again the doctor was summoned, and this time he complied with their strange request.

Accordingly, at midnight he repaired, with a few of the family, to the old burial-ground, and, with a dark lantern, they all stood beside the grave in the stillness of the ghostly hour, while the aged sexton threw up the damp clods, and finally lifted the door that led into the tomb. The heart was carefully separated from the body by the surgeon’s knife, and placed in charge of one of the brothers. As if to verify the truth of the assertion, there was, truly enough, a drop of fresh, red blood in its centre; and shocking as was the ordeal in prospect, they almost exulted as they fancied that the true and only successful remedy had been at last discovered.

They burned the heart to ashes, and used it as a medicine. But, alas for human hopes! the hand of the destroyer was not stayed. Long since, every soul of that family had gone to its last account. So much for old superstitions.

NAME THIS NOVEL -  The first person who identifies the author and novel from which the chapter above has been extracted will receive a free copy of Food for the Dead (inscribed if desired). Hint: published before Mercy Brown died.

 
7 Comment(s):
Martha said...
Hello! Here is a link to a site with information about Mary Andrews Denison: http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/denison_mary.html Mary's husband, Charles Wheeler Denison, was also an interesting person; born in Connecticut, he was a clergyman, writer, editor, and abolitionist. (Btw, Wheeler and Denison are colonial New England family names.) I've enjoyed visiting your site! Best, Martha~
September 28, 2012 10:51:01
 
Brett said...
Hi Dr. Bell, in my extremely delayed response I say thanks, more contests are very cool! Enjoying your blog as usual. Your analysis of the ritual patterns is very interesting.
June 11, 2011 12:56:18
 
Michael Bell said...
Here's to Gillian, Anna, Emily, and Brett for finding the novel!
May 2, 2011 09:56:40
 
Michael Bell said...
Nice detective work. Not counting my daughter (who doesn't count), you came in third. I might have to think of another contest, with a few more challenges. Thank you for participating, Brett.
May 1, 2011 08:05:23
 
Brett said...
Hi Dr. Bell, I love your blog. I believe the answer is "Home Pictures" by Mary Andrews Denison. Thanks. I look forward to reading your new book. Best, Brett
May 1, 2011 05:35:35
 
Michael Bell said...
Well, it wouldn't be fair. Nepotism is not alive and well in this family (I'm not in RI, now). I've read a lot of this sort of thing for my research. It is dated, that's for sure.
April 29, 2011 08:42:20
 
Gillian said...
I know the answer (thanks Google) but I think that as your daughter, I might not qualify for a prize. That's pretty fascinating-now I want to read her pulpy novels!
April 29, 2011 08:25:07
 
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