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Michael Bell
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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.

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