Saturday, February 28, 2015

Vampires in HIstoric New England: A Sick and Bloody Tale

When I say sick, I'm talking tuberculosis, aka consumption. When I say bloody, I'm referring to the blood coughed up by a TB victim, the blood still left in the rotting heart of the exhumed corpse and that same unearthed blood used as an elixir in a desperate attempt to reverse the disease in the sick and dying relatives who feared and dreaded the day when they would join their loved ones underground in the graveyard. I learned all of this from the article The Great American Vampire Scare by Abigail Tucker published on Smithsonian Online and from a lecture I just attended this afternoon given by Nick Bellantoni, retired Connecticut state archeologist. (The link is to a YouTube video of his lecture on the subject at Quinnipiac University). 

I can't imagine living in a world where there's no knowledge of germs or the possible consequences of the lack of personal hygiene. Imagine having someone cough or sneeze in your face and being totally ignorant of anything except the moisture. Might as well be modern hand sanitizer because a citizen of the 19th century or earlier wouldn't know the contents of either or the value of one over the other. I wonder if they even considered it rude or gross.

However, what I can imagine is the horror and sorrow of helplessly watching your loved ones sickening, some over a course of years and even decades; and dying after wretched coughing fits that waste away their bodies over time until finally becoming exhausted and "consumed" by this mysterious and relentless disease. Maybe even more frightening would be the fear of becoming a victim yourself.

In desperation, when nothing else seems to prevent or cure the disease, people resort to superstition and folk stories about the resurrection of corpses that slip into dark houses during the night and feed on the blood of their surviving relatives, then return to their graves before dawn leaving their living relatives sickened, depleted of blood and on the road to their own graves. 

Dr. Bellantoni described how his archeological study of a lost cemetery uncovered in an excavation site in Griswold, Connecticut, led him to the discovery of the vampire folklore of the area, which is the life work of Michael Bell, Phd. The mystery that motivated Bellantoni to learn about the folklore was his discovery of a man's grave where the bones were dismantled, the ribcage broken open in an apparent search for the heart and the corpse decapitated with the leg bones placed in a cross over the chest. He was mystified as to why the body was placed in such a strange arrangement, the like of which he had never encountered before. 

His research led him to Bell and other scholars on the subject who explained that New Englanders in an attempt to prevent catching and/or dying from TB would exhume their loved ones corpses, burn the heart and decapitate the body to prevent them from ever leaving the grave again. The mystery still remains regarding that particular grave, but his research points toward the vampire theory, even though the leg bones weren't disturbed in any of the other cases. 

Even though it's hard for me to imagine living in a world that knows nothing about germs and disease prevention, I wonder how 19th century or earlier people would interpret, in contrast, our obsessive behaviors regarding health and sickness. They would probably be just as appalled at our relentless hand washing, bottles of hand sanitizer in every mother's purse, sneezing into our elbows and what's with that crazy daily showering!

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