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Hunting for Vampires in New England

Posted by Ruth Graham  September 26, 2012 04:35 PM

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It’s only natural to be experiencing extreme vampire fatigue at this point in our current pop-cultural cycle of blood-sucking novels and movies and hunters and diaries. But if you can stand just one more story, make it the the true tale of the “vampire panic” that struck New England in the 19th century.

A spooky article in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine explores the phenomenon, and the historians and folklorists who are attempting the explain it. The frenzy manifested itself in exhumations of supposed vampires, some conducted privately by family members and others presided over publicly by doctors and clergymen. One Rhode Island folklorist has documented about 80 exhumations. Sometimes the body would simply be flipped face down, but in other cases, the living would burn the dead’s heart, or rearrange the bones of the skeleton. Henry David Thoreau mentioned an 1859 exhumation in his journal, and the “horrible superstition” made front-page news in city papers. Remarkably, one disinterment took place in rural Rhode Island as late as 1892.

I almost hate to give away the earthbound explanation here, but the hysteria seems to have originated with tuberculosis outbreaks. Survivors identified early casualties of the deadly wasting disease as vampires who rose from the dead to claim other victims and could only be vanquished through exhumation. Beat that, Twilight.

Illustration: Detail from frontispiece of "Varney the Vampire, or: The Feast of Blood" by James Malcolm Rymer; Victorian "penny dreadful" from 1847.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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