The vampire, romanticized in literature as a creature who sleeps by day and becomes a blood-sucking monster by night, has inspired the curious and fostered superstition for centuries.
Today's scholar has separated fact from fiction, folklore from literary license.
At a meeting this week of the Westerly Historical Society, Michael Bell, a trained folklorist, anthropologist and author of "Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires," discussed vampire tales spawned in New England between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Up until the Civil War, the major cause of death in America was tuberculosis, an airborne disease for which there was no known cure. The deadly epidemic was wasting whole families and entire communities.
In a last desperate effort to combat the plague, families began exhuming their dead in an attempt to save the living. Essentially, the corpses of people who died from tuberculosis were viewed as vampires, responsible for contaminating others.
As a defensive measure, much like inoculation - where a little of a disease is injected into the body so the body can build resistance - families would dig up the dead, burn the heart and feed the ashes to family members in an attempt to ward off the disease. If the heart contained liquid, it was used to treat the disease.
In some cases, all of the exhumed remains were burned to ward off the death of family members. Sometimes the bones were rearranged. Heads and leg bones were severed.
These were not clandestine activities Bell explained during his talk at the Westerly Public Library. And while physicians and clergy did not endorse the practice, they did not openly condemn it either.
It was a time of "do-it-yourself" medicine and those afflicted with tuberculosis evoked the idea of a vampire.
Victims suffered the most during the night and woke up coughing; bloody spittle gathered at the corners of their mouths; there was blood on their bedclothes. Ghastly in appearance, they seemed to be walking corpses, with their lives draining away.
"The symptoms very much mimic what you think a vampire attack would do," Bell remarked.
The patients, with their emaciated forms, crimson lips and sunken eyes, fed the theory that the evil in the corpse must be killed. And while the living looked as though they were dying, after they did die of tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was also called) they seemed to grow, Bell explained. Their corpses would appear to gain weight when they began to bloat, their nails would curl and their hair would grow.
Rhode Island had the dubious distinction of being named the Transylvania of America but neighboring Connecticut had its share of "vampires" as well.
In New England, "vampirism" thrived outside the Puritan communities, in the fringe areas. A documented account appeared in The Connecticut Courant in 1765 and later in the Norwich Weekly Courier. Bell said such accounts were also recorded in the Providence Journal. He noted about 20 cases of vampire folklore chronicled throughout New England.
Vampirism, he said, has been described as "a corpse that comes to the attention of the populace in times of crisis."
The vampire tales were more legend than historical account. Bell, in a slide presentation, showed a recently discovered broken tombstone for Simon Whipple Aldrich, who died in North Smithfield, which reads in part, "Although consumption's vampire grasp had seized thy mortal frame ...."
Stuckley Tillinghast, father of 14, had a recurring dream in which he lost half his orchard. His dreams turned out to be prophetic as he saw his family die of consumption one by one, until half of them, like the orchard, were gone.
The departing family members had all complained that Sarah, the first to die, had returned. Tillinghast exhumed the bodies of his children. Some bodies had decayed but Sarah was well preserved. So her heart was cut out.
Stories of the undead - vampires - were adopted by gothic literature. They took a folk figure, transformed it into a literary sophisticate and added a sexual element. The literary vampire lives for centuries while folk vampires stay close to home. "Folk vampires seldom leave the grave," Bell quipped.
from http://web.archive.org/web/200909301106 ... le390.html
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Westerly and the New England Vampires
Tuberculosis has over the years been connected with Witchcraft, Vampirism and other folklore stories over the years
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