Got your attention, didn’t I? Listen to this story.
In the 1800s, tuberculosis, then commonly known as consumption, was one of the most common, deadly and feared diseases. One of the families it struck was the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island. First the mother, Mary Brown, died of consumption in December, 1883. A little over half a year later, the eldest Brown daughter, also named Mary, succumbed. When a son, Edwin, contracted consumption a few years later, he was sent out west in the hopes that the salutary air of Colorado would halt his sickness. It didn’t. When Edwin returned to Exeter, his sister Mercy got sick with the "galloping," or fast-acting, version of consumption. She died in 1892.
Edwin’s condition worsened. Alarmed at the mortality rate of the Brown family, friends, neighbors and other townspeople began to worry that the Browns suffered from a vampire. What else could be systematically draining the vitality of parents and children except for some hungry relation come back from the grave? Encouraged both by this speculation and by desperation, the remaining Brown men took drastic action.
Several months after she died, Mercy’s corpse was dug up. She had turned over in her grave. There was also fresh liquid blood around her heart. The Brown men read both of these signs as indications that Mercy was still active, bloodthirsty and alive. They cut the heart out of Mercy’s body, burned it on a nearby rock and, in a ritual of folk medicine, fed the ashes to Edwin. Though Edwin died a scant eight weeks later, no one else in the family did, so the disease and vampire were considered vanquished.
With this riveting tale as a starting point, folklorist Michael Bell explores the vampire traditions of southern New England in Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Basically he argues that there was a close link between consumption, ubiquitous in the 19th century, and the aforementioned belief in vampires [although the term "vampire" was never used in New England]. Without germ theory, no one knew how tuberculosis spread. Therefore, upon seeing a family systematically reduced by the disease, it was not much of a stretch for medically uninformed observers to conclude that lives were being sapped by those who were already dead. Without antibiotics and immunizations, no one knew how to treat consumption. However, if rural New Englanders accepted that the consumptives were being haunted by sick revenants, then logically the revenants were destroyed in an attempt to stop the haunting or contagion. Thus consumption victims were unearthed, their hearts [and sometimes livers] removed and fed to the afflicted.
By giving the full context of medical ignorance, rural dependence on folk medicine and the isolated self-reliance of the backcountry New Englanders who employed this practice, Bell removes the modern stigma of revolting cannibalism from these acts of vampire extermination. He convincingly and compassionately interprets such slaying of consumptive vampires as a desperate gesture to understand and control a disease that was beyond understanding. Because Food for the Dead not only unearths and substantiates an unusual folk medical practice, but also puts it in its proper historical and sociological context, all in a readable, accessible form, it is frickin’ awesome. While too informal in its delivery and prone to poorly tied in excurses, Food for the Dead is fascinating and valuable not only as a record of local vampires, but also as Bell’s personal odyssey of folkloric/genealogical/historical discovery.
New England history, genealogy, old cemeteries and vampires — what more could you ask for in a book?