Vampires and Public Health – JSTOR Daily

Nellie Vaughan was buried in West Greenwich, Rhode Island, in 1889. And although death is usually the end of a person’s story, for Nellie it was only the beginning.

Soon after her burial, Nellie was exhumed from her grave on the family farm at her mother’s request and moved to the town cemetery. Things took a strange turn shortly after her reburial: Nellie was accused of being a vampire.

Vampires were a problem throughout New England in the nineteenth century, and Nellie was just one of many people suspected of occupying the space between the living and the dead. As anthropologist George R. Stetson explained in 1896, New England was just one of many places in the world where there was a belief in “spirits that leave the tomb, usually at night, to torment the living.” Rhode Island in particular, Stetson wrote, “is distinguished for the prevalence of this remarkable superstition.”

Entire families were dying, gripped by something that was slowly disappearing. One accused vampire, Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, died in 1892. Her mother and sister had also died, and soon after, her brother became seriously ill. It looked like he would suffer the same fate as the rest of his family. Something was attacking the Browns and people needed answers.

As researchers Donald H. Holley Jr. and Casey E. Cordy explain, “city dwellers are convinced [Mercy’s] father to exhume the bodies of the dead in hopes of identifying the vampire who has been “stalking” his son and putting the surviving family members at risk. The bodies were exhumed and while Mercy’s mother and sister were completely decomposed, Mercy was not. This demonstrated, the townspeople reasoned, that she was a vampire rising from her grave to slowly drain the life out of her brother. As a result, her heart and liver were removed and burned, and “her sick brother then ate her ashes in the hope of saving himself, but nevertheless died a few months later.”

Headline and editorial cartoon for a story about superstitious beliefs in rural Rhode Island, including Mercy Brown, 1896 via Wikimedia Commons

Another Rhode Islander, Sarah Tillinghast, was also accused of vampirism shortly after her death in 1799. As happened to Brown, “Sarah’s body was exhumed by her father in an attempt to identify the vampire who had killed several of the children Sarah was discovered to be the vampire when, according to witnesses, her eyes were “open and motionless,” “her hair and nails had grown,” and “her heart and arteries were full of fresh red blood.” Her organs were removed and burned before she and her siblings were reburied.

The people of New England were afraid and took drastic measures to calm those fears. As Stetson writes, in one town in Rhode Island, “the known exhumations have been made in five families, in the village before mentioned in three families, and in two neighboring villages in two families.” And according to an article from 1875, one family , which is afflicted with disease, believes that their dead father “will not rest until he has drawn to himself the nine surviving members of the family, the sick son, armed with a spade, exhumed his father and cut off his head.”

There’s no denying that people were dying in Rhode Island, but it wasn’t the vampires who were draining their life force. There was a much more common cause—tuberculosis. The disease, writes historian Jean E. Abrams, has “the distinction of being the leading cause of death in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.” As experts learned more about the disease and how it spread, exhumation was replaced by public health measures ranging from anti-spitting laws to changes in ventilation. What began as fear fueled by superstition eventually led to advances in public health.

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JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers and students. JSTOR Daily readers have free access to the original research behind our JSTOR articles.

By: George R. Stetson

American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No. 1 (January 1896), pp. 1–13

Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association

By: Donald H. Holley Jr. and Casey E. Cordy

Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 120, No. 477 (Summer 2007), pp. 335–354

University of Illinois Press on behalf of the American Folklore Society

By: Jeanne E. Abrams

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 68, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 416–450

Oxford University Press

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