Consumption in America

During the late 18th and 19th centuries the belief in vampires was widespread in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut. Rhode Island had the dubious distinction of being named the Transylvania of America. In New England, “vampirism” thrived outside the Puritan communities.

20 cases of vampire folklore were chronicled throughout New England  in The Connecticut Courant in 1765 and later in the Norwich Weekly Courier and the Providence Journal. Again, the vampire is summoned as a scapegoat for death that man cannot explain.

Until the Civil War, the deadly tuberculosis, or “consumption”, an airborne disease for which was no known cure, was the major cause of death in America. 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 Ghostly in appearance, the patients, with their emaciated forms, crimson lips and sunken eyes seemed to be walking corpses. After they did die of tuberculosis their corpses would appear to gain weight when they began to bloat, their nails would curl and their hair would grow.

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 by nightly visiting them (although the word “vampire” was never used to describe him/her).

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 and while physicians and clergy did not endorse the practice, they did not openly condemn it either.

The most famous (and latest recorded) case is that of nineteen year old Mercy Brown who died in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892. Her father, assisted by the family physician, removed her from her tomb two months after her death. Her heart was cut out then burnt to ashes. An account of this incident was found among the papers of Bram Stoker and the story closely resembles the events in his classic novel, Dracula.