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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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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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