Vampires are everywhere. These days it seems like these immortal, bloodsucking undead monsters are an unstoppable force, populating and dominating a wide range of books, movies, comics, TV shows, and pretty much every type of media there is. As insanely popular as they are, in modern times there are few people who actually believe in the literal existence of vampires. To most of us, these are creatures purely of film and literature, yet this was not always so. The modern day image of vampires as charismatic and sophisticated gentlemen that we’re most familiar with was mostly created in the 18th century in Europe. However, the world has a very long history of blood drinking or flesh eating spirits and demons, and in many cultures these specters of the night were long thought to be very real indeed. Far from a mere archaic legend of ancient peoples half a world away, these undead revenants were said to prowl the night of New England as recently as the 19th century. Let us look into the dark world of the mysterious vampires of old New England.
Legends of vampires in the New World had their start in the old. Since at least the medieval period, vampire-like creatures have featured in the local folklore of many areas of Europe, most notably in remote, rural areas. The people of these eras strongly believed in such monsters for a very long time, with 800 year old graves uncovered in Bulgaria featuring remains that have been staked through the chest by iron rods, a technique that has survived into modern day pop cultural depictions of vampires. These ancient vampires were not always necessarily human in appearance, and were often more often like supernatural demons that drank the blood of the living. Such creatures went by a myriad of different names over the centuries depending on the culture or even the region, with the specific term “vampire” not coming into usage until the 1600s.
It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that the idea of vampires as dead people risen up through dark forces to stalk the night in search of blood really took hold, with such myths originating mostly in Eastern Europe. The vampires of these days were typically described as the dead who had returned to life through supernatural forces and prowled the night to drink human blood, only to return to their graves before dawn. The graves of suspected vampires were routinely dug up in order to destroy the creatures and end their rampage. It was widely believed that those who had been fed off of by a vampire would grow weak, pale, and subsequently die, after which they would be buried and later rise again as vampires themselves to continue the cycle of evil. As such, graves that were targeted for exhumation and extermination were often not only those of the vampire in question, but also their alleged victims. The target of vampire attacks was said to be either the neck or the stomach, so any suspicious wounds in these areas were often seen as evidence of vampiric activities. Another sure sign of a vampire was believed to be corpses that were bloated or seeped blood from the mouth or eyes, which was seen as evidence that the creature had recently fed on the living. Any such remains exhumed from graves were surely dealt with through beheading or heart removal and the discovery of such corpses typically caused widespread panic in the surrounding areas.
In addition to the extermination of vampire corpses, the people of vampire infested villages were prone to using a wide array of methods to ward off the creatures. These included the use of garlic or other substances with smells the vampires were said to abhor, as well as using various charms or wards. Another way to keep away vampires was to pour sand or salt along windows or doorways, as it was believed that they could not resist counting every granule, and this would keep them occupied until the sun came up and they were forced to retreat to the cold earth of their graves.
In the 18th century, such legends experienced a sudden surge in popularity when the old vampire legends from Eastern Europe began to spread to Western Europe, including France and England, and the idea of real vampires prowling the night took hold in the public consciousness. One of the more well-known tales of a real vampire from this time and the one often credited with really launching the vampire craze in Western Europe was the story of a Serbian man by the name of Arnold Paole. The Serbian farmer had allegedly died of a broken neck after falling from a hay wagon, and after his death there was a string of mysterious murders in his village. Paole was suspected of being a vampire, rising from his grave to feed on the blood of the living. His corpse was exhumed and disposed of, as well as those of many of his supposed victims, as it was believed that they would carry on the curse and become revenants themselves. At the time, Austrian military authorities investigated the case and the published story became widely publicized, helping to fuel fears of real vampires walking among us slaking their dark, savage thirst.
Another widely published and publicized story that further drove the escalating vampire hysteria was that of yet another Serbian named Peter Plogojowitz. It was reported that 10 days after the man’s death, 9 people died of a mysterious illness one after another. This was suspicious enough, but the story takes on a spooky twist when one considers that before they had died, all of the victims had reported being attacked by Plogojowitz in their dreams. Suspecting the work of a vampire, villagers notified the army, who came in and exhumed Plogojowitz’s body. Much to the shock and horror of all present, the man’s corpse was allegedly still breathing and the eyes were moving, upon which officers staked the body and burned it just to be sure. Upon destruction of the supposed vampire, both the murders and nightmares ceased.
These accounts and stories like them led to a surge in vampire sightings and superstition throughout Europe that culminated in an almost mass hysteria of epic proportions, despite this being the supposedly progressive Age of Enlightenment, when most folk beliefs and myths were considered to be on their way out. Many mysterious deaths at the time were superstitiously attributed to vampire attacks and it was not uncommon during this time for people to dig up corpses they suspected of being vampires and perform various mutilations meant to put an end to their evil, such as staking, beheading, or cutting out the heart. Staking corpses was a particularly common practice during this time, with the desired material of stakes varying depending on the region and ranging from iron to different kinds of wood that were thought to work best. In the old days, the stakes were meant to simply pin the vampire to the ground to prevent them from rising from their graves, and the torso was the center of the body so that was where the corpses were impaled. The idea of the heart as an actual target did not come until much later. In addition to this defilement of suspicious corpses, there were even regular public executions of those suspected of being vampires themselves, often with the accused having very little chance to prove their innocence.
These legends of the Old World eventually found their way to the New World, and vampire superstition grew in America just as it had done in Europe. The spread of these traditions across the sea was most likely a result of the settlers of the New World bringing their ancient folklore with them, including that of vampires. Perhaps the earliest physical evidence of belief in vampires in America was found in 1990 in Griswold, Connecticut, where a grave was found with a gruesome discovery within it. The grave contained the bodies of farmers from the 1700s that were mostly normal except for one exception. One of the corpses had apparently been decapitated and arranged in the position of a jolly roger 10 years after death. It was determined to not be the result of grave robbery since no valuables had been taken and the other corpses had remained untouched. A similar macabre find dating from the 1700s as well was found in Jewett City, Connecticut, where 29 bodies were found to have been posthumously dug up and burned. It is believed that both cases originated with an attempt to destroy suspected vampires.
Although obviously there had been some amount of vampire lore going around America since the 1700s, such sightings and incidents began to occur with increasing frequency in the 1800s throughout New England, which resulted in occasional mass panics and hysteria. Just as had happened in old Europe, corpses were sometimes dug up and desecrated in an attempt to destroy suspected vampires, with the traditional practices of burning, staking, removal of the heart, and beheading the methods of choice. Among the various legends of vampires in New England during this time, which is often referred to as “The New England Vampire Panic,” a few stand out.
One of the most famous accounts is the story of a girl by the name of Mercy Brown. The girl had passed away in 1892 from a tuberculosis epidemic that was causing members of her family to die off one by one. Other locals suspected the dark work of a vampire, and many reported seeing Mercy wandering about at night among graves or out in farmland even after she had supposedly died. Mercy’s father decided to have her body dug up, as well as two other daughters who had died as well, in order to see if any of them had become creatures of the night. Although her two sisters had decomposed to skeletons, Mercy’s corpse was described as being in remarkably good condition considering how long it had been in the ground. In addition, Mercy’s body had changed positions in the grave and even displayed a slight rosiness to the cheeks. When the girl’s heart was examined, it was reported as having fresh blood within it. It was determined that she was surely a vampire and her heart was burned to ash. In a morbid addition to the story, the ashes of the heart was said to have been mixed with water and used as a kind of medication to stave off tuberculosis and death by Marcy’s own sick brother, who died anyway. The story of Mercy Brown was very widely publicized at the time. To this day, Mercy Brown’s grave is known for various strange phenomena such as ghost sightings, disembodied screaming or crying, and the overwhelming feeling of being watched.
In 1817, a respected and well-educated student of Dartmouth University by the name of Frederick Ransom died of tuberculosis at the age of 20 in South Woodstock, Vermont, and was accused posthumously of being a vampire as those close to him became weak and died, which was seen as a sure sign that they had been fed upon. The man’s corpse was dug up and was found to be bloated, presumably from feeding on the living. His heart was promptly cut out and reportedly burned in a blacksmith’s forge, a rather unusual course of action considering that highly educated people of the time did not typically subscribe to such superstitious practices. Even with such a seemingly final death for the supposed vampire, Ransom’s mother, sister, and two brothers all died suddenly not long after.
In 1889, 19 year old Nellie Vaughn, of West Greenwich, Rhode Island, died of an intense fever caused by pneumonia and was buried. The very same night that Nellie was buried, a man passing the grave reported hearing a woman screaming in anguish, but could not discern who it was or where exactly it came from. Shaken, he returned to the grave the next day with the constable in tow, where they found fresh footprints in the dirt surrounding the girl’s grave. Although nothing was done to exhume the suspicious body, many suspected Nellie of being a vampire and her grave was subject to vandalism over the years. One theory concerning this case is that perhaps Nellie had been accidentally buried alive. Oddly, it is said that grass will not grow on the girl’s grave even to this day.
Were any of these cases describing actual real vampires? The answer to that is likely no. All of the supposed vampire cases in New England share some things in common. Every case revolves around the ever present specter of disease and almost always tuberculosis, which was a highly contagious and deadly disease at the time. In each alleged vampire account, a person dies of tuberculosis or some other sickness, after which more people, usually close to the original victim such as family members, grow weak and die too. This was a classic sign of being fed off of, so it was interpreted as the dark work of vampires and subsequently the suspected offender would be dug up and their heart burned or the body otherwise traditionally disposed of in order to protect the community from further attacks. It is most likely that the weakening and deaths were the result of the disease being passed on to people in close vicinity, not from the work of vampires. In 19th century America, tuberculosis was a very mysterious illness that little was known about, so it makes sense that superstitious people who believed in the folklore of vampires might have used these creatures to explain the deadly spread of the disease and its deteriorating effects.
The condition of corpses said to exhibit vampirism could also have been the result of an incomplete knowledge of the forces of decomposition. The classic signs of vampirism, such as bloating or the leaking of blood from orifices, are all normal signs of decay, but the rural people seeing these were unlikely to have known this and thus would have seen it as signs of the corpse feeding on blood. Add in fear, panic, and hysteria, and you have a recipe for a vampire corpse.
The vampire panic of New England eventually passed, but the stories of real vampires persist in many areas of the world to this day. Indeed, panic and fear of vampires have resulted in gruesome displays in modern times that would not seem out of place in a rural 18th or 19th century village but which are shocking to see today. In 2004 in Romania, relatives of a man named Toma Petre became convinced he was a vampire. In an eerie parallel to what was happening in 19th century New England, the young man’s relatives dug up his body, removed the heart, incinerated it, and then mixed the ashes with water to drink. In Malawi in 2002 and 2003, mobs of people hunted down and stoned to death at least one person and attacked several others in the belief that they were vampires. As recently as 2012, the council of the Serbian town of Zarozje issued an actual official public health warning after it was suspected that the resident vampire, known as Sava Savanovic, was on the prowl after his supposed lair collapsed. It was believed that the vampire was out looking for a new home and victims, and the warning sparked wide-scale public panic.
Fictional vampires are everywhere but it seems the phenomenon goes beyond just books and movies. Vampires are still very real to some people, and human belief can be just as dangerous as any supernatural creature of the night. Considering the mass hysteria of the Middle Ages in Europe, the vampire panic of New England, and modern reports from various places, it seems that even if vampires are not literally real, they nevertheless have the capability to inflict horror onto us all the same.