The New England Vampires

The Vampire legend dates back for hundreds of years. But it did not finally die until the last years of the 19th century, in New England.

Killing a Vampire
photo from WikiCommons

The “Vampire” is a legend that stretches back to medieval times. Feudal Europe was a hard place to live: catastrophes like droughts, plague or famines were a fact of life, and with no way of explaining those events, people turned to religious beliefs and stories of the supernatural. Demons, spirits and witches were accepted as parts of everyday life, as were evil creatures like werewolves or vampires. When the crops failed or the well dried up or the plague swept through the village, people turned to the supernatural to explain it and, perhaps, to help avoid it.

Most terrifying of all for many people, right up until modern times, was the fear of being buried alive. Medical science of the time, for all practical purposes, did not exist, and it was not an uncommon thing for someone to be thought dead only to recover and arise during their funeral. It apparently happened often enough that many people specified in their will that their heads be cut off after their death, so they would not be mistakenly buried alive—or that bells or gongs or some other device be rigged up to their coffins, so they could alert someone if they happened to awaken inside their grave.

But then, there was also the fear on the part of the living that maybe the dead weren’t so dead …

It was a common belief in medieval times that the spirits of the recently-dead could return to cause trouble for the living, bringing with them misfortune and disaster. This often led to corpses being dug up so the spirit of the dead could be somehow appeased and put at rest.

Today, we know from modern science that sometimes the decomposition of a dead corpse can be delayed by a number of circumstances: an airtight sealed coffin, for example, or being buried in cold winter weather. To the superstitious peasants of the Dark Ages, however, the sight of an exhumed corpse that had barely decayed after their death and burial, perhaps even still covered with blood, must have incited the belief that they were “undead”, a living corpse, which seemed to be able to walk among the living. And from this came the legend of the Vampire.

From that idea, it was then not a great leap to the notion that one could prevent the Vampire from leaving his grave to molest the living through various methods. The one we know best today, thanks to numerous movies, is to drive a stake through the heart, but in medieval times there were a myriad of ways that were thought to dispatch a Vampire. Sometimes the stake would be driven through the body and into the wood of the coffin, to pin the body inside. Vampires could also be killed by cutting off their head, or by cutting out their heart and burning it. In some medieval burials a sickle blade was fastened to the side of the coffin at the corpse’s neck—the idea being that if the Vampire tried to rise out of his grave, the blade would sever his head and kill him. In other stories, suspected Vampires would have a large heavy stone placed on the lid of their coffin, to prevent him from lifting it from the inside. Sometimes the coffin would be filled with sand or salt: according to legend, Vampires had an irresistible desire to count the grains one by one, thus insuring that he never left his grave. (This ancient myth would later re-appear in, of all places, the Sesame Street children’s TV show.)

In 17th century Britain, political and religious struggles were often the same. There was no freedom of religion in England: the Anglican Church was the official state religion, and other faiths, especially Catholicism, the religion of the enemies Spain and France, were viewed not only as heresy but as political foes. Queen Elizabeth I, who had fought a bitter war with Catholic Spain and had beaten back the Spanish Armada when the Spanish King, with the blessing of the Pope, tried to invade England, had ruthlessly persecuted Britain’s Catholic minority, outlawing Catholic Mass, forcing every British citizen to attend Protestant church services under penalty of a fine, and executing any practicing Catholic priests.

When Queen Elizabeth died without an heir in 1603, the reigning King of Scotland, as the son of Mary Queen of Scots, was next in line for the British crown, and took the throne as King James I. King James was a Protestant (his authorized “King James Version” of the Bible is still the most widely-used among Protestant churches) but he had promised upon taking the throne that he would relax the anti-Catholic laws imposed by his predecessor. Instead, King James almost immediately issued an order requiring all Catholic priests to leave the country. It looked as though the repression of Britain’s Catholics would continue.

But James also had difficulties within his own Protestant wing. A faction known as Puritans thought that the Church of England wasn’t “Protestant” enough for them, and in 1620, a small group of religious separatists, calling themselves “Pilgrims”, boarded a ship called the Mayflower and sailed across the Atlantic to New England, where they hoped to build a new utopia based on their strict religious beliefs. Soon there were tens of thousands of Puritans living in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

They took their Bible seriously. Too seriously. They saw demons and devils everywhere they looked, and they believed in exercising harsh Biblical Law against evil-doers. The result was one of the most famous events in early American history—the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Even 100 years after Salem, the religious fervor of the Puritans had not abated, and in the 1800s, this led to a lesser-known, but equally hysterical, event known as the Great New England Vampire Panic.

In the 19th century, one of the leading killers was tuberculosis. Caused by a bacteria that was inhaled into the lungs, TB, which was then known as “consumption”, caused the victim to steadily waste away, becoming gaunt and weak until they finally died. There was no cure. Because the bacteria was contagious, it was not uncommon for entire families, young and old, to be infected and die one after another. And on occasion, this provoked fears of a Vampire.

The first incident of which we have a detailed description was reported in an 1888 newspaper article, which reads:

“At the breaking out of the Revolution there dwelt in one of the remoter Rhode Island towns a young man whom we will call Stukeley. He married an excellent woman and settled down in life as a farmer. Industrious, prudent, thrifty, he accumulated a handsome property for a man in his station in life, and comparable to his surroundings. In his family he had likewise prospered, for Mrs Stukeley meantime had not been idle, having presented her worthy spouse with fourteen children. Numerous and happy were the Stukeley family, and proud was the sire as he rode about the town on his excellent horse, and attired in his homespun jacket of butternut brown, a species of garment which he much affected. So much, indeed, did he affect it that a sobriquet was given him by the townspeople. It grew out of the brown color of his coats. Snuffy Stuke, they called him, and by that name he lived, and by it died.

“For many years all things worked well with Snuffy Stuke. His sons and daughters developed finely until some of them had reached the age of man or womanhood. The eldest was a comely daughter, Sarah. One night Snuffy Stuke dreamed a dream, which, when he remembered it in the morning, gave him no end of worriment. He dreamed that he possessed a fine orchard, as in truth he did, and that exactly half the trees in it had died. The occult meaning hidden in this revelation was beyond the comprehension of Snuffy Stuke, and that was what gave worry to him. Events, however, developed rapidly, and Snuffy Stuke was not kept long in suspense as to the meaning of his singular dream. Sarah, the eldest child, sickened, and her malady, developing into a quick consumption, hurried her into her grave. Sarah was laid away in the family burying ground, and quiet came again to the Stukeley family. But quiet came not to Stukeley. His apprehensions were not buried in the grave of Sarah.

“His unquiet quiet was but of short duration, for soon a second daughter was taken ill precisely as Sarah had been, and as quickly was hurried to the grave. But in the second case there was one symptom or complaint of a startling character, and which was not present in the first case. This was the continual complaint that Sarah came every night and sat upon some portion of the body, causing great pain and misery. So it went on. One after another sickened and died until six were dead, and the seventh, a son, was taken ill. The mother now also complained of these nightly visits of Sarah. These same characteristics were present in every case after the first one. Consternation confronted the stricken household. Evidently something must be done, and that, too, right quickly, to save the remnant of this family. A consultation was called with the most learned people, and it was resolved to exhume the bodies of the six dead children. Their hearts were then to be cut from their bodies and burned upon a rock in front of the house. The neighbors were called in to assist with the lugubrious enterprise. There were the Wilcoxes, the Reynoldses, the Whitfords, the Mooneys, the Gardners, and others. With pick and spade the graves were soon opened, and the six bodies brought into view. Five of these bodies were found to be far advanced in the stages of decomposition. These were the last of the children who had died. But the first, the body of Sarah, was found to be in a very remarkable condition. The eyes were opened and fixed. The hair and nails had grown, and the heart and arteries were filled with fresh red blood. It was clear at once to these astonished people that the cause of their trouble lay there before them. All the conditions of the vampire were present in the corpse of Sarah, the first that had died, and against whom all the others had so bitterly complained. So her heart was removed and carried to the designated rock, and there solemnly burned. This being done, the mutilated bodies were returned to their respective graves and covered. Peace then came to the afflicted family, but not, however, until a seventh victim had been demanded. Thus was the dream of Stukeley fulfilled. No longer did the nightly visits of Sarah afflict his wife, who soon regained her health. The seventh victim was a son, a promising young farmer, who had married and lived upon a farm adjoining. He was too far gone when the burning of Sarah’s heart took place to recover.”

Researchers later found documentation confirming that Sarah Tillinghast, the eldest daughter of Stukeley and Honor Tillinghast, did indeed die of consumption, though in 1799, not during the Revolution, and three of her siblings also died, not six. It is not known definitively whether the Vampire ritual described in the story actually took place.

Newspaper articles and journals from the time, however, indicate that there were at least 20 more known instances during the Panic in which recently-dead people, suspected of being a Vampire who was bringing on the consumption, were exhumed and their hearts ritually burned.

In 1884, Mary Eliza Brown, the wife of Exeter NH farmer George Brown, died of tuberculosis. Two years later, their eldest daughter Mary Olive also died from the disease. In 1891, both the remaining daughter Mercy Lena and son Edwin became ill with consumption. Mercy died on January 17, 1892. Edwin continued to hang on.

By now, friends and neighbors had already become convinced that one of the previously-dead family members was a Vampire and was returning to kill the others. So on March 17, accompanied by local Doctor Harold Metcalfe, George and a group of neighbors began digging up the bodies.

They found Mary Eliza and Mary Olive in advanced states of decomposition. Next was Mercy. Although she had died in January, she had not been buried right away because the ground was frozen, but had been stored in an above-ground crypt for two months before being interred when the soil thawed.

When they opened Mercy’s casket, they found what looked like a fresh corpse. The doctor found that her internal organs were all intact, and there was still blood in her heart.

Convinced that she was a Vampire, the men cut out Mercy’s heart and liver, burned them on a fire, and mixed the ashes with water. Following the old European legend that the victim of a Vampire can be cured by drinking the Vampire’s ashes, they had Edwin drink some of the concoction. Mercy’s remains were then reburied at the local church. Edwin died two months later.

With that, the New England Vampire Panic came to an end. Mercy Brown was the last suspected Vampire in New England that we know about. Her grave at the Baptist Church in Exeter is today a tourist attraction.

7 thoughts on “The New England Vampires”

  1. Many years ago I once saw a book by one Paul Barber, titled “Vampires, burial and death”, in the bargain bin of the local bookshop. It was dirt cheap, and I liked the rather macabre title so much I bought it on a whim.

    It turned out to be a grisly but absolutely fascinating account of vampire legends and their origin. Nothing to do with Count Dracula – as you point out, the origin of these beliefs lay in people misunderstanding what happens to buried bodies.

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