Wednesday, April 19, 2006

This is why I do not live in New England

The year is 1892. Thomas Oliver made the first practical typewriter, tractors with the internal combustion engine were all the rage, President Harrison was about to lose to the man he beat four years earlier, and New Englanders were digging up graves of their relatives in a desperate attempt to stop undead vampires!

Folklorist Dr. Michael Bell documents in Food for the Dead the long tradition New Englanders had for digging up their dead family members, burning hearts, and destroying corpses all in a desperate attempt to stop tuberculosis (known as consumption at the time). The belief was that consumption was caused by the dead who feed upon the living leaving the disease behind. The only way to stop the disease, the tradition held, was to destroy the evil creature causing it.

The book starts out with the 1892 case of Mercy Brown allegedly doing some post-mortem infections on the rest of her family. The book goes on detailing earlier cases of vampire hunting (although the Yankees at the time never used the word) around New England. Bell even provides an interactive map of the cases he discovered on his website for the book. It appears this tradition has its basis in Puritan times. I guess if one is accusing neighbors of witchcraft the belief in the undead is not that far behind.

The vampire case is a good example of why geography matters. In the American Journal of Physical Anthropology Paul S. Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni describe how poor soil conditions in some areas of New England were the cause of tuberculosis and how this led to the rise in vampire beliefs.

The belief is spread further by matters of religious geography. Catholic belief states that if a body does not decay it is a sign of sainthood. Protestant and Orthodox tradition holds if the body does not decay it is a sign of Satan's workings. Where are two major points of vampire story beginnings? Orthodox Eastern Europe and Protestant New England!

The 1892 Mercy Brown case seems to be the last vampire case in New England, although the odd Montague Summers may have done his vampire hunting into the 1930s. The tradition of vampire-like creatures continued to survive and H.P. Lovecraft writes about it in the Shunned House. The belief is now dead but the legends live on with locals and historians.

Its something that in an era when people were starting to buy cars others were busy battling against vampires.

Category: Historical Geography, Miscellaneous

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