Monday, August 22, 2016

The Animistic Vampire in New England

The following article by George R. Stetson is from the Journal "American Anthropologist" and was published in 1896 about the vampire beliefs in New England.

The belief in the vampire and the whole family of demons has its origin in the animism, spiritism, or personification of the barbarian, who, unable to distinguish the objective from the subjective, ascribes good and evil influences and all natural phenomena to good and evil spirits.

Mr Conway remarks of this vampire belief that " it is, perhaps, the most formidable survival of demonic superstition now existing in the world."

Under the names of vampire, were-wolf, man-wolf, night mare, night-demon — in the Illyrian tongue oupires, or leeches ;
in modern Greek broucolaques, and in our common tongue ghosts,
each country having its own peculiar designation — the super-
stitious of the ancient and modern world, of Chaldea and Baby-
lonia, Persia, Egypt, and Syria, of Illyriaj Poland, Turkey,
Servia, Germany, England, Central Africa, New England, and
the islands of the Malay and Polynesian archipelagoes, desig-
nate the spirits which leave the tomb, generally in the night, to
torment the living.

The character, purpose, and manner of the vampire mani-
festations depend, like its designation, upon environment and
the plane of culture.

All primitive peoples have believed in the existence of good
and evil spirits holding a middle place between men and gods.
Calmet lays down in most explicit terms, as he was bound to
do by the canons of his church, the doctrine of angels and
demons as a matter of dogmatic theology.

The early Christians were possessed, or obsessed, by demons,
and the so-oalled demoniacal possession of idiots, lunatics, and
hysterical persons is still common in Japan, China, India, and
Africa, and instances are noted in western Europe, all yielding
to the methods of Christian and pagan exorcists as practiced in
New Testament times.

The Hebrew synonym of demon was serpent; the Greek,
diabolus, a calumniator, or impure spirit. The Rabbins were
divided in opinion, some believing they were entirely spiritual,
others that they were corporeal, capable of generation and sub-
ject to death.

As before suggested, it was the general belief that the vampire
is a spirit which leaves its dead body in the grave to visit and
torment the living.

The modern Greeks are persuaded that the bodies of the ex-
communicated do not putrefy in their tombs, but appear in the
night as in the day, and that to encounter them is dangerous.

Instances are cited by Calmet, in Christian antiquity, of ex-
communicated persons visibly arising from their tombs and
leaving the churches when the deacon commanded the excom-
municated and those who did not partake of the communion to
retire. The same writer states that " it was an opinion widely
circulated in Germany that certain dead ate in their tombs and
devoured all they could find about them, incltfdiiig their own
flesh, accompanied by a certain piercing shriek and a sound of
munching and groaning."

A German author has thought it worth while to write a work
entitled "De Masticatione mortuorum in tumulis." In many parts
of England a person who is ill is said to be " wisht '.' or " over-
looked." The superstition of the "evil eye" originated and
exists in the same degree of culture ; the evil'eye " which kills
snakes, scares wolves, hatches ostrich eggs, and breeds leprosy."
The Polynesians believed that the vampires were the departed
souls, which quitted the grave, and grave idols, to creep by night
into the houses and devour the heart and entrails of the sleepers,
who afterward died.*

The Kareins tell of the Kephu, which devours the souls of men
who die. The Mintira of the Malay peninsula have their water
demon, who sucks blood from men's toes and thumbs.

* Foster^s Observntions During a Voyage Around the World.

" The first theory of the vampire superstitions," remarks Ty-
lor * " is that the soul of the living man, often a sorcerer, leaves
its proper body asleep and goes forth, perhaps in the visible form
of a straw or fluff of down, slips through the keyhole, and at-
tacks a living victim. Some say these Mauri come by night to
men, sit upon their breasts, and suck their blood, while others'
think children are alone attacked, while to men they are night-
mares.

" The second theory is that the soul of a dead man goes out
from its buried body and sucks the blood of living men ; the
victim becomes thin, languid, bloodless, and, falling into a rapid
decline, dies."

The belief in the Obi of Jamaica and the Vaudoux or Vodun
of the west African coast, Jamaica, and Haiti is essentially the
same as that of the vampire, and its worship and superstitions,
which in Africa include child - murder, still survive in those
parts, as well as in several districts among the negro population
of our southern states. The negro laid under the ban of the
Obi or who is vaudouxed or, in the vernacular, " hoodooed "
slowly pines to death.

In New England the vampire superstition is unknown by its
proper name. It is there believed that consumption is not a
physical but a spiritual disease, obsession, or visitation ; that as
long as the body of a dead consumptive relative has blood in its
heart it is proof that an occult influence steals from it for death
and is at work draining the blood of the living into the heart of
the dead and causing his rapid decline.

It is a common belief in primitive races of low culture that
disease is caused by the revengeful spirits of man or other ani-
mals — notably among some tribes of North American Indians
as well as of African negroes.

Russian superstition supposes nine sisters who plague man-
kind with fever. They lie chained up in caverns, and when let
loose pounce upon men without pity.f

As in the financial and political, the psychologic world has
its periods of exaltation and depression, of ebb and flow, of con-
fidence and alarm. In the eighteenth century a vampire panic
beginning in Servia and Hungary spread thence into northern


and western Europe, acquiring its new life and impetus from the
horrors attending the prevalence of the plague and other dis-
tressing epidemics in an age of great public moral depravity
and illiteracy. Calmet, a learned Benedictine monk and abb6
of Senones, seized this opportunity to write a popular treatise
on the vampire, which in a short time passed through many
editions. It was my good fortune not long since to find in
the Boston Athenaeum library an original copy of his work.
Its title-page reads as follows : " Traits sur les apparitions des
esprits et sur les vampires ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Mo-
ravie, etc. Par le R. P. Dom Augustine Calmet, abbe de S6nones.
Nouvelle edition, revisee, corregie, et augmentie par I'auteur, avec
une lettre de Mons le Marquis MafFei, sur la magie. A Paris :
Ghez debure I'aine quay des Augustins £l I'image S. Paul.
MDCCLI. Avec approb et priv du roi."

Calmet was born in Lorraine, near Commercy, in 1672, and
his chief works were a commentary and history of the Bible. He
died as the abbe of Senones, in the department of the Vosges.

This curious treatise has evidently proved a mine of wealth
to all modern encyclopedists and demonologists. It impresses
one as the work of a man whose mental convictions do not en-
tirely conform to the traditions and dogmas of his church, and
his style at times appears somewhat apologetic. Calmet declares
his belief to be that the vampires of Europe and the brucolaques
of Greece are the excommunicated which the grave rejects. They
are the dead of a longer or shorter time who leave their tombs
to torment the living, sucking their blood and announcing their
appearance by rattling of doors and windows. The name vam-
pire, or d'oupires, signifies in the Slavonic tongue a bloodsucker.
He formulates the three theories then existing as to the cause of
these appearances :

First : That the persons were buried alive and naturally leave
their tombs.

Second : That they are dead, but that by God's permission or
particular command they return to their bodies for a time, as
when they are exhumed their bodies are found entire, the blood
red and fluid, and their members soft and pliable.

Third : That it is the devil who makes these apparitions ap-
pear and by their means causes all the evil done to men and
animals.

In some places the specter appears as in the flesh, walks, talks,
infests villages, ill uses both men and beasts, sucks the blood of
their near relations, makes them ill, and finally causes their
death.

The late Monsieur de Vassimont, counselor of the chamber of
the courts of Bar, was informed by public report in Monravia that
it was common enough in that country to see men who had died
some time before " present themselves in a party and sit down
to table with persons of their acquaintance without saying a word
and nodding to one of the party, the one indicated would in-
fallibly die some days after."*

About 1735 on the frontier of Hungary a dead person appeared
after ten years' burial and caused the death of his father. In
1730 in Turkish Servia it was believed that those who had been
passive vampires during life became active after death; in
Russia, that the vampire does not stop his unwelcome visits at
a single member of a family, but extends his visits to the last
member, which is the Rhode Island belief

The captain of grenadiers in the regiment of Monsieur le Baron
Trenck, cited by Calmet, declares " that it is only in their family
and among their own relations that the vampires delight in
destroying their species."

The inhabitante of the island of Chio do not answer unless
called twice, being persuaded that the brucolaques do not call
but once, and when so called the vampire disappears, and the
person called dies in a few days. The classic writers from
Sophocles to Shakespeare and from Shakespeare to our own
time have recognized the superstition.

Mr Conway quotes from the legend of Ishtar descending to
Hades to seek some beloved one. She threatens if the door be
not opened —

" I will raise the dead to be devourers of the living ;
Upon the living shall the dead prey."t

Singularly, in his discourse on modern superstitions De
Quincey, to whom crude superstitions clung and who had faith
in dreams as portents, does not allude to the vampire ; but his
contemporary, Lord Byron, in his lines on the opening of the
royal tomb at Windsor, recognizes this belief in the transforma-
tion of the dead :

" Justice and death have mixed their dust in vain,
Each royal vampire vi^akes to life again."

William of Malmsbury says that *' in England they believed
that the wicked came baclc after death by the will of the devil;"
and it was not an unusual belief that those whose death had
been caused in this manner, at their death pursued the same evil
calling. Naturally under such an uncomfortable and inconven-
ient infliction some avenue of escape must, if possible, be found.
It was first necessary to locate the vampire. If on opening the
grave of a " suspect " the body was found to be of a rose color, the
beard, hair, and nails renewed, and the veins filled, the evidence
of its being the abode of a vampire was conclusive. A voyager
in the Levant in the seventeenth century is quoted as relating
that an excommunicated person was exhumed and the body
found full, healthy, and well disposed and the veins filled with
the blood the vampire had taken from the living. In a certain
Turkish village, of forty persons exhumed seventeen »ave evi-
dence of vampirism. In Hungary, one deaa thirty years was
found in a natural state. In ITST/ the bodies of five religieuse
were discovered in a tomb near the hospital of Quebec, that had
been buried twenty years, covered with flesh and suffused with
blood.*

The methods of relief from or disposition of the vampire's
dwelling place are not numerous, but extremely sanguinary and
ghastly.

In Servia a relief is found in eating of the earth of his grave
and rubbing the person with his blood. This prescription was,
however, valueless if after forty days the body was exhumed
and all the evidences of an archivampire were not found. A more
common and almost universal method of relief, especially in the
Turkish provinces and in the Greek islands, was to burn the
body and scatter the ashes to the winds. Some old writers are
of the opinion that the souls of the dead cannot be quiet until
the entire body has been consumed. Exceptions are noted in the
Levant, where the body is cut in pieces and boiled in wine, and
where, according to Voltaire, the heart is torn out and burned.

In Hungary and Servia, to destroy the demon it was consid-
ered necessary to exhume the body, insert in the heart and other
parts of the defunct, or pierce it through witli a sharp instru-
ment, as in the case of suicides, upon which it utters a dreadful
cry, as if alive ; it is then decapitated and the body burned. In
New England the body is exhumed, the heart burned, and the
ashes scattered. The discovery of the vampire's resting-place
was itself an art.

In Hungary and in Russia they choose a boy young enough
to be certain that he is innocent of any impurity, put him on
the back of a horse which has never stumbled and is absolutely
black, and make him ride over all the graves in the cemetery.
The grave over which the horse refuses to pass is reputed to be
that of a vampire."

Gilbert Stuart, the distinguished American painter, when asked
by a London friend where he was born, replied : " Six miles
from Pottawoone, ten miles from Poppasquash, four miles from
Conanicut, and not far from the spot where the famous battle
with the warlike Pequots was fought." In plainer language,
Stuart was born in the old snuff mill belonging to his father and
Dr Moffat, at the head of Petaquamscott pond, six miles from
Newport, across the bay, and about the same distance from Narra-
gansett Pier, in the state of Rhode Island.

By some mysterious survival, occult transmission, or remark-
able atavism, this region, including within its radius the towns
of Exeter, Foster, Kingstown, East Greenwich, and others, with
their scattered hamlets and more pretentious villages, is distin-
guished by the prevalence of this remarkable superstition — a sur-
vival of the days of Sardanapalus, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of New
Testament history in the closing years of what we are pleased to
call the enlightened nineteenth century. It is an extraordinary
instance of a barbaric superstition outcropping in and coexisting
with a high general culture, of which Max Miiller and others
have spoken, and which is not so uncommon, if rarely so ex-
tremely aggravated, crude, and painful.

The region referred to, where agriculture is in a depressed con-
dition and abandoned farms are numerous, is the tramping-
ground of the book agent, the chromo peddler, the patent-medi-
cine man and the home of the erotic and neurotic modern novel.
The social isolation away from the larger villages is as complete
as a century and a half ago, when the boy Gilbert Stuart tramped
the woods, fished the streams, and was developing and absorb-
ing his artistic inspirations, while the agricultural and economic
conditions are very much worse.*

Farm-houses deserted and ruinous are frequent, and the once
productive lands, neglected and overgrown with scrubby oak,
speak forcefully and mournfully of the migration of the youth-
ful farmers from country to town. In short, the region furnishes
an object-lesson in the decline of wealth consequent upon the
prevalence of a too common heresy in the district that land will
take care of itself, or that it can be robbed from generation to
genen.tion without injury, and suggests the almost criminal
neglect of the conservators of public education to give instruction
to our farming youth in a more scientific and more practical agri-
culture. It has been well said by a banker of well known name
in an agricultural district in the midlands of England that " the
depression of agriculture is a depression of brains." Naturally,
in such isolated conditions the superstitions of a much lower
culture have maintained their place and are likely to keep it and
perpetuate it, despite the church, the public school, and the
weekly newspaper. Here Cotton Mather, Justice Sewall, and
the host of medical, clerical, and lay believers in the uncanny
superstitions of bygone centuries could still hold high carnival.

The first visit in this farming community of native-born New
Englanders was made to , a small seashore village pos-
sessing a summer hotel and a few cottages of summer residents
not far from Newport — that Mecca of wealth, fashion, and nine-
teenth-century culture. The family is among its well-
to-do and most intelligent inhabitants. One member of this
family had some years since lost children by consumption, and
by common report claimed to have saved those surviving by
exhumation and cremation of the dead.



* Rhode Island has the largest population to the square mile of any State in the Union 
The town of Exeter, before mentioned, incorporated in 1742-'43, had but 17 persons to, 
the square mile in 1890, and in 1893 had M abandoned farms, or one-fifth of the whole 
number within its limits. Foster, incorporated in 1781 and talcen from Scituate (which 
was settled by Massachusetts emigrants in 1710), had in 1890 a population of 1,2.52, and 
in IS93 had eight abandoned farms, Scituate having forty-five. North Kinqsion had 76 
persons to the square mile in 1890. Mr Arnold, in his history of the State, says that 
" South Kingston was in 1780 by far the wealthiest town in the State." It had a special 
provision made for the " maintenance of religion and education." 

In the same village resides Mr , an intelligent man, by
trade a mason, who is a living witness of the superstition and of
the efficacy of the treatment of the dead which it prescribes.
He informed me that he had lost two brothers by consumption.
Upon the attack of the second brother his father was advised
by Mr , the head of the family before mentioned, to take

up the first body and burn its heart, but the brother attacked
objected to the sacrilege and in consequence subsequently died.
When he was attacked by the disease in his turn, 's ad-
vice prevailed, and the body of the brother last dead was accord-
ingly exhumed, and, " living " blood being found in the heart
and in circulation, it was cremated, and the sufferer began im-
mediately to mend and stood before me a hale, hearty, and
vigorous man of fifty years. When questioned as to his under-
standing of the miraculous influence, he could suggest nothing
and did not recognize the superstition even by name. He re-
membered that the doctors did not believe in its efficacy, but he
and many others did. His father saw the brother's body and
the arterial blood. The attitude of several other persons in
regard to the practice was agnostic, either from fear of public
opinion or other reasons, and their replies to my inquiries were
in the same temper of mind as that of the blind man in the
Gospel of Saint John (9 : 25), who did not dare to express his
belief, but " answered and said. Whether he be a sinner or no,
I know not ; one thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now
I see."

At , a small isolated village of scattered houses in a

farming population, distant fifteen or twenty miles from New-
port and eight or ten from Stuart's birthplace, there have been
made within fifty years a half dozen or more exhumations. The

most recent was made within two years, in the family of .

The mother and four children had already succumbed to con-
sumption, and the child most recently deceased (within six
months) was, in obedience to the superstition, exhumed and the

heart burned. Dr , who made the autopsy, stated that he

found the body in the usual condition after an interment of that
length of time. I learned that others of the family have since
died, and one is now very low with the dreaded disease. The doc-
tor remarked that he had consented to the autopsy only after the
pressing solicitation of the surviving children, who were patients
of his, the father at first objecting, but finally, under continued
pressure, yielding. Dr declares the superstition to be

prevalent in all the isolated districts of southern Rhode Island,
and that many instances of its survival can be found in the large
centers of population. In the village now being considered
known exhumations have been made in five families, in the vil-
lage previousl}"^ named in three families, and in two adjoining
villages in two families. In 1875 an instance was reported in
Chicago, and in a New York journal of recent date I read the
following : "At Peukuhl, a small village in Prussia, a farmer died
last March. Since then one of his sons has been sickly, and
believing that the dead man would not rest until he had drawn
to himself the nine surviving members of the family, the sickly
son, armed with a spade, exhumed his father and cut off his
head." It does not by any means absolutely follow that this
barbarous superstition has a stronger hold in Rhode Island than
in any other part of the country. Peculiar conditions have
caused its manifestation and survival there, and similar ones are
likely to produce it elsewhere. The singular feature is that it
should appear and flourish in a native population which from
its infancy has had the ordinary New England educational ad-
vantages ; in a State having a larger population to the square
mile than any in the Union, and in an environment of remark-
able literacy and culture when compared with some other sec-
tions of the country. It is perhaps fortunate that the isolation
of which this is probably the product, an isolation common in
sparsely settled regions, where thought stagnates and insanity
and superstition are prevalent, has produced nothing worse.

In neighboring Connecticut, within a few miles of its university
town of New Haven, there are rural farming populations, fairly
prosperous, of average intelligence, and furnished with churches
and schools, which have made themselves notorious by murder,
suicides, and numerous cases of melancholia and insanity.

Other abundant evidence is at hand pointing to the conclu-
sion that the vampire superstition still retains its hold in its
original habitat — an illustration of the remarkable tenacity and
continuity of a superstition through centuries of intellectual
progress from a lower to a higher culture, and of the impotency
of the latter to entirely eradicate from itself the traditional be-
liefs, customs, habits, observances, and impressions of the former.

It is apparent that our increased and increasing culture, our
appreciation of the principles of natural, mental, and moral
philosophy and knowledge of natural laws has no complete cor-
relation in the decline of primitive and crude superstitions or
increased control of the emotions or the imagination, and that
to force a higher culture upon a lower, or to metamorphose or to
perfectly control its emotional nature through education of the
intellect, is equally impossible. The two cultures may, however,
coexist, intermingling and in a limited degree absorbing from
and retroacting favorably or unfavorably upon each other — tri-
fling aberrations in the inexorable law which binds each to its
own place.

The most enlightened and philosophic have, either apparent
or secreted in their inmost consciousness, superstitious weak-
nesses — negative, involuntary, more or less barbaric, and under
greater or lesser control in correspondence with their education,
their present environment, and the degree of their development —
in the control of the imagination and emotions. These in
various degrees predominate over the understanding where rea-
son is silent or its authority weakens.

S&nya Koval6vsky (1850-1890), one of the most brilliant
mathematicians of the century, who obtained the Prix-Bordin
from the French academy, " the greatest scientific honor ever
gained by a woman," " whose love for mathematical and psycho-
logical problems amounted to a passion," and whose intellect
would accept no proposition incapable of a mathematical demon-
stration, all her life maintained a firm belief in apparitions and
in dreams as portents. She was so influenced bj'^ disagreeable
dreams and the apparition of a demon as to be for some time
thereafter obviously depressed and low-spirited.

A well known and highly cultured American mathematician
recently said to me that his servant had seven years ago nailed
a horseshoe over a house door, and that he had never had the
courage to remove it.

There is in the Chemnitzer-Rocken Philosophic, cited by
Grimm, a register of eleven or twelve hundred crude supersti-
tions surviving in highly educated Germany. Buckle declared
that " superstition was the curse of Scotland," and in this regard
neither Germany nor Scotland are singular.

Of the origin of this superstition in Rhode Island or in other
parts of the United States we are ignorant ; it is in all proba-
bility an exotic like ourselves, originating in the mythographic
period of the Aryan and Semitic peoples, although legends and
superstitions of a somewhat similar character may be found
among the American Indians.

The Ojibwas have, it is said, a legend of the ghostly man-eater.
Mr Mooney, in a personal note, says that he has not met with
any close parallel of the vampire myth among the tribes with
which he is familiar. The Cherokees have, however, something
analogous. There are in that tribe quite a number of old witches
and wizards who thrive and fatten upon the livers of murdered
victims. When some one is dangerously sick these witches
gather invisibly about his bedside and torment him, even lifting
him up and dashing him down again upon the ground until life
is extinct. After he is buried they dig up the body and take
out the liver to feast upon. They thus lengthen their own lives
by as many days as they have taken from his. In this way
they get to be very aged, which renders them objects of suspicion.
It is not, therefore, well to grow old among the Cherokees. If
discovered aud recognized during the feast, when they are again
visible, they die within seven days.

I have personal experience of a case in which a reputed medi-
cine-man was left to die alone because his friends were afraid
to come into the house on account of the presence of invisible
witches.

Jacob Grimm * defines superstition as a persistence of indi-
vidual men in views which the common sense or culture of the
majority has caused them to abandon, a definition which, while
within its limits sufficiently accurate, does not recognize or take
account of the subtile, universal, ineradicable fear of or rever-
ence for the supernatural, the mysterious, and unknown.

De Quinceyhas more comprehensively remarked that ''super-
stition or sympathy with the invisible is the great test of man's
nature as an earthly combining with a celestial. In supersti-
tion is the possibility of religion, and though superstition is often
injurious, degrading, and demoralizing, it is so, not as a form of
corruption or degradation, but as a form of non-development."

In reviewing these cases of psychologic pre-Raphaelitism they
seem, from an economic point of view, to form one of the strongest
as well as weirdest aguments in favor of a general cremation of
the dead that it is possible to present. They also remind us of
the boutade of the Saturday Review, " that to be really mediaeval,
one should have no body ; to be really modern, one should have
no soul ; " and it will be well to remember that if we do not
quite accept these demonic apparitions we shall subject our-
selves to the criticism of that modern mystic, Dr Carl du Prel,
who thus speaks of those who deny the miraculousness of stig-
matization : " For these gentlemen the bounds of possibility
coincide with the limits of their niggardly horizon ; that which
they cannot grasp either does not exist or is only the work of
illusion and deception."

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