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Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. The tale he always returns to is in many ways the quintessential American vampire story, one of the last cases in New England and the first he investigated as a new PhD coming to Rhode Island in to direct a folklife survey of Washington County funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Griswold case occurred at roughly the same time as the other incidents Bell had investigated. New England is full of such unmarked family plots, and the 29 burials were typical of the s and early s: The dead, many of them children, were laid to rest in thrifty Yankee style, in simple wood coffins, without jewelry or even much clothing, their arms resting by their sides or crossed over their chests.
When Bellantoni lifted the first of the large, flat rocks that formed the roof, he uncovered the remains of a red-painted coffin and a pair of skeletal feet. Scraping away soil with flat-edged shovels, and then brushes and bamboo picks, the archaeologist and his team worked through several feet of earth before reaching the top of the crypt.
Reasonable is not always rational. The stone looks to have been recently cleaned. Headquartered in a charming old schoolhouse, the Middletown Historical Society typically promotes such fortifying topics as Rhode Island gristmill restoration and Stone Wall Appreciation Day. Two nights before Halloween, though, the atmosphere is full of dry ice vapors and high silliness.
Children playing near a hillside gravel mine found the first graves. Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes.
Farms were abandoned, many of them later to be seized and burned by the government. It has been stolen over the years, and now an iron strap anchors it to the earth. History knows the year-old, lateth-century vampire as Mercy Brown.
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And tuberculosis was harrying the remaining families. Hundreds more cases await discovery, he believes. In the late 19th century, Exeter, like much of agrarian New England, was even more sparsely populated than usual. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. Bell smiles. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime.
People dreaded the disease without understanding it. But the brown, decaying bones turned out to be more than a century old.
The great new england vampire panic
As satisfying as such mini-theories are, Bell is consumed by larger questions. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.
People have scratched their names into the granite. So-called vampires do escape the grave in at least one real sense: through stories. The Brown family, living on the eastern edge of town, probably on a modest homestead of 30 or 40 stony acres, began to succumb to the disease in December As Lena was on her deathbed, her brother was, after a brief remission, taking a turn for the worse.
Had the Griswold grave been desecrated for the same reason? Farmers heaped stones into tumbledown walls, and rows of corn swerved around the biggest boulders. It was one of only two stone crypts in the cemetery, and it was partially visible from the mine face. The Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, soon determined that the hillside contained a colonial-era farm cemetery.
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In the course of his far-flung research, Bellantoni placed a serendipitous phone call to Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist, who had devoted much of the decade to studying New England vampire exhumations. He has documented about 80 exhumations, reaching as far back as the late s and as far west as Minnesota. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Our umbrellas bloom inside out, like black flowers. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that.
Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. Bell believes that Slavic and Germanic immigrants brought the vampire superstitions with them in the s, perhaps when Palatine Germans colonized Pennsylvania, or Hessian mercenaries served in the Revolutionary War.
Almost two decades after J. Bell mostly hunts for handwritten records in town hall basements, consults tombstones and old cemetery maps, traces obscure genealogies and interviews descendants. The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses and their children.
In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns. Some elderly locals square-dance in barns on the weekends, and streets keep their old names: Sodom Trail, Nooseneck Hill.
Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He died less than two months later. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. The neighbors asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.
A few newspaper s of these events survived. But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is still in use.
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And the setting was right: Griswold was rural, agrarian and bordering southern Rhode Island, where multiple exhumations had occurred. The late s were a period of social progress and scientific flowering. Bell wears his hair in a sleek silver bob and has a strong Roman nose, but his extremely lean physique is evidence of a long-distance running habit, not some otherworldly hunger.
One ran home to tell his mother, who was skeptical at first—until the boy produced a skull. The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in Bell attributes the openness of the Vermont exhumations to colonial settlement patterns.
First, a reporter from the Providence Journal witnessed her unearthing. Fake cobwebs cover the exhibits, warty gourds crowd the shelves and a skeleton with keen red eyes cackles in the corner. Her family, though, called her Lena.
Some modern scholars have linked the legend to vampiric symptoms of diseases like rabies and porphyria a rare genetic disorder that can cause extreme sensitivity to sunlight and turn teeth reddish-brown. On the morning of March 17,a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. For almost a century after Lena died, the town, still sparsely settled, remained remarkably unchanged.
It was a terrible end, often drawn out over years: a skyrocketing fever, a hacking, bloody cough and a visible wasting away of the body. Bellantoni was interested in the grave even before the excavation began. George Brown gave permission. In light of the tales Bell told of violated corpses, even the posthumous rib fractures began to make sense. Two days before Halloween, Bell and I head through forests of swamp maple and swamp oak to Exeter. But most are concentrated in backwoods New England, in the s—startlingly later than the obvious local analogue, the Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts of the s.
In the s, when I was built, Exeter evolved into an affluent bedroom community of Providence. Other markers are freckled with lichen, but not hers. He favors black sweaters and leather jackets, an ensemble he can easily accentuate with dark sunglasses to fit in with the goth crowd, if research requires it.
Civil War casualties had taken their toll on the community, and the new railro and the promise of richer land to the west lured young men away. And here is Lena.
Two hundred years after the salem witch trials, farmers became convinced that their relatives were returning from the grave to feed on the living
Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site. By the s, when the scares were at their height, the disease was the leading cause of mortality throughout the Northeast, responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths. But visitors still occasionally turn a corner to discover the past: a dirt road cluttered with wild turkeys, or deer hopping over stone fences. She lies beside the brother who ate her heart, and the father who let it happen. A traveling minister describes an exhumation in his daily log on September 3, Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks.
Because this was Griswold, Connecticut, inpolice initially thought the burials might be the work of a local serial killer named Michael Ross, and they taped off the area as a crime scene. Although he lectures across the country and has taught at colleges, including Brown University, he is used to people having fun with his scholarship. George was absent, for unstated but understandable reasons.
They leave offerings: plastic vampire teeth, cough drops. One New York World clipping even found its way into the papers of a London stage manager and aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker, whose theater company was touring the United States that same year.
He wants to understand who the vampires and their accusers were, in death and life. His gothic masterpiece, Draculawas published in On legend trips, Bell is largely an academic presence. Inin neighboring Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. In Vermont, it was much harder to keep a vampire hunt hush-hush.