The 19th century panic and fear over… vampires in New England

In 1854, in Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. Yes. 1854.

The Great New England Vampire Panic | History & Archaeology.

[...] when he raised the next stone, Bellantoni saw that the rest of the individual “had been com­pletely…rearranged.” The skeleton had been beheaded; skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni recalls.

Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.

The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not “J.B.,” as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.

Finally, one colleague asked: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?”

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, locals were convinced that the dead were returning from the grave to feed on the living. Now, vampires are fictional entertainment. But, this long read tells of a time before Dracula and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These panics over vampires seem to occur at times of tuberculosis outbreaks which is a contagious wasting disease. Prayers weren’t enough, action had to be taken and people exhumed the bodies of their relatives and desecrated the corpses. Horrible to envision now but superstition takes a great toll. Have a look at this tale of folklore and fear 19th century New England.

  9 comments for “The 19th century panic and fear over… vampires in New England

  1. September 27, 2012 at 7:14 AM

    It does make for excellent legend tripping, especially during autumn, though I still haven’t visited the Ray brothers graves.

  2. September 27, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    I have Bell’s book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. I hope he comes out with a second volume!

    • September 28, 2012 at 7:51 AM

      I’ve attended a couple of the talks about NEV, if you get a chance to hear him go for it.

  3. September 27, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    This is the stuff of legend alright but desecrating graves and corpses was taking it a step too far even though their motives might have been genuine enough.

  4. September 27, 2012 at 6:45 PM

    The Romanians have this beat – they are still exhuming their friends and neighbours to this day. See Petre Toma, 2004.

    Also, the New England ‘vampires’ aren’t bloodsuckers. They’re closer to the Germanic nachzehrer.

  5. Paul V Ruggeri
    September 27, 2012 at 7:33 PM

    There are a few Vampire legends here in Rhode Island as well – as late as 1892…!

    Mercy Brown: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercy_Brown_vampire_incident

    Sarah Tillinghast (towards the bottom): http://spookylandcrypt.webs.com/consumpt.html

    • September 28, 2012 at 7:49 AM

      And poor framed Nellie Vaughn.

  6. Zink
    September 27, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    I’ve lived most of my life in Western MA and CT, and I have to say I’d never before heard this story–or of Jewett “City,” population 3,000! It would have been quite remote in 1854. I’m not making excuses for it, but surely this was an isolated incident. The stories about how poorly they treated the Irish and Native Americans are more widespread and much more disturbing.

  7. Chris
    October 2, 2012 at 1:18 PM

    I noticed that a movie about another New England vampire, Barnabas Collins, is coming out on DVD. This whole thing reminded me of Dark Shadows, which is the only soap opera I bothered with as a kid because it was so bad it was funny.

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