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. Indeed, the medical museum’s tests ultimately revealed that J.B. had suffered from tuberculosis, or a lung disease very like it. Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and—even though they often received the standard medical diagnosis—the survivors blamed early victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire’s predations.
The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)
Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
Bell attributes the openness of the Vermont exhumations to colonial settlement patterns. Rhode Island has about 260 cemeteries per 100 square miles, versus Vermont’s mere 20 per 100 square miles. Rhode Island’s cemeteries were small and scattered among private farms, whereas Vermont’s tended to be much larger, often located in the center of town. In Vermont, it was much harder to keep a vampire hunt hush-hush.
As satisfying as such mini-theories are, Bell is consumed by larger questions. He wants to understand who the vampires and their accusers were, in death and life. During his Middletown lecture, he displays a picture of a man with salt-and-pepper sideburns and weary eyes: an artist’s reconstruction of J.B.’s face, based on his skull. “I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are,” Bell says. “I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation on African-American voodoo practitioners in the South who cast love spells and curses; it’s hard to imagine a population more different from the flinty, consumptive New Englanders he studies now, but Bell sees strong parallels in how they tried to manipulate the supernatural. “People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels,” he explains. “The folk system offers an alternative, a choice.” Sometimes, superstitions represent the only hope, he says.
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. “Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative,” Bell says.
All very interesting. In particular, I like this approach:
I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are,” Bell says. “I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.”
because it tends to be much more interesting than labelling something as "superstition". That word is a perfect example of a fake explanation
. Assuming ignorance is reasonable, but ignorance is not the same as stupidity or a complete lack of intelligence. My favourite example of this is the European witch trials - contrary to popular belief, the Church was highly concerned by unfair trials and trial by ordeal in particular. Furthermore, the understanding of witches did not come from peasant superstitions, but was strongly supported by Biblical evidence and the philosophical writings of the Church Fathers.
The article above strongly suspects tuberculosis was to blame. The disease causes victims to waste away, like the life is slowly being drained out of them. The locals themselves rarely used the term vampires, interestingly, but the suspicion was that perhaps a family member was faking death and feasting on the blood and tissue of various victims, perhaps to offset the fatal conclusion of the disease. Therefore, exhumation was needed to see if there was fresh blood in their system, and decapitation was needed to ensure they were truly dead.