In light of the tales Bell told of violated corpses, even the posthumous rib fractures began to make sense. J.B.’s accusers had likely rummaged around in his chest cavity, hoping to remove, and perhaps to burn, his heart.
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. Fake cobwebs cover the exhibits, warty gourds crowd the shelves and a skeleton with keen red eyes cackles in the corner. “We’ll turn him off when you start talking,” the society’s president assures Michael Bell, who is readying his slide show.
Bell smiles. Although he lectures across the country and has taught at colleges, including Brown University, he is used to people having fun with his scholarship. “Vampires have gone from a source of fear to a source of entertainment,” he says, a bit rueful. “Maybe I shouldn’t trivialize entertainment, but to me it’s not anywhere as interesting as what really happened.” Bell’s daughter, 37-year-old Gillian, a member of the audience that night, has made futile attempts to tempt her father with the Twilight series, but “there’s Buffy and Twilight, and then there’s what my dad does,” she says. “I try to get him interested in the pop culture stuff, but he wants to keep his mind pure.” Indeed, Bell seems only mildly aware that the vampire—appearing everywhere from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries— has once again sunk its fangs into the cultural jugular. As far as he’s concerned, the undead are always with us.
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. 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. A consulting folklorist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission for most of his career, Bell has been investigating local vampires for 30 years now—long enough to watch lettering on fragile slate gravestones fade before his eyes and prosperous subdivisions arise beside once-lonely graveyards.
He has documented about 80 exhumations, reaching as far back as the late 1700s and as far west as Minnesota. But most are concentrated in backwoods New England, in the 1800s—startlingly later than the obvious local analogue, the Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts of the 1690s.
Hundreds more cases await discovery, he believes. “You read an article that describes an exhumation, and they’ll describe a similar thing that happened at a nearby town,” says Bell, whose book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, is seen as the last word on the subject, though he has lately found so many new cases that there’s a second book on the way. “The ones that get recorded, and I actually find them, are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Almost two decades after J.B.’s grave was discovered, it remains the only intact archaeological clue to the fear that swept the region. Most of the graves are lost to time (and even in the cases where they aren’t, unnecessary exhumations are frowned on by the locals). Bell mostly hunts for handwritten records in town hall basements, consults tombstones and old cemetery maps, traces obscure genealogies and interviews descendants. “As a folklorist, I’m interested in recurring patterns in communication and ritual, as well as the stories that accompany these rituals,” he says. “I’m interested in how this stuff is learned and carried on and how its meaning changes from group to group, and over time.” In part because the events were relatively recent, evidence of historic vampires isn’t as scarce as one might imagine. Incredulous city newspaper reporters dished about the “Horrible Superstition” on front pages. A traveling minister describes an exhumation in his daily log on September 3, 1810. (The “mouldy Specticle,” he writes, was a “Solemn Site.”) Even Henry David Thoreau mentions an exhumation in his journal on September 29, 1859.
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.)