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At the gravesite of Mercy Lena Brown, right, sightseers leave offerings such as plastic vampire teeth and jewelry. (Left, Klaus Leidorf; right: Landon Nordeman)

The Great New England Vampire Panic

Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, farmers became convinced that their relatives were returning from the grave to feed on the living

Most vampire graves stand apart, in wooded spots outside modern cemetery fences, where snow melts slower and there’s a thick understory of ferns. But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is still in use. And here is Lena. She lies beside the brother who ate her heart, and the father who let it happen. Other markers are freckled with lichen, but not hers. The stone looks to have been recently cleaned. It has been stolen over the years, and now an iron strap anchors it to the earth. People have scratched their names into the granite. They leave offerings: plastic vampire teeth, cough drops. “Once there was a note that said, ‘You go, girl,’” Bell says. Today, there’s a bunch of trampled daisies, and dangling from the headstone’s iron collar, a butterfly charm on a chain.

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How did 19th-century Yankees, remembered as the most pious and practical of peoples, come to believe in vampires—especially when the last known vampire panics at the time hadn’t occurred since 18th-century Europe? 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). Exeter residents at the time claimed that the exhumations were “a tradition of the Indians.”

The legend originated in Slavic Europe, where the word “vampire” first appeared in the tenth century. Bell believes that Slavic and Germanic immigrants brought the vampire superstitions with them in the 1700s, perhaps when Palatine Germans colonized Pennsylvania, or Hessian mercenaries served in the Revolutionary War. “My sense is that it came more than one time through more than one source,” he says.

The first known reference to an American vampire scare is a scolding letter to the editor of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, published in June 1784. Councilman Moses Holmes, from the town of Willington, warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it: “And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.”

But some modern scholars have argued that the vampire superstition made a certain degree of practical sense. In Vampires, Burials and Death, folklorist Paul Barber dissects the logic behind vampire myths, which he believes originally arose from unschooled but astute observations of decay. (Bloated dead bodies appear as if they have recently eaten; a staked corpse “screams” due to the escape of natural gases, etc.) The seemingly bizarre vampire beliefs, Barber argues, get at the essence of contagion: the insight that illness begets illness, and death, death.

Vampire believers “say that death comes to us from invisible agents,” Barber says. “We say that death comes to us from invisible agents. The difference is that we can get out a microscope and look at the agents.”

While New England’s farmers may have been guided by something like reason, the spiritual climate of the day was also hospitable to vampire rumors. Contrary to their Puritanical reputation, rural New Englanders in the 1800s were a fairly heathen lot. Only about 10 percent belonged to a church. Rhode Island, originally founded as a haven for religious dissenters, was particularly lax: Christian missionaries were at various points dispatched there from more godly communities. “The missionaries come back and lament that there’s no Bible in the home, no church-going whatsoever,” says Linford Fisher, a Brown University colonial historian. “You have people out there essentially in cultural isolation.” Mary Olive, Lena’s sister, joined a church just two weeks before she died, her obituary said.

In place of organized worship, superstitions reigned: magical springs with healing powers, dead bodies that bled in the presence of their murderers. People buried shoes by fireplaces, to catch the Devil if he tried to come down the chimney. They nailed horseshoes above doors to ward off evil and carved daisy wheels, a kind of colonial hex sign, into the door frames.

If superstition likely fanned the vampire panics, perhaps the most powerful forces at play were communal and social. By 1893, there were just 17 people per square mile in Exeter. A fifth of the farms were fully abandoned, the fields turning slowly back into forest. In her monograph The New England Vampire Belief: Image of the Decline, gothic literature scholar Faye Ringel Hazel hints at a vampire metaphor behind the westward hemorrhage: The migration “seemed to drain rural New England of its most enterprising young citizens, leaving the old and unfit behind.”

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