Decomposing Bodies in the 1720s Gave Birth to the First Vampire Panic

How superstition collided with public health concerns to create a modern monster

Vampire killing
Vampires came when folk tradition filled the void of scientific knowledge. In this illustration, men gather a gravesite to kill a purported vampire. Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images

In 1721, London curate Thomas Lewis, concerned about the mephitic stink of decomposing flesh seeping from overstuffed tombs into his church, published a pamphlet, “Seasonable Considerations on the Indecent and Dangerous Custom of Burying in Churches and Church-yards.” The noxious vapors, he believed, desecrated the space, distracting his congregation from prayer. Lewis claimed that the odors also caused diseases like plague, smallpox and dysentery.

Lewis’ view of the dead as dangerous to the living was based in contemporary scientific thinking which, in the 1720s, hadn’t quite broken free of medieval superstition. A few years later, on the other side of Europe, in the village of Kisiljevo, on the outskirts of the Hapsburg Empire, locals similarly blamed a corpse for spreading disease — but via a radically different method of transmission.

In July 1725, they summoned the Kameral Provisor, a health and safety official. Provisor Frombald’s usual concern in such situations was identifying the cause of the cluster of cases and preventing a full-blown epidemic. The villagers believed Petar Blagojević, who had died ten weeks earlier, was up and out of his grave and bringing death to their homes. The Widow Blagojević claimed her husband knocked on her door after the funeral, demanding his shoes before attempting to strangle her. Blagojević remained active over the next nine nights, attacking nine more villagers. On waking, each victim reported Blagojević had “laid himself upon them, and throttled them”. After suffering a mysterious “twenty-four hour illness”, they all died

As Frombald detailed in his official report, the village elders had already made their diagnosis: Blagojević was ‘vampyri’, the Serbian word for ‘back from the dead’. Frombald’s only job was to rubber stamp this conclusion. The villagers would take it from there.

So, Frombald conducted a formal autopsy on the exhumed Blagojević. He recorded the appearance (and smell) of the corpse as “completely fresh”. He also noted the appearance of “fresh blood” around the mouth, supposedly sucked from the victims. With such evidence before him, he couldn’t muster any objection to the villagers’ plan of action, repulsive though it seemed. As they drove a sharpened stake through Blagojević’s torso, Frombald witnessed “much blood, completely fresh” gush from the ears and mouth — further proof of undead status, if any was needed.

In his report to the Hapsburg authorities, Frombald accepted “all the indications were present” that Blagojević was indeed a vampire. At the same time, he refused to accept any blame if his superiors felt his conclusion was ignorant. He insisted the fault lay entirely with the villagers “who were beside themselves with fear” and he did what he had to do to calm them down. His report made sensational newspaper copy, leading to the first printed usage of the local term “vampyri”, which would soon filter into other European languages.

Lewis’ complaint and Frombald’s investigation stemmed from the same public health issue: the proximity between the living and the dead. This had been a problem since the beginnings of urbanization in 11th-century Europe. Homes and businesses tended to be built around places of worship and their attached burial grounds. The Church wasn’t keen to change this as inhumations, indoors and out, were a lucrative undertaking. Priests earned significant fees from delivering last rites and Requiem Masses, as well as selling post-mortem real estate—the closer to the living the better. Meanwhile, good Christians took comfort from knowing they would decay next to familiar people and places, inside a protective cordon of prayer and remembrance. But, as the centuries piled up, populations bulged on both sides of the graveyard wall and competed for the same urban spaces.

When all the plots in a graveyard were full—as was happening more and more by the end of the 17th century—sextons added another layer, digging graves two, rather than the customary six, feet under. The bodies of the poor, or plague victims, were dumped, en masse, into pits. Most corpses were clad in only a fabric shroud as coffins were considered a luxury.

All it took for the dead to rise was a heavy rainstorm, a pack of marauding dogs, or a sloppy drunk gravedigger (see: Hamlet). Some were withered down to the bone while others appeared ruddy and well-fed, more lifelike than when they were gasping on their hollow-cheeked death-beds. Medical science failed to explain these such post-mortem anomalies but folk tradition had a name for the undecayed, revenant, from the French verb revenir, ‘to come back’. The Slavic term was ‘Vampyr’ or ‘upyr’.

By any name, these monsters were believed to be the result of improperly observed burial rites or a suspicious death. Denied the proper ceremonies, unable to rest, they lurched from their graves, attacking relatives and friends who died in turn. The medieval cure was drastic: exhume, stake, decapitate and burn, before scattering the ashes in running water. As the Age of Enlightenment took hold, this gruesome solution started to look like superstitious nonsense, especially to Catholic and Protestant bishops keen to move with the times—and away from witch hunts. By the early 18th century, parish priests were forbidden to carry out such arcane rituals.

Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris
At the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, the stench of corpses and the general presence of death raised fears of vampyric behavior. Illustration by Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer via Wikicommons

Nonetheless, the vampires persisted. When their reports of the returned dead fell on deaf ears at the bishop’s palace, tax-paying parishioners called their local government rep. In late 1731, Austro-Hungarian Regimental Field Surgeon Johannes Flückinger journeyed to the Serbian village of Medvegya (around 120 miles from Kisiljevo, on the Ottoman border) to investigate another series of mysterious deaths. This time the suspected “Vampire Zero” was an Albanian named Arnaud Paole. When he was alive, Paole claimed he had protected himself from a vampire’s bite by eating dirt from its tomb and cleansing himself with its blood. Unfortunately, these precautions didn’t prevent him from breaking his neck when he fell off a hay wagon. Forty days after his demise, four villagers declared the deceased Paole had returned “to torment them”— and then those four promptly expired. The local elders (advised by their administrator, or hadnack, who clearly had past experience in such matters) disinterred Paole’s corpse and found it “complete and incorrupt,” while “...completely fresh blood flowed from his eyes, ears and nose.” Satisfied by the evidence, the locals drove a stake through the torso, “whereupon he let out a noticeable groan and bled copiously.”

All was peaceful for around five years. Unfortunately, Paole the vampire had also sucked on calves during his rampage. As the contaminated cattle matured and were slaughtered, those who consumed the meat also became infected, resulting in as many as 17 new vampires.

An expert in contagious diseases, Flückinger systematically ordered exhumations and conducted autopsies on all the suspects. In the interests of preventing an epidemic—and further panic in the village—he sought a scientific explanation for their sudden deaths and the apparent anomalies in decomposition.

Once again, he couldn’t find any evidence of known diseases. Folk-hypothesis trumped science as the most plausible diagnosis. Flückinger classified each of the corpses before him as either decomposing or uncorrupted. Given his imperial loyalties, it’s not surprising he tended to label outsiders (Turks or peasants) as vampires and had them dealt with in the traditional manner. Those from wealthier Hungarian families—like the wife and newborn baby of the hadnack—were quietly reinterred in consecrated ground.

In January 1732, Flückinger’s report, “Visum et Repertum” (‘Seen and Reported’) ignited another furor. Debate raged in scholarly, religious and court circles regarding the nature of these so-called vampire epidemics. Could vampires be real, the end result of a messy death or funeral? Did citizens need to fear blood-sucking ghouls might attack them in their beds? In which case, was it safe to live close to a graveyard? Should, as Lewis and his cohort had long been suggesting, the dead be securely interred in high-walled burial grounds outside city limits? The issue wasn’t laid to rest until 1746, when Vatican scholar Dom Augustin Calmet concluded in his “Dissertations sur les apparitions” that, scripture aside, nobody was rising from the grave. He classified vampires as creatures of imagination, rather than an immediate threat.

Calmet’s conclusion coincided with the birth of the cemetery reform movement, especially in France. If the breakaway dead weren’t animated by supernatural forces, then sensible, practical measures would be enough to keep corpses confined to their tombs. While urban planners such as London’s Christopher Wren advocated for cemeteries outside city limits as early as 1708, Paris led the legislative way, restricting burials in churches and urban churchyards in 1765. In 1780 the notorious central Paris Cemetery of the Innocents, which had been quite literally bursting at the seams, was closed and emptied. The remains were reburied in catacombs.

Lewis’ vision of sanitary burial grounds was finally realized in the garden cemeteries of the 19th century. Père Lachaise was the first, opening outside Paris in 1804. With the dearly departed now secured out of sight and out of mind, people’s once-real fear of marauding corpses faded into the past. The vampires, thanks to their new fictional status, thrived throughout the 1800s. They were reclaimed in Romantic literature as ephemeral, liminal figures, finding a natural home amid the elegant monuments of the new necropolises. They shed their former identity as barely sentient ghouls crawling from the fetid mud of urban graves and rose again as supernatural, superior seducers —the position they’ve staked in our hearts to this day.

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