by Barry Pirro
A century after the 1693 Salem witch trials, citizens of Rhode Island began hearing whispers and rumors of something that frightened them even more than witchcraft. They began to suspect that there were blood sucking vampires in their midst. Even more disturbing, they thought that the vampires were members of their own families, and that they had to be stopped at any cost. But like Stoker’s Van Helsing, these would-be vampire slayers were determined to hunt down each and every one to make sure they stayed where they belonged–in their graves.
In June of 1784, The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer published a letter to the editor from a Willington, Connecticut town councilman. In it, he cautioned readers against being influenced by a local doctor who was encouraging families to dig up and burn their relatives’ bodies. The letter said that several children’s bodies had been exhumed at this doctor’s request, and that families were told that the burning of the bodies would stop consumption, now known as tuberculosis, from spreading throughout the family.
Today, the claims in the letter may sound far-fetched. Even laughable – but they were true. In the late 18th century, people actually were digging up their dead family members’ bodies and burning them because they thought that they were vampires.
Where did this gruesome practice of exhuming and desecrating dead bodies originate? Many immigrants came to America from Europe, and with them came their traditions, folklore, and superstitions. Throughout Europe, exhuming the bodies of those thought to be vampires was not uncommon. Some corpses were beheaded. Others had their feet bound with thorns to keep them in their graves. If a body was badly decomposed, the skull would be placed facing backwards, and the rest of the bones were carefully rearranged to prevent the vampire from rising. Further methods used to keep the undead down included placing a sickle over the skeleton’s neck, putting a stone in the skull’s mouth, or pinning the skeleton to the ground with a stake.
The first recorded case of New England vampirism was that of Rachel Harris Burton from Manchester, Vermont. In 1790, Rachel died of tuberculosis less than a year after marrying Captain Isaac Burton. A year later, the Captain married Rachel’s stepsister, Hulda, and soon after she began exhibiting symptoms similar to Rachel’s.
Around this time, rumors of vampirism had begun spreading across New England, so family and friends began to suspect that Rachel had risen from the grave as a vampire and was making Hulda sick by sucking her blood. The Captain agreed and decided that something must be done about it. So, on a frigid day in February of 1793, three years after Rachel’s death, over 500 Manchester residents gathered at the cemetery to watch as the liver, heart and lungs were removed from Rachel’s exhumed, rotting corpse, placed on a blacksmith’s forge, and set on fire.
Sadly, Hulga died seven months later. Because the ‘cure’ didn’t work, the townspeople figured that Rachel hadn’t been a vampire after all. Their conclusion? Witchcraft must have been responsible for Hulda’s sickness and death.
One of the most famous cases of the New England vampire panic occurred in 1799 in Exeter, Rhode Island. One night, a farmer named Stuckley Tillinghast had a disturbing dream in which half of his apple orchard died. A few days later, his daughter Sarah came home complaining that she wasn’t feeling well. She took to bed, and, within a few weeks, died of tuberculosis.
Several weeks later, the family was still grieving Sarah’s death when her brother James came down to breakfast one morning looking pale and sickly. He complained of feeling very weak, and that it felt as if there was a heavy weight on his chest. Then he said something chilling: Sarah came to him in the middle of the night and sat on his bed. He said that she didn’t speak, but that her pale form sat on the edge of the bed and stared at him all night long. Weeks later, James was dead.
Shortly after James’ death, two more Tillinghast children died after saying that Sarah had visited them in the night. The family began to suspect that Sarah’s nocturnal visits meant that she was a vampire, and that she was returning from the grave to draw life from the remaining family members.
A few months later, three more of the Tillinghast children died, then Honour Tillinghast, mother of the deceased children, became ill. She told her husband that all of her dead children kept coming to her in the night, and that she could hear their voices telling her to come with them.
For Stuckley Tillinghast, this was the last straw. Early one morning he and his farmhand, Caleb, went out to the cemetery where his daughter Sarah was buried. They took with them a long hunting knife, a bottle of lamp oil, and two shovels. As the sun was rising, the two men dug up Sarah’s casket and turned back the creaking lid.
Even though she had been dead over 18 months, Sarah looked as if she was just asleep. Seeing his daughter’s face looking flushed as if with blood, Stuckley took his hunting knife and thrust it deep into his daughter’s chest. He would later claim that as soon as the knife blade cut into her body, the wound gushed blood. Digging through flesh, muscle and bone, he cut out her heart and lay it on a nearby stone. There, he doused it with lamp oil and set it on fire. He and Caleb watched until the heart was reduced to ashes, then the two of them reburied Sarah.
In the end, Stuckley Tillinghast’s dream had come true in a symbolic sense. Half of his ‘orchard’ (seven of his fourteen children) had died. After burning Sarah’s heart, Honour Tillinghast recovered from her illness, there were no more deaths in the family, and there were no further reports of Sarah appearing at night. To the Tillinghasts, the vampire curse had finally ended thanks to Stuckley’s intervention; and because the entire town knew how he had saved his family from further deaths, the belief in vampires was strengthened and the word spread near and far.
For the record, although the exhumation of bodies and the burning of hearts and other vital organs were often clandestine, lantern-lit affairs, some were quite public and even had an air of festivity. In 1830, one “vampire heart” was set on fire in front of a large crowd in the Woodstock, Vermont, town green; and in Manchester, up to a thousand people turned up to witness the burning of the heart, liver and lungs of a suspected vampire.
Mary Brown of Exeter of Rhode Island has the distinction of being known as the last American vampire. George Brown must have felt as if his family was cursed. In 1883, tuberculosis claimed the life of his wife Mary. Six months later, his 20-year old daughter, Mary-Olive, succumbed to the same disease. Then in 1890 George’s only son, Edwin, contracted tuberculosis as well. George watched helplessly as his son struggled to breath, and constantly coughed up blood. While Edwin grew weaker and weaker, his 19-year-old sister Mercy died.
George Brown was at his wits end. He had to do something to save his son Edwin, the only remaining member of his family. Since medical science failed to help Edwin, residents of Exeter began to suspect that vampires were the real culprit. They thought that either Edwin’s mother or one of his sisters must be one of the undead, and that they were leaving their grave at night to suck the life out of poor Edwin.
On March 17, 1892, George Brown reluctantly agreed to allow his relatives and neighbors to exhume the bodies of his loved ones interred at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery in an effort to stop the disease. George said that he did not believe in vampires, but he was willing to try anything.
That morning, a small crowd gathered in the graveyard behind the town’s Baptist Church, and the bodies of Mary Brown and Mary-Olive Brown were exhumed. They opened their caskets, but the only thing they found inside were bones–no surprise, since both had been dead and buried for nearly ten years.
Next, they turned their attention to the casket of Mercy Brown who had been buried just eight weeks earlier. When the lid was lifted off of her coffin, the townspeople gasped in horror. Mercy was lying on her side, and her face was flushed as if she was still alive. Someone quickly took a long knife and thrust it into Mercy’s chest, then cut out her heart and lungs. Mysteriously, there was still blood in her heart and veins.
While he was unable to explain why Mercy was lying on her side in her coffin, Dr. Harold Metcalf, who had raised objections about the exhumations from the very start, said that the preserved state of the body was simply due to the short amount of time Mercy had been dead, and that the cold weather had preserved her body.
The people of Exeter ignored the doctor’s explanations. They built a fire on a pile of rocks in the churchyard, then took Mercy’s heart and lungs and cremated them. But their job wasn’t done just yet. The group went to Edwin’s house with the ashes of his dead sister’s heart. They mixed the ashes with water, then fed them to him. Disgusting? Yes! But it was thought that this was the only way to prevent Edwin from dying. Sadly, and not unsurprisingly, the “cure” didn’t work, and he died two months later.
Looking at the timeline of events, it’s baffling how anyone could have suspected that Mercy was responsible for her family’s illness, vampire or no vampire. Her mother and sister had died nearly 10 years earlier than she had, and her brother had become ill two years before she died. But cases of mass hysteria grow out of fear and superstition, and those caught up in the hysteria rarely stop to think whether or not any of it makes sense.
In 1990, a group of boys playing near a hillside gravel mine in Griswold, Connecticut, found something that they thought was really cool–a skull that was in a grave with other bones. One of the boys ran home and showed his parents. The police were called, and it soon became clear that the bones were more than a century old. Archaeologists were called in to excavate the site, and they discovered that the bones were part of a large family burial plot from the colonial-era.
A stone crypt was unearthed, and when the slab that covered the coffin was removed, archaeologists were shocked by what they discovered. Some time in the distant past, the bones of the individual buried there had been completely rearranged, and the skeleton had been beheaded. The beheading and other injuries to the bones were thought to have occurred roughly five years after death. The conclusion of all who examined the man’s remains was that he was suspected of being a vampire, and that his heart was removed to prevent him from rising out of his grave.
The New England Vampire panic died out in the late 1800s after science finally discovered the cause of tuberculosis. But it illustrates what lengths people will go to protect themselves and their families. It’s only a matter of time before some new mass hysteria panic rears its ugly head. Whatever form it may take, historians will surely shake their heads and wonder, “What in the world were they thinking?”
“Reality Meets Fiction” is a series on non-fiction, real-life stories as experienced through personal accounts and investigations conducted by Barry Pirro, a paranormal investigator known as the Connecticut Ghost Hunter. Barry has over a decade of paranormal investigation experience and will share his stories every 4th Friday of the month. Don’t forget to catch his next article on August 27th. To learn more about the Ghost Hunter, visit http://www.connecticutghosthunter.com/.
READERS: What real-life vampire stories do you have? If you have experience with vampirism tell us about it in the comments. Better yet, write your non-fiction story and send it to us: firstname.lastname@example.org (subject: Vampirism Story). Your story may be picked to appear on our blog as a follow up to Barry’s.
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