America, Vampires in

America, Vampires in

(pop culture)

European settlers who came to America brought their belief in vampires with them, though most English colonists arrived before the vampire became part of the popular culture of Great Britain. Certainly, Polish settlers from the northern Kashab area of Poland brought and kept alive vampire beliefs in their Canadian settlements. Amid the vast mythology of the many Native American tribes there have been few vampires reported, and even passing references to American Indians are rare in vampire literature. Similarly, there have been few reports from the African American community, though remnants of African vampire mythologies have appeared in the South.

Vampirism in New England: While reports of vampires in the United States have been infrequent, there were stories scattered throughout the nineteenth century of what appear, at least on cursory examination, to document a belief in vampires and action taken against them by settlers in a rather confined area in New England. The first such incident reportedly occurred during the American Revolution. A man named Stukeley, who had 14 children, began to experience the death of his brood one by one. After six had died, one of the deceased, his daughter Sarah, began to appear in dreams to his wife. The bodies were exhumed and all but that of Sarah had decomposed. Her body was remarkably preserved. From each body, they cut out the heart, which they burned before reburying the bodies. The first account of this story was not published until 1888, a century after it supposedly occurred. No contemporary accounts of this story exist.

A similar early case was reported in 1854, much closer to the time of its occurrence. It concerned the Ray family of Jewett City, Connecticut. Besides the father and mother, there were five children. Between 1845 and 1854, the father and two sons died of consumption, and a third son had taken ill. (Throughout the nineteenth century, consumption, i.e., tuberculosis, was a deadly disease with no known cause or cure. It thus became the subject of much occult speculation.) The family, believing that their deceased relatives were the cause of the problem, exhumed the bodies and burned them. How prevalent this belief was is not known, but there certainly existed a community of belief that passed from generation to generation. Henry David Thoreau recorded in his journal on September 16, 1859, “I have just read of a family in Vermont who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs, heart, and liver of the last deceased in order to prevent any more from having it.” Another story was published in a Vermont paper in 1890. It concerned the Corwin family, who lived in Woodstock, Vermont. Six months after one of the Corwins had died of consumption, a brother took sick. The family disinterred the body of the first brother and burned the heart. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary account of this incident, only a newspaper story published 60 years after the reported occurrence.

Among the widely retold accounts was that of the family of Mary E. Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mary died of tuberculosis in December 1883. Six months later, her oldest daughter also died. In 1888, her son Edwin and his sister Mercy contracted the disease. Mercy died in January 1892. Edwin, though ill, clung to life. Two months later, the family, deciding that a vampire was involved, exhumed the bodies of all their dead relatives. The mother and oldest daughter were mere skeletons, but Mercy’s body appeared to be healthy and full of blood, and the body was turned sideways in the coffin. They concluded that Mercy was a vampire, and therefore, her heart was cut out and burned before the body was reburied. The ashes were dissolved in medicine and given to Edwin. It did not help, however, and he died soon afterward. Mercy’s body remains buried in the cemetery behind the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter, and some local residents still think of her as the town’s vampire.

George R. Stetson, the first scholar to examine the stories, noted, “In New England the vampire superstition is unknown by its proper name. It is there believed that consumption is not a physical but a spiritual disease, obsession, or visitation; that as long as the body of a dead consumptive relative has blood in its heart it is proof that an occult influence steals from it for death and is at work draining the blood of the living into the heart of the dead and causing its rapid decline.” John L. Vellutini, editor of the Journal of Vampirology, has done the most complete examination of the accounts and has made a number of pertinent observations on these cases. Like Stetson, he found that “vampirism” was not used in the earlier accounts to describe the actions against the corpses. The subject of vampirism was seemingly added into the accounts by later writers, especially journalists and local historians. Thus, by the time of the Mercy Brown case in 1892, vampirism was being used as a label to describe such incidents.

Psychic Vampirism in New England: As early as 1871, pioneer anthropologist Edward B. Tyler, in his work Primitive Culture, proposed a definition of vampirism, possibly with the New England cases in mind. Tyler wrote, “Vampires are not mere creations of groundless fancy, but causes conceived in spiritual form to account for specific facts of wasting disease.” In this interpretation, vampirism occurred when “the soul of a dead man goes out from its buried corpse and sucks the blood of living men. The victim becomes thin, languid, bloodless, and, falling into rapid decline, dies.” He further noted, “The corpse thus supplied by its returning soul with blood, is imagined to remain unnaturally fresh and supple and ruddy.” Tyler’s definition of vampirism was close to what had become known as psychic vampirism. It was almost identical to the definition proposed by the French psychical researcher Z. J. Piérart during the 1860s that was popular in occult circles for the rest of the 1800s. It differed radically from the idea of the eastern European vampire, which was believed to be a revived corpse that attacked living people from whom it sucked the blood.

The belief, discovered by Stetson, underlying the practice of removing and burning the heart of a deceased tubercular patient could properly be described as a form of psychic vampirism. Vellutini also observed that no belief in vampires (that is, the resuscitated corpse of eastern European vampire lore) was ever present in the belief system of New England.

The practice of attacking the corpses of dead tubercular patients disappeared in the early twentieth century, due, no doubt, to the discovery of the cause and then the cure of tuberculosis. Periodically, accounts of the New England cases were rediscovered and published. As recently as 1993, Paul S. Sledzik of the National Museum of Health and Medicine reported on his examination of a cemetery near Griswold, Connecticut, of corpses that showed signs of tuberculosis, which had been mutilated in the nineteenth century.


“Early New Englanders Ritually ‘Killed’ Corpses, Experts Say.” New York Times (October 31, 1993): 1.
Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” The American Anthropologist 9, 1 (January 1896): 1–13.
Tyler, Edward B. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. 1871. 4th ed. London: John Murray, 1903.
Vellutini, John L. “The Myth of the New England Vampire.” Journal of Vampirology 7, 1 (1990): 2–21.

Anarchs see: Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

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