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Macabre Beliefs

By Daniel Hubbard | October 19, 2014

I’m always fascinated by the beliefs of our ancestors. Sometimes people say that our ancestors were “just like us” and on other occasions we hear that, if we could travel back in time, they would seem totally different from us. Neither is true and yet both are true. Sometimes they will seem surprisingly modern and other times they will appear totally alien. It can even be a matter of our perspective. Do we look at the very recognizably human traits that led to an action or the result, which appears totally bizarre?

In researching New England families, including my own, I’ve run into accused, and even executed, witches. I’ve never run into accusations of vampirism and would have thought that serious accusations were not something that had really ever happened in the United States. Those were beliefs from Central Europe and the Balkans—from far away places and long, long ago times. I would have been wrong. I’ve learned something new, just in time for Halloween.

American Vampires

The old name for tuberculosis is “consumption.” The name is telling. Consumption seemed to consume its victims. They faded away—the life being slowly drained out of them. Because Tuberculosis causes its victims to cough up blood, it may have been the inspiration for the “red death” of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. Blood, death, consumption and draining—it might have been inevitable that, at least in some isolated places, as tuberculosis spread from family member to family member and claimed more and more lives, blame for the affliction might fall on visits to a home by a vampire.

That New Englanders might hunt witches on occasion in the decades before the Enlightenment is common knowledge and as horrific as some of their handling of the accused was, we have come to at least accept that it happened. It is new to me that in isolated places, long after the Enlightenment, even after the cause of tuberculosis was discovered, Americans sometimes went hunting. Those who did the hunting may not have used the word, but outsiders who described the goings on, did not hesitate to use the term “vampire” for what was being hunted.

Sometimes bodies were clandestinely disinterred. As one reburial in Connecticut shows, their heads might be removed and their femurs used to create a skull and cross bones. The symbol of death was created from someone who was suspected of being alive even in the grave. The ribs of the man found that way, showed that he likely died of tuberculosis. In other instances, the ritual was quite public. After the exhumation, the heart of the accused might be brought to the village green or the blacksmith’s forge and publicly burned. In one case, locals, accompanied by a doctor and a newspaper reporter, opened the graves of three tuberculosis victims, found one body that was not sufficiently decomposed in their opinion (the death had occurred only two months before and it was January, but that explanation was not good enough.) They removed the girl’s heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water and gave the brew to her brother to drink, thinking that it would cure him of consumption. He died shortly thereafter. That happened…in America…in 1892.

When we research our ancestors, we need to remember that they were neither just like us nor an alien species. We can’t go into our research with the idea that our notions can guide us through their world. They clearly cannot. We can’t simply throw out everything we know about our world either. Part of the art of genealogy is to carefully apply what we know without taking it for granted and letting them guide us through their world, be it alien or familiar.

Though Consumption’s vampire grasp, Had seized thy mortal frame, Thy ardent and inspiring mind, Untouched, remained the same.

-from the grave marker of Simon Whipple Aldrich, 1814-1841, North Smithfield. Rhode Island



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