Feb. 18, 2014. On the evening of February 13, 2014, Professor Brian Carroll gave an hour long talk entitled “Burning the Hearts of the Dead: Historicizing Vampire Belief in Nineteenth-Century New England” as part of the ongoing CWU History Club lecture series. Speaking to a boisterous, packed house–the room seated thirty-five but between fifty and sixty people showed up—the audience included faculty from at least four different departments, numerous history students, and various interested folk from around the university community and Ellensburg. Refreshments were served from 5:00 to 5:30 PM with the talk following from 5:30 to about 6:30. Despite being on the eve of Valentine’s Day the event had a decidedly festive and macabre (dare we sat Halloween-esque) feel to it—refreshments included cupcakes with white frosting and strawberry filling oozing through two “fang” punctures in the top of each, blood-red fruit punch was served along with an assortment of other snacks both ghoulish and not-so-ghoulish.
Carroll’s talk began with an introduction to folk vampire belief in New England from 1785 to 1895, as currently understood by Anthropologists and Folklorists. They argue the phenomenon developed in response to a devastating tuberculosis epidemic, which was then known as ‘consumption.’ There was no cure or effective treatment for the disease at the time. People were not even sure how it spread. New Englanders, mainly in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, so the story goes, fell back on old European folklore about vampires to explain why people were getting sick and dying. Some were so convinced the dead were praying on the living that they began digging up the recently-deceased to look for ‘evidence’ of vampirism. But due to a poor understanding of what happens to bodies when they decompose, if a body looked too well-preserved, they were assumed to be a vampire. In such cases their hearts (and sometimes other organs) were ripped from their chest cavities and burned, sometimes in public with family members, town officials, doctors, and ministers in attendance. Consumptives sometimes inhaled the smoke from the fires or mixed the ashes with water and drank them as a “cure.” After the Civil War the belief declined rapidly, due mainly to advances in science and medicine—the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for vampire belief in New England (groan for bad pun)! Twenty-four of these vampire “exhumations” can be documented, but probably dozens more, perhaps hundreds, went unrecorded. Over the last twenty-four years about a half-dozen books have come out on the subject, in addition a number of scholarly and popular articles, dozens of newspaper stories, and a half-dozen local television documentaries.
But Carroll argues that while Anthropologists and Folklorists did yeoman’s work uncovering and explaining this cultural episode, from the perspective of historians many questions remain. In particular, Carroll’s research seeks to understand the timing and location of the New England vampire “outbreak.” Why Rhode Island and Connecticut and not somewhere else—say Kentucky, North Carolina or Pennsylvania? Also, why did it start after the American Revolution and not earlier or later? In short, Carroll argues the phenomenon needs to be historicizied—placed into its proper context in relation to other historical developments of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary era New England. As vampires were as much a medical as a spiritual belief, Carroll began by sketching the outline of both supernatural or occult beliefs in early New England and the state of medicine in Eighteenth- and early Nineteenth-century New England. Arguing that Enlightenment-era empirical science had only limited impact on Europe and America at this time, there was in fact not much of a dividing line between medicine, science and the occult. Medicinal practices of the era were hardly scientific, as they included various superstitions, folk beliefs, quack remedies, faith healing, and the like. Working vampires into already existing beliefs about ghosts and the supernatural was not as much of a stretch as it would seem nowadays.
As vampire belief was actually quite rare in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, Carroll then explains the influence on America of European reports about vampire “scares” which plagued Central and Eastern Europe in the 1720s and 1730s—by looking at how they were reported in American newspapers. Romantic-era literature also introduced vampires to Americans starting with the publication of THE VAMPYRE by John William Polidori in 1819, followed by numerous knock-offs, parodies and theatrical productions of Polidori’s work—some of which were staged in Rhode Island and Connecticut during the period from the 1820s to the1860s, the height of the folk vampire phenomenon. Bram Stoker’s novel DRACULA was not published until 1897, after the decline of New England folk vampire belief, so it had no influence on the phenomenon whatsoever. Finally Carroll examined the history of immigration into the region to identify a source for the direct transmission of the belief—as no evidence suggests it existed in New England prior to the American Revolution. Carroll therefore argues vampire belief was not a long-held age-old folk belief in the region but rather an introduced phenomenon brought in by recent immigrants to Rhode Island and Connecticut and reinforced by popular portrayals of vampires in literature and on stage.
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