In the late 18th century, a bizarre panic set in throughout rural New England and continued almost until 1900. Known today as the “New England Vampire Panic”, the century long fear appears to be in response to outbreaks of “consumption”, known today as tuberculosis. The first known reference to an American vampire scare appeared in the June 1784 edition of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer. Moses Holmes warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it: “And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.”
Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that primarily attacked the lungs. The infection spreads easily via a sneezing, coughing, speaking, or spitting. As a result, the infection could easily pass among a family living in close quarters. When one family member died of consumption, other members were often infected and gradually lost their health.
In the 19th century, the causes of consumption were unknown. However, many New England residents believed that this was due to the deceased sufferer draining the life from other family members. Fearing that their dead family members may come back to life, many bodies were exhumed to see if any showed signs of being a vampire. The corpse was deemed to be feeding on the living if it was determined to be unusually fresh, especially if the heart or other organs contained liquid blood.
After the culprit was identified, there were a number of proposed ways to stop the attacks. The most benign of these was simply to turn the body over in its grave. In other cases, families would burn the "fresh" organs and rebury the body. Occasionally, the body would be decapitated. Affected family members would also inhale smoke from the burned organs or consume the ashes in a further attempt to cure the consumption and internal organs ritually burned to stop the "vampire" from attacking the local population and to prevent the spread of the disease. In some areas of New England, participants would burn the heart of the deceased.
The odd rituals were not simply a family affair. Often whole towns would participate. An account of a vampire ritual in Manchester, Connecticut noted hundreds of people appeared for such an event. “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton . . . It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
Many 19th Century New Englanders, including those in Newburyport, were justifiably skeptical of the practice. One newpaper noted the practice was an "old superstition" and a "curious idea". Another opined “we seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian” In 1859, Henry David Thoreau grimly noted “The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont--who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”
What caused this multi generational fear? The Boston Daily Globe suggested “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.” European newspapers suggested the phenomenon was the result of copycat killings inspired by “modern novels”. Somewhat humorously, a reporter for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition.
Historians suggest the concept of “vampires” was likely introduced by German immigrants or Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution. Desperate for a way to explain and combat the deadly disease, many New Englanders simply adopted the erroneous belief that the undead were the root cause of their misery.
The last recorded vampire ritual was near the end of the 19tth Century. By then, the unusual panic caught the attention of Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and possibly influenced some of their literary works.