The current issue of Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating article by Abigail Tucker on "The Great New England Vampire Panic." Tucker tells the story of how New Englanders began exhuming their loved dead and mutilating the corpses, correlating outbreaks of such acts of desecration with tuberculosis outbreaks. Folk belief in the region, probably brought from Germany by immigrants, held that tuberculosis was caused by the hungry dead rising from their graves to suck the life force from their living kin. The only cure was the ritual destruction of the corpse.
Such practices were by no means confined to New England (they were as widespread as Minnesota), nor even to the United States. Voltaire wrote of the great vampire panic of Enlightenment-era Europe, and J. R. S. Sterrett attended one such attempt to destroy a vampire in Crete as late as 1899.
Tucker's piece provides a fascinating, granular glimpse of the social role of vampires in explaining and attempting to control disease in the backwoods of nineteenth century New England. A vampire exhumation was a public ritual and a show, a demonstration that a citizen took a disease outbreak serious and would do anything to help stop it, even desecrating a loved one's grave.
When you read the article, be sure to look out for the reference to H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shunned House," a story that built upon and subverted traditional New England vampire lore.
Tucker mentions that the earliest evidence of an American vampire panic is a letter to the editor published in the Connecticut Courant in June 1784. This letter does not mention vampires per se but rather presents exhumation specifically as a cure for tuberculosis (consumption). This barest sketch of a story would make a great movie treatment, with an especially juicy part for whoever would play the "quack" foreign doctor who whipped up a supernatural panic. (I am reminded of some of the quack doctors from the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery who got more than they bargained for from their fraudulent cures.)
Tucker presents but a brief excerpt from the article. I thought my readers might like to see the whole thing. Here is the complete Connecticut Courant article, as preserved in a nineteenth century omnibus:
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