The Sickening Vampire Executions Of New England

By Kristin Lovett on Tuesday, February 18, 2014
graveyard
“I never drink [. . .] wine.” —Count Dracula, Dracula (1931)

In A Nutshell

In the early 1800s in New England, panic was already rife from the apparent infestation of witches in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. However, this panic was extended when a seemingly random outbreak of tuberculosis swept through the populace. As those who contracted the disease suffer slowly wasted away, they spread their blight to those near them. The fear of infection and “consumption” (another name for tuberculosis) turned into rumors that the deceased were waking from their deathbeds and returning to consume those who were still well. This led to rampant paranoia and culminated in the decapitation of long-dead corpses, in a similar manner to that described by classic vampire fiction.

The Whole Bushel

Originally discovered in the 1990s when a group of young children happened across a grave near a hillside upon which they were playing, police immediately came to investigate, as the child had actually found a human skull. However, it was quickly found not to be the act of any contemporary killer, but rather what was intended to be the final resting place of many 19th-century locals.

There was something different about these skeletons though. They were not simply resting gently and soundly as most exhumed skeletons are, but rather they appeared to have been gruesomely decapitated. The head of one had been severed completely, and placed atop the ribs of the corpse. Of course this was entirely unusual, so archaeologists quickly sought an answer to this abnormality. They were puzzled at first, but they soon realized the horrifying truth, backed up by similar exhumations in nearby towns.

The beheading was far too reminiscent of those performed in fiction, especially vampire fiction. Ties were quickly made to local folklore—folklore that was couched in true events. The panic began with a sudden outbreak of tuberculosis, a disease which causes the victim to slowly waste away, their life force drained as if by some invisible force. In addition to this mysterious suffering, the victim spreads their bacteria to those near them. This rapid degeneration of entire families led many to believe that those with the disease somehow made people drain away the vitality of those around them, not unlike what we would now call a vampire.

Panic broke out among the townspeople. There was a tremendous fear of being afflicted oneself or contracting the disease from a family member. In addition to this entirely rational fear of sickness from the living came a far more irrational fear of the dead, particularly through the idea that they were not truly dead. Belief arose that the corpses that had been buried were somehow dead but still conscious. There was fear that these walking corpses would attack in the night, and do whatever dreadful things they no doubt did to their families, creating more of their kind.

As such, graves were desecrated, and the corpses were examined to determine whether they seemed too “fresh” to be truly dead. In addition dissections were performed, and the fluid inside the body cavities of the corpses were examined in order to see if they bore any sign of freshness or having been consumed. Were any of these found true (which seemed to happen quite commonly), the corpse was beheaded and the head placed atop the chest. This treatment is quite strangely similar to those depicted in vampire fiction, even though Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which popularized the undead bloodsuckers and these methods of disposing of them, would not be written for nearly a century.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Great New England Vampire Panic
Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief
Vermont Standard: ‘History of Vampires’ Recounts Woodstock Tale

  • Valdez

    Revolting… Ignorance is definitely not bliss.

  • Marozia

    Dreadful!

  • https://soundcloud.com/arjan-hut Arjan Hut

    Ah … not England but NEW England … that takes the edge of the article 🙂

    • TheMadHatter

      Lol, that makes it ok right? Jk

      • Joseph

        The thing that makes ok is that corpses don’t actually need heads. It’s ridiculous to think the dead will come back to life, but the outcome is pretty innocuous. I find it much more repulsive that living people were killed as “witches”.

        • TheMadHatter

          It sounds like some may have been beheaded before death. Death is terrible no matter what and so is defacing, or de heading, corpses. I find it repulsive that people were murdered period. I’m pretty sure I agree with you but the way you worded it I had to be sure.

          • Joseph

            I was only referring to dead people. It doesn’t bother me much that they dug up corpses and cut off their heads. I found it a little odd that execution was in the title, I’m pretty sure it was only about desecration of bodies. As far as I know, there’s not real way to execute a dead person. It’s still sick and disrespectful, but it’s would’ve been worse if those people had been alive when they were decapitated.

          • TheMadHatter

            I get you now. I think the word execution may be arguable because the locals truly believed that they were not dead, so to them it would have been an execution. Funny how the usage of words changes depending on who is using them. I always love quirks in the English language like that.

          • Joseph

            Yeah, I suppose that would be accurate for anyone that truly believed they had become some form of living dead.

          • TheMadHatter

            Nevermind this comment. Knowledgenuts for the ipad has deleted some of my posts and I was starting to get a bit rage-y.

          • Joseph

            It’s not just the ipad. I think it’s just disqus in general. They’ve “updated” the dashboard and I think it messed up the commenting. It’s happening to me too and I use a pc.

    • Joseph

      That happened in England too. When I read about these kinds of things I often wonder if the cause was premature burials.

      • inconspicuous detective

        consumption had to do with it and in a sense you’re right. because it can make people faint and fade in and out of consciousness, to a large population suffering death a logical explanation is that your sister who died had been drinking the life force of your now sick father. when exhumed, you’d find her bloated and bloody, which was ya know, evidence. that’s part disease, and part natural decay at work, but i’m more than sure in some cases you would have buried someone alive and not known until a while after when you dug them up to “kill” a vampire.

        another weird thing though that kinda fights with your idea here (and this is a stretch so no need to take it seriously as you might otherwise) is that some cultures just buried the dead in large catacombs or above ground — had a person been buried “alive” they would just walk back out, no?

        • Joseph

          I’m sure that tuberculosis was a factor and any kind of communicable disease probably had a similar reaction during that time period. However, I was referring to the additional evidence that could be provided by a premature burial. If they had found claw marks on the coffin, they might have thought that person was a vampire because for all they knew the person was already dead when they were buried. When in reality that person was still alive when buried and had just died for asphyxiation. That’s entirely conjecture on my part, but it’s based on similar occurrences. During hurricane Katrina, there were cemeteries that flooded and some of the coffins recovered showed signs of premature burial.

          • inconspicuous detective

            in that case nevermind, and good point.

        • Joseph

          As far as I know most people in the US have been buried under ground. There are people that have been and still are buried above ground, but it’s reasonable to assume that if they were interred in a condition where they could “walk out” they most likely would do that. Most of the large catacombs are located in Europe and they actually decorated that walls with the bones of the corpses interred within them. I’m not sure that they would have placed a corpse inside one of those areas in a manner that would have left them alive. I’ve seen a few areas like you’re describing in France and Italy, it’s definitely an example of the macabre, but in most cases that’s how the person would have wanted to be laid to rest. I’m sure there were people that survived a premature burial though so, I’m not disagreeing with the overall sentiment.

          • inconspicuous detective

            gotchya. my bad. i misunderstood where you wanted to go with that.

  • 1DireWolf

    Life takes from fiction.
    Fiction takes from life.

    • inconspicuous detective

      so do vampires ;D

  • UN

    I saw a documentary on Nat Geo and how locals then misinterpreted a body’s decay process

  • Joseph

    I think Count Dracula had too much whine… It doesn’t work in when typed out. I’m a failure…

    • Lisa 39

      No you’re not, i got it and chuckled 🙂

      • Joseph

        Thank you!

        • Lisa 39

          You’re welcome!

  • Scott

    Better to be safe than sorry.

  • Matthew Messerly

    Weren’t the Salem witch trials in the early 1600s?

    • Joseph

      It happened in the 1600s. I just ignored that part because it didn’t really have anything to do with the article… If it did, I couldn’t figure it out either. Maybe it was just to point out that happened in the same area.

    • inconspicuous detective

      yes, they were, and i’m going to back joeseph up on this one and say that the reason it’s there was to point out a connection for you between this instance of mass paranoia and the last one. i’ve known about this for a while now. vampires were taken as a serious threat dating back to the ancient greeks and possibly further. archaeologists are finding new graves with the bodies mangled and rearranged every so often and they go back further and further.

      • Matthew Messerly

        To make it seem as if witch paranoia had carried over into the early 19th Century is inaccurate and to make it seem as if one fed the other is fallacious. By the early 1700s the Church had reversed its excommunications and in some cases paid reparations to the families of those it executed. They then literally buried the records. There is no connection other then being instances of mass hysteria.