The Sickening Vampire Executions Of New England

“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