Vampires, Consumption and Wasting Away in the 19th Century: Review of Food for the Dead by Michael C. Bell (Hardcover: Carroll and Graf, 2001; Paperback: Wesleyan, 2015)

            Oh, hello, come on in.  I’m just finishing my book review.  What?  How’s work?  It’s going pretty well.  We’ve been doing Phase 1 and 2 archaeological surveys up and down the Hudson Valley.  Catskill, Saratoga, Bethlehem, Colonie, Moreau, Stillwater, Queensbury...we’ve been here and we’ve been there, that’s for sure.


            The book review?  Oh, it’s a great book I read a few years ago:  Food for the Dead by Michael Bell.  Or as he puts it, a book by the two sides of Michael E. Bell:  Dr. Killjoy Rational III and Mike.  Here, I’ll look it up.  Dr. Rational’s title indicates his “standing in the academic community” and the “longstanding tradition of scholarship” he’s part of.  Mike is presented as the real Michael Bell, a more down to earth guy who “suspends his disbelief” and participates “wholeheartedly” in the participant-observer approach to folklore research.  He’s the participant, and tags along with Dr. Rational who does the observing.  And writes it down and compares it globally to the whole great body of folklore research.

Whoa, listen to that.  What’s that noise?  That must be an owl out back somewhere.

            Oh yeah, what were Dr. Rational and Mike studying?  Well Michael Bell is famous for documenting multiple cases of what has been called vampirism in New England.  The chronology in his book runs from 1793 to about 1892, or maybe just a little bit later due to some outlying cases.  The last documented New England case involved the exhumation of Mercy Brown in 1892 in Rhode Island.  There are reports from every New England State plus a couple from other places, including near where I’m from around Seneca Lake in central New York.  Every year around this time, Dr. Bell and his book are back in the spotlight because you know, it’s Halloween.  I think it was just last year that he was on WAMC’s podcast, Listen with the Light’s on.  I think they called that episode “The New England Vampire Panic”.

Listen to that thunder.  That storm must be coming in.

            The Seneca Lake vampire story?  It’s only mentioned in the book as one of the few North American cases outside of New England.  I haven’t learned much else about it, except that I need to go to the library and look for the autumn, 1950 number of the New York Folklore Quarterly.  I saw the table of contents on-line.  The Seneca Lake vampire story is right in there with Louis C. Jones’ article about New York werewolf stories.  I’ve actually read that one because it was reprinted in Dr. Jones’ Three Eyes on the Past

            I guess I haven’t clarified the folklore connection to this book review.  Dr. Bell is a professional folklorist, and he has been interested in how vampire lore influenced New England folk practices in the 19th century.  But the folklore is not just the vampire stories, as we may think of ghost stories as just scary stories or fun little fictions.  The beliefs and practices Bell writes about in Food for the Dead have to do with the reactions of several, mostly rural communities across New England to the belief that tuberculosis, or consumption as they called it, was caused by a deceased family member who was not resting so easily in his or her grave.  Although no one in these communities called these supposed undead “vampires”, they believed with great consistency across the region that a deceased family member, probably someone who had died of tuberculosis, came out of the grave at night and slowly stole the life out of one or more members of the household.  Their practices are easily recognizable in vampire lore:  going to the suspected undead’s grave, exhuming the body, looking for signs such as the presence of blood in the heart, or maybe the presence of blood more generally.  Remedies such as removing the heart, burning it to ashes, and even feeding the ashes to the sick person resonate with vampire beliefs more generally.

Listen, coyotes.  I know I’ve heard coyotes out there before.  Not wolves, just coyotes, although I’ve heard Adirondack coyotes have a little wolf in them.

            Yes, I know you are a hardcore archaeologist and find folklore a little soft when it comes to science.  To that all I can say is that former Connecticut State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni shows up in Food for the Dead, because it appears that one of the “vampire” cases turned up in a grave in an archaeological dig and Nick needed to bring Mike Bell and Dr. Rational into his investigation.  That would be a pretty exciting chapter for you to read.    

BOOM!  That was close! And listen to that rain and wind!  It’s getting nasty out there!

            What’s the proof that these New England practices are related to vampire beliefs more generally?  Well, that is a big question with a big answer.  I can’t possibly go into that off the top of my head, so maybe you should read the book.  You think you might?  Well, if you’re going to the library after you leave here maybe I’ll go with you, if this storm lets up.  Or maybe if it doesn’t, it’s so spooky tonight. 

Huh!  What was that glow outside the window?  Did you see that?  You didn’t?

            Where were we?  Oh yeah.  Bell looks at a lot of research on vampires.  What is the vampire lore of Eastern Europe?  Of England?  How and when were New Englanders exposed to it?  Was vampire lore widely represented as factual?  Could this be an American Indian tradition?  What was the context in New England with Puritan and more diverse, eclectic, sewn-together, and revivalist Euroamerican belief systems? The idea that this may have been an American Indian tradition is interesting although Bell points out that this notion has been widely rejected.  Purported Native American folkloric “vampire” stories were actually told as witch (or wizard) stories, which have a large and comfortable home in Native American folklore.  One of the stories that Bell cites as an example is a version of the Cherokee “Spear-finger” story.  Spear-finger was a shape-shifting witch who speared people’s livers with a long hard finger (stone in James Mooney’s telling, or iron in this version).  After she speared the liver she took it out and ate it.  I was happy to see a reportedly Abenaki story that is similar in many ways to the Seneca “Vampire-Skeleton” story told by Arthur Parker and others (in which the vampire-skeleton is a manifestation of a sneaky and obnoxious wizard).  Anyway, Bell is pretty clear in seeing the New England vampire beliefs and related folk-curing practice as an outgrowth of a European tradition.  Intriguingly (and brilliantly, in my opinion), he raises the possibility that this tradition may have entered New England more than once, and from more than one European source. 

Man!  That wind is getting strong!  Hear that rattle?  I have chains hanging in the cellar.  They go with the hammock.  The wind must be getting through the cracks around the cellar door.

            Anyway, all of this context is quite important because it frames a long pattern of rural New Englanders being stigmatized, first by the Puritans who saw them as under the influence of Satan because of their folk-beliefs, and then by people, various writers, generally-speaking, who promoted an idea of the decline of New England in the 19th century (and, I would add, decline with temporal distance from the Puritan heyday).  This is a long story, but as I said, read the book. 

            These writings hyped the vampire belief and healing attempts as signs of rural ignorance and superstition (as if anyone else understood tuberculosis at the time).  Rural people with folk beliefs and practices were actually considered threats to civilization, and sensationalized stories about vampire beliefs offered support to this position.  The irony is that it’s possible that the vampire lore originally spread through rural New England’s consciousness through the most civilized sort of channel:  the literacy of late 18th century readers of books and newspapers that conveyed European accounts of the subject.     

Good God!  The cellar door must have blown open.  I’m going down there to investigate.  Oh darn, now it looks like the power’s gone out.  

            Anyway, what I wanted to say in the end is that Bell approaches this subject with all due sensitivity and purpose, in his way correcting the biased record.  Not exactly Halloween fare.  I think he did a good job with that.

I’ll be right back....