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How the Rise of Vampire Fiction Coincided With the Real-Life New England Vampire Panic

In 1819, “The Vampyre” by John Polidori was published in the pages of New Monthly Magazine. It was originally attributed to Lord Byron, which might as well have been true, as the plot liberally borrows from Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel”. This story is largely regarded as having kickstarted the literary vampire tradition that continues to this day. From 1845-1847, Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood was published as a serial penny dreadful, handed out in cheap pamphlets. The story, when completely collected, would be considered the first vampire epic at 876 pages. A precursor to the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers—and, of course, Count Dracula himself—Varney was killed several times over the course of the uneven and inconsistent stories, and resurrected in many different ways, once even by electrocution. In 1872, J. Sheridan Le Fanu wrote Carmilla, one of the most seminal vampire stories ever told. It was the chief influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and, as such, impacted every vampire story that followed. At the end of the century, in 1897, Stoker’s Dracula was published. Not the first vampire novel of its time, by any stretch, but it was one that combined a flurry of influences into a gripping and suspenseful tale of gothic horror. Dragging an old world monster into modern day London, where the creature’s greatest strength was that no one would believe in it, Dracula set the standard for all time. Throughout the 1800s, vampirism had begun to pick up steam as a recurring theme in gothic literature, becoming the focal point of more and more stories before Dracula finally cemented the vampire as a cornerstone of popular culture, once and for all. It was a century that saw the undead grow stronger and stronger as a fictional tradition. 

And yet in 1817, Frederick Ransom of South Woodstock, Vermont, was exhumed from his grave, his heart removed and burned, to prevent him from returning as a vampire to prey upon his family. In 1845, the same year that Varney the Vampire began publication, Lemuel Ray of Griswold, Connecticut died of an illness that then claimed his father, then his brother. The bodies of all three were buried in an unmarked family cemetery, literally unearthed when two kids happened upon it the early ‘90s. The bones found at the site had shown signs that their hearts had been removed, with the best preserved of them—an unknown specimen classified as JB-55—shown to have been dug up at some point after death and reburied in a classic skull-and-crossbones pattern. In 1892, only five years before the publication of Dracula, Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, was believed to be the cause of her family’s illness, after her death. Her family, showing the same signs of weakness she had shown before her death, believed her to be a vampire. When she was exhumed, her body was found not decomposed, but perfectly preserved, cheeks rosy, as though she were still alive. Her mouth was wet with blood. Her heart was then cut out and burned, the ashes mixed into a potion for her sick brother to drink. It did not save his life. These are only a few of the most prominent examples of a frenzy that gripped New England throughout the nineteenth century. 

During that timeframe, vampires were being established as a cornerstone of horror fiction. And at the same time, New England was gripped by a genuine panic, as people were digging up and desecrating their loved ones out of fear that they were rising from the dead. It is absolutely fascinating that these two things, which should be polar opposites, were happening simultaneously. One can’t help but look at these dates so close together and wonder how it was even possible. How did a boom of vampire fiction and a resurgence in the belief in vampires happen at the same time? It sounds completely contradictory. In some ways, it is, and in some ways, it isn’t. 

After all, fact and fiction feed into one another pretty regularly. In that respect, it only makes sense to assume that vampire stories were taking influence from real headlines at the time. That’s pretty common. Writers could easily have come across a bizarre headline and, even if they didn’t believe it, think “what if this really happened?” The biggest problem with that, though, is that news at that point didn’t spread nearly as quickly, nor as far, as it does today. I think the numerous pieces of vampire fiction that popped up throughout the mid-late 1800s did take influence from documented accounts of vampirism, but rarely from New England. They had no doubt read accounts of practices throughout Europe, documented at least a century or more before they were writing these stories. The belief in vampires (of some form or another, depending on culture) had at one point been somewhat common, but not for some time.

So how did this panic even happen, let alone become so widespread? Well, a lot of it has to do with region. The places where these pieces of vampire fiction were being written and the places where these accounts of supposed real-life vampirism were coming from were very different. Polidori, Le Fanu, Stoker and the others crafting the building blocks of vampire fiction were all highly educated and highly read people, all of them living in a climate prided on wealth and intellectualism. Meanwhile, these areas of New England were very rural, very much cut off, much less educated and more superstitious overall, though certainly not centuries out of date.

These incidents weren’t just confined to the most rural areas, either, or to just one part of New England. While these vampire cases were more common in some areas, this was happening all over the region. Vermont, as mentioned, was home to the case of Frederick Ransom. But before him, there had been Rachel Burton. The wife of Captain Isaac Burton, Rachel fell victim to a fever. Her skin grew pale, she grew thin, it appeared as though she was wasting away, as if something was simply sucking the life out of her. A year after she died, her husband remarried Hulda Powell. Not long after their marriage, Hulda began showing signs of the same fever that had claimed Rachel’s life. Doctors were unable to do anything to slow the progression of the sickness. It was Hulda’s elderly aunt who first mentioned the possibility of vampirism, that something was draining the life out of her. Captain Burton made the decision to exhume her body. Like something out of a work of gothic fiction, Rachel’s body was exhumed with a literal mob of townspeople looking on, horrified to see that after death, Rachel was not decomposed but engorged, skin red and ruddy, her mouth full of blood. Rachel’s heart, lungs and liver were removed and burned. Despite “vanquishing” the vampire, Hulda did not survive.

In 1834, the entire Corwin family of Woodstock, Vermont, was believed to be in the grips of vampirism, one falling ill after the other, all dying in the same fashion, succumbing to fever and coughing up blood. Like so many others, the heart of the supposed vampire was removed and burned. Like all the others, it did nothing to save family members who had already fallen ill. Woodstock is particularly fascinating because unlike some rural New England towns that saw reports of vampirism, it was not remotely removed from modern medicine. The town was home to numerous doctors and a medical college, and still this belief gripped the community. 

Maine, unfortunately, has the least amount of documented cases of vampirism. This probably doesn’t mean it was happening any less, only that it wasn’t making it into the town records as often. Still, there are a few. And while they’re less detailed, they’re not remotely small. For example, in 1862, reports of vampirism swept the community of Saco so strongly that almost every deceased resident was dug up and reburied. Every corpse was, apparently, a suspect. In Maine, however, these situations were handled a little differently. Rather than go through the hassle of removing the heart or organs and burning them, the dead were simply dug up and reburied face down in hopes that it would keep them from getting up.

The most famous Connecticut case is the already mentioned Lemuel Ray and his family, most importantly the unidentified skeleton marked only as JB-55. This is also known as the Jewett City vampire incident. The unidentified skeleton was found to have been reburied at some point after its initial death, with the femurs placed in an ‘X’ pattern in the grave and the skull displaced from the spine and placed over the top of them. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1807, a girl was suspected of being a vampire and, like so many others, when they dug her up they found her with full lips and rosy cheeks, looking almost as though she were still alive. In Plymouth, like in Maine, suspected vampires were reburied face down out of the hope that it would keep them in the earth. New Hampshire, meanwhile, has scant few documented cases, but there definitely are some. In 1810, a girl named Janey Dennit was exhumed by her father, in Barstow, New Hampshire. In this instance, it was the community that acted on the father’s behalf, as he was the one dying. They believed his daughter to be a vampire, and it’s unclear if the father himself even believed that or not. 

Without a doubt, though, the most prominent cases of New England vampirism hail from Rhode Island. Mercy Brown is certainly the most famous of them, probably the most famous case of “real” vampirism in history, in general. Mercy’s mother, Mary, died after being sick for some time, followed by Mercy’s older sister Mary Olive in 1886. By 1891, both Mercy and her brother Edwin were sick with the same illness. As each member of the family continued to get sick, neighbors convinced George Brown, the father, that one of the family members had become a vampire. George was eventually talked into giving permission to open the grave of each family member to determine if there was, in fact, any sign of vampirism. Both Mary and Mary Olive had decomposed normally. Mercy, however, was a different story. She had been dead for months and yet was perfectly preserved. Her skin, not pallid, seemed rosy and full of life. She had blood on her mouth and still had blood in her heart. In the community’s eyes, it was clear that this was their vampire. Like so many others, Mercy’s heart and liver were burned, mixed into a potion that was then given to Edwin to drink, and like so many others, it did not save his life.

While this is surely the most famous, there were several other reported incidents from Rhode Island around the same time. In 1799, Sarah Tillinghast—also of Exeter, Rhode Island—was believed to have returned from her grave as a vampire. This name is likely the inspiration for Rhode Island native H.P. Lovecraft’s character Crawford Tillinghast in his short story, “From Beyond. Even more curious to vampire movie fans, in particular, is that the man who convinced the Tillinghast family that Sarah may be a vampire was named Jeremiah Dandridge, a name astonishingly close to Fright Night’s vampire, Jerry Dandridge. In 1827, Nancy Young of Foster, Rhode Island was also believed to be a vampire, as was Ruth Ellen Rose in 1874. 

It should be worth noting, at this point, that vampirism was not actually to blame, in case there was any doubt. Almost all of the preceding cases share the same, very real disease: tuberculosis. Or, as it was called then, consumption. These were all large, rural farm families living close together, conditions that were unfortunately perfect for the spread of the disease. It’s not at all surprising that it would work its way through entire families as it did, especially at the time. Most of the dead in these incidents were properly diagnosed. But at the time, with no vaccine, cure, or even known cause of the disease, death was almost certain. 

Vampirism was not something people jumped to immediately, either. In most of these stories, it was when the next family member got sick that they let themselves believe in vampires. And even then, things almost always played out in the same way. It was an elderly relative or neighbor, someone more accustomed to the superstition, that managed to talk a grieving or worried family member into considering vampirism as the cause. Tuberculosis is a long, slow, brutal illness. It must be unbearable to watch someone die from it, let alone more than once. When doctors say there’s nothing to be done and you’ve already had to witness the suffering this causes, it honestly makes sense that people would consider the supernatural after being concretely told there was nothing that could be done. As much as these stories sound like fascinating supernatural incidents, these are in reality tragic, heartbreaking accounts of people so panicked and grief-stricken that they let themselves believe in archaic, outdated folklore on the smallest chance that it might save their loved ones, never once succeeding. 

What about the sights seen when the tombs have been opened, though? People with rosy cheeks, as though they were still alive? Blood in the heart and, most importantly, pooled around the mouth? These are actually normal signs of decomposition. As for the lack of rigor mortis, that can begin to fade within two days after death, so it’s likely that these so-called vampires were exhumed after they had settled. On the surface, from this evidence, Mercy Brown is still not so easily dismissed, as she had been dead for months. But Mercy was interred in an above-ground tomb, given the conditions of the soil during the winter. When she was exhumed two months later, her body was likely just then thawing after being frozen, explaining why her decomposition process had appeared so halted. 

Even still, it is an incredible coincidence that all of this panic coincided with the rise of vampire fiction. And, in most cases, it does appear to be totally coincidental. There’s no evidence, for several of the nineteenth century authors, that they had any knowledge of what was going on in New England at the time. Not that it matters, of course, because they had plenty of vampire folklore from all over Europe to draw from. But there was one author who was influenced by the New England Vampire Panic, and we know that for certain. In 1896, on a trip to Philadelphia, Bram Stoker received a clipping from an issue of the New York newspaper The World, titled “Vampires in New England.” The clipping detailed the case of Mercy Brown. This clipping was found among Stoker’s research notes for Dracula. 

Stoker had already been working on the novel for years at this point, so it’s not as if reading the story of Mercy Brown gave him the idea to write the book. Still, I think the story of Mercy Brown had a very clear impact on one character in the novel: Lucy. Like Mercy, Lucy was nineteen years old and a beloved member of the community. The whole section of the book in which her friends try every method possible to save Lucy from her wasting illness and ultimately fail, excavating her tomb and finding her looking as though she is still alive, all of that seems clearly inspired by Mercy Brown. While it’s unclear how much the New England Vampire Panic fed into the vampire renaissance in gothic fiction of the time, it’s abundantly clear that it did, ultimately, have a huge influence on the granddaddy of all vampire tales. As such—to however small an extent—it influenced virtually every other vampire story that followed.


Sources: 
‘Vampires of New England.’ Rondina, Christopher. On Cape Publications. 2008.
‘A History of Vampires in New England.’ D’Agonstino, Thomas. The History Press. 2010.
‘Vampire Forensics.’ Jenkins, Mark Collins. National Geographic Society. 2010.
‘The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories.’ Ryan, Alan, editor. Penguin Books. 1987.