Tuberculosis and the Vampire Legend
Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
Medical folk beliefs allow a culture to deal with the physical,
emotional, psychological, and societal aspects of the natural events of death and disease. Epidemic
disease episodes and the appearance and handling of the dead resulted in unique folk beliefs. One such
belief is that reanimated corpses could drain the life of the living. This "vampire" folk belief is
found in many cultures, and is quite distinct in each. Not surprisingly, actions taken by the living
upon the dead are often leave evidence in skeletal remains.
This presentation examines historic, bioarcheological, and paleopathological evidence in
support of a nineteenth century New England folk belief in vampires with a particular reference to a
colonial period burial. The New England folk belief in vampires revolved around a deceased tuberculosis
victim returning from the dead to cause the "wasting away" of the surviving relatives. To stop the
actions of the vampire, the body of the consumptive was exhumed and disrupted in various ways. Historic
accounts of this activity indicate that the belief was not uncommon in nineteenth century New England.
Three pieces of evidence are important in this case. The skeleton of a 50-55 year-old
male from a mid-nineteenth century Connecticut cemetery exhibiting skeletal lesions of pulmonary
tuberculosis provides the physical evidence of the vampire folklore. Secondly, the bones of the skeleton
had been rearranged after the body had skeletonized. This indicates that some action was taken against
the remains of this person. Lastly, there is written evidence of the vampire folklore being in the same
town at the same time of this burial.
Many cultures have developed folk beliefs to explain the natural phenomena associated
with death and disease. The folk belief in vampires, found in many cultures, incorporates
interpretations of death and disease. The vampire image found in contemporary Euroamerican cultures is
based solely on Bram Stoker's Dracula, an image which varies significantly from historic European
and American vampire folk beliefs. Eighteenth century European peasants believed that the appearance of
the vampire in the grave (i.e. bloated chest, long fingernails, and blood draining from the mouth) meant
that the vampire was draining life from the living. These changes are the result of the decompositional
process. Further, the deaths resulting from disease epidemics were blamed on vampires. To stop the
epidemic, vampires were sought out and "killed" by various methods.
The term "vampirism" has also entered the psychiatric literature to explain pathologic
behaviors similar to those of the mythical vampire, particularly ingestion of blood and necrophagic and
cannibalistic activities. The clinical manifestations of several diseases have been cited by medical
researchers as being the cause of the vampire folklore in Europe. These include erythropoietic
protoporphyria, rabies, and pellagra. These interpretations, although intriguing, focus on the
appearance of fictional vampires (like Dracula), rather than on the appearance of the actual folkloric
American vampire folk beliefs, which were particularly strong in 19th century New
England, contained some European features. The New England folklore is consistent in its incorporation
of tuberculosis and examination of the body of the vampire for putative signs of life. Following the
death of a family member from consumption (tuberculosis), other family members began to show the signs of
tuberculosis infection. According to the New England folk belief, the "wasting away" of these family
members was attributed to the recently deceased consumptive, who returned from the dead as a vampire to
drain the life from the surviving relatives. The apotropaic remedy used to kill the vampire varied. In
some cases the body was exhumed, and if found undecomposed, the blood-filled heart was burned. In some
cases, the corpse was turned over. In other accounts, the entire body was burned.
Tuberculosis in 19th Century Europe and America
Nineteenth century Euroamericans had a fascination with tuberculosis or consumption.
Consumption, as the name implies, is a chronic, wasting disease. Accounts of persons suffering from TB
describe the physical appearance of the person as "losing flesh" and other such terms. In nineteenth
century Europe and America, there was a desire, especially among women, to procure the "consumptive
look". The look consisted of pallid, almost translucent skin, nervous prostation, languidness, and
weakness. A notable Hollywood portrayal is the performance of Greta Garbo as the consumptive Camille in
the 1937 film of the same name. TB was also known to increase both the sexual and gustatory appetites.
The disease caused such a strange combination of desire and waning in the victim that those who saw the
disease progress were surely frightened.
In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens describes consumption
as a disease "in which the struggle between soul and body is so gradual, quiet, and solemn, and the
result so sure, that day by day, and grain by grain, the mortal part wastes and withers away, so that the
spirit grows light and sanguine with its lightening load". Susan Sontag points out that "...TB was
once…thought to be a pathology of energy, a disease of the will".
Although 19th century western culture accepted TB as a disease, the mode of transmission
and effective treatment were unknown. In order to combat the disease, TB sanatoriums were built and
prescriptions to move to drier climates given to sufferers. TB cut across all socioeconomic classes,
making it a disease that anyone could suffer from. The vampire folklore is one response to the human
desire to do combat the disease.
New England Vampire Folklore
The New England vampire belief had some similarities with the vampire folklore of
Europe. The following historical account from 19th century New England should be compared to the
Plogojowitz account. The role of tuberculosis is the key to this account and all New England vampire
The Brown family is buried in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery in the farming town of Exeter,
Rhode Island. George and Mary Eliza, the mother and father, had among their seven children three named
Mary Olive, Mercy Lenna, and Edwin. Mrs. Brown died of consumption, now known as tuberculosis, on Dec.
8, 1883. Other family members soon succumbed to the disease, not surprising given that TB is highly
contagious, and even less surprising given the cramped living conditions of farm compounds. Mary Olive
died on June 6, 1884 of consumption. Several years passed and Edwin became ill with tuberculosis. To
regain his health, he moved to the dry climate of Colorado, not an uncommon practice to stave off the
ravages of the disease. On January 17, 1892, Mercy passed away from consumption, and Edwin returned to
Exeter soon after her death. Soon after his arrival, his health began to decline. After consulting with
his friends and family, it was decided that one of his deceased relatives was undead and draining the
life from him. According to the local beliefs, the undead corpse or vampire, drains the life of the
living consumption victim, causing them to in turn waste away. To kill the vampire, the body must be
exhumed, and, if the body is found undecomposed, the blood-filled heart is removed and burned.
Edwin had no choice. The bodies of his mother and two sisters were exhumed in March of
1892. Mary Eliza and Mary Olive were skeletons, but Mercy, who was dead only a few months, was found
undecomposed and with "blood in her heart". Her heart was removed and burned on a nearby rock and, as
the account goes, Edwin made a potion with the ashes and drank it as an antidote. Not surprisingly, he
died four months later.
This account is not unusual for 19th century New England. We have found at least twelve
accounts documenting similar beliefs and activities. Geographically, most are situated in eastern
Connecticut, southern Rhode Island, and central/southern Vermont. They range in time from the late 1700s
to the late 1800s. Eleven of the twelve accounts list consumption as the cause of death of the vampire
and any deceased relatives.
As in the Brown case, these accounts indicate that family members become inflicted with
the disease before or soon after the death of the vampire. TB is notorious for being transmitted
between individuals of different generations living under cramped conditions, not uncommon given the
large families and small dwellings of New England farmers. Seasonal periods of low nutrition and the
unsanitary conditions of 18th and 19th century farming compounds provide vectors for the transmission of
tuberculosis between family members.
Recall the desire for life and energy that was seen in consumptives. That this desire
for energy could continue after death is supported in the vampire belief. After tuberculosis consumed
the life of the vampire, it seems natural that their appetite after death would extend to the
next-of-kin, who would suffer a similar "loss of flesh". Such a belief is a cultural interpretation
consistent with modern knowledge concerning the transmission of TB.
The New England vampire belief is based on a folk interpretation of the physical
appearance of the tuberculosis victim and the transmission of tuberculosis. As the name "consumption"
implies, the disease caused sufferers to "waste away" and "lose flesh", despite the fact that they
remained active, desirous of sustenance, and maintained a fierce will to live. This dichotomy of desire
and "wasting away" is reflected in the vampire folk belief: the vampire's desire for "food" forces it to
feed off living relatives, who suffer a similar "wasting away".
The vampire folklore is also consistent with modern knowledge of the transmission of
tuberculosis. Many of the historic accounts indicate that family members living in close association
became infected with the disease before or soon after the death of the "vampire". Tuberculosis is
notorious for being transmitted between individuals of different generations living under crowded
conditions, a situation common in rural 19th century New England farming communities. Seasonal periods
of low nutrition and the unsanitary conditions of 18th and 19th century farming compounds increased the
opportunity for the transmission of tuberculosis between family members.
The method of dispatching a vampire, also known as an apotropaic remedy, centers around
the destruction of the vampire's body. In the New England folklore, a common theme is blood found in the
heart of the exhumed vampire. The apotropaic was to burn the heart, in the process ridding the family of
the vampire's actions. Most historic accounts indicate that upon exhuming the vampire, the body was
found undecomposed. The process of decomposition is variable, and most people are unfamiliar with the
appearance of a partially decomposed body. Additionally, a byproduct of decomposition is reddish fluid
in the body cavity resulting from the decomposing internal organs. Other methods of dispatching the New
England vampire are known: turning the body over, burning the entire body
Examination of New England Bioarcheological Evidence
It stands to reason that archeological evidence of the New England vampire belief would
exist in 19th century cemeteries. This evidence would most likely be found in a skeleton which would be
associated with three pieces of evidence:
- The skeleton must have been disrupted after death
- The skeleton would also have to show evidence of tuberculosis
- The skeleton would have to come from an area where the vampire folklore is documented.
In 1990, two children playing near a gravel hill in Griswold, Connecticut, uncovered some
human skeletal remains. After examining the site, the state archeologist was asked by the landowner to
excavate the graves of a small cemetery located on the gravel hill. Twenty-nine burials were removed
from the site. Document research reveals that a family of farmers named Walton used the hill as a burial
ground from 1690 to 1840. Most remains had been buried in coffins, some of which were placed in
stone-lined crypts. The skeletons of fifteen children, six adult males, and eight adult females were
Of particular note are the remains of a 50-55 year old male buried in a stone-lined
grave. The skeleton was the best preserved of the entire cemetery and was nearly complete except for
some of the distal phalanges. On the coffin lid, a row of tacks spelled "JB-55". Upon opening the
grave, the archaeologists were surprised to find that the bones of the chest were in disarray. On top of
the lower part of the chest, the femora had been crossed over one another and the skull had been moved
from its anatomical location and placed on top of the upper chest bones. The general appearance was that
of a skull and crossbones.
The movement of the bones indicates that no soft tissue was present at the time of
rearrangement. Recall that in the Brown case, the heart was removed and burned. In this case, no heart
remained to be burned. Despite the lack of soft tissue, I believe that in this case the bones were
rearranged to ward kill the vampire. The bones of the chest in the area of the heart were jumbled, and
in terms of the other bones, what better arrangement of the skeletal elements than a skull and
crossbones. In Europe, postmortem decapitation was a common European method of dispatching a vampire.
On examination of the skeleton in the laboratory, we were able to discern several
pathological conditions in this skeleton including healed fractures of the ribs and right collarbone,
osteoarthritis of the left knee and spine, and an infection of the left foot. Of particular note are
three skeletal lesions on the visceral surface of the left 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ribs. These lesions are
similar to those described by researchers as most likely being caused by pulmonary tuberculosis.
Regardless of the specific infectious etiology of pulmonary disease in this individual, symptoms of a
chronic pulmonary infection severe enough to produce rib lesions would have probably included coughing,
expectoration of mucous, and aches and pains of the chest. Such symptoms, if not actually caused by
pulmonary tuberculosis, would likely have been interpreted as consumption by 19th century rural New
The final piece of evidence is this historic account:
This account places the vampire belief in the Jewett City/Griswold area just after the
time span of the Griswold cemetery. The excellent preservation of the vampire skeleton indicates that it
was probably buried toward the latter time period for the cemetery (ca. 1800-1840), thus placing the
internment of this individual close to the time of the above account. The town of Griswold was settled
just after 1812 in part by emigrants from western Rhode Island, who were, according to local tradition,
uneducated and "vicious" . Note in Table 1 that several vampire accounts are also
located in western Rhode Island:
In the May 20, 1854, issue of the Norwich (Connecticut) Courier,
there is the account of an incident that occurred at Jewett [City], a city in that vicinity. About eight
years previously, Horace Ray of Griswold [note the town] had died of consumption. Afterwards, two of his
children - grown-up sons - died of the same disease, the last one dying about 1852. Not long before the
date of the newspaper the same fatal disease had seized another son, whereupon it was determined to
exhume the bodies of the two brothers and burn them, because the dead were supposed to feed upon the
living; and so long as the dead body in the grave remained undecomposed, either wholly or in part, the
surviving members of the family must continue to furnish substance on which the dead body could feed.
Acting under the influence of this strange superstition, the family and friends of the deceased proceeded
to the burial ground on June 8, 1854, dug up the bodies of the deceased brothers, and burned them on the
spot (Wright, 1973).
Table 1 - Historic vampire accounts from New England
| Date ||Location ||Sex of vampire ||Age of vampire ||Time elapsed|
|Cause of death ||Reference|
|c. 1780 ||Dummerston, VT ||F ||Adult ||Unknown ||Consumption|| |
|1790 ||Manchester, VT ||F ||Adult || 6 months ||Consumption|| |
|1799 ||Exeter, RI ||F ||Adult ||Months ||Consumption||
|1807 ||Plymouth, MA ||F ||Adult ||2 months ||Consumption|| |
|1817 ||Vermont ||M ||Unkown ||Unknown ||Unknown||
|1827 ||Foster, RI ||F ||Adult ||2-3 months ||Consumption|| |
|1829 ||Woodstock, VT ||M ||Adult ||6 months ||Consumption||
|1854 ||Jewett City, CT ||M(3)1 ||Adult ||2 years ||Consumption||
|1874 ||Peacedale, RI ||F ||Unkown ||Unknown ||Consumption|| |
|1892 ||Exeter, RI ||F(3)2 ||Adult ||11 yrs; 2 months3 ||Consumption||
|19th c ||Southern RI ||M ||Unkown ||Unknown ||Consumption|| |
|19th c ||Southern RI ||Unkown ||Unkown ||Unknown ||Consumption|| |
1 Bodies of three adults exhumed
2 Bodies of three adult females exhumed
3 Two bodies were interred for 11 years; one body interred for 2 months
The Rhode Island belief was examined by Stetson , who relates
that the Rhode Islanders he interviewed did not consider their practice to be vampirism but rather
believed it was a way to protect living relatives from potential vampiristic actions of a deceased
How did the vampire belief get to New England? The most logical explanation is that
emigrants from vampire-rich areas of eastern Europe settled in the parts of New England where the belief
is strongest. I doubt that it arose in its own. Some of our preliminary research indicates that parts
of Rhode Island were settled by eastern Europeans.
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