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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Vermonters go vampire slaying in Manchester

The Advocate-08/18/2005

Down through the ages, the figure of the vampire has exercised a great power over the human imagination. Whether this figure takes the form of the Greek lamia, the Malaysian langsuyar, the Serbian vukodlak or Bram Stoker's iconic Transylvanian count, people from all different cultural backgrounds have found themselves simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by this mythos.

Fascinated, in part, because in the vampire we see an individual who does not lie at rest at death, as we ourselves must, but goes forth from the grave, straddling the world of the living and that of the dead - meanwhile repulsed because this creature lives like a parasite off our most precious bodily commodity, spreading its own brand of damnation through our ranks as it does.

It was mainly this latter factor that concerned the people of Manchester, Vt., in the year 1793, according to an incident recorded in John S. Pettibone's Early History of Manchester." Three years earlier, Captain Isaac Burton lost his wife, Rachel, to consumption, or "the White Death," as it was sometimes known. A year or so later, Burton married again, to a girl by the name of Hulda Powel. Not long after, Hulda also began showing telltale signs of the same decline: an unnatural pallor, loss of vitality and a bloody cough. By February 1793, the girl was in the late stages of the disease. It was at this point that a number of Manchesterites reached a conclusion that to our modern minds must come across as nothing short of preposterous.

The wasting away of Burton's wives, they concluded, was due to the sinister agency of a "demon vampire." To save Hulda, it was thought, the vampirism had to be stopped - and this would require a most odious procedure. The body of Burton's deceased wife, Rachel, was disinterred, and what remained of her heart, liver and lungs were removed. They were taken to Jacob Mead's blacksmith forge, where they were burned until nothing but ash remained. Sadly, despite this grisly attempt at a cure, Hulda continued to weaken, passing away the following September.

Macabre and mystifying as such a scenario may seem to us, there is a great deal of evidence that this was not a wholly uncommon practice in early New England. In his book Food for the Dead, Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell lists the approximately 20 such incidents in New England he has uncovered from the late 18th through to the late 19th century. Many others may have gone unrecorded. With close examination of the historic and folkloric record, it becomes clear that this practice was looked upon by its participants as being less like a supernatural exorcism than as simply a loosely accepted form of folk medicine (and in some cases, this method was recommended and even overseen by trained physicians).

Keep in mind that these New Englanders were battling a scourge they could not have hoped to comprehend, and one that was increasingly prevalent. Tuberculosis had been on the rise in North America since around 1730, and by 1800 accounted for 25 percent of all deaths. It remained the leading cause of death throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. For most of that time, its precise cause remained unknown. All that was known was what could be readily observed: that this was a kind of contagion that moved unseen from victim to victim, often within families and close-knit groups, draining away the vitality of a person - just like a vampire. The fact that upon exhumation, many bodies were found to display features of decomposition which had not yet been explained by science, such as posthumous hair and nail growth and blood coagulated in the heart and around the mouth, tended to lend credence to the vampire theory.

These were not people who were particularly morbid, sadistic or amoral, as some later commentators opined; just decent communities willing to pursue any option, unpleasant and grotesque though it might have been, to save the lives of their loved ones and neighbors. In the context of their own era, their actions were not all that irrational. Given the significant limitations that still exist in today's medicine, I cannot help but wonder: How many of our own disease-fighting methods will be looked upon by future historians as little more than well-intentioned barbarism?