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Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires (2001)

von Michael E. Bell

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1463141,845 (3.65)2
For nineteenth-century New Englanders, "vampires" lurked behind tuberculosis. To try to rid their houses and communities from the scourge of the wasting disease, families sometimes relied on folk practices, including exhuming and consuming the bodies of the deceased. Author and folklorist Michael E. Bell spent twenty years pursuing stories of the vampire in New England. While writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Henry David Thoreau, and Amy Lowell drew on portions of these stories in their writings, Bell brings the actual practices to light for the first time. He shows that the belief in vampires was widespread, and, for some families, lasted well into the twentieth century. With humor, insight, and sympathy, he uncovers story upon story of dying men, women, and children who believed they were food for the dead. This Wesleyan paperback edition includes an extensive preface by the author unveiling some of the new cases he's learned about since Food for the Dead was first published in 2001.… (mehr)

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In time for Halloween. Author Michael Bell is an academic folklorist. You would think folklorists would be good storytellers, and perhaps most of them are, but not Bell. While there are a lot of interesting facts in the book (for example, the 1890 Rhode Island census included “haunted” as part of a house description) they are not put together coherently. Some chapters are reasonably straightforward narrative, others are almost direct transcriptions (including the “uhs”) of tape recorded interviews Bell conducted, and some are sort of stream-of-consciousness. I suppose Bell might be insuring the reader complete the whole book because it’s pretty difficult to make sense out of things even if you do.


The condensed version: In New England (there are cases from upstate New York and Chicago) between 1793 and 1892 a number of corpses were disinterred, and something was done to the body (usually burning the heart). The deceased had died of “consumption” (assumed, almost certainly correctly, to be tuberculosis), and now one or more of the deceased’s immediate relatives had also come down with the disease. The surviving family (sometimes at the urging of neighbors) blamed things on the corpse “feeding” off the living. The grave of the last known case (Mercy Brown, Exeter, Rhode Island, 1892) has become something of a local tourist attraction; on Halloween it’s impossible to park within a mile of the cemetery and three police officers patrol to keep sightseers from breaking off parts of her tombstone or trying to excavate her. (Bell coins the useful term “legend trip” to describe situations like this).


Bell’s researches note the contamination of traditional folklore by modern media influence. None of the contemporary accounts ever use the “V” word, suggest that the corpses left their graves, or that they bit victims, yet locals he interviews describe the revenants as “vampires” that “walked at night” and “sucked the blood of the living”. Despite his disjointed presentation I do feel sorry for him; he describes appearing on various television programs trying to explain things and is invariably trapped or edited into seeming to say he believes in vampires. (He even self-deprecatingly describes his most recent encounter by writing “This time I thought it would be different”. He then, in a case of being cruel to be kind, allows his grad student intern to be interviewed, to forewarn him of what’s going to happen).


It was interesting to find that another Rhode Island resident must have done some research into these cases. One of the families involved were the Tillinghasts, with Sarah Tillinghast as the putative revenant. “Crawford Tillinghast” appears in the H.P. Lovecraft story “From Beyond”. A member of the Corwin family was disinterred around 1830; “Joseph Curwen” appears as the evil ancestor in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. When this was made into a movie (The Haunted Palace), Roger Corman demonstrated he’d read some Rhode Island folklore too, by making Ward/Curwen’s mistress the reanimated Hester Tillinghast.


Interesting enough if you are willing to put up with the disjointed presentation. A few maps, some pictures, a good bibliography, a chronological lists of the cases, and a list of the children of Stukely and Honor Tillinghast. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 8, 2017 |
Bell is a folklorist who interviews the descendants of the last person exhumed in the United States as a vampire. His excellent story telling leads you through his research and interviews with personal anecdotes, asides, and details. His thesis is that vampirism was a logical explanation for tuberculosis for people whose concept of disease theory was limited at best. ( )
1 abstimmen hermit_9 | Jun 14, 2008 |
A folkloric study of the vampires of New England. These aren't the Dracula type vampires, however; in fact, the word vampire seems never to have been used to describe those who were disinterred (isn't that a great word?).

Many people have heard of Mercy Brown, certainly those who know their Lovecraft. She is the most famous "vampire" of New England. As seems to be the case in all instances, Mercy died of consumption. Other family members did succumb, and eventually the townspeople recommended a cure to Mercy's father: to dig her up and if her heart was fresh and full of blood, burn it. The ashes would then be fed to Edwin, Mercy's severely ailing brother. The heart was indeed still bloody but the remedy didn't work--Edwin succumbed to the consumption.

The other cases follow mostly the same pattern, though specifics differ. In once case, the entire body was burned and the sick stood in the smoke, which was thought to heal them. Sometimes more internal organs were burned. In one case, the bones had been rearranged.

All in all, a fascinating look at how some odd versions of folk healing can contribute to the growth of legends. I did have one major problem with it though. The author speaks of a house on Benefit Street in Providenced. Both Lovecraft and Poe used it as a setting for stories. When referring to the Lovecraft story ("The Shunned House"), Bell keeps calling the narrator of the story Lovecraft--as if the story were a personal experience. Anyone who knows anything about HPL knows that he wasn't one to identify with his narrators, and anyone who knows anything about fiction knows that the narrator generally doesn't represent the author. He didn't make the same mistake with Poe's story. It was jarring and annoying both--as an academic who works at the University of Rhode Island, he really should have known better on both counts. A mistake like that brings suspicion to conclusions drawn--it's really sloppy. The notes mostly made up for it, but not entirely. I just couldn't trust the author much for the second half of the book. Which is rather sad, as it was interesting on the whole. ( )
  PirateJenny | Jan 3, 2007 |
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She bloom'd, though the shroud was around her,
locks o'er her cold bosom wave
As if the stern monarch had crown'd her,
The fair speechless queen of the grave,
But what lends the grave such lustre
O'er her cheeks such beauty shred
His life blood, who bent there, had nurs'd her
The living was food for the dead!
-From the May, 1822 "Old Colony Memorial and Plymouth County (Massachusetts) Advertiser
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To my parents, Lester M. Bell and Sarah Elizabeth Jackson Bell
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Folklorists, like vampires, are doomed to a dual existence.
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Along the bottom of the headstone are inscribed the words, "I am waiting and watching for you."
Any house that is more than three-hundred years old has to be haunted, if it has any character at all.
"Never strangers true vampires be," he said,
the loved ones they knew
upon whom they'd have to feed.
Demon lust for their family still living,
old Yankees did believe.
- Excerpt from The Gridwold Vampire by Michael J. Bielawa
Attention chien, bizarre, mechant, lunatique, et pou nourri...Oubliez le chien, attention au maitre.
Beware of a bizarre, wicked, mad and malnourished dog...Forget the dog and heed the master.
Here William French his Body lies.
For Murder his Blood for Vengeance Cries.
George the third his Tory crew tha with a bawl his head shot threw.
For Liberty and His Country's Good he Lost
his Life, his dearest Blood.
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For nineteenth-century New Englanders, "vampires" lurked behind tuberculosis. To try to rid their houses and communities from the scourge of the wasting disease, families sometimes relied on folk practices, including exhuming and consuming the bodies of the deceased. Author and folklorist Michael E. Bell spent twenty years pursuing stories of the vampire in New England. While writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Henry David Thoreau, and Amy Lowell drew on portions of these stories in their writings, Bell brings the actual practices to light for the first time. He shows that the belief in vampires was widespread, and, for some families, lasted well into the twentieth century. With humor, insight, and sympathy, he uncovers story upon story of dying men, women, and children who believed they were food for the dead. This Wesleyan paperback edition includes an extensive preface by the author unveiling some of the new cases he's learned about since Food for the Dead was first published in 2001.

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