While our world has been in the grips of a frightening pandemic, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, New England was experiencing an entirely different panic: a vampire panic.
This panic was driven by an outbreak of tuberculosis. Although not known then, TB is caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which can be spread from person to person. Once someone gets infected, the disease can be either latent or active.
Latent TB means the bacterium is dormant and the person isn’t contagious. Latent TB can turn into active TB. Active TB patients show signs of illness, and they’re contagious. Symptoms include a long-lasting cough, chest pain, breathing difficulty, weight loss, fever, night sweats and chills. The bacterium can also spread through the bloodstream and affect the kidneys, spine and brain.
Untreated TB can be fatal, and in the early 19th century, there were no treatments. The dramatic weight loss led to the name for the disease at the time: consumption. Along with the weight loss was coughing up blood, an ashen pallor and a slow progression to death. Between 1786 and 1800, it’s estimated that 2 percent of New Englanders died.
Speculation circulated that those who died of consumption became vampires of some kind, rising from their graves at night to return to their families and suck out their lives until they too died of consumption. One way to identify the corpses that were “possessed” by an evil spirit that lived on the blood of the living was to dig up the bodies and see if they had decayed as expected.
Then they would open the bodies to determine if any organs still contained blood, a sign of possession. To break the bond between the living and the dead, the organs were burned and the ashes fed to family members ill with consumption. To ensure that the dead could no longer threaten the living, some bodies were decapitated, and some would have their bones rearranged in the skull and crossed bones symbol.
In Rhode Island in 1892, George Brown gave permission to exhume his late wife Mary Brown and their daughters Mary Olive and Mercy Lena, who died of consumption. Brown, the family patriarch, feared the vampire threat and his son Edwin had become ill. The bodies of Mary and Mary Olive had decayed, but Mercy’s body was “oddly well preserved.”
It even appeared that her hair and nails had grown and when her skin was pierced, blood appeared. She was declared a vampire, her heart was burned and the ashes were fed to Edwin, who died nonetheless.
By some accounts, news of these exhumations made their way across the Atlantic where Bram Stoker, who wrote the novel Dracula, heard about them. Henry David Thoreau also mentioned an incident like this in an 1859 journal.
We now know the origins of TB and have treatments, yet it kills about 1.5 million people annually and an estimated 10 million are infected. Science and society have work to bring this under control.