The New England Vampire Panic

This essay is taken in part from Episode 14 of the Spooky Stitches podcast, where we talk knitting and ghost stories. If you want to see more content like this, please check out the podcast, or the Patreon, where stories like this are posted regularly, often before they show up here on the blog. 

Today, we take for granted that blood sucking vampires are a matter of myth and lore, not something to be encountered on a dark night. But two hundred years ago, this was not the case. 

Shortly after the Revolutionary war, a plague began to sweep through New England. Panic gripped the grief stricken as death took first one family member and then another. 

This invisible specter soon took on a name: Vampire. But these were not vampires as you or I know them, not the creatures of Anne Rice or Buffy, and they did not glitter. 

It all began with Rachel Harris Burton in 1790. It wasn’t long after her death that her husband married for a second time, to a younger woman named Hilda. Soon after they married, Hilda grew weaker and weaker; pale and tired. The couple became convinced that the spirit of Rachel was sucking her dry, angry at being replaced so soon after her own untimely death. Issac Burton had his former wife exhumed, and though dead for some time her corpse was unusually fresh for a time before modern embalming. Her body was turned over in the grave, her organs burned, and head removed in an effort to still the vampire. 

But it was too late, and in 1793 Hilda died. 

Today, we would diagnose Hilda–and possibly Rachel, too–as having died to tuberculous. The wasting disease could come on suddenly and kill within months, or one could linger for years, growing increasingly thin and pale, occasionally coughing up blood. Without antibiotics, sanitation, and in the crowded living conditions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the disease spread rapidly among families. This led to the belief that when one family member died, their spirit would rise again, filled with evil and hate, to strike again at family and friends and take another soul to the grave, passing on the curse. 

Later in the panic, the symptoms were identified as coming from tuberculosis, but the cause was still attributed to the supernatural. In a time when science advanced by leaps and bounds, but such a common disease still had no cure and not even an effective treatment, what explanation could there be but invisible forces of darkness?

While Rachel and Hilda were the first, they were not the last. A quick check on Wikipedia lists several other recorded cases from newspapers dating as late as 1879. By then, it was known that tuberculosis, or consumption as it was more commonly known at the time, could be properly diagnosed, even if it couldn’t be well treated in the time before antibiotics. Doctors were able to isolate the bacteria that caused it, and germ theory was beginning to take hold: the idea that disease was spread by microbes, rather than just bad smells in the air. 

By the time Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, vampires already had a firm grip on the imaginations of Victorians. The descriptions of Lucy’s slow demise in the first half of the book are taken directly from the lore of the period–the invisible weight, the cloud of smoke hovering over her, the way it became hard to breathe, and her strength was sapped away. Though Bram Stoker was Irish, the description could be written by any member of the New England press. 

Eventually, the panic petered out as science advanced further. As sanitation improved, cases of TB began to decline, until at last in the 1940s with the advent of penicillin there was finally a treatment that could arrest the disease in its tracks–only instead of a stake through the heart, it was a little jab with a needle in the arm…or in the butt, in the early days. Less elegant, but far more effective. 

Now that we’ve covered the first part of the history, let’s talk a little about some of the funeral practices at the time. 

It was common in the 19th century and before for a “watcher” to be assigned to sit with the dead and dying. This served several purposes. For starters, it meant that the ill person wouldn’t die alone; someone would be there to hold their hand, even if a family member couldn’t make it in time. This person would make sure they were cared for, administering medicine, food, and water.

Sometimes they were a family member, but often they were a member of the community, usually a spinster or widow without a household of her own to look after. She might be called in because the family didn’t have anyone who could dedicate the time to sitting with the dying person. Even if someone is sick, life still goes on–meals need to be made, children need to be cared for, the animals have to be fed, crops need sewn or harvested. The watcher was exempt from this labor, and would sit by the person’s bedside, reading to them, talking quietly, and dabbing at their forehead with a cloth, doing what little they could to ease their suffering. 

The Victorians were obsessed with what they called a “good death.” An easy passing into the great beyond. The Watcher was there to help ensure this happened, providing comfort and company as the soul slipped from the body. 

The other part of their job was the care of the corpse after death. They usually helped wash and dress the deceased for the funeral with help from other women in the family or neighborhood. Then they would sit with the body for three days (taking it in turns), to ensure the person was really dead. 

In addition to vampires and a “bad death,” the Victorians also feared being buried alive. A quick Google search will show you several devices, both practical and not, intended to make sure that a person buried in error could summon help. Most of these have proved to be ineffective, but the paranoia remained. 

Sitting with the body is a common practice in several cultures, notably Irish, and in the 1840s and 50s, at the height of the vampire panic and buried-alive panic, North America saw an influx of Irish immigration. 

The watchers took their shifts with the body, looking for any signs of life. While extremely rare, the newspapers at the time made a “return from the dead” appear commonplace. Drinking alcohol from pewter mugs could send one into a coma. Certain types of epileptic seizures can reduce life signs to such a degree they can’t be identified at all without modern equipment. These extraordinary cases were blown out of proportion in the papers and spread like wildfire through the country, convincing both the educated and the ignorant, the religious and the atheist, that they, too, could wake up inside a coffin. Watchers were considered essential to preventing this fate. 

If you are as fascinated by all of this as I am, I highly encourage you to check out my list of further reading below, and my patrons-only short, The Watcher, which is available now as a free read at the $3 level and above. 

Further Reading: 
The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard
Necropolis by Catharine Arnold
The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders