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Rhode Island: The Transylvania of America? One vampire expert believes so

Rhode Island: The Transylvania of America? One vampire expert believes so

Rhode Island is a bit of oblivion.

Michael Bell, who has a doctorate in folklore, will recite the date and time of over 80 vampires and spooky folk tales in New England.

Rhode Island is definitely the Transylvania of America, Bell, who is working on the second volume of his book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New Englands Vampires, stated. That distinction hasnt been made by anyone else. Rhode Island has 18 cases of vampires.

Bell searches for vampires within the framework of local history, newspapers, medical journals, and stories passed down from generation to generation that suggest a presence of evil. His online searches through newspaper archives begin with the words: superstition, consumption, exhume.

A query typically yields 800 to 1,000 hits. Most of the time, the searches don't go into the same narrative.

Bell claims that Rhode Island's supernatural past has a connection to the consumption epidemic known as tuberculosis - that makes infected patients weak and pale.

Tuberculosis is a serious infectious bacterial infection that affects the lungs and causes patients to cough, lose weight, and develop night sweats and fever. Many people infected today dont have symptoms, and it is partly treated with antibiotics.

Physically they started to look like the walking dead, Bell said. The life out of them was sucking up.

Some townfolk blamed the ailments on an evil presence that possessed the dead and allowed them to prey on the living from beyond the grave. However, the term vampire did not appear until after 1848, according to Bell.

Frightened family members agreed to exhume the bodies of their kin to look for signs of an unnatural presence. To rid evil spirits, the consumption rituals included a medical examination and, if necessary, cremations of bodies or organs.

In some cases, a cocktail was made from the dead persons ashes and given to the sick as retribution. The remedy was often unsuccessful.

According to an essay by Constance Manoli-Skocay, a staff assistant at Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts, tuberculosis killed one in seven people in the 19th century and killed more people than any other disease in New England, according to Constan Manolli-Schocary, an assistant for Concord's Free Library.

I guess the bottom line is that consumption rituals were the last resort, Bell stated. They had drugs that didnt work. In the end, the doctor would say, Theres nothing I can do. Prepare to meet your maker. Some families werent willing to give up,

Theyd heard from a variety of sources about this folk medicine remedy: Go to the cemetery and exhume the bodies and see which one looked too fresh blood in the vital organs. Take out the organs and burn the ashes, and sometimes they were told to feed the remains to the sick, he added.

Most of the cases he found were in Providence County in the extreme northeast of Rhode Island, and Washington County from Westerly to Narragansett, according to Bell.

Stephen Staples, of Cumberland, R.I., was allowed to exhume the body of his daughter, Abigail, for experimentation in an attempt to save the life of Lavinia Stuckels in 1796.

According to New England Today, Lavinia told of dreams in which a dark figure sat heavily on her chest and drew out her breath. According to the newspaper, Abigail's name was reportedly called out.

Bell also located the body of Nancy Young, a 19-year-old Foster woman who died in 1827, who was exhumed and burned. Vier more of Anna and Levi Youngs children died of tuberculosis. Other cases were reported in Kent County in 1838, one in Newport in 1860, and in Washington County, in 1799, 1858,, & 1872 (two cases), as well as the well-known Mercy Brown case in 1902.

Something that I cant find firm documentation on is that it occurred in the early 1900s, Bell said.

Bell's first book, entitled Bells First 20 Cases, is focused on the first 20 cases he discovered. He has since located 60 more reports of ritualistic events intended to rid people of evil spirits, and he believes that is only the beginning.

His interest in folklore was piqued through archaeology and anthropology, he said.

I was interested in belief systems and how they are supported by narratives, particularly legends, he said. I went to school and completed my doctorate at Indiana University Bloomington. They have probably the countrys oldest and most well-known folklore department, if not the world.

The Boston Globe reported on the story of Mercy Brown in 1892, a day after she was exhumed.

Lewis Everett Peck shared the story of his distant cousin Mercy Brown with Bell in 1981, in stories passed down by his relatives. It is possibly the most notable case of an alleged vampire in Rhode Island.

George T. Browns wife and two daughters were exhumed March 17, 1892, in Exeter, R.I., after Brown reluctantly conceded to neighbor s pressure for a consumption ritual.

Between 1883 and 1892, Browns wife, Mary Eliza, and his eldest daughters, Mercy Lena, 19, and Mary Olive, 20, all died of consumption.

Edwin Brown, a newlywed man who had recently married, had traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado, hoping he would be saved by undergoing regenerative medicine. Edwins condition did not improve and he returned to Rhode Island to spend his final days with family and friends.

George Brown was forced to perform a superstitious ritual that involved digging up his wife and daughters and performing an autopsy to determine if Edwin had died. Dr. Harold Metcalf, a medical examiner, patiently performed the autopsies.

Mary Olives body appeared to have a thick growth of hair on her head, according to Metcalf, and Mrs. Brown was in solitary condition. Mercys body, which was housed in an above-ground tomb, was fresh. Mercy Brown's body was burned, despite Dr. Metcalf'' assurance that the autopsy revealed nothing unnatural.

Edwin Brown drank a concoction of the ashes, but it's unclear if he ate it. He died at age 27.

Bell said the rituals appeared to be independent of religious beliefs. Most of the cases he discovered outside of New England had New Hampshire links.

It's purely a secular practice, Bell said. A congregational minister who called his congregation together to discuss if the dead may prey on the living provided solid evidence for that. He didnt try to answer this question on the basis of his religious beliefs. He considered this implicitly outside of the scope of religion. It wasnt the devil or God, it was just an existential question.

In many countries, burning is a ritual of purification, Bell said.

He added, It would be called sympathetic magic." A magical connection between two things at a distance without physical contact.

It was a folk remedy, not merely regarded as shamanic practice, which we now refer to as vampire practice, he added. People didnt talk about their dead relatives leaving the grave and sucking their blood, he added.

In the end, family members had nothing to lose by attempting. It was a bridge from fear to hope that wasnt going to make someone worse.

Not every case ended with the body burning, according to Bell.

In Maine, a corpse simply had to be turned face down in its coffin before being buried. One Connecticut case required sick individuals to be fumigated by smoke from a burning body.

Before the introduction of vampires, newspapers would refer to consumption rituals as a heathenistic practice.

Outsiders pretty much condemned the ritual, Bell stated.

People in much of New England seemed to be drawn to stories like these.

There wasnt a great separation from science, religions, and magic in early New England, Bell said. These things seem to be running in parallel, if not intersect.

The Puritan religion pushed the witch trials, he added. That was one that wasnt secular, like vampires that happened a century later, he added. New Englanders have long been open to alternate approaches to how things work, according to what both have in common. People would, before they planted, consult the almanac to determine when the moon was full or when it was a new moon. Before going on a voyage, they would consult astrologists. People looking for places to dig wells would use a forked stick (also known as water witching or water dowsing). There were tails of buried treasure. Joseph Smith was doing the same when he discovered the golden tablets. He was a for-hire treasure seeker.

Bells claims that vampires are a common element of folklore in general. His family had its own tales of supernatural events, such as tale of people coming back from the dead and premonitions, as well as stories of persons coming from their deaths. His father was a newspaper journalist who wrote for news and wire services, as well as about bizarre disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, and his father also worked as he wrote about strange disappearences within the Triangle.

Bell explained that that interest was given to me very early. I combined that with my interest in archaeology. To me, it was much more real to look at stories and narratives to understand people's beliefs than it were to glance at broken pottery and bone fragments. Its a more detailed and richer form of evidence.

Consumption is still a worldwide epidemic. In 2020, more than 1.5 million of the 10 million people infected by it died.

We still have a lot of this COVID-19 folklore, Bell said. The parallels of what people dont know.

Carlos Muoz can be reached at carlos.munozz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ReadCarlos.

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