In 1830s New England, everything seemed dark and chilly. It had felt that way for a while, ever since talks of witches and other monsters ran rampant through the region. During this time, it wouldn’t have been unusual to peek through your window at night and see a lantern-lit procession tip-toeing through town, heading in a slow march toward the local cemetery. Such a scene is where this whole grisly story begins.
Fast forward 150 years, and the New England town is brighter and warmer than it once was. But in 1990, a young boy inadvertently brought some spookiness back to the region…and uncovered something New Englanders had hoped would be buried forever.
The boy was playing near an old gravel mine when he accidentally unearthed something that wasn’t supposed to see the light of day. Fascinated by the artifact, he ran home to his mother, who was shocked to see her son holding up a human skull.
The gravel mine wasn’t actually a mine at all, archaeologist Nick Bellantino deduced, but a colonial-era cemetery containing about 29 graves. Most of them displayed standard 1700s-1800s-era burial practices…until he came across gravesite #4.
Lynda M. Gonzalez/Dallas Morning News/Staff Photographer
He knew he was dealing with something unusual, since the gravesite was one of the only stone crypts in the cemetery. It didn’t take much digging for Bellantino’s hunch to be confirmed: The crypt contained a coffin that was painted a striking shade of red.
But the real shock came when the team opened the coffin. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni remembered. No one had, not for 150 years. Unlike the other bodies, this one had been rearranged to look “like a skull-and-crossbones motif.”
The skeleton had been beheaded, first of all, with its skull and thigh-bones positioned on top of the ribs and spine. Note the word “skeleton,” here: The forensics team discovered that, bizarrely, the beheading had happened approximately five years after death.
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Why the red coffin, which had also been smashed in over a century beforehand? Why the gruesomely arranged skeleton? The only identification on the coffin was J.B., and forensics predicted him to have been a farmer sometime in the 1830s.
These were some odd puzzle pieces for the archaeologists to put together. Luckily, New England is filled with equally odd individuals who make unearthing the region’s spooky past their life’s work. One such person is Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist.
Bell emphasized how witches aren’t the only monsters the region once contended with. Just as the puritans burned their “witches” at the stake, the farming communities of 1800s New England exhumed and “killed” their vampires…J.B. among them.
Boston Daily Globe
Like the witch trials, the panic surrounding vampires in the 1800s was likely rooted in a then-mysterious (and extremely frightening) disease: tuberculosis. Disease outbreaks always lead to some kind of hysteria, especially among isolated farming communities.
Samuel Walker and Company
J.B. had suffered from T.B., which was called “consumption” in the 1800s. The symptoms of consumption were terrifying: a persistent fever, often leading to delirium; a severe cough that claws at the throat; and, of course, the wasting away of the living body.
Put these symptoms together into one person, and they look a lot like the victim of a vampire attack, the life being slowly and painfully drained from their bodies. To grieving and desperate families in the 1830s, vampires just made sense when nothing else did.
“People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels,” Bell explained. “The folk system offers an alternative.” Still, the alternative wasn’t an easy road to take. To kill a vampire, townspeople had to get dirty.
Once tuberculosis slowly killed one family member, it wasn’t long before a second family member was struck with the disease. This pattern in which entire families were slowly wiped out by the same illness actually resulted in a gruesome theory among the townspeople.
Maybe, they thought, the victims of the disease were rising from the grave as vampires and preying on their own families. The only solution would be to exhume the body and perform a ritual to permanently “kill” the vampire.
A “typical” ritual involved family members and neighbors of the vampire journeying to the cemetery in the middle of night, where they would exhume the body, crack open the chest cavity, take out the heart, and burn it while inhaling the fumes.
Believe it or not, some rituals were even weirder. Oftentimes, the ritual wouldn’t just involve the family of the vampire but the whole town, including doctors and clergymen. Such was the case of Mercy Lena Brown, one of the most famous “vampires” in history.
The Brown family lived in Exeter, Rhode Island, at the end of the 19th century. The town was nicknamed “Deserted Exeter” because of how isolated it was from nearby communities. This isolation ended up fanning the spread of consumption…and paranoia.
In 1882, “consumption” finally had an official name, “tuberculosis,” not that the people of Exeter knew about it. That’s the same year that the Brown family lost their first members to the disease. First Mrs. Brown died, then her oldest daughter, Mary Olive.
Nearly ten years after her mother and sister died, Mercy started to cough. She died of the disease at just 19 years old, leaving behind her father and sickened brother, Edwin, who was also dying from T.B. That’s when Mr. Brown was approached by a neighbor.
The neighbor proposed something bizarre but not unheard of at the time: that Edwin was being preyed upon by his dead mother and sisters. Perhaps if all three women were exhumed and destroyed, Edwin would recover? Desperate, Mr. Brown consented.
In March of 1892, a group of townspeople (accompanied by a doctor and journalist) exhumed the bodies, found Mercy’s to be fairly preserved, and burned her heart over a fire. On what we assume was the worst day of his life, Edwin consumed the ashes.
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Edwin died two months later, but his story — more specifically, Mercy’s story — pervaded the news cycle like no vampire had done before. People all over the country were in shock to hear of the barbaric paranoia plaguing these isolated New England towns.
Even today, people are surprised to learn that Salem isn’t the only New England town with a supernatural history. In this modern day world, it’s hard to believe that people were once so gullible as to believe vampires were preying on their families…
But if you were to walk through one of New England’s many centuries-old cemeteries, it might become a little easier to believe. In such isolated communities, every sound can give you goosebumps…and every crumbling headstone may make you wonder what lies beneath.
There are rumors that the New England vampire panic inspired one of the most famous monsters of all time, Dracula. Like many monsters, the idea for Dracula may also have come from a wild dream caused by a “helping of dressed crab at supper,” according to Bram Stoker.
In his dream, Stoker saw “a vampire king rising from the tomb,” and he couldn’t get the image out of his mind. The fact that Stoker started to write Dracula during London’s most frightening time in history only made things creepier…
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
See, Stoker started to pen Dracula a mere two years after Jack the Ripper terrorized London. Everyone in the city was already afraid of the dark at this point, which Stoker used to his advantage — and in his creation of Count Dracula.
It’s speculated that Count Dracula, who was described by Stoker as being tall and alluring with “gracious manners,” was actually based on Stoker’s boss, Henry Irving. An actor, Irving was both egotistical and charming, two of the Count’s defining qualities.
Lewis Strang, Players and Plays of the Last Quarter Century, Vol. 2
But other historians believe that the Count and his bloodthirsty ways were actually based on a real-life historical figure. Not only do both figures have Transylvanian-sounding names, but they each shared a pesky hankering for blood…
Vlad III of Wallachia — also known as Vlad the Impaler — is obviously known for one thing: his tendency to impale people. His connection to Dracula goes much deeper than a sword, though. Surprisingly, it goes all the way back to his father.
The elder Vlad was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, which made Vlad III the “son of Dracul,” or “Dracula.” Interestingly, “drac” translates to “dragon” and “devil,” so it shouldn’t come as a shock that Vlad wasn’t the nicest guy.
According to legend, Vlad III once invited hundreds of wealthy nobleman to a banquet and, knowing they would challenge his authority, had them — you guessed it — impaled on spikes. Multiple violent Vlad stories were printed, and one eventually landed on Stoker’s lap.
When reading a book about Wallachia, Stoker was taken by the name “Dracula.” He was struck by the name’s devilish origin and by how much Vlad III had embodied its meaning. It seems Stoker got more than one idea from his research, however.
Stoker was especially interested in a painful time in Vlad’s life: when he was held captive for years by the Ottomans. During this period, Vlad III and his brother were kept in an eerie castle complete with dungeons and secret passageways.
So, is that where Dracula’s iconic castle came from? No one pictures a vampire living in a condo, and that’s because of Stoker’s description of Dracula’s shadowy castle, complete with cobwebs and opulent furniture. But some think the castle has a different origin.
Bela Lugosi as Dracula,1931
Some historians believe Dracula’s castle resembles Scotland’s Slains Castle. It’s “a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light,” Stoker wrote in Dracula. This description calls to mind Slains Castle, one of many eerily accurate details in Stoker’s book.
To people in 1890s Europe, some scenes in Dracula sent a chill down their spines — and not for the reason you’d think. As is now clear, much of Stoker’s inspiration came from real life… including one of his novel’s the goriest scenes.
In the book, a woman is slowly killed by Dracula. After she dies, the woman-turned-vampire is dug up from her coffin and re-killed via a stake to the heart, a scene that, for some people, hit a little too close to home.
For example, Stoker’s friend buried his deceased wife with a book of poetry and then, years later, exhumed her to retrieve it. This was frightening enough, but after Dracula was published, this exhuming habit only intensified.
Vampire mania had been growing for centuries, and works of literature that came before Dracula, such as Lenore, The Vampyre, and Carmilla, solidified vampires as the blood-sucking monsters they are today. But it was Stoker that pushed vampire-mania to its peak…
People took their fear of vampires very seriously by covering their home in crucifixes, having extra garlic on hand, and, in particularly gruesome circumstances, exhuming and stabbing corpses in the heart in order to prevent future “vampire attacks.”
There’s a silver lining to all the hysteria, however: without it, we wouldn’t have today’s thriving vampire genre. Thanks to Stoker, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series exist to obsess over — and obviously, the mania didn’t stop at literature.
The creepiness of Dracula ended up bleeding into the entertainment business. From Nosferatu and Dark Shadows to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries, people are just as enamored with vampires now as they were back then.
Though Vlad the Impaler and other “vampires” probably won’t rise from the dead, there’s no denying the sheer creepiness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Oddly, though, there were other vampiric sources he could’ve drawn on for his book.
1. Petar Blagojevich: In 1725, a certain Serbian peasant named Petar Blagojevich died. Not really that remarkable of a story, right? Just wait until you hear what happened after he died, because that’s when things got really strange…
According to the story, Petar reportedly crawled out of his grave and asked his son for food. When his son, terrified, denied him, Petar murdered him and drank his blood. In a panic, the villagers thrust a stake through Petar’s heart once he had returned to his grave.
2. That same year, another Serbian man named Arnold Paole claimed to have been bitten by a Turkish vampire. To cure the ill effects, he ate handfuls of dirt from the vampire’s grave. Unfortunately, that might not have been quite enough; three days later, Arnold died…
Then, four people came forward claiming he had emerged from his grave and bit them. They all died shortly thereafter. The townspeople agreed to dig up Arnold’s body and when they did, they found his eyes open and blood pouring from every orifice.
3. Myslata of Blau was a humble and simple shepherd from the 14th century who lived in a small village in what is now the Czech Republic. Myslata died, but then began to reappear to villagers at night. Those who saw him were doomed to die within eight days of his appearance.
Eventually they dug up his remains and drove a stake through his heart—but it did nothing! So, they dug him up again and tried driving stakes all over his entire body, which made him roar in pain before finally dying for good.
4. In 1582, Johannes Cuntius, a civic official with an unfortunate surname from the Czech town of Pentsch, died tragically when a horse kicked him in the head. He was rushed to his death bed, but things only got worse when a black cat jumped up on his bed. This was considered to be a terrible omen.
After his death, villagers started seeing him wandering around at night giving off an unholy and disgusting aroma. To put a stop to it, they dug up his body, chopped off his head, set it on fire and ground it to ash, leaving his grave empty.
5. Countess Elizabeth Bathory: Born in Transylvania in 1560, Elizabeth had it all: She was a noblewoman with good looks and plenty of money to throw around. She was even engaged at the age of 12 to Ferenc Nádasdy, a well-to-do gentleman of the day.
Ferenc and Elizabeth married in 1575, though Ferenc eventually died in 1604. Left to her own devices, Elizabeth took to killing young virginal women so she could bathe in their blood and drink it, believing it would keep her looking young and beautiful forever.
6. The Alnwick Castle Vampire: Alnwick Castle has stood in Northumberland, England, since 1096. In the 12th century, it was recorded that the castle had its own vampire: a man from Yorkshire who had been buried in the local cemetery.
Apparently, the vampire was a hunchback who would perform fiendish deeds at night, upsetting the local villagers. They took matters into their own hands; they dug up his body and started hacking at him with their spades.
7. Sava Savanović: This malicious blood-sucking vampire was said to lurk by a water-powered mill on the banks of the River Rogačica, in the village of Zarožje in Serbia. When people came to use the mill, he would kill them and drink their blood.
Unlike other stories, the villagers never actually succeeded in ending Savanoić’s reign of terror. In 2012, however, the town considered reopening the mill as a tourist attraction. Shockingly, the mill collapsed into a sinkhole shortly thereafter, giving Sava the last laugh after all.
8. Jure Grando Alilović: Jure Alilović was born in the town of Kringa, located in contemporary Croatia, in 1597. When he died in 1656, it wasn’t the end of him, though. Instead, townsfolk claimed to have spotted him stalking the streets late at night.
For 16 years it was said that if Jure knocked on your door at night, you would be doomed to die not long after. Eventually, the villagers finally worked up the courage to dig up his body and drive stakes through it, but that didn’t stop him!
9. New England vampire epidemic: In 1990, archaeologist Nick Bellantoni was excavating some colonial-era graves in the town of Griswold, Connecticut. All of the graves seemed pretty ordinary, until Nick noticed one strange plot. In this plot, the skeleton had no head and its thigh bones were deliberately crossed.
Bellantoni discovered other plots where the bones had been treated in the same way. In the process, he learned that there had been a vampire panic in New England in mid-19th century. The strange bones he found belonged to suspected vampires.
10. The Blandford Forum Vampire: In 1762, a manservant named William Doggett ran off with his master’s fortune. Crushed by the shame, William took his own life later that year.
Death was not the end for William Doggett. Villagers reported seeing him driving the streets at night in a ghostly carriage. They also reported that he had developed a taste for human blood. They dug up his grave, and their fears were confirmed: William’s remains weren’t even touched by decay…