We also would blame tuberculosis deaths on vampires and desecrate corpses to kill them now and then.
New England had a period running from 1784 through 1949 where 80 bodies were exhumed from graves to be treated as vampires. Various folk-remedy methods of vampire extermination were utilized.
This wasn't medieval stuff... a vampire was exhumed in Rhode Island about 20 years before Ronald Reagan was born, not too long before the Wright Brothers got an airplane off the ground. This was 200 years after the Salem Witch Trials. People were living during that exhumation who, in the same life, watched a moon landing on TV.
What's up with these people? What's the dilly? As you might imagine, several factors were at work.
Understand that the Internet sucked in 1892, with "sucked" meaning "didn't exist." Literacy, while on the upswing from near-zero in feudal times, was still a rare thing, especially in rural communities. The newest medical journals were slow to get to western Rhode Island farms. Doctors were rare, many were quacks, and even President McKinley had a doctor check a bullet wound by sticking a finger in his abdomen and poking around... in 1901.
If educated city-folk were that dangerous, you can imagine how much damage a farmer could do when faced with a disease or infection that he had no idea about.
Tuberculosis was only really figured out recently, and doctors would just throw up their hands when they saw it in 1892. Their cures were often worse than the illness- Doc Holliday was sent to a sulfur spring to treat his tuberculosis in 1887.
Rhode Island farmers had even less understanding of tuberculosis, which they referred to as "consumption." The name was fitting. A person with tuberculosis would lose weight, become pallid, refuse to eat, fear light, labor to breathe... they wasted away before your eyes. It would also tear through families, many of whom were piled 8 deep in a house and sharing one bed.
While a doctor might recognize this as tuberculosis, a farmer would have a different diagnosis set. It might include the spirit of a deceased relative leaving the grave and feeding on the life energy of their surviving family.
Belief in vampirism goes back to Mesopotamia, and was still in effect in many parts of the world by 1892. This was before Bela Lugosi and Twilight, so no one thought of a vampire resembling a Hungarian count or a pouting teenage boy. When it wasn't being described as a sort of energy force, a vampire was viewed as more corpse-like than a Brad Pitt-looking fellow.
While a diagnosis of vampirism might get you laughed out of Tufts, an illiterate farmer might think that it sounds as good as whatever the city slicker was telling them. You have a definite cause-and-effect thing working, always valuable to a man playing doctor who can't read. A diagnosis of tuberculosis requires medical knowledge and intense examination. All you need for a Vampirism diagnosis is for the TB to run through the rest of your family.
Consumption happened a lot in rural communities. It was the leading cause of death in the northeast in the 1800s. To their credit, most farmers recognized it as a natural illness without paranormal overtones. That's why farm families crank out so many kids. Children are Labor, and even Dowry. They are also vulnerable, which is why many farmers banged out 12 kids in hope that 5 would survive to run the farm.
However, historians have uncovered at least 80 instances where corpses were exhumed and desecrated because someone thought that they were vampires.
Cases run from Maine to Minnesota , but New England holds the title. We do have places like Yale and enlightened cities like Boston, but we also had many areas chock full of susperstitious farmers.
We are also heavy-handed with the punishment. We performed the first legal execution of a juvenile in America... for Bestiality, I believe.
That tendency towards draconian superstition, much of it brought over from Europe, gave New England the title belt with both Witchcraft and Vampirism.
There's a good reason why Shirley Jackson didn't set The Lottery in Manhattan, and why Stephen King set Salem's Lot in Maine. The stories work here.
A relatively isolated area in Rhode Island and Connecticut could do a pretty good Salem's Lot impression, as a great % of the recorded Vampire exhumations went down there.
You can't blame them totally- there was a prominent exhumation in Vermont in 1817, Thoreau wrote about one in 1859 and even America's Hometown of Plymouth has someone buried face down to prevent them from being able to dig their way out of a grave- but they were into it the most.
A newspaper from Connecticut in 1784 denounced exhumations. The Tillinghast family of Exeter, which saw consumption run through it after the father's 1790s dream of a blight killing half of his orchard, lost half of their children even though they exhumed 17 year old Sarah and did a ritual. Jewett City, Connecticut, Saco, Maine (15 miles from where Salem's Lot was based), Loudon, New Hampshire, Belchertown, Massachusetts, Woodstock, Vermont, Cumberland, Rhode Island, Manchester, Vermont and Griswold, Connecticut- among dozens of other New England communities- went all Buffy on someone in the course of their histories.
Exeter, if not the epicenter of the vampire craze, serves as the main neighborhood. They acted like Serbian gypsies. They also are notable for their brutal exhumation techniques, their near Reagan era survival of vampire superstition and for being the home of America's vampire queen.
Mercy Brown, pictured below, is the most famous of the 80 recorded cases where a vampire-themed exhumation went on.
Mercy was one of an unfortunate group of children that George and Mary Brown bore. George was a farmer living a hard life working a rocky Rhodey homestead. The consumption came for his family, taking Ma Brown in 1893 and a daughter the next year. The mother and daughter were Mary and Mary Olive. There was also a sister named Mercy Lena.
Mercy fell sick and died in 1892. Then her brother Edwin fell sick. This set off a superstition algorithm involving multiple consumption deaths in the same family equaling undead predation.
That was enough for the villagers. Perhaps fearing that Mercy would move on to their own families after polishing off the Brown blood bank, several locals- after a vote- approached George with a folk remedy. It may have been the last conversation of the Dark Ages.
Although he gave his permission, George was not in attendance when a Frankenstein-style mob moved on the crypt that held the remains of Mercy Brown. Distinct among the group, which was most likely smaller than a mob, were a wildly protesting doctor and a Providence Journal reporter.
Mercy was a winter death, and she was stored in the above-ground crypt that we have a picture of somewhere in this article. She was kept this way until the ground thawed enough for a burial. You should note that her crypt was very much similar to how they stored ice back then.
They checked the coffins of all the Brown women. Two of them were Corpsing along as they should have been. Mercy was a whole other story.
Mercy didn't look that bad for a corpse. The cold had preserved her well. They cracked open her chest and cut out her heart. It still had blood in it. Bingo! We got us a vampire!
Since this was 5 years before Dracula was written (Bram Stoker had an article about the Brown exhumation among his papers, and may have based Lucy Westerna on Mercy Brown), the people- who only acted like Serbians, and didn't actually use Serbian words like vampyr- probably just called her Mercy or Lena... especially around George, who most likely had to be handled diplomatically.
Vampire slaying methodology varied from region to region. Both Plymouth and Maine, connected by maritime trade, favored burying the corpse face down. Vermont was more brutal, and their methods spread down the Connecticut River into eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island.
Mercy's heart was placed on a nearby stone and cooked to a cinder. The ashes were then fed to her ailing brother, most likely in a tea. It worked so well, he was dead in two months, and is buried next to the sister that he consumed.
Opinions vary as to whether it was effective. The doctor pointed out that Mercy's lungs showed tuberculosis. He no doubt spoke up when the remedy failed to cure Edwin. The locals pointed out that no Browns got sick after Edwin.
Michael Bell, the authority on such matters, says that exhumations occurred in America until the mid 20th Century. The last one Bell is aware of went down in the Pennsylvania mountains in 1949. A construction crew in Griswold, CT dug up an ancient cemetery in 1990. One of the graves had been broken into. The corpse was beheaded, the heart was torn out and the legs were broken off. The damage was done 5 years after death.
Mercy wasn't the last one, but is the most famous one. Her desecration got national publicity, all negative, and western Rhode Islanders were known as superstitious and "vicious" by neighboring communities, with the Boston Globe suggesting inbreeding as a cause for the vampire panic.
We checked out her grave recently, as one of our road trips took us into that Rhodey/CT midst. Route 95 goes through there now, and Exeter is a charming bedroom suburb of Providence. You can still see the Old Days if you poke around some.