The legend of the blood suckers, and the violence heaped upon their corpses, came out of ignorance of contagious disease.
A little more than a century ago, vampires stalked Rhode Island. Or rather, New England farm families were digging up dead relatives suspected of being vampires and desecrating the bodies in a misguided effort to protect the living. Often these latter-day vampire hunters removed and burned their loved ones’ hearts.
Though the corpses were typically re-buried, modern scholars continue to unearth the stories of real-life “vampires,” whose historic tragedies underlie classics like Dracula as well as Hollywood’s latest guilty pleasures.
The practice of disinterring accused vampires likely began in Eastern Europe, spreading to western countries including France and England in the 1700s, and then to rural New England, where vampire panics were common up through the late 1800s – particularly in Rhode Island.
At home and abroad, vampire scares usually began when a person died – often of a contagious disease, and in New England almost always of tuberculosis – and others in the vicinity began dying, too, usually of the same sickness. Ignorant of germs, people surmised that the dead person had come back to drain family members’ blood, and the exhumation and staking, burning, beheading and whatever else followed (practices varied with geography) were an effort to insulate the community against further harm. Often the vampire-hunters were not disappointed when they pried open the graves: many natural signs of decay, like bloating and bleeding from various orifices, looked like evidence of midnight feasts.
Here are a few “vampires” from America and elsewhere, the real lives behind our modern legends.