New Englanders "Killed" Corpses, Experts Say

October 30, 1993 - Desperate to end what they thought were attacks from beyond the grave, New Englanders once unearthed corpses and performed vampire killing rituals, scientists say.  The centuries-old tale of supersticious ritual was unveiled by scientists this week in time for Halloween.

Paul S. Sledzik, curator of the national museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, said on friday that bodies from 18th- and 19th- century New England graves appear to have been dug up within a few months or years of death and then mutilated or disrupted.

Journalists' accounts published as recently as 1893, he said, support the belief that this tampering with corpses was prompted by the idea of "killing" the dead to stop them from sucking the life force from the living.

Dr Sledzik helped analyze corpses from a cemetery near Griswold, CT and found one that clearly bore the signs of ritual mutilation.

The corpse, found in a coffin bearing the initials "J.B.," was found in the Walton family cemetary of Griswold, which had accidently been disturbed in a construction project.

Dr. Sledzik said when he examined J.B., it was clear the remains had been tampered with sometime after the body had decomposed. The skeleton, he said, had been arranged into the familiar symbol of death: the long bones of the upper leg had been placed on the chest as an "X" and were topped by the skull.

In the laboratory, Dr. Sledzik determined that the bones bore lesions from tuberculosis. J.B. also had a hunched and crooked shoulder, a crippled leg and probably a festering wound on his foot. The man also had some missing front teeth.

"In life, J.B. could have been a frightening figure, " said Dr Sledzik. Memories of this scary appearence could have prompted survivors to make sure he was dead by removing the skull.

Dr Sledzik said his research shows such beliefs were common in New England as late as 1892, particularly among families that were often struck with tuberculosis, a disease then called consumption.

"Published vampire accounts place the folklore within the same time frame and location as J.B.," said Dr Sledzik, who added that other researchers have also reported finding mutilated bodies from the era.

"When someone died of consumption, it was believed they could come back from the dead and drain the life of their li ving relative," Dr Sledzik said. "In order to stop this, family members would go into the grave and somehow attempt to kill the person again. If there was still flesh, they would remove it and burn it. Or they would remove the head. In the American tradition, just causing some disruption to the body was the way to kill a vampire."

The stake-through-the-heart approach, he said, was a European tradition not practiced by Americans.

The effects of tuberculosis on the bodies of its victims, when viewed with imagination, supported the folklore beliefs in vampires, he said.

"Consumption is a very physical disease," he said. "People can actually see the person wasting away."

But consumptives would also have great burst of energy and were known for a powerful sex drive, he said, "so it made sense to people then that after death this desire for life would continue and the dead would be able to drain the life force from their relatives."

Dr Sledzik said it was felt that this provided an explanation for new cases of tuberculosis and drove the living to "kill" the dead to guard against more disease.

When people opened the coffins of recently dead consumptives, they found bloated bodies with pale flesh, fingernails that seemed to have grown and, often, blood at the mouth. Dr. Sledzic said there were accounts of bodies jerking and gurgling as the remains were mutilated.

Forensic pathologists now know that all of these effects can be explained by normal decomposition. But in previous centuries, he said, the superstitious who saw their loved ones wasting away from consumption "felt they had to go into the graves and do something to stop the process."

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From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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