How Tuberculosis Inspired the 19th-Century New England Vampire Panic

Jenkins via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jenkins via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On March 19, 1892, the Evening Herald of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania printed a story describing what it called a “horrible superstition.”

A young man named Edwin Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island had been suffering from illness for some time. His mother and eldest sister had died from the same disease, then called “consumption” because of the way its victims wasted away (and now known as tuberculosis). Edwin traveled from Exeter to Colorado Springs—a popular destination due to its dry climate and specialized disease treatment centers—but his health did not improve. While he was away, his sister Mercy also became ill and quickly died.

When Edwin returned home after Mercy’s death, his health declined. His desperate father turned to an old folk belief: When members of the same family waste away from consumption, it could be because one of the deceased was draining the life force of their living relatives.

With a doctor and some neighbors in tow, Edwin and Mercy’s father exhumed the bodies of each family member who had died of the illness. He found skeletons in the graves of his wife and eldest daughter, and a doctor found Mercy’s remains, which had been interred for nine weeks and looked relatively normal in its decay.

However, liquid blood was found in Mercy’s heart and liver. Although the doctor said this was fairly standard and not a sign of the supernatural, the organs were removed and cremated before Mercy was reburied, just in case. But the exhumation and cremation did nothing for Edwin Brown’s disease: He died two months later.

Newspapers were quick to connect these folk rituals with vampire legends, especially those of Eastern Europe. Vampire stories from all over were printed on the front pages of 19th-century New England, describing similar rituals in distant locations. Like the New Englanders, people in remote parts of Europe were exhuming bodies when people fell ill, and burning or planting stakes in those that seemed too full of life.

But the New Englanders who took part in these rituals didn’t necessarily believe there was a supernatural cause of their family members’ illness, as author and folklorist Michael E. Bell writes in his book Food for the Dead. Although some may have harbored beliefs about vampires, many were simply desperate, and unwilling to leave untried any remedy that might save the lives of those they loved—even an outlandish or gruesome method.

Tuberculosis was entrenched in the Americas even before the United States existed as a country. President George Washington himself likely fought the disease after contracting it from his brother—ironically, on a trip taken to Barbados in an attempt to treat Lawrence Washington’s illness, according to medical historian Howard Markel of the University of Michigan.

Washington wasn’t alone. Other notable American sufferers of tuberculosis included James Monroe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, John “Doc” Holliday, and Helen Hunt Jackson.

In 1786, when health officials first began recording mortality rates connected to the deadly infection, Massachusetts alone recorded 300 consumption deaths for every 100,000 residents. Between that year and 1800, tuberculosis killed 2 percent of New England’s population. In many cases, living in the same home was enough for the disease to spread throughout an entire family. It was estimated that anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the U.S. population had latent or active tuberculosis infections.

Today, most people understand that tuberculosis is spread through the air, by breathing in bacteria coughed up by people with active infections in their lungs or throats. There are vaccines, though they’re rarely used in the U.S., and treatments for those who contract active tuberculosis infections.

In the 1800s, however, germ theory was only just beginning to gain supporters among the medical community. Doctors were still arguing over the causes of tuberculosis in 1895, and treatment mainly consisted of leaving large cities like New York and Boston, where the disease ran rampant, for places like Pasadena, California and Colorado Springs, where the climate was supposed to help ease the symptoms. Until the rise of the sanatoria movement (basically, rest-oriented treatment centers) at the end of the 19th century, few medical treatments worked. Even sanatoria only helped some patients.

As tuberculosis spread from the cities out into the countryside, people didn’t know what caused it or how to stop it. In some New England towns, such as Lynn, Massachusetts, it was the leading cause of death, Bell says. Entire families were wiped out, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who caught the illness.

It was not a pleasant way to die. Symptoms included wasting, night sweats, and fatigue, and a persistent cough that sometimes produced white phlegm or foamy blood. Occasionally, the cough turned into hemorrhaging. Those who caught it could not know if they would eventually recover, painfully waste away over the course of years, or die in a matter of months from the “galloping” form of the disease. If they did recover, there was always the fear that the illness would return.

“Cholera, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, influenza, and measles were fast-burning epidemics that appeared, killed, and then went dormant as immunities kicked in,” Bell says. Tuberculosis did not. It was an unrelenting fact of life in the 1800s. With no other explanations, people turned to the supernatural to understand the epidemic, and to offer hope of a cure.

Enter the vampire.

The vampire legend may have made its way into New England as an early version of the unproven “miracle cure” for tuberculosis. In 1784, a newspaper published a letter about a foreign “quack doctor” who had been spreading an unusual cure for consumption. According to the letter, when a third member of the Willington, Connecticut family of Isaac Johnson contracted the disease, the quack doctor advised him to dig up two family members who had already died of the illness. The bodies were inspected for any sprouting plants, and the letter writer—who said he was an eyewitness—reported that sorrel was found. The doctor advised the Johnson family to burn the sorrel with the vital organs to remove sickness from his family, an idea the letter-writer called an imposture.

But those who had lost multiple loved ones, and faced losing more, were willing to try anyway.

Anthropologist George R. Stetson later connected the New England beliefs to similar rituals from Russia, Hungary, Prussia, and Serbia, as well as other parts of Europe, ancient Greece and the Caribbean. In his 1896 article The Animistic Vampire in New England, Stetson described the case of one unnamed mason who credited his own health to the ritual. The man had two brothers who had contracted tuberculosis. When the first died, a respected member of the community suggested the family burn his vital organs to save the second brother. The second brother protested and the ritual wasn't done; he continued to sicken and die. When the mason got sick, the second brother was exhumed, and “living blood” was found. A cremation was held (it’s unclear if it was just the blood or the full body that was burned), and the mason soon recovered.

New England vampires were not the supernatural revenants of novels like Dracula, who rose from the dead as walking corpses to drain blood from the living, Bell told mental_floss. Instead, they were believed to drain the life force of their loved ones through some spiritual connection that continued even after death.

“The ‘vampires’ in the New England tradition were not the reanimated corpses, bodily leaving their graves to suck the blood of living relatives, that we know from European folklore, filtered through Gothic literature and popular culture,” Bell says. “New England’s ‘microbes with fangs’ (as one medical practitioner recently termed them) were, however, just as fearful and deadly as the fictional Dracula.”

If a body was exhumed and liquid blood could be found, or it seemed to be far better preserved than expected, one of a number of rituals were performed, including burning the corpse (and sometimes inhaling the smoke); rearranging the corpse or turning it upside down and reburying it; or burning vital organs like the heart and liver. Occasionally, Bell says, the ashes were consumed by family members afflicted with tuberculosis.

One of the more remarkable cases Bell has discovered is that of the Rev. Justus Forward and his daughter Mercy (no relation to Mercy Brown). In 1788, the minister had already lost three daughters to consumption; Mercy and another sister were fighting the illness. As Mercy Forward traveled to a neighboring town with her father one day, she began to hemorrhage.

Forward was reluctant to try opening the graves of his deceased family members, but allowed himself to be convinced, willing to do anything to save his daughter. His mother-in-law’s grave was opened first, without result. However, he soon found a grave that fit the requirements. Bell relays a portion of a letter written by Forward:

“Since I had begun to search, I concluded to search further ... and this morning opened the grave of my daughter ... who had died—the last of my three daughters—almost six years ago ... On opening the body, the lungs were not dissolved, but had blood in them, though not fresh, but clotted. The lungs did not appear as we would suppose they would in a body just dead, but far nearer a state of soundness than could be expected. The liver, I am told, was as sound as the lungs. We put the lungs and liver in a separate box, and buried it in the same grave, ten inches or a foot, above the coffin.”

The act didn’t save Mercy, Bell says, but Forward’s other children seemed to recover. And the willingness of Forward and his family to attempt the ritual impartially helped to relieve fear in his community, Bell notes: “He ultimately authorized a ritual that, in effect, reestablished social stability, essentially proclaiming that the dead were, indeed, dead once again.”

There were other cases, too:

At the end of the 19th century, Daniel Ransom wrote in his memoirs about his brother Frederick, a Dartmouth College student who died of tuberculosis in 1817. The boys’ father worried that Frederick would feed on the rest of the family, and had Frederick exhumed and his heart burned at a blacksmith’s forge. The cure didn’t work, however, and Daniel Ransom lost his mother and three siblings over the next several years.

In the 1850s, Henry Ray of Jewett City, Connecticut dug up the bodies of his brothers and had them burned when he, too, contracted tuberculosis. In a nearby case, a grave belonging to someone known only as “J.B.” was broken into—possibly by family members or friends, who often conducted the rituals—and the skeletal remains were rearranged into a skull and crossbones shape. Researchers speculate that it might have been done to stop J.B. from becoming a vampire, or because he was blamed for a living person’s illness.

Henry David Thoreau wrote of another case in his journal in September 1859: “The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont—who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”

These tales found their way into newspapers throughout the U.S., along with European tales of vampires, werewolves, and witches, reflecting the late 19th century’s fascination with the afterlife and the supernatural. Such stories from New England may even have inspired Bram Stoker’s story of Dracula.

The rituals continued until Mercy Brown’s exhumation in 1892, 10 years after Robert Koch discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis. Eventually, germ theory began to take hold, and contagion was better understood. Infection rates began to go down as hygiene and nutrition improved.

But until then, people were often willing to cling to any chance for themselves and their loved ones under the “gnawing sense of hopelessness” those with the disease lived with, Bell says:

“In short, for the pragmatic Yankee, the bottom line was, ‘What do I have to do to stop this scourge?’ The ritual was a folk remedy rather than an elaborated detailed belief system."

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

How to Make Wearing a Face Mask More Comfortable During the Warm, Sweaty Summer Months

Cloth face masks can make for a sweaty summer.
Cloth face masks can make for a sweaty summer.
elladoro/iStock via Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge the world’s population to rethink everyday behaviors, it seems likely people will continue to practice both social distancing and the use of a cloth face mask throughout the summer. (Cloth masks can’t stop infectious particles from entering the nose and mouth, but they can reduce the spread of respiratory droplets by wearers.)

Once tolerable, these masks might grow to be uncomfortable as temperatures rise and the fabric begins to trap heat. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to minimize discomfort.

According to health experts who spoke to writer Nick Vadala of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the best strategy for a heat-friendly face mask is to opt for a 100 percent cotton fabric. Polyester and other synthetic materials can trap heat, causing wearers to build up sweat and moisture around their face quickly.

You’ll want to avoid any kind of filter, which are also synthetic and make breathing more difficult.

Snug masks can also be harder to tolerate when it’s warm out. To adjust the fit, it’s better to use a mask that has ties rather than elastic straps, which can irritate the ears.

The biggest adjustment wearers may have to make in adhering to mask recommendations in the summer is to carry more than one. As masks get damp from sweat, they’ll need to be switched out for a dry one. You’ll want to be sure to do that only after washing or sanitizing your hands and making the switch away from other people.

Despite your best efforts, skin irritation might persist. It’s a good idea to use moisturizer to heal skin affected by trapped heat and moisture.

[h/t The Philadelphia Inquirer]