FOOD FOR THE DEAD by Michael E. Bell


On the Trail of New England’s Vampires
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Eerily interesting exploration of the 18th- and 19th-century New England folk custom of digging up and burning recently deceased family members to ensure they weren’t vampires.

Consumption, as tuberculosis was then called, posed a major public-health threat in early America. Entire families were often afflicted, and because most people understood little about how the disease spread, some believed that the dead were feeding off live relatives and causing their deaths. Unlike the familiar vampires of popular literature, these creatures were not roaming the countryside at night looking for victims, but rather somehow drawing life from within the grave. The only way to tell if a person was a vampire, folk wisdom asserted, was to exhume the body and see if the heart still contained blood. If so, it would be burned along with other vital organs; sometimes, the ashes were given to the sick family members as a curative. Drawing on newspaper clippings and other contemporary accounts, folklorist Bell describes several of these burnings. Additionally, he gently extracts stories from the supposed vampires’ descendants, understandably reluctant to discuss the incidents for fear their ancestors will be misunderstood. The author is best at playing detective, fleshing out the stories piece by piece, searching death records and cemeteries for evidence. Though he does not convincingly trace the origins of the practice in Europe, and the stories he tells are sometimes needlessly repetitive, he does make some interesting points. For example, Rhode Island and Vermont were both colonized primarily by Freethinkers who did not belong to a formal church and were so spread out and isolated that rumors and superstition quickly took hold.

Bell goes beyond the Dracula stereotype to unearth a creepy aspect of early America that few today remember. (8 pages black-and-white photos)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7867-0899-9
Page count: 320pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2001