​The Terror by Night

In October of 2018 The Washington Post ran an article titled “Archaeologists find ‘vampire burial’ site of a child feared capable of rising from the dead” the Articled went on to detail a strange burial ritual they have come to be familiar with in the field. More than fifteen hundred years ago, in a vast Roman villa a young child was buried with a stone the size of an egg in their mouth. Researchers speculate the child likely died from a Malaria outbreak at the time. The reason, it turned out, was a custom among Europeans at the time, to stop the child from rising from the dead to spread the disease to others. Another child, a three-year-old girl was found not far from there with stones weighing down all limbs. Locals dubbed the find “the Vampire of Lugnano” and a quote from an archeologist working the site stated, “beyond these bizarre discoveries were human beings who lived in fear” The question is, fear from what?
Many, familiar only with the sparkling erotica of the Hollywood Vampire craze might be perplexed to hear of a Vampire being dispatched with stones. In fact, the Vampire of folklore could be destroyed many ways. A popular method was to drive an iron stake through the suspects head. Our ancestors viewed things with a spiritual or otherworldly sense, much like the vampires themselves. Some materials possessed properties that were purer than others, metal being at the top of the list, in fact the more pure or rare the metal, the better it seemed to work against the undead. This is where the idea of a silver bullet should be used to kill a Werewolf comes from. They used Iron because it was more abundant, and not many simple peasants could afford a silver stake.
Most often however, the measures taken to destroy a Vampire were preventative, people suspected of being vampires would have stones heaped up on their legs or in their mouth to prevent them from taking their midnight strolls. People would place scythes around the corpse neck so that if it moved, it would cut its own head off. If the matter was dire though, the head would be removed before burial and placed in the corpse lap. Those who wished to take no chances would burn the suspected Vampire to ash and scatter it to the wind.

The Vampire is not a new concept by any means, civilizations as old as the Hebrews spoke of demon by the name of Alukah that would suck the life blood of a man. No less than the dead sea scrolls lists Lilith among the monsters of note, draining her victims of their vitality. The Seven Udugs of Sumerian mythology would roam the earth at noon and midnight shooting arrows of sickness harkening back to psalm 91:5-6  Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. These were but seeds that would grow and germinate with Bram Stokers half historic Wallachian Prince.
You don’t have to go half way around the world to see the grave of a vampire though, The United States has its own Transylvania in the shape of its smallest state, Rhode Island. Just twenty minutes outside of Warwick in the small hamlet of Exeter over two hundred years ago, Stukeley Tillinghast had a dream.
Stukeley was an industrious and hardworking farmer, known around the town for his good sense, fair dealings, and prudent nature. He married a beautiful woman and settled down to the life of a gentleman farmer. As time passed Stukeley’s farm and family grew. His wife produced no less than fourteen children and Stukeley for his part increased his land holdings to one of the largest in the area and at the turn of the century was doing quite well for himself.
It was then that he dreamed that half the trees in his orchard withering and dying. Uncertain of the dreams portent and disturb as to what this might mean he worried to no end… But he did not have to wait long to find out. His eldest, a daughter by the name of Sarah, took ill with Galloping Consumption, a form of tuberculous which moves quickly, killing its victim within months. Sarah died shortly after contracting the disease and was buried in the family plot. Though this horrible loss was behind him, Stukeley knew there was more in store, his dream had told him so. Soon another daughter, Ruth, fell ill with the same rapid deterioration only this time a new symptom arose. Ruth complained that every night Sarah would return and sit on different portions of her sisters’ body, crushing them and causing immense pain. After every visit Ruth would worsen until she too joined her sister in the grave. It wasn’t long before two more of Stukeley’s children were stricken with the wasting disease and passed, both complaining of Sarah’s visitations. It was only when his wife Honor fell ill that Stukeley was finally moved to act. Four of his children lay dead, another son was soon to join them, and now his wife. He was desperate and at his wits end. So he did what his ancestors had done, what his neighbors were no doubt pleading for him to do. He summoned a town council who took little time in judging they must exhume the bodies of the dead children after which their hearts were to be cut from their chest and burned on a stone before the Tillinghast house. Upon disinterment of the bodies, three were found to be in a normal state of decomposition. The first to have died however, Sarah, was remarkably well persevered, her nails and hair had continued to grow, her eyes open and in a fixed stare and her heart and arteries were found to still have fresh blood in them. It was clear to all present what had afflicted the house of Tillinghast. They cut out her heart, brought it to a nearby rock, and solemnly burned it. The bodies to returned to their respective graves and the White Death ceased to plague the Tillinghast household.
Stukeley’s wife immediately began to get better, but his son was too far gone, he died shortly after the exhumations.
To many this may seem like the sad experiences of poor uneducated peasants from the days before the advent of modern medicine and the understanding of disease containment. Torn apart by grief and loss they must have searched for explanation and understanding anywhere they could. Yet it is odd they would look to the preternatural for answers when the divine was always at hand. Folk medicine certainly ran rampant in colonial days and people whipped up strange cures, horse manure being one of them. Yet listeners might be surprised to find that people as early as the 14th century understood the spread of the black death to have something to do with human contact, this is evident during the outbreak in Europe during that time, in which Poland closed off its boarders. While an estimated half of Europe died around them, Poland remained relatively unscathed. More surprising is that many of the strange cures had precedent, people used them because they worked. But to our ancestors Vampires were a deadly game. You have to understand Vampires in history and folklore where not some strange noble from far away castle, they were almost always your brother, your sister, your neighbor. To our ancestors the Vampire was often a very personal affair.
You see, the legend of the Vampire grew out of the minds of Christian communities of the Europe, and more defiantly defined, and treated as a demonic entity possessing the dead body of an unbaptized or unrepentant sinner. Often those accused of witchcraft were burned because if they were buried, they would likely become Vampires. The plague of their sin could survive death, and in so doing became a catalyst for a different kind of plague. The symbolism is clear and not hard to nail down, in the resurrection of the dead the demon openly mocked the resurrection of Christ. To accompany this, belief then, as now in the Orthodox Christian community, there is a demon or demonic force behind every disease, just as Roman Catholics profess the belief that there is a demon behind each sin. The Vampire fused both beliefs into a new horror the world had not seen before. Unlike the erotic pop culture icon of today, the Vampire was a horrible, disgusting, creeping thing, that loathed all existence, most of all its own. And would spread death and disease to all in the community.
An example of this comes to us from William of Newburgh was a historian of the 12th century who is praised today for his impartial recounting of the dispute between King Henry 2nd and the Archbishop of Canterbury. William seems to have also had an interest in warning his readers about the terrifying creatures that stalked England in those days. He marks a story from Yorkshire, of a wicked man who got in some kind of trouble with the law which caused him to move to Castle Anantis. He did not seem to learn from his mistakes however, because after marrying he subsequently died while injuring himself in the attempt of trying to catch his wife in adultery. William notes the man died without repentance yet was given a Christian burial. This did little good however, as soon after the man returned from the grave and roamed the streets pursued by a pack of dogs, poisoning the very air of the town, until in every house death reigned from the monster’s putrid breath. As the plague spread many began to flee the town and out of despair and confusion the Parish priest called a council to discuss how to best deal with the evil in their mist.
While old men talked, young men took action. Two brothers who had lost their father to the creature were out for revenge, they grabbed a spade and sulked to the graveyard, for they knew what action might be taken to rid them of this horror. They dug up the shallow grave and found before them a terrible sight. They found the body was bloated beyond belief, its clothes were a tangle and torn bits of rages and blood. In a fit of rage one brother struck the corpse with a spade. An vast amount of blood began to spout forth from the wound leading them to believe the creature had stuffed itself by the blood of their many dead friends and neighbors. They then dragged the corpse outside the city, removed its heart, cut it into tiny pieces, and burned both heart and body on a great pyre.
William notes two things after. The brothers reported their grisly deed to the council, who took no reprisals for their action. He also notes that after the Vampires destruction the plague ceased in the town. As if the very air had been purified in the flame.
Another roving corpse comes to us from the pages of Walter Map, also from the 12th century. In his work he describes a young military man by the name of William Laudun who wrote an appeal to the Bishop of Hereford asking for assistance in dealing with a deceased house guessed who returned nightly to torment the home. Each night he would stand outside the house and shout the name of an occupant three times. The person named will fall sick and die within three days. It was found the deceased had been an Atheist and died outside the church, the bishop surmised that by some intervention, the devil had taken possession of the undead corpse, giving it its supernatural proclivity. The Bishop instructed to disinter the corpse, cut its neck and sprinkle holy water on and around the grave. William did as instructed and reburied the corpse, but it was for not. The monster continued to torment the inhabitants of the house until one night, William heard his own name called. In a mad frenzy he grabbed his sword, rushed after the monster and swiftly cut off its head, after which the nightly attacks ceased.

               The peasants of the 12th century knew of the plague, they knew its devastation of a community, the corruption of the body, the horrible death it induced. They knew a suffering and fear far more horrible than most of us could ever understand today. They faced it in their daily lives. Was the Vampire merely a biproduct of this fear? Or fear a biproduct of it. Our forefathers saw man as a dual being, part spirit, part animal, with a foot in both worlds. Evil, like the disease they faced, was a real and palpable thing and it was born of men’s actions in life and paid for in their death. For them, to make the jump to a corpse being possessed and returning from the grave was not a hard leap of faith. Should we disparage their fear and say they were fouls?
               In the aftermath of the Tillinghast Vampire, the rest of the family moved on. Stukeley lived to a ripe old age of eighty-five. He and his wife Honor lost five children to the clutches of the undead. But he was not the only Tillinghast to have slain that creature of the night and it is often wondered by folklorists if Mary Tillinghast listened at her grandfather, Amos, knee to the stories of how as a young man his father had stopped a vampire epidemic from destroying his family by exhuming the corpses of his siblings and burning their hearts. For when Mary’s step-daughter fell ill and died, her husband William Rose, a prominent man of Exeter, shortly after dug up her body, cut out and burned the heart. One might easily imagine then, that when a daughter of Williams neighbor, a Mr. George Brown, fell ill and died, William likely advised him that the only way to halt the death of his son was to exhume his family and find the vampire that was feeding upon them.
               Listeners might already be familiar with the Vampire case of Mercy Brown as it is the best documented case of Vampirism in the United States and has been covered many times, but for those not familiar I will recount it here.
               George Brown was a well to do farmer of Exeter, RI. But like many of that time, consumption ravaged the world around him. In the late 19th century more than 25% of deaths in New England were attributed to Tuberculosis. The Brown family faired no better, in 1883 Georges wife Mary Eliza died from consumption followed by his eldest daughter Mary Olive only seven months later. He was granted a short reprieve from the destruction of his family, but less than a decade later, his son Edwin and younger daughter Mercy both became ill. Edwin was sent to Colorado Springs in the hopes of a cure, while Mercy stayed behind and slowly died. Edwin returned home, knowing he did not have long to live and not wanting to die in a strange place far from home. Mercy died not long after his return. It was then that the community took action and pleaded with George that the only means by which to save his son was supernatural. Not wishing to take part in the grizzly ritual himself, members of the community called upon a medical Examiner by the name of Harold Metcalf and then got down to work.
               After digging up first his wife and eldest daughter and finding them in a normal state of decomposition, the team then moved to Mercy who, it was found, still looked ruddy, with her hair and nails grown, but the most telling, was the blood that still flowed in her heart. The townsfolk had found their Vampire.
               The good doctor protested that because the body had been stored during the winter and then buried in the spring thaw, the delay in her decomposition was normal and nothing about her was unusual. The men paid him no mind, and promptly cut out her heart and liver, burned it on a nearby stone. They then took the ashes and mixed it in a tonic for Edwin to drink, in the vain hope this might inoculate him from the Vampires clammy embrace. All was for naught though, and Edwin died two months later, leaving his father utterly alone. R
               The sad story of the Brown family is all too familiar to those who would discount the Vampire as myth, man before the advent of modern medicine fumbled in the dark for hope often finding only despair. They end it at that, a misinterpretation of decomposition, a lack of understanding about disease, and the myth of the Vampire is slain upon the alter of modern science.
               Those who would be quick to do so however might take note the words of Reuben Brown, a decedent of George and Mercy. In 1984, the eighty-seven-year-old Reuben was likely the last living witness to those who partook in a Vampire slaying. His words, strange and forgotten, are rarely noted in Mercy’s clean-cut case of pre-modern misunderstanding and ring hollow their judgement. He said that all who grew sick and died in the Mercy Brown case had marks on their throats, though nobody knew how they got there, Reuben also noted that after her interment Mercy’s body had mysteriously shifted and most notably, he marked that the mysterious deaths by consumption ceased after the slaying had taken place. He stressed, in his own words “My father believed she was a Vampire, he said all those girls had a mark on their throat when they died.”

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