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Among the Undead in Woodstock

  • (Shawn Braley illustration)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, July 09, 2018

By modern-day standards, 20-year-old Frederick Ransom was dead to begin with.

But when someone died of tuberculosis in 1817, one could never be too careful. Before modern medicine shed light on the idea of contagion, even doctors in Woodstock thought that a string of deaths within a household could be due to a vampire in the family, who would return from the grave to feast on the lives of their kin.

Ransom’s brother, Daniel, was only 3 years old at the time of Frederick’s death. But he would recall for the rest of his life how much it frightened him when a local physician, Dr. Frost, paid a visit to their home — it seems that more than he remembered Frederick, Daniel remembered “keeping shy of the Doctor, fearing he would freeze me,” he wrote some 80 years later in his memoir, an excerpt of which was provided by the Woodstock History Center’s education coordinator, Jennie Shurtleff.

Had Daniel known what was coming, he might have feared being burned instead. The antidote for vampirism was thought to lie in a cauldron over a flame.

These exorcisms involved exhuming the suspected vampire from their grave, and examining the corpse for symptoms of being undead: bloating, blood around the mouth, blood in the heart or liver, hair and nails that continued to grow after death. To protect others in the family from the same fate, the blood-filled organs of the dead were to be burned down to cinders, and often consumed in some way — eaten, imbibed or inhaled — by their relatives.

Ransom’s father figured it might be wise to take precautions. So the Dartmouth College student was disinterred, his consumptive heart cut out of his body and burned in a blacksmith’s forge on the Woodstock Village Green.

“However, it did not prove a remedy,” Daniel Ransom wrote, “for mother, sister, and two brothers died with that disease afterward.”

Tuberculosis has existed since ancient times, but was in Ransom’s day called consumption, for the way it seems to eat away at a person’s body, leaving them wasted and pallid. Today, we know that the airborne disease is caused by breathing in the rod-shaped bacillus bacteria, which spread through the lungs and form nodules that the Encyclopedia Brittanica characterizes with the unfortunate descriptor of “cheeselike.” These masses may create cavities in the lungs and will eventually destroy the respiratory tissue, a death that sometimes takes years.

Late in the 19th century, doctors would begin to prescribe certain climates for tubercular patients— clean air, fresh air, mountain air, desert air, ocean air — and sanitariums opened throughout the United States and Europe as treatment facilities for those who could afford them. In 1882, the German pathologist Robert Koch would discover the microbe that causes the illness, Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Half a century passed before drugs were discovered that could treat TB. The first cure, an antibiotic compound called streptomycin, would be discovered in the early 1940s, and in the 1950s would become widely available in the Western world, eliminating tuberculosis as the death sentence and public health menace it once was.

But of course, the microscopic processes of the body were invisible to the townspeople of Woodstock in the early 19th century. What they could see was the blood — bright red spots of it that would bloom into the victims’ handkerchief or pillowcase when they coughed — and the deadliness of the disease, which killed one in seven people in the United States at the time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of those infected would die.

Outbreaks started in colonial New England around the 1730s, and by the 1800s had become a bloody stain on the collective imagination: If there was indeed something consuming the settlers, its appetite seemed bottomless. The ceremonial burning of Frederick Ransom’s heart was one of many similar exorcisms that took place during the New England vampire panic, the best known of which might have been that of Mercy Lena Brown, in Exeter, R.I.

According to the folklorist Michael Bell, who wrote Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, these affairs were often held in secret, under cloak of darkness and glow of lantern — but in Vermont, they tended to be more public events, sometimes even convivial ones. Bell’s book states that town selectmen and other community leaders would often preside over or even perform the ceremonies, which could draw crowds of 100 or more.

Like the existence of vampires themselves, some of these ceremonies have been difficult to verify, the truth having been tweaked and embellished by tellings and retellings over time. But Frederick Ransom has not been the only suspected vampire to plague the people of Woodstock.

In 1830, another exorcism of a tuberculosis victim — this one a young man in the Corwin family — is said to have taken place, also on the village green. The exorcism story, supposedly an eyewitness account from an old woman who was present at the ceremony as a girl, first appeared in the Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1889, and in 1890 was reprinted in The Vermont Standard.

Six months after Corwin died, his brother started showing the telltale signs of consumption. So the dead man was dug up from his grave in Cushing Cemetery, about a mile outside the town center on Old River Road, his heart found “undecayed, and containing liquid blood.” Physicians in Woodstock — including the founders of the Vermont Medical College — agreed that this was a case of “assured vampirism,” the article states.

The exorcism supposedly drew “a large concourse of people,” including such prominent townspeople as Norman Williams (for whom the town library is named), and other “old men of renown, sound minded fathers among the community, discreet careful men,” the story goes.

Into the cauldron the bloody heart went, “until it was no more than ashes,” Shurtleff said. After the townspeople were satisfied with the obliterated condition of the organ, they placed it 15 feet deep in the ground, and covered it with a seven-ton block of granite from the Knox Ledge, a nearby quarry on the hill behind Lincoln Street.

They filled the remaining hole back up with earth. Then, to be safe, they sprinkled the granite-sealed grave with more blood — this coming from a bullock, or young castrated bull.

These exorcism traditions did not spring from nowhere — the relationship between burned cardiovascular tissue and consumption also played out on the 19th-century American frontier, where eating a fried rattlesnake heart was regarded as a cure for the disease — and in fact are rooted in medieval times, such as the bullock blood from the Corwin story, which harkens back to a time when the colonist’s ancestors would spill the blood of a sacrificed animal as a rite of purification.

And so when the bullock blood soaked into the earth over Corwin’s grave, the townspeople thought that was that. Except it wasn’t, Shurtleff said. Not quite.

“A few years later, a group of people, having heard about the burial of the heart, decided to dig it up — and got scared off,” Shurtleff said. “Rock, pot, ashes and all had disappeared.”

The 1890 Vermont Standard story, adding on to the original journal article, reported that the hooligans had had a brush with hell: “They heard a roaring noise, however, as of some great conflagration, going on in the bowels of the earth, and a smell of sulphur began to fill the cavity, whereupon, in some alarm they hurried to the surface, filled up the hole again, and went their way. It is reported that considerable disturbance took place on the surface of the ground for several days, where the hole had been dug, some rumblings and shaking of the earth, and some smoke was emitted.”

Shurtleff is quick to point out that none of this — not Corwin, not the woman, not the ritual proceedings and certainly not the underground conflagration — should be taken at face value.

“We’ve done some research,” Shurtleff said. “We are unable to verify any of the facts.” There is no Corwin grave in Cushing Cemetery, at least not one that this reporter — or other investigators — have been able to find. Based on town records, Shurtleff can’t be sure the man even existed. The article’s writer does not provide the old woman’s name, or any other evidence to corroborate the story, and Shurtleff suspects that the account reflects an alchemy of misremembered details, fiction and the dramatic enhancements of time.

But it is a compelling tale nonetheless, one whose longevity illustrates the human impulse to understand the most ghastly of natural mysteries, and from where, in our desperation, we may cobble together our most satisfying explanations. In her book Our Vampires, Ourselves, scholar Nina Auerbach writes, “Every age embraces the vampire it needs.”

Every age and also, Auerbach notes, many cultures. In Greek mythology, the demigoddess Empusa seduced young men in order to drink their blood and feast on their flesh. An undead Old Norse creature called a draugr, who could change size and who smelled of decay, also stalked and fed on the living. In India, there’s lore of a vampire who feeds specifically on the livers of its victims. A vampire in Japan dines on infants.

Perhaps it can be easier to believe in the supernatural than it is to accept having so little control over the human body, the human life.

“Where medical science failed, folklore took over,” said the paranormal investigator Thomas D’Agostino in a 2010 Standard story that revisited the Woodstock vampire history, which received a mention in D’Agostino’s then-recent book. It seems that, with scientific understanding of disease lying years into the future, the townspeople of Woodstock looked, instead, to the past.

Put another way: Even if we know all we will ever know about the suspected vampirism in Woodstock — and the precautions taken against that vampirism — they make for good stories. And good stories can tell their own kind of truth.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.