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Food for the Dead

On the Trail of New England's Vampires

Michael E. Bell

Publication Year: 2011

For nineteenth-century New Englanders, "vampires" lurked behind tuberculosis. To try to rid their houses and communities from the scourge of the wasting disease, families sometimes relied on folk practices, including exhuming and consuming the bodies of the deceased. Author and folklorist Michael E. Bell spent twenty years pursuing stories of the vampire in New England. While writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Henry David Thoreau, and Amy Lowell drew on portions of these stories in their writings, Bell brings the actual practices to light for the first time. He shows that the belief in vampires was widespread, and, for some families, lasted well into the twentieth century. With humor, insight, and sympathy, he uncovers story upon story of dying men, women, and children who believed they were food for the dead. This Wesleyan paperback edition includes an extensive preface by the author unveiling some of the new cases he's learned about since Food for the Dead was first published in 2001.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface to the Wesleyan paperback edition

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pp. ix-xxxviii

Vampire. One word, so many images, from Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker's Count Dracula, dressed in tuxedo and cape with hair slicked back, pallid face, prominent canine teeth protruding, to Robert Pattinson as the young, dark, and handsome Edward Cullen of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. But ...

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pp. xxxix-xl

Over the twenty years that I have been following the vampire trail in New England, I have received the kind assistance of many individuals and organizations. I would like to thank the interns who worked with me and the Rhode Island Folklife Project: Joe Carroll, James Clements, ...

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pp. xli-xliii

Folklorists, like vampires, are doomed to a dual existence. Vampires are both dead and alive; folklorists are both participants and observers. I was introduced to this dualism in the classroom of the late Wayland Hand, the personification of a gentleman and scholar. Impeccably attired in a jacket and tie, he ...

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1. This Awful Thing

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pp. 1-17

I hated to admit, even to myself, that I was excited by the prospect of interviewing Lewis Everett Peck, an Exeter, Rhode Island, farmer and descendent of Mercy Brown, who was probably the last person exhumed as a vampire in America. By 1981, I had been a folklorist for more than a decade and had ...

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2. Testing a Horrible Superstition

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pp. 18-38

With this front-page headline the Providence Journal introduced the Brown family to the world on Saturday, March 19, 1892.The melodrama didn't surprise me. Nor was I surprised, after reading the article following my interview with Everett, that the newspaper questioned the cultural refinement of those who exhumed ...

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3. Remarkable Happenings

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pp. 39-57

Sylvia Tory lived alone in a small CabIll. deep in the Ministerial Woods. The former slave was a "sibyl or fortune-teller or prophetess or spirit-medium or witch, just as one's fancy might call her," according to "Shepherd Tom" Hazard. The irony of an African-American fortune-teller living ...

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4. The Cause of Their Trouble Lay There Before Them

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pp. 58-80

A disembodied voice found its way through a wall of vegetation framed by laurel and swamp maples. "I can't see anything!" Standing on the edge of Mooresfield Road, I shouted, "Come on out!" Brian Hokeness, my intern in the Summer of 1994, emerged from the thick underbrush. He was ...

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5. I Am Waiting and Watching For You

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pp. 81-108

This inscription-provocative to some, conventional to others-appears at the bottom of a gravestone that was located in the cemetery behind the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. Incised above the inscription, the following information seems mundane by ...

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6. I Thought For Sure They Were Coming After Me

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pp. 109-133

The day was tailor-made for a trip to the grave of a vampire. A cold, steady drizzle made it seem more like March, without the wind, than early May. Mary-Lou, my administrative assistant, and I packed up the cameras, film, tape recorder, audiotape, and spare batteries, and headed straight west from ...

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7. Don't Be a Rational Adult

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pp. 134-155

What is scarier than a vampire? A ghost? A poltergeist? For someone on the trail of a legend, it would be a FOAF Just as the worst nightmare for an inquiring citizen is the bureaucratic buck passed in perpetual motion, it is the "friend of a friend" that strikes terror in the heart of a ...

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8. Never Strangers True Vampires Be

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pp. 156-177

This one burial was really weird," the voice';'1: "the other end of the phone was saying. "It looks like this guy was buried long enough to decompose, dug up, some of his parts were rearranged ... and then he was buried again." The voice belonged to Nick Bellantoni, Connecticut State ...

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9. Ghoulish, Wolfish Shapes

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pp. 178-201

Colonial houses on Providence's Benefit Street are like casseroles at a church supper: too much of a good thing. Yet, the yellow colonial house across the street from my office attracts attention. The door, at street level, opens directly into a stone-lined cellar. Since the house is set gable end to the ...

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10. The Unending River of Life

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pp. 202-225

With the assistance of Jane Beck, Director of the Vermont Folldife Center, I found a more detailed description of the vampire case mentioned in the 1889 issue of the Journal of American Folklore (JAF)-the incident that I concluded Amy Lowell had used as the basis for her poem, "A Dracula of the ...

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11. Relicks of Many Old Customs

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pp. 226-251

Rachel Burton. Frederick Ransom. Lemuel and Elisha Ray. Nancy Young. Sarah Tillinghast. Ruth Ellen Rose. Mercy Brown. Were these and other individuals whose corpses were exhumed in New England, actually vampires Close your eyes and imagine a vampire. What do...

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12. A Ghoul in Every Deserted Fireplace

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pp. 252-278

I enjoy getting phone calls from colleagues who say'things like, "I've found something that I think might interest you." Robert Mathiesen, a Brown University professor, delivered just this message following a lecture I gave, in 1999, on the New England vampire tradition. During my presentation, I showed a ...

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13. Is That True of All Vampires?

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pp. 279-295

March 15, 1995. I turned on the TV in time to hear the host of a show ask, "Could these strange ritual burials reveal an American cult of vampires?" Several months before, the show's producers had contacted me and requested an interview. I asked about the nature of the program, who else ...

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14. Food for the Dead

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pp. 296-303

In the vast stretch of human history before the twentieth century, disease was an accepted part of life, ever-present and endured. In a momentous turnaround, almost everyone alive today in Western industrial states was brought up believing in the inevitable conquest of disease. After all, hadn't vaccines, ...


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p. 305-305


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pp. 306-322

Works Cited

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pp. 323-331


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pp. 332-337

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About the Author

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p. 339-339

Michael E. Bell received his Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University, Bloomington; his dissertation topic was African American voodoo practices. He has an M.A. in Folklore and Mythology from the University of California at Los Angeles, and a B.A. in Anthropology and ...


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pp. 340-347

E-ISBN-13: 9780819571717
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819571700

Page Count: 390
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Folklore -- New England.
  • Vampires -- New England -- Folklore.
  • Diseases and history.
  • Tuberculosis -- New England -- History.
  • New England -- History.
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