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On the morning of March 17, , a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. George was absent, for unstated but understandable reasons. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. He died less than two months later. So-called vampires do escape the grave in at least one real sense: through stories.
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First, a reporter from the Providence Journal witnessed her unearthing. One New York World clipping even found its way into the papers of a London stage manager and aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker, whose theater company was touring the United States that same year. His gothic masterpiece, Dracula , was published in On legend trips, Bell is largely an academic presence. Two days before Halloween, Bell and I head through forests of swamp maple and swamp oak to Exeter. For almost a century after Lena died, the town, still sparsely settled, remained remarkably unchanged.
In the s, when I was built, Exeter evolved into an affluent bedroom community of Providence. But visitors still occasionally turn a corner to discover the past: a dirt road cluttered with wild turkeys, or deer hopping over stone fences. Some elderly locals square-dance in barns on the weekends, and streets keep their old names: Sodom Trail, Nooseneck Hill. Our umbrellas bloom inside out, like black flowers.
But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is still in use. And here is Lena. She lies beside the brother who ate her heart, and the father who let it happen. Other markers are freckled with lichen, but not hers. The stone looks to have been recently cleaned. It has been stolen over the years, and now an iron strap anchors it to the earth. People have scratched their names into the granite.
They leave offerings: plastic vampire teeth, cough drops. Some modern scholars have linked the legend to vampiric symptoms of diseases like rabies and porphyria a rare genetic disorder that can cause extreme sensitivity to sunlight and turn teeth reddish-brown. Bell believes that Slavic and Germanic immigrants brought the vampire superstitions with them in the s, perhaps when Palatine Germans colonized Pennsylvania, or Hessian mercenaries served in the Revolutionary War. The first known reference to an American vampire scare is a scolding letter to the editor of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer , published in June But some modern scholars have argued that the vampire superstition made a certain degree of practical sense.
In Vampires, Burials and Death , folklorist Paul Barber dissects the logic behind vampire myths, which he believes originally arose from unschooled but astute observations of decay. The seemingly bizarre vampire beliefs, Barber argues, get at the essence of contagion: the insight that illness begets illness, and death, death. The difference is that we can get out a microscope and look at the agents. Contrary to their Puritanical reputation, rural New Englanders in the s were a fairly heathen lot. Only about 10 percent belonged to a church. Rhode Island, originally founded as a haven for religious dissenters, was particularly lax: Christian missionaries were at various points dispatched there from more godly communities.
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In place of organized worship, superstitions reigned: magical springs with healing powers, dead bodies that bled in the presence of their murderers. People buried shoes by fireplaces, to catch the Devil if he tried to come down the chimney. They nailed horseshoes above doors to ward off evil and carved daisy wheels, a kind of colonial hex sign, into the door frames.
If superstition likely fanned the vampire panics, perhaps the most powerful forces at play were communal and social. By , there were just 17 people per square mile in Exeter. A fifth of the farms were fully abandoned, the fields turning slowly back into forest. As Exeter teetered near collapse, maintaining social ties must have taken on new importance. The strongest testament to the power of the vampire myth is that George Brown did not, in fact, believe in it, according to the Providence Journal. It was he who asked a doctor to perform an autopsy at the graveyard, and he who elected to be elsewhere during the ritual.
Perhaps it was wise to let them have their way, since George Brown, apparently not prone to tuberculosis, had to coexist with his neighbors well into the next century. He died in Relatives of the Browns still live in Exeter and are laid to rest on Chestnut Hill. Some, planning ahead, have erected their grave markers. They bring, swaddled in old sheets, a family treasure: a quilt that Lena sewed. We spread it out on a scarred wooden table.
The cotton bedspread is pink, blue and cream. What look from a distance like large patches of plain brown fabric are really fields of tiny daisies. She is said to frequent a certain bridge, manifested as the smell of roses.
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