March 8: A Fearful and Spreading Disease? Or An Attack by Vampires?

 

Today in 1845, 24-year-old Lemuel Ray died in Jewett City, a borough in the rural Eastern Connecticut town of Griswold. The young man, one of several children born to the Ray family, had died from tuberculosis, a disease then commonly known as “consumption” because of the way its victims would lose weight and become paler and weaker over time. Over the next six years, the family patriarch and another son also wasted away and then died from the disease. When a third son, Henry Nelson Ray, started wasting away from the disease in 1854, the Ray family became convinced that their deceased relatives had become vampires, and had returned from the dead to slowly drain the life from their living brethren.

Before the discovery of germ theory in the last decades of the 19th century, people in modernizing societies came up with a variety of explanations for the spread of disease that ranged from practical to supernatural. In the former Puritan stronghold of New England, the latter sort of explanation often won out, especially among rural populations with limited access to contemporary education and healthcare. The concept of vampire attacks was not as bizarre to them as it might sound to modern ears;. Unlike the quasi-romantic “fantasy” vampires of 20th century fiction, their “folkloric” vampires were believed to be a supernatural phenomenon, as real to some New Englanders as angels and demons. The symptoms of tuberculosis in particular — with consumption sufferers slowly becoming more weak and pale — seemed to lend credence to this belief of revenants “feasting” on the living.

In the 19th century, “superstitious” rural New Englanders’ beliefs in vampires were commonly mocked by city newspapers like this one.

Because consumption was so prevalent in their region, The Ray family, as well as many of their Jewett City neighbors, considered the possibility of vampires too serious to ignore. Fearful, they took drastic measures to put an end to this community threat. In May of 1854, they exhumed the bodies of the recently-deceased Ray family members and burned them before returning the charred corpses to their graves in hopes of preventing any further vampiric visits.

In the 1990s, Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicolas Bellantoni studied a set of accidentally-uncovered 19th century remains in a Jewett City family graveyard that also showed signs of being tampered with out of fears of vampirism: Inside the grave site, the bones had been drastically rearranged, with the head removed from the body and the femur bones crossed in the shape of an “X.”

For the Jewett City community, the danger of vampirism had passed — at least, for the time being. A widespread disease, a supernatural panic, and then order restored — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Erik Ofgang, “Belief in Connecticut Vampires Motivated by ‘Fear and Love,’Connecticut Magazine

Abigail Tucker, “The Great New England Vampire Panic,Smithsonian Magazine