Michael Bell: Rhode Island’s Own Vampire Hunter
Michael Bell has spent thirty years hunting vampires. What he’s learned explains a lot about ourselves.
Michael Bell is a gravedigger with a Ph.D. The folklorist’s specialty has steered him to the Flintlock Loop Trail of Tillinghast Pond Management Area in West Greenwich, dressed for a hike on a deceptively cool day. As Bell wades into the forest, sporadic rain has created a New Orleans-degree steam. The trail snakes through a 1830s farmstead and its family cemetery, where moss hugs sunken headstones that record successive deaths: 1820, 1821 and up, hinting that a contagious disease is probably to blame. Bell is scouting for the tombstone of Sarah Tillinghast, but Ellis is the only family name he can find. A woman who attended one of his lectures suggested Sarah might have been buried here, but the folklorist is skeptical: “Why would Sarah be here when the rest of the family is buried at Pine Hill?” He suspects her grave is one of the unmarked “rude fieldstones” (families sometimes used rough stones as a marker) at Pine Hill, or Exeter’s historic cemetery number fourteen, off Route 102.
Bell guesses this Ellis family may have been stricken by smallpox or, less likely, consumption. Also known as tuberculosis, consumption began to poison New England in the 1730s; by the 1800s, the highly contagious epidemic was to blame for nearly 25 percent of all deaths in the Northeast. The name arose because the disease began to consume the physical being: With their ashen and withered bodies, victims resembled walking corpses — much the way vampires are portrayed in folklore. In fact, the afflicted were said to be “in the vampire’s grasp.” They coughed up blood by the cupful at night when fluid collected in collapsed lungs. With an incessant hack, their breath was starved of oxygen; it felt as if someone was sitting on their chest. To healthier family members, it appeared that someone was sucking the blood from their loved ones.
Until a drug treatment became available in the 1940s, the diagnosis was a death sentence. “The quack doctors would say they could cure it,” Bell notes, “while the honest ones declared, ‘it’s in the hands of God.’ ” These dubious doctors were primarily Slavic and German immigrants who touted a remedy from Eastern Europe. “Some were astrologers or herbalists; they were showmen who went from town to town,” Bell explains. “In the early days, few people were educated so medical advice was not scientific; it was a roll of the dice.” What these docs proposed, he says, was an antidote more terrifying than Dracula’s fangs draining the living.
Hunting vampires requires a sense of humor. The Ph.D.-carrying storyteller is especially popular around Halloween and shares the spotlight with glowing skeletons and fog machines. He views these gigs as opportunities to counter sensationalism with facts. A scholar whose resume includes teaching stints at Brown University and Rhode Island College, plus three decades of consulting for the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, Bell is effacing enough to have fun with the topic.
Cyril Place, a Rhode Island-based photographer who works with Bell, calls him “the Babe Ruth of vampire folk belief. He’s the original go-to authority on the subject, but there are a lot of imitators,” notes Place. “He’s a realist about the fact that there’s a certain Hollywood influence about the subject. Sometimes I think folks get upset because he ruins that illusion of the Transylvania legend.”
“A professional folklorist embodies opposite perspectives,” Bell says. “ ‘Folklore’ is the stuff of youthful play and fantasy while ‘professional’ is what grownups aspire to become: capable, proper and, above all, rational.” He balances his “Dr. Killjoy rational observer/scholar side” with “Mike,” the guy willing to suspend his disbelief because he wants to participate wholeheartedly.
With a silver bob, aquiline nose and a closetful of black, the seventy-year-old was once described as “how you’d expect a vampire hunter to look.” Yet there is nothing grim about the avid runner and cyclist. For Bell, part of this topic’s allure is the study of adaptation, similar to From Bullrakes to Clambakes, his analysis of the cultural traditions and the interaction of technology and tradition in the Narragansett Bay shellfishing industry. Adaptation is another theme in Vanishing Orchards, his documentary about how apple growers in Rhode Island have endured threats to their livelihood.
Bell, who grew up fast between moves from Kentucky to Texas to California, wasn’t raised on ghost stories about Mercy Brown, Rhode Island’s most infamous vampire. In the late ’70s, he landed in Rhode Island with a team of folklorists from the Folk Life Center of the Library of Congress. A year later, he heard the story of Mercy from a research assistant and was fascinated by this application of folk medicine, one of his specialties. He wondered how many other vampire cases existed, or whether this was anomalous. By the early 1980s, he had settled in Pawtuxet Village with his wife, an environmental scientist. (The couple now splits time between Rhode Island and Texas.) His three grown children think it’s “cool” that their dad tracks vampires. When they were younger, he regaled their friends with details about Mercy Brown, and introduced them to vampires they’d never heard of before.
While simultaneously doing other folklore projects, Bell spent two decades researching the vampire phenomena before publishing Food for the Dead. He traveled throughout New England, using eyewitness accounts, family stories, legends, tombstones and cemetery maps, handwritten records in musty town hall basements, newspaper articles, local histories, town records, journal entries, personal correspondence, genealogies, gravestones and even human remains for documentation.
After rooting for more cases that will appear in his next book, In the Vampire’s Grasp: Chronicles of America’s Restless Dead (to be published in late 2014), Bell has since found evidence of approximately eighty “therapeutic exhumations,” mostly clustered in New England. However, he believes that number represents a mere fraction of actual cases, given that many incidents were never documented, plus the labyrinth of research to unearth the recorded ones.
Mercy Lena Brown’s case is documented in Bell’s first book. After her mother and sister died of consumption in the 1880s and her brother Edwin fell ill, nineteen-year-old Mercy died on January 17, 1892. She was interred in a stone crypt at Exeter’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery behind the Baptist church on Victory Highway until the ground thawed. Edwin’s condition deteriorated soon after her funeral; her father, George Brown, was pressured by other residents to stem the disease before it spread to other families. He was skeptical that the vampire tradition would work, but agreed out of compassion for his neighbors. According to Bell, attacking vampires was a way for a community to manifest and combat the evil plaguing them. He describes Mercy as a scapegoat who absorbed the ignorance, anxiety and guilt that people have because their loved ones and neighbors are dying, and they don’t understand why, and they can’t stop it.
Storm clouds huddle at dusk as Bell talks about Mercy Brown during a lecture on New England vampires at West Warwick Public Library. The audience ranges from history buff grannies to legend-tripping Goths curious if the quack doctors actually believed in the remedies they sold. Bell tells the group that he wanted to learn how much of the Mercy Brown legend was merely family lore by comparing a descendant’s story to newspaper accounts.
In 1981, he interviewed Everett Peck, a descendent of Mercy Brown and a lifelong resident of Exeter. When they used to go to Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Peck’s parents cautioned, “Well, don’t go runnin’ over there. Don’t touch the stone, because of this awful thing that took place years ago.”
Peck told Bell that twelve relatives got together and voted on what to do when Edwin was ill:
And they dug up one grave, not several. They dug up Mercy. For some reason they picked her, because there was something there that led it to that. Then, they dug her up and she had turned over in the grave. Well, right away, there’s a lot of problems there. So they took her out and they cut her heart out. There was blood in the heart. Well, they decided they had to kill it, so they started a fire, not far from the grave…and they burnt the heart, took the ashes and done something with ’em…. But anyway. And, it seems as if that’s what took care of it. You know, years ago you didn’t have medicines, you didn’t have nothin’. You had to figure out your own. They were self-independent people, everybody that lived here. There was no such thing as relyin’ on somebody. You did it yourself.
While newspaper records didn’t indicate that Mercy had turned over, it is possible for bodies to twitch and even sit upright due to bloating and other processes of decomposition. Her heart contained fresh blood, Bell says, because she had been interred in the crypt during the winter. According to written accounts, the ashes of the heart were fed to Edwin, who died less than two months later. Because Mercy’s headstone has been stolen multiple times, an iron strap now anchors it to the ground. Legend trippers, people who visit these legendary sites, leave offerings: pennies, notes, flowers, plastic vampire teeth and cough drops.
“Part of the lore is that no grass grows on her grave,” Bell says. “But that’s because so many people walk on it.”
As far as he knows, Mercy was the last suspected vampire to be uncovered in New England. He attributes that decline to the 1882 discovery that tuberculosis is spread by bacteria and to the increasing popularity of embalming, since a drained corpse doesn’t need to suck blood.
“It is no coincidence that the tuberculosis/vampire epidemic accompanied the industrial revolution and increasing urbanization in New England,” Bell writes in Food for the Dead. Industrialization began at Slater Mill in Pawtucket in 1793.
Previously, Bell and others believed the first reported vampire case was in 1793; however, he has since learned the first reported case took place in 1784 in Willington, Connecticut.
“In other parts of the United States,” Bell writes, “tuberculosis did not become a problem until industrialization and urbanization created the conditions that aided and abetted its transmission.”
In the 1793 incident, hundreds of residents attended a heart-
burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge in Manchester, Vermont. According to historical records, “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton. It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
Rhode Island’s raisings tended to be more clandestine gatherings on tiny plots that punctuated private land; discretion was easier than in Vermont, where burials were in more concentrated open spaces. And superstitious rituals (nailing horseshoes above a door to ward off evil, for example) were not uncommon in Rhode Island, a state primarily colonized by Freethinkers who rarely warmed church pews and settled in isolated areas.
Another well-worn local tale is that of Sarah Tillinghast. In the late 1700s, Stukeley “Snuffy” Tillinghast dreamt that half of his apple orchard withered. Its symbolism didn’t manifest until the Exeter farmer’s children were struck by consumption in quick succession. The eldest, Sarah, was the first to perish in 1799. The siblings who fell ill afterward complained that Sarah visited them after dark and weighed down their chests. Stukeley’s Pine Hill neighbors convinced him to examine his buried children. Several neighbors carried picks and spades to the family plot and raised the coffins to find that all but one body was in advanced stages of decomposition. With her long fingernails, open eyes and fresh blood in her heart, they deduced that Sarah must be a vampire nourished by the blood of her siblings.
According to lore, a vampire is slayed by destroying its heart. Sarah’s heart was cut out and burned to ash on a nearby rock. To unravel the spell, ailing family members would often consume the remains by inhaling the smoke as it burned or ingesting the ashes in water or medicine. Depending on the region, methods ranged from rearranging the skeletal remains so they couldn’t get up and leave the coffin, cremating the corpse, driving a stake through the heart or removing vital organs.
“Liquid blood in the heart of an exhumed corpse was viewed as unnatural since it was interpreted as fresh blood,” says Bell. “People understood that blood coagulates following death but they didn’t know it can liquefy again depending on the circumstances of death; for example, the blood of a person who died suddenly has a tendency to re-liquefy.”
While Sarah’s ill sibling died, her ailing mother, Honor, survived. Honor’s epitaph reads: “She gave birth to fourteen children and they all lived to grow up. Back then, reaching your teens qualified as grown up.” Bell’s archival digging yielded a Stukeley Tillinghast with fourteen children who lost perhaps four of them to consumption. Lore whispers that seven children died, but Bell believes the other three deaths were exaggerated: The story is more dramatic if the farmer who dreamt that half his orchard perished then lost half his children.
Newspaper editorials at the time lampooned South County residents as ignorant for their beliefs, but Bell argues that our ancestors simply had less scientific knowledge. “The vampire tradition is better understood as folk medicine than supernatural belief,” he says. Bell compares it to the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Indiana University: Like African-American voodoo practitioners in the South, these New Englanders turned to folklore in dire times when medical science had failed them.
“Folklore always has an answer,” he explains. “It may not be the scientifically valid answer, but sometimes it’s better to have any answer than none at all.”
In his book, Bell quotes a poet who described the living as “food for the dead” after witnessing the exhumation of an entire family. He argues that the writer had it backwards: it was the dead who gave sustenance to the living by providing hope to desperate families.
Bell marvels at the well of stoicism required for accusers to exhume the bodies of parents, spouses and children. “But these were descendants of the Puritans who believed the body is just an earthly vessel,” he notes. “It has no eternal existence.” He cites a 1786 letter from a reverend in Belchertown, Massachusetts. The holy man wrote of exhuming his daughter and his mother-in-law with dispassion, as if he were looking at a carcass or describing meat.
Bell admits his own knee-jerk response in questioning modern superstitions when he discovered a more recent case, which occurred in 1949 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, between the Allegheny and Appalachian mountain ranges.
Army Private Reuben Rock, who contracted TB in North Africa, was buried in the military uniform he’d given to his wife. After the burial, the wife heard voices in the house and was unable to rest. German and German-American superstition dictates that if one is buried in clothes belonging to someone else, the person who owned the clothes will be plagued by the dead person until the clothes are removed and destroyed.
Rock’s body was exhumed, and the uniform was stripped and burned at the grave. His body was then sprinkled with salt (according to folklore, spirits can’t cross salt), enclosed in a sheet and blanket and reburied. Soon after, the voices allegedly ceased and his wife’s health improved.
Pursuing this line of work can be a double-edged sword. Connecticut’s State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni turned to Bell after he was flummoxed by the 1990 discovery of a skeleton that had been rearranged in Griswold, Connecticut.
“We can’t do our work without public support, so we have to create the awareness while also protecting the sites,” he notes. “We understand there might be some people who do things we don’t want.”
This is a slice of our history that we know little about, he says, that gives us an appreciation of the hardships people experienced. Doctors and churches couldn’t help people as they tried desperately to save their loved ones.
And while Bell has his share of legend-tripping groupies, he has been less popular with descendants of people who participated in the rituals because some would rather the news remain six feet under.
“If I was researching African American history and uncovered lynchings, should I not include that because it might embarrass the descendants?” he asks.
At his West Warwick library lecture, the folklorist urges audience members to be respectful if they visit the graves. “I’m the messenger,” he says, “and you know what they do to the messenger.”
Bell has been chastised for publicizing the vampire tradition, occasionally blamed for vandalism and other cemetery incidents. In September 2011, two teenage girls from Warwick were killed when their car swerved and rolled over on Purgatory Road after they visited Mercy Brown’s grave. He didn’t create the legends, he says.
“I feel as badly as everyone does about the deaths,” says Bell. “But you can’t blame the bearer of reality, whether it debunks your long-held beliefs or results in your going to the cemetery and doing vandalism. People have to be responsible for their own lives and belief systems.”
Accounts like those of Mercy Brown and Reuben Rock have proved remarkably durable; “The Vampire Diaries,” “True Blood” and the Twilight movies underscore people’s fascination with the undead. They’re a tangle of sensational details, sudden plot twists and mysterious vampire personalities. At their heart, however, they’re really stories about love and fear.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.