Cover image for Food for the dead : on the trail of New England's vampires
Food for the dead : on the trail of New England's vampires
Bell, Michael E., Ph. D.
Personal Author:
First Carroll and Graf edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf, [2001]

Physical Description:
xiv, 337 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map, portraits ; 24 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GR830.V3 B45 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Forget Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula. In nineteenth-century New England another sort of vampire was relentlessly ravishing the populace, or so it was believed by many rural communities suffering the plague of tuberculosis. Indeed, as this fascinating book shows, the vampire of folk superstition figures significantly in the attempt of early Americans to reasonably explain and vanquish the dreaded affliction then known as consumption. In gripping narrative detail, folklorist Michael E. Bell reconstructs a distant world, where on March 17, 1892, three corpses were exhumed from a Rhode Island cemetery. One of them, Mercy Brown, who had succumbed to consumption, appeared to have turned over in her grave. Mercy's family cut out her heart, which still held clots of blood, burned it on a nearby rock, and fed the ashes to her ailing brother. To Mercy's community she had become a vampire living a spectral existence and consuming the vitality of her siblings. From documents written as early as 1790 to a recent conversation with a descendant of Mercy Brown, Bell investigates twenty cases in which the vampiric dead were exhumed to save the ailing living. He also explores a widespread folk tradition that has survived generations, as ordinary people today strive to battle extraordinary diseases like Ebola or AIDS with a deeply rooted belief in their power to heal themselves. "Bell's absorbing account is ... a major contribution to the study of New England folk beliefs."--Boston Globe "Filled with ghostly tales, glowing corpses, rearranged bones, visits to hidden graveyards.... This is a marvelous book."--Providence Journal

Author Notes

Michael E. Bell has been the Consulting Folklorist for the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission since 1980. He has a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University, Bloomington, and his recent studies deal with maritime traditions and the magical black cat bone. He lives in Pawtuxet Village, Rhode Island

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The "vampire" threat here has little in common with your garden-variety Dracula, the fanged menace of Transylvania; these quiet apparitions are in some ways more macabre. In historical New England, consumption claimed thousands of lives. When several family members fell in quick succession, some suspected interference from the grave the "dead" extending their own lives by claiming those of others. Corpses were disinterred. Hearts were extracted and, if found to contain "living," or fresh, blood, subjected to an elaborate cremation and exorcism. Bell, a folklorist, pursues this grisly tradition one that still survives in legend throughout the Eastern seaboard and records his observations here. Despite tantalizing chapter headings ("I am Waiting and Watching for You," "Ghoulish, Wolfish Shapes"), Bell strives laudably for responsible scholarship, and the book is as much a critique of myth transmission as it is a tale of one man's vampire hunt. He goes to great lengths to forestall and undo exaggerations of his findings, advocating a very qualified and moderate use of the word "vampire" and transcribing oral interviews so painstakingly they can be difficult to read. But Bell himself is a talented stylist, and academics working in folklore and myth will find his study a refreshing departure from the dry fieldwork ordinarily on offer. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Folklorist Bell wallows through libraries, archives, cemeteries, literature, and oral interviews in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts in his search for incidents of New England vampires. His careful fieldwork reveals a network of interconnecting themes, motifs, communities, and genealogies that construct a cultural picture of a vampire type quite distinct from the Transylvania/Hollywood stereotype. For New Englanders, the vampire tradition emerges in families ravaged by consumption, the 19th-century term used most frequently for tuberculosis. When family members began to sicken and die, the belief arose that an already deceased member was a vampire who came back and consumed the blood (and vitality) of the living. The typical solution was to disinter the "vampire" and burn either the heart or the entire body. This is a strange and wonderful book, excellent in its methodology, reflexive presentation, and scholarship. Like its subject, the book exists on the cusp, liminal between the academic shadows and the popular esoteric. That is, Bell quite successfully conjoins supernatural subjects, public folklore, and analytical approaches in an account that should appeal equally to both popular and academic audiences. All libraries should add this title to their collections. J. B. Wolford University of Missouri--St. Louis

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. IX
Prologuep. XI
Chapter 1 This Awful Thingp. 1
Chapter 2 Testing a Horrible Superstitionp. 18
Chapter 3 Remarkable Happeningsp. 39
Chapter 4 The Cause of Their Trouble Lay Before Themp. 58
Chapter 5 I Am Waiting and Watching for Youp. 81
Chapter 6 I Thought For Sure They Were Coming After Mep. 109
Chapter 7 Don't Be a Rational Adultp. 134
Chapter 8 Never Strangers True Vampires Bep. 156
Chapter 9 Ghoulish, Wolfish Shapesp. 178
Chapter 10 The Unending River of Lifep. 202
Chapter 11 Relicks of Many Old Customsp. 226
Chapter 12 A Ghoul in Every Deserted Fireplacep. 252
Chapter 13 Is That True of All Vampires?p. 279
Chapter 14 Food for the Deadp. 296
Appendix A Chronology of Vampire Incidents in New Englandp. 305
Appendix B Children of Stukeley and Honor Tillinghastp. 305
Notesp. 306
Works Sitedp. 323
Indexp. 332
About the Authorp. 338