Vlad the Inhaler
The Connection Between Vampirism and Tuberculosis
by Elizabeth Smigielski, Kornhauser Library

batIt was a dark and windy morning. The dimly lit library was nearly empty except for a few glassy- eyed zombie students working the dreaded Saturday morning shift after a night of hell raising. The damp, stony concrete building was quiet as a tomb. From far away came the hushed sound of dripping water from the leaking atrium. A damp, mildewy smell wafted up from the basement. Dusty, lifeless plants with tendrils snaking across the furniture reached their leathery arms out to snag the hair of unsuspecting passers by. Computer hard drives uttered ethereal moans and rattles like the chains of the dead. Restless toy skeletons drummed their metacarpals on the staff desks and computers. Across the courtyard bodies awaited dissection.

The reference desk faced the yawning doors of the main entrance, an entrance eerily reminiscent of a mausoleum’s deep, dark vestibule. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., not quite the witching hour, a man pulled the heavy doors open, passed through the dusty gates and approached the reference desk. “I need help,” he said. “I must have your help. I had an article on tuberculosis that I have lost. It was an article on the connection between tuberculosis and…vampirism.” The librarian braced herself, cautious of a hoax, or a joke from the dreaded “general public” patron. With some trepidation, she ran a Medline search.

And lo and behold, it’s true! There is a connection between the vampire folk belief in New England and tuberculosis, or so claim Paul S. Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni in their article, “Brief Communication: Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief” (American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94:269-274).

There are at least 12 historic accounts documenting vampire beliefs in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these occur in Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. When people fell ill with tuberculosis, they were described as “wasting away” hence the name “wasting disease” or “consumption.” The afflicted grew ill, developed a pallid complexion, became thin, their flesh became loose, and eventually they gave up the ghost. Frequently, others in the family would succumb to the same set of symptoms and die as well, usually within a few years. How did wasting disease spread? Why would successive family members fall ill? It was thought that those that had died of the disease would come back to derive sustenance from the surviving family members. As they continued to feed off the survivors, they too would waste away as they became the nutritional font for their dead kin.

To confirm these suspicions, the dead were often checked in on. Upon unearthing the corpse, the inquisitive would find a body with a swelled chest, long hair and fingernails, and the remnants at the mouth of a recent blood feast. Since burial didn’t do the trick, and living family members were becoming someone else’s treat, measures had to be taken to stop the dead from moving about. The skull and long bones of the leg were often separated from the rest of the corpse or removed all together and buried elsewhere. For good measure, the heart was often removed and burned.

Incidentally, some speculate that the skull and crossbones of the pirate flag were originally used to represent the presence of consumption on board. Skull and crossbones flying on a ship warned others away from the ship and possible infection. Pirates adopted this symbol knowing that no one would board the ship regardless of what they did, and as a warning to others to pay them heed. We’re still leery of the skull and crossbones when we see it on a bottle of DDT or Mr. Dudley’s Little Vermin Liquidator.

Of course, the shining light of science has cleared away many of the more novel explanations of disease. The bloat, the appearance of long hair and nails, and oozing mouth are all part of the natural process of decomposition. Sledzik and Bellantoni examined several skeletons in Rhode Island whose bones had been disturbed as described above, suggesting that the dead were considered vampires that had to be dispatched. They found ample lesions on the ribs, growths, and other bone abnormalities typical of tuberculosis infection. Finally, identifying marks on the coffins suggest that the dead were of the same family and had died within a few years of each other, surely due to the first one getting up and nibbling on the rest.