Friday, August 19, 2005


Ralphie the Vampire Slayer

One mark of a true classic is that every time you read it you are surprised by new questions. Questions like: Did the author decapitate his wife?

In a fascinating post on his blog, Caleb Crain raises the possibility that Ralph Waldo Emerson beat Van Helsing to the punch:

Without using the word "vampire," however, New Englanders did believe that people who died of consumption (i.e., tuberculosis) could suck the life out of those above ground who still loved them, especially those in their own family. To remove the threat, you had to dig up the corpse....

Here's my question: Did Emerson fear that his first wife was a vampire? Robert Richardson famously began his biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire with an account of Emerson opening the grave of Ellen Tucker Emerson on 29 March 1832.... In Waldo Emerson: A Biography, Gay Wilson Allen saw the exhumation of the first Mrs. Emerson more darkly: "the act remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane" (182). Both Allen and Richardson remarked on the brevity of Emerson's description in his journal. "I visited Ellen's tomb & opened the coffin," he wrote, and nothing more.

And Ellen Emerson, Crain points out, did indeed die of TB.

I've been curious about this practice ever since a 1993 Washington Post article about archaeologists finding strange 19th century burial practices in New England -- namely, that bodies had been decapitated and the femurs placed across the neck -- an attempt, apparently, to keep the dead from rising. As Paul Barber explains in his 1988 Vampires, Burial and Death (Yale U Press), "[TB has] been associated with vampirism, presumably by analogy with the tendency of the corpse to exhibit blood at the mouth.... sometimes the supposed revenant is even held responsible for eating the bodies in nearby graves."


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