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Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires

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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 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


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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 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

30 review for Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires

  1. 4 out of 5

    K.

    Let's start with storytime: I bought this book at a discount bookstore in the Mall of America in June 2004. I was staying with a friend in Nebraska (believe me when I say that the Border Security guy was hella confused that someone would fly all the way from Australia just to visit Nebraska), and we did a roadtrip up to Minneapolis-St Paul to stay with a mutual friend. She took us to the Mall of America, and pretty much all I remember about it is that I had Dippin' Dots for the first time and wa Let's start with storytime: I bought this book at a discount bookstore in the Mall of America in June 2004. I was staying with a friend in Nebraska (believe me when I say that the Border Security guy was hella confused that someone would fly all the way from Australia just to visit Nebraska), and we did a roadtrip up to Minneapolis-St Paul to stay with a mutual friend. She took us to the Mall of America, and pretty much all I remember about it is that I had Dippin' Dots for the first time and was very confused by them, that there were like five of every store, and that I bought this book. When I then proceeded to spend the next week struggle-bussing my way through on my friend's parents' sofa in small town Nebraska. I was hoping that my memories of this book being struggle bus territory were somewhat coloured by 21 year old me not really being a huge fan of non-fiction, and the fact that I was probably expecting something more akin to Buffy. So I figured I'd reread it and see for myself. Eleven years later, this was still struggle bus territory. But not because I was expecting Buffy and it didn't deliver. No, it was struggle bus territory because it's really hard to find the cohesive storyline. The author is a folklorist, which means the book can't quite decide if it's telling the story of weird folk treatments for consumption (burning the heart of a dead relative and drinking the ashes. Ew.), or whether it's about reports of vampirism in New England. In many of the cases that Bell discusses, the exhumed individual wasn't considered a vampire at the time, but it was reported as a vampire story years later. So everything seemed a bit...vague and uncertain. I think my biggest problem, though, is that the author has effectively turned large parts of his oral history research into text. This would be totally fine, except that he's included all the random tangents that his interview subjects have wandered off on and it often takes a few pages to get back to the point. It results in a very conversational writing style that includes discussion of the background noise like the car wipers swishing back and forth on the recording. It's not relevant and honestly, I didn't care about any of the random tangents that were discussed ("this woman knows about a vampire legend, but she also told me that her house is haunted! Here's that story. Now let's have her teenaged son recount the vampire legend and see how it's different"). Sure, those additions were relevant to Bell in his role as State Folklorist, but they don't add anything to the story except padding. The second half of the book featured a LOT of quotations and discussion of how various New England writers had included elements of the New England vampire legend in their own work. Which worked in some ways, but it also felt like a massive amount of info-dumping with very few conclusions drawn. It's definitely an interesting subject, and I understand why Bell spent twenty five years researching it. But at the end of the day, turning 20 reported cases - some of which weren't even in New England - into a 300+ page book was a little bit of a stretch, and as a result the book felt like it was wandering all over the place.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    this was a fun read, even if the author frequently got in his own way. at times a bit redundant, it was still enjoyable to read about what constituted a "true" vampire in rural New England. i'll give you a hint: they didn't sparkle in the sunlight or seduce teenage girls with low self-esteem. this is much more a book about folk medicine and it's fight against the invisible world of microbes and germs. it's also a book about how legends get transmitted and what they mean to communities past and p this was a fun read, even if the author frequently got in his own way. at times a bit redundant, it was still enjoyable to read about what constituted a "true" vampire in rural New England. i'll give you a hint: they didn't sparkle in the sunlight or seduce teenage girls with low self-esteem. this is much more a book about folk medicine and it's fight against the invisible world of microbes and germs. it's also a book about how legends get transmitted and what they mean to communities past and present. Fans of folklore or just the macabre will certainly find some fun facts, but be warned these are not the sexy vampires pop culture has made us accustomed to.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

    I kind of felt that the author used the word "Vampire" in the title for pure sensationalism. The people he is writing about are not vampires in the classical sense - the only relation they have to traditional, Eastern European vampires is that they are both a type of succubus. My other complaint about the writer is that he seems to interject too much of his personal ideas and actions into the text. This actually bothered me so much that I didn't finish the book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Graeme Davis

    A very good account of a supposed outbreak of vampirism in New England, surprisingly recently. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the folklore and psychology or vampire superstitions.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    If you’re interested in folklore and history, this is an excellent read. If you believe in vampires, this book will be a major buzzkill. This book starts with the story of Mercy Brown and continues to explore the surprisingly common belief in vampires/magic in parts of rural, non-Puritan New England in the late 1700s- late 1800s. I say “vampires/magic” because the belief centered around a dead person feeding off living family members - something that could be stopped by exhuming the person’s body If you’re interested in folklore and history, this is an excellent read. If you believe in vampires, this book will be a major buzzkill. This book starts with the story of Mercy Brown and continues to explore the surprisingly common belief in vampires/magic in parts of rural, non-Puritan New England in the late 1700s- late 1800s. I say “vampires/magic” because the belief centered around a dead person feeding off living family members - something that could be stopped by exhuming the person’s body and burning the heart- without specifying how. There were no specifics around bites in the neck, drinking blood, coming physically out of the grave to feed, or the vampire having been evil or attacked by another vampire during life. The term, “vampire,” was not even used. All of the ghoulishness in the book comes mostly around the legendarium that sprung up around these exhumed persons. The actual histories of the “vampire” attacks are rather sad. In all cases, families (sometimes large, healthy ones) began inexplicably wasting away from tuberculosis, one family member after another. With medicine helpless to stop tuberculosis and contagion theory not well understood in rural areas, afflicted families would sometimes turn in hope or desperation to the idea that if they could just burn the heart of the first (sometimes last) to die, the rest of the family would be spared. In this way, the author argues that New England vampire history is more about folk medicine than the supernatural.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    I have a BA(hons) in Archaeology and Ancient History. My final year dissertation was about the evolution of vampire superstition (how could such legends have started and how did they differ worldwide) and burial evidence of these beliefs in vampires. This books was invaluable to my research and the author was incredibly helpful. If you have an interest in vampires and strange history that goes beyond TV and movies, this book may interest you.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amber Ray

    This book doesn't focus well on the vampirisim legends. It really talks a lot about the author's researching which is not exciting stuff. I thought also that more information on the treatments/medical issues of the day about tuberculosis would have been a good addition. Good enough as a research for my writing project, but could have had more original information and focused better on the main topic.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Baker

    I was enjoying it but it’s a library book and I ran out of time. The subject matter is fascinating, and Bell is a natural storyteller. The material covered was also featured in 4 different episodes of the “Lore” podcast, and Bell even got in some Lovecraft stuff. After all, a majority of this activity was in Rhode Island and it would be surprising if ol’ H.P. didn’t cover it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Liz Clappin

    Fascinating story and really comprehensive research, my only beef is that organizationally it does jump around. There are a lot of theories and collective ideas that get lost because he diverts attention away and them returns much later. Overall an excellent look at historic folklore and the intersection of that with larger society.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    I've read the book three times since I purchased it. There is a lot of fascinating history in the book and I'm related to a lot of people mentioned in the book. I would recommend the book to anyone doing historical research in New England. A lot of great folklore in that area!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jenn

    Some of the history was interesting but the writing was difficult to get through. It was like trying to read journal entries and field notes. I feel his target audience was fellow folklorists and not the casual reader.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    The front half of the book largely deals with the author's search for the various 'vampries' of New England. As that, it is largely a recounting of meeting the various sources and how he delved into the local archives. It was overly long and padded. This said, the rest of the manuscript is informative and well written. Michael Bell, a folklorist from New England, sets out to explain the Vampire phenomenon as it appeared in the New England states during the Nineteenth Century. How the tradition spr The front half of the book largely deals with the author's search for the various 'vampries' of New England. As that, it is largely a recounting of meeting the various sources and how he delved into the local archives. It was overly long and padded. This said, the rest of the manuscript is informative and well written. Michael Bell, a folklorist from New England, sets out to explain the Vampire phenomenon as it appeared in the New England states during the Nineteenth Century. How the tradition spread from the Balkans to Western Europe and then finally arrived in the United States. In the 1800s, as the Tuberculosis epidemic was responsible for millions of deaths, the helpless survivors were forced to revive ancient and barbaric customs out of desperation. Leaving in their wake the mutilated remains of their deceased loved ones.

  13. 4 out of 5

    SmarterLilac

    My Halloween read for this year. Pretty good; I was impressed that the author managed to make what could have been a tedious stroll through arcane facts about New England into something super, super creepy. I also couldn't help but be amused by the absurd quality some of the anecdotes had--like the seance held in a fraternity house in order to contact a former member (not something I'd expect to see in such a traditional environment.) And the trivia lover in me appreciated the occasional nod to My Halloween read for this year. Pretty good; I was impressed that the author managed to make what could have been a tedious stroll through arcane facts about New England into something super, super creepy. I also couldn't help but be amused by the absurd quality some of the anecdotes had--like the seance held in a fraternity house in order to contact a former member (not something I'd expect to see in such a traditional environment.) And the trivia lover in me appreciated the occasional nod to other books of vampire history and lore--I was shocked to find out that not everyone loves the Florescu family's history of Dracula, and not every historian feels Vlad Tepes was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's evil Count.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    This is a book on folklore, the process of discovering folklore both by interviews and by poring over historical documents. I live in RI. The author captures the flavor of the area as well as its peculiar speaking accent. He also traces the makings of a new vampire tale perhaps started in 1977, and now one of the premiere bits of folklore in the area. In addition he explores these tales' influence on H.P. Lovecraft and American literature and the decline in local and national interest due to th This is a book on folklore, the process of discovering folklore both by interviews and by poring over historical documents. I live in RI. The author captures the flavor of the area as well as its peculiar speaking accent. He also traces the makings of a new vampire tale perhaps started in 1977, and now one of the premiere bits of folklore in the area. In addition he explores these tales' influence on H.P. Lovecraft and American literature and the decline in local and national interest due to the rise of the Hollywood vampire with Bela Lugosi. With the advent of the internet these stories and tales have risen again like the vampires of New England themselves. In all this is a well rounded, well researched book on a little known chapter of American history and folklore.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Greta

    Definitely an interesting concept. I felt the author jumped around a lot and used almost too many literary allusions. This made me a somewhat confused if he was talking about actual events or the creative works themselves. Interestingly enough, I saw him lecture on the book a few days after finishing it. He spoke mostly just about events from the book (not too many in the crowd had read "Food for the Dead") but also added some further research of exhumations that occurred only sixty years ago in Definitely an interesting concept. I felt the author jumped around a lot and used almost too many literary allusions. This made me a somewhat confused if he was talking about actual events or the creative works themselves. Interestingly enough, I saw him lecture on the book a few days after finishing it. He spoke mostly just about events from the book (not too many in the crowd had read "Food for the Dead") but also added some further research of exhumations that occurred only sixty years ago in Pennsylvania.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Steven Belanger

    Brilliant book, and by a local guy, too. The backbone of the research I've undertaken for my current WIP. The style is deceptively simple--or just simple--but the key to it is the matter-of-fact and laid back approach he brings to his interviews and to his dissemination of fact and folklore. Well summarized, if not a little slapdash with the Stukeley/Tillinghast/Mercy Brown and Nellie Vaughn parts. Some facts come at you circuitous, but it's a good read, anyway, especially if you live where I do Brilliant book, and by a local guy, too. The backbone of the research I've undertaken for my current WIP. The style is deceptively simple--or just simple--but the key to it is the matter-of-fact and laid back approach he brings to his interviews and to his dissemination of fact and folklore. Well summarized, if not a little slapdash with the Stukeley/Tillinghast/Mercy Brown and Nellie Vaughn parts. Some facts come at you circuitous, but it's a good read, anyway, especially if you live where I do.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Megan Crivello

    While extensively researched and cleverly presented, this book is far from scholarly or complete. It presented a fascinating history of a little known folk tradition but gave in to much of the sensationalism of the subject that the author railed against. Furthermore, it felt as if the book was a justification for the author's continued research of the topic rather than a complete examination. On the whole, it was entertaining but disappointing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nezka

    Folklorist's trudge through history and superstition to document early America's "vampire" outbreaks. Not called as such by the communities in the time, there were several individuals (all probably suffering from TB) who died, and whose contact spread the infectious disease and left several bits of evidence of a dark and sinister happening. So much so, that these people were dug up and permanently prevented (by several techniques) from troubling the living again.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Isidore

    Interesting subject matter, and the author, who is a professional folklorist, eschews the sensational, but the book is too chatty and discursive: do we really need to know exhaustive personal details about the author's informants? One senses the book has been padded to meet the publisher's demands.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    This book is unreadable. The subject matter is fascinating, but this dude mostly just quotes from other sources, says character's names like you know who they are already, and inserts himself into the action too much. I'd rather reread Salem's Lot for the bajillioneth time.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jess

    Not a bad book; more about doing folklore than about vampires, I would say, and a bit more filler than strictly necessary (there's a whole chapter dedicated to paraphrasing Lovecraft), but fine for a quick October read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Amber Holt

    This book was phenomenally informative and truly gave light to how the term vampire got started. It's filled with gripping ghost stories, and pages where you just must keep reading and cannot stop. One word: CONSUMPTION

  23. 4 out of 5

    Susan Mazur Stommen

    I think this is the one I read - about TB patients and vampire lore in New England.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    This was the most boring book about vampires that exists in the world. I couldn't get past chapter 3. Bleh.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Wisteria Leigh

    American history anthropologhy,folklore,legend,new england,paranormal,vampires,non-fiction

  26. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    A series of case studies involving the (still-common) belief that the dead can be jealous of the living and return to capture them

  27. 5 out of 5

    A

    Good information; a bit strange in organization. I didn't always enjoy the writer's style, but it's a great place for one-stop New England vampire/consumption research.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Worthington

    Though it can be a bit stuffy at times, anthropoligist Michael Bell's study of the New England 'vampire' mythos is very informative & historically accurate. Though it can be a bit stuffy at times, anthropoligist Michael Bell's study of the New England 'vampire' mythos is very informative & historically accurate.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alyson

    A bit meandering, but well worth the read.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    topics I enjoy - vampires, local history, and folklore - but overall pretty meh

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