Given that we started the week with Bob Curran we thought we'd share some of his favorite insights into one of our favorite creatures - Vampires.
Please find below an excerpt from
Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Stalk the Night.
United States of America
If there were a “vampire capital” of America, where would it be? San Francisco? New York? At least that’s what the modern films tell us. But what if it were to be a small hamlet in rural Rhode Island? What if one of the smallest states in the Union was to have a vampire tradition that stretched back over several hundred years?
In a remote and overgrown cemetery near the village of Coventry, Rhode Island, there once stood a worn headstone bearing a singular, almost chilling inscription: “I am waiting and watching for you.” The marker, which marked the last resting place of Nelly Vaughan who died in 1889 at the age of 19, is now long gone, but the legacy of Rhode Island’s “vampire ladies” (of which she is said to have been one) lives on along the narrow roads and shady woods of the dreaming countryside.
Even in 1889, when Nelly Vaughan was interred, the notion of vampires was not new in America. In fact, the tradition stretched back to times when the first white settlers had made their homes on the eastern side of the continent. Writing in the late 17th century, the Reverend Deodat Lawson, minister at the now infamous Salem Village (part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) and author of the first printed account of the Salem Witch Trials, gives one of the first accounts of a vampiric attack. He was staying at the house of Nathaniel Ingersoll, when Mary Walcott, one of the “afflicted girls” (one of those who had allegedly been the subject of witchcraft) came to see him. Whilst standing near the door, she suddenly experienced a “bite” on her wrist, as if to draw blood, and by the light of a candle the minister glimpsed a mark on the flesh there. It may, of course, have been no more than the bite from a large insect, but the demonologist Montague Summers (claiming access to other papers) remarks that the girl experienced a prolonged loss of energy afterwards—as if it had been drained from her.
During the 1890s, great speculation concerning vampire activity centred on a house on Green Street in Schenectady, New York. An odd humanoid silhouette, formed out of fungus and mold had appeared upon the cellar floor. No amount of sweeping or scrubbing could remove the outline, which seemed to generate a musty smell and an unmistakeable coldness. The figure appeared to be that of a reclining man, and its very presence in the gloomy cellar generated a feeling of unease and even fear amongst the inhabitants of the house above. It was later discovered that the building had been raised on the site of an old Dutch burying ground (when the city was a Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam) where several ne’er-do-wells and magicians had been buried during the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant. One theory suggested that the outline was a vampire trying to leave its grave. This idea seemed borne out by the fact that several of those living in the building often felt unaccountably weak, as if their vital energies were being drained away. It was prevented from assuming full demonic shape, so the legend said, because of “a virtuous spell” that had been placed on the ground. It was allegedly still there when the house was eventually demolished. The story was, however, widely reported and almost certainly seems to have inspired the famous American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft in his story The Shunned House, in which a sinister outline also appears on a cellar floor.
But it was in Rhode Island and in some of the surrounding states that the belief in vampires was to take a stronger and more persistent root. The rural landscape of New England is idyllic —particularly as winter approaches. Time seems to stand still in some places—twisting little roads lead off through the woods to some secret, whitewashed house tucked away in a hollow; the trees wave in the faintest breeze as though seething with some inner life and in Rhode Island, the air is heavy with the pungent scents of woodsmoke and apples. It is still not difficult to imagine that one has been transported back to some former, less complicated time.
But as the winter gloom sets in, Rhode Island sometimes shows a darker, more sinister side. A significant part of the history of the state has been written in Revolutionary blood, and these quiet woodlands have often sheltered both Colonial troops and British Redcoat that raked the narrow roads with musket fire. The old Colonial houses are sometimes abandoned and given over to mold and decay hidden away in shady hollows and at the end of dirt lanes. Numerous tiny cemeteries, overgrown and ringed with encroaching foliage, dot the back-roads leading between the various villages and hamlets. In such a countryside, even today, it’s easy to see how the slumbering dead that lie in these graveyards might somehow rise and attack the living.
Coupled with this suggestion, during the hundred years that lay between the respective ends of the 18th and 19th centuries, another spectre arose—the spectre of disease. Epidemics amongst the communities, such as the great consumption (tuberculosis) outbreaks in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island during the late 1800s, caused people to fail and waste away, almost inexplicably. The symptoms of the disease corresponded to the results of vampiric activity—loss of strength and appetite; the coughing up of blood, which remained around the edges of the mouth; a marble-like pallor; and the sensation of a weight on the chest as one lay in bed. Allied to this overall impression were the often peculiar religious practices and beliefs of various fundamentalist sects throughout the region. These were groups such as Shadrack Ireland’s “Brethren of the New Light” (part of the so-called New England “New Light Stir”) whose uncoffined dead lay in vast underground stone chambers beneath the rural hillsides awaiting the Great Day of Judgement. All these elements combined to form the basis of a vampire belief throughout Rhode Island that lasted slightly more than 100 years and manifested itself in the legend of a series of “vampire ladies,” which haunted the nightmares of people across the state.
Though there are many variations of the legend, the first of these “ladies” is usually named as Sarah Tillinghast, who died in South County in the year 1796. Her father, Stukley Tillinghast (nicknamed “Snuffy” because of his dull, snuff-colored clothes) was a well-known apple farmer in the region (he had also been a former captain in the local militia during the Colonial Wars) and her family was reasonably well-off. Throughout the Colonial Wars, he and his wife, Honour, managed to marry and raise a large family which, by 1798, numbered eight daughters and six sons—the youngest arriving in October of that year. With the approaching winter, however, Snuffy began to experience strange dreams in which he was walking through his orchards noting that half the fruit on the branches was rotten. Through the autumnal mists he heard his daughter, Sarah, calling to him in a low, insistent voice, although he couldn’t see her anywhere between the trees. Troubled by the nightmare, he first sought the advice of the local pastor, Benjamin Northup, who advised him to pray and read his Bible. South County—indeed, much of Rhode Island—was in a continual state of unease at the time. The Revolutionary War had just concluded, and many Americans feared an attempt by Britain to retake her former colonies by invasion. There were thought to be a number of British sympathizers living in Rhode Island with the purpose of undermining the state in advance of an invasion from England. Everything was viewed with suspicion. And on top of this, diseases came and went. (Many suspected that these were nothing more than the poisoning of wells by British agents.) Snuffy tried to put the dream to the back of his mind, but his family was about to be hit by a terrible tragedy.
Sarah, then age 19, had always been a dreamy girl, given to wandering amongst the small graveyards where the recently buried Revolutionary soldiers lay. From time to time, she would take books of poetry there to read, seating herself on some grave-slab. Her father indulged her and excused her work about the farm, for without a doubt, Sarah was his favorite. However, on returning from a walk to a churchyard one evening, she professed herself ill and took to her bed. Soon she was in the grip of a raging fever, which, despite her mother’s ministrations, wouldn’t leave her. Within a matter of weeks, she was dead. The doctor’s diagnosis was consumption.
Several more weeks passed whilst the family grieved. Then, one morning, James, the youngest of the Tillinghast boys, came down to breakfast looking pale, shivering, and complaining of a weight on his chest during the previous night. He had dreamed that Sarah had come into his room and had sat on his bed. The boy’s story alarmed his mother a little, but she ascribed it to the grief that James was undoubtedly experiencing. Yet, later on in the day, the child complained of a pain just above his heart where he said that his nightmare vision of Sarah had touched him. And the following day he was even paler and his breath made an unhealthy rattling sound. Honour put him to bed and prepared some nourishing broths for him. All in vain, for shortly after, James was dead.
And now, the ghastly illness really took hold. Two more of Snuffy’s children—14-year-old Andris and her sister Ruth—complained of feeling ill and debilitated and went to bed. They, too, had dreamed of Sarah and had complained of a weight on their chests as they slept. These portents were ominous, for they suggested that Sarah was returning from the dead to draw the life from the remaining members of her family. A new word began to circulate through South County: vampire! Snuffy began to suspect that his own nightmares had foretold the evil that had come amongst them all, and so he visited the Reverend Northup once more. Perplexed and frightened, as Snuffy was himself, the pastor reassured the terrified apple farmer that this was the Divine will and that things would right themselves in God’s time. He must continue to pray.
Nevertheless, a creepy dread began to steal through Snuffy’s family and across the local community where one or two others were also dying. They, too, it was rumored, had dreamed of Sarah. The notion of vampirism was gaining hold in South County.
Things came to a head when the Tillinghast’s eldest daughter, Hannah (who was 26, married, and living in West Greenwich, and who had come over each day to help her mother with the invalids), began to complain of an illness. She also stated that each evening, as she left the farm to journey home, she was sure that something followed her. She slid into a kind of sick lethargy, and by the late spring of 1798, she too was dead.
Now, Honour herself, who had been a mainstay of the family, began to complain of strange dreams. She dreamed that Sarah called to her from the farmyard below her bedroom window, begging her to come down and warm her. “Mama! I’m so cold!” the spectral voice called to her. Honour was already starting to feel ill as the youngest Tillinghast boy, Ezra, collapsed with the mysterious illness and was taken to bed. Snuffy knew that he had to act if he was to save his family from being wiped out. There was surmounting pressure being put on him by the community to do something about the situation. Taking Caleb, one of his strongest farmhands, he drove out early in the morning to the cemetery where Sarah had been laid to rest. He took a long-bladed hunting knife and a large container of lamp oil with him.
When they reached the spot, Snuffy made straight for his daughter’s grave. He carried a shovel and a pick, and once he had reached her burial place, set to with a grim determination, unearthing her casket. It was still intact, although a little worn from having been in the earth for 18 months.
“Give me a hand,” he commanded Caleb, motioning to the box. Terrified, the boy helped him fix ropes to it and haul it up beside the grave. Then he helped his master to force the lid open. It came off with a crack, and Stukley Tillinghast looked down on the body of his daughter. According to tradition, she lay there as if she were simply asleep, completely uncorrupted. Indeed, says, the legend, her still face was highly flushed as if with blood. “The oil!” Snuffy commanded his trembling companion. “Fetch me the oil from the cart!” The boy rushed to do his bidding. Whilst he was momentarily gone, Tillinghast took his knife and cut out his daughter’s heart. Blood gushed out, it is said, as though the corpse had been gorged with it. The boy returned with the lamp oil and, setting the heart on the ground beside the coffin, Snuffy set fire to it. The heart flared up like a candle, releasing clouds of dark smoke. The tiny churchyard seemed to resound with a sigh, although maybe it was only a sudden early morning breeze. The heart burned away to ash as Snuffy turned away.
His actions seemed to have the desired effect. It was too late to save young Ezra, but Honour made a full recovery. The dreams of Sarah, both in the family and in the community, ceased. But, as Stukely himself was to realize later, his original dream had in a way come true. He had dreamed that half his orchard had been decimated, and now half his family had died. The victims of vampires?
Sarah Tillinghast might have been at peace, but the alleged vampire activity in rural Rhode Island was just getting underway. For a while things were quiet, but the strange malady kept bubbling under the surface to reemerge again in 1827.
Artwork Courtesy of Ian Daniels
Nancy Young was the eldest daughter of Captain Levi Young, a military man from the remote area of Foster. Young was not a native Rhode Islander, but came from Sterling, Connecticut. However, shortly after leaving the Army, he married his sweetheart, Anna Perkins, and purchased a plot of land in the heavily wooded Foster district, settling there around 1807. Shortly thereafter, he became a reasonably prosperous farmer with a growing family that would eventually amount to eight children. By the time Nancy turned 20, she was a sharp and astute girl, well able to run and farm and do most of the ledger work for her father. The farm in Foster was a relatively happy place.
One evening in 1827, Levi Young returned home from a trip to find his daughter suffering from what he thought was a severe cold. She went to bed and the fever appeared to grow worse. It became so bad that she could not resume her normal duties for months. These were given to her sister Almira, who struggled with them until, they hoped, Nancy got better. However, far from recovering, Nancy’s condition seemed to worsen and she was now in the grip of what looked like a raging fever. On the April 6, 1827, she died and the doctor diagnosed it as galloping consumption.
Events in the Young household began to follow those that had occurred at the Tillinghast farm almost 30 years earlier. Shortly after Nancy’s death, Almira also became ill with a similar condition, wasting away seemingly night after night. She told her parents that each night she dreamed of Nancy coming to visit her. Levi Young was worried, not only about his daughter’s condition, but about the peculiar nightmares. Whether he knew of the Tillinghast case (and perhaps he did), he was now convinced that some sort of supernatural agency was at work and he therefore called a meeting of the community leaders to see if they could deal with the illness on a spiritual basis. The elders decided that Levi’s house was being tormented by some sort of demon, probably from the forests round about. They were persuaded to consult with a local “witch man,” the so-called “Doc” Lennox (although he wasn’t really a doctor). He was a white-bearded “conjurer” who treated the afflicted of the community with herbs and potions of his own concoction. He also knew about ghosts and demons. He agreed with the elders that Nancy was possessed by some sort of dark spirit that was drawing the life from those family members around her, and would eventually go on to attack the local community. There was only one way to dismiss such spirits, he declared, and he instructed a number of local youths to gather dry brushwood in the forest and take it to the cemetery where Nancy Young lay buried.
“We’re goin’ t’build one Hell of a bonfire,” he told the elders.
Soon a large pile of wood, brought from the forest and from surrounding farms, was piled up beside the small plot where Nancy Young lay. The “Doc” then motioned that the coffin should be dug up and placed on top of the pyre. This was done, and the brushwood was then lit. Flames roared up into the evening sky, filling the tiny churchyard with a ruddy light. “Doc” Lennox advised members of the Young family to stand as close to the fire as they could so that the smoke would “wash away” the vampiric infection. They stood stock still as the vapors from the fire wafted over them. This, “Doc” Lennox assured them, would drive away the evil. It did no good, however. Less than a year afterward, Almira died with the same mysterious wasting illness, and across a space of three to four years thereafter, several more of Levi Young’s family were taken by sickness. However, none of the other children were ever exhumed. Once again, the Rhode Island “vampire sickness” seemed to have passed—but only for a while. It lay like a poison in the soil, waiting.
In 1874, 53-year-old William G. Rose had more or less became a pillar of the South County community. A hard and resilient man, he had a reputation for toughness throughout his harsh life. However, he lost his daughter Juliet to a mysterious fever. Juliet had been the child of his first wife, Mary Taylor, who had died some eight years earlier. William had been particularly fond of Juliet. In fact, he was nearly beside himself with grief, questioning why his daughter should have been stricken (the local doctor had diagnosed it as consumption, which seems to have been a catchall illness) and well aware of the Tillinghast and Young cases, his thoughts turned toward the restless dead and to vampires. When, several months after Juliet’s death, his 7-year-old daughter Rosalind began to show signs of the same mysterious fever, William became convinced that his home was under supernatural attack.
He set out to see the local priest, Father Amos Cabot, a meticulous man well versed in Church doctrine. Cabot was well aware of Juliet’s recent death and of some of the things that had been whispered about it, but, all the same, Rose’s sudden appearance unnerved him. He was even more unsettled when he heard the wild talk about demons and vampires. He advised William to pray for the recovery of his daughter. Ignoring the clergyman, William Rose stormed out—he had another avenue that he could try.
Rose’s second wife, Mary Griswold, had been married before to a Thomas Tillinghast, who had died long before she had married William and who is thought to have been a direct descendant of Stukely Tillinghast. Her former husband’s family were well acquainted with vampires, and it was to her that William now turned. It is doubtful as to whether Mary had told him the full story that she’d learned of the Tillinghast family before, but now sitting in their remote farmhouse she revealed the horror in some detail. Mixed in with her story were some old bits of lore that she’d picked up herself. A vampire, she said, could live within the grave of its last victim. If he was to “liberate” Juliet from the clutches of the fiend, he would have to violate her grave by exhuming her body and destroying it. It was the only way that he could protect his living family.
The next day, late in the evening, William Rose made his way to the nearby cemetery where his daughter lay. As the sun began to set he hesitated, sitting down in the gateway to contemplate the blasphemy that he was about to commit. Could he go through with it? As he sat there in the evening mist, a figure seemed to drift through the haze toward him. Looking up, he saw that it was his dead daughter Juliet.
“Papa!” she whispered, “It’s so cold. I can’t get any warmth.” In that moment, he would have rushed to embrace her but he remembered his wife’s tale and reeled back in horror. He was suddenly alone at the cemetery gate. Now convinced that something supernatural was afoot, he made his way to his daughter’s grave. From underneath his coat, he produced a shovel and, without further hesitation, began to dig. After a few minutes, the blade of the shovel struck wood.
Surprisingly, the casket showed few signs of decay. With a trembling hand, William Rose lifted the lid. Juliet lay just as he had remembered her, wrapped in a winding sheet. There was little unusual about the corpse—except for the blood. It was spread across the sheet in a huge, partly dried stain. And he noticed Juliet seemed to have a high color about her, as if she’d recently ingested some blood. It was as he’d suspected and as his wife had hinted: Juliet was a vampire! Taking his knife from a little satchel that he carried, Rose bent over the open coffin and carefully cut the heart from his daughter. From beneath the shroud came a sound like a sigh, the corpse seemed to jerk and then was still once more. William reburied the coffin, and then weeping, silently left the graveyard. When he arrived home, he went straight to his room and stoked up the fire. As the flames leapt higher, Rose took a small package from his pocket and dropped it into the blaze--Juliet’s heart. With an anguished cry he fell back again as smoke soared up the chimney, carrying the vampire curse away. But only for a few years.
The best-reported vampire lady is probably Mercy Brown. When Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, died, his wife found cuttings from some American newspapers (Stoker had been on tour in America with the actor Sir Henry Irving) all concerning the Brown case tucked away in one of his cases. It is thought to have partly influenced the writer and added an American element to the novel.
The onset of a harsh winter in 1883 marked the beginning of a dark and terrifying time for George Brown and his family. The settlement of Exeter, where they lived, was hit by a series of colds and flus that drove many of their neighbors to their beds. And a fever laid his wife, Mary, normally a healthy woman, low. As the dark days of 1883 drew in, the sickness grew worse, and on December 8, Mary closed her eyes for the last time. The family was distraught, but worse was to follow.
As the spring of 1884 rolled round, George’s eldest daughter, Mary Olive, began to show traces of the same fatal disease. She complained of dreadful dreams and was vaguely aware of a crushing weight upon her chest as she slept. She grew pale and haggard, and, as the summer came in, she began to fade more quickly. On June 6, 1884, she too passed away. Although his own grief was almost immeasurable, George Brown was a stolid working man and he desperately tried to pull his shattered family together once more. For several years, the family experienced a period of relative peace. During this time, Edwin, the Brown’s only son, married and acquired a farm in nearby Wickford, where he settled with his bride, leaving his sisters to look after his father. All seemed well with the family, but the sinister shadow of vampirism was not all that far away.
Five years after the death of Mary Olive, in 1889, Edwin himself began to show signs of the same terrible disease. He too dreamed of being suffocated and began to exhibit a disturbing pallor. Local doctors professed themselves baffled by the illness. Edwin grew steadily worse, complaining that he felt as if all the blood were being drained from his body. He passed from a robust young man into a gaunt and shambling figure, moving listlessly about his yard and taking an interest in nothing. Doctors advised a change of air and suggested that he go to Colorado Springs, in the hope that his health would improve. But although Edwin set off for his cure, the shadow that blighted his family refused to go away.
In January 1892, the strange disease struck again. Still in Colorado Springs, Edwin received word that his younger sister, Mercy Lena, had taken to her bed with the same symptoms. He immediately rushed back to Rhode Island, but he was too late; by the time he arrived, his sister was already dead. The shock drained the still-frail Edwin, and he had to stay with his father-in-law, Willis Himes, to regain at least some of his strength. The dreadful dreams of a presence in the bedroom and a crushing weight on his chest, which had all but disappeared during his time in Colorado Springs, now returned with a vengeance. Himes, concerned with his well-being, advised him to stay under his roof for as long as was necessary. Whilst there, he received a number of visitors—elders from the Exeter and Wickford communities. As they sat talking, old tales began to resurface—the stories of Juliet Rose and Nancy Young and the horror of Sarah Tillinghast. An ancient evil was loose in the area, they suggested, an evil that had to be tackled. At first Edwin Brown rejected such beliefs as mere superstition, but later he began to wonder. There seemed to be something lurking in the woods and forests of Rhode Island, which from time to time ventured out into the settlements round about, drinking blood and turning its victims into demons. And the more he thought about it, the more the idea took hold. At night as he slept, he saw his sister’s face leaning over him, her lips red and her eyes burning.
“Edwin!” her voice pleaded, echoing through the nightmare. “I’m cold and hungry. Feed me! Please!” And he always awoke in a sweat with the bedclothes damp around him. He couldn’t rest—he had to do something about this.
Because she had died during the winter when the ground was still hard and frozen, Mercy had not been buried in Exeter’s tiny Chestnut Hill cemetery, but had been left—still coffined and on a cart—in a small stone crypt on the graveyard’s edge. The body was still accessible. Bearing in mind some of the old stories, Edwin contacted a local doctor named Harold Metcalf who had a background in surgery. Metcalf himself was not untouched by the weird superstitions of the South County people, and was convinced that there was something uncanny about Edwin’s illness. He suggested an exhumation of Edwin’s mother and elder sister, Mary Olive. With Edwin’s consent this was done and the bodies were examined. Nothing was found. The moldering skeletons of Mary Brown were so decomposed that no opinion about them could be formed. Metcalf then turned his attention of Mercy, then dead for some nine weeks, whose body still lay within the tiny crypt.
At 5:30 on the morning of March 18, 1892, a small group of men, with Metcalf at its head and the gaunt form of Edwin Brown following, made its way to the narrow building. Many were carrying torches and some were praying. The old sexton opened the door and the men stepped inside—into the dark.
Mercy’s coffin still lay on the cart and the flickering torches of the men cast eerie shadows across it. Metcalf was still very wary about the whole enterprise—he was superstitious but he was also a practical man in many respects. What if he was wrong? With a shaking voice he instructed the old caretaker to lift the coffin lid. The men drew back; praying more earnestly now as the old man drew a pair of pliers from his pocket and started to ease the nails from the casket. There was a shriek that echoed around the tomb as each one came free but, at last, the lid was ready to lift. Metcalf and some of the other elders looked down on the corpse of Mercy Brown. After nine weeks there should have been some visible trace pf decomposition, but there was none. Mercy lay as if she were asleep, her skin slightly ruddy in the torchlight, and around the edges of her mouth were the faintest traces of blood. Taking out a small scalpel from the black doctor’s bag that he carried, Metcalf leaned even further forward until he was directly above her breast. Then, almost like a frenzied ghoul, he began to cut into the flesh, creating a cavity into which he reached to pull out her heart. Reaching back in again, he extended the cut and took out her liver as well. A fine mist of blood fell from the organs settling on the floor. Although it was probably no more than would have been extracted from another cadaver, it was taken as evidence that Mercy was a supernatural creature, which had gorged itself with blood. A sound like a sigh passed through the crypt, but it may have been no more than the morning wind in the cemetery outside. Leaving the building, Metcalf carried the organs to a corner of the burying ground where they were doused with oil and vinegar. Lifting a taper that he’d lit from a torch, Edwin Brown burned the remains of his dead sister. A boiling water and vinegar mixture was poured into the still-open coffin, over the remains that lay there. It was hoped that this marked the end of whatever had beset the Brown family and the Exeter community.
Word of these rather exotic events leaked out to a wider American public almost immediately. The leading newspaper, the Providence Journal for March 19, 1892, ran with sensationalist headlines “EXHUMED THE BODIES. Testing A Horrible Superstition in the Town of Exeter. BODIES OF DEAD RELATIVES TAKEN FROM THEIR GRAVES.” Two days later, the same newspaper was to proclaim “VAMPIRE THEORY: THAT SEARCH FOR THE SPECTRAL GHOUL IN THE EXETER GRAVES.” Old alleged vampire cases in the area and in surrounding states were swiftly revived—Horace Ray in Jewett City, Connecticut (1854). a family named Corwen in Woodstock, Vermont (reported in the Vermont Standard in 1834); and a peculiar case in Manchester, Vermont. All these pointed to a New England vampire tradition that fascinated much of America.
The macabre events in Chestnut Hill Cemetery in the winter of 1892 proved too much for the frail Edwin Brown. Within several months he was dead, and with his death the vampire curse seemed to have finally lifted from Rhode Island. Nevertheless, it seems to have left a legacy behind—a legacy of mystery and speculation, which may have partly inspired Bram Stoker to write his famous novel.
Which leaves only Nelly Vaughan in her grave in Coventry, South County. Nothing is known about her or her life, but the mysterious inscription on her tombstone was to provoke wonder and apprehension.
“I am waiting and watching for you.”
What did it mean? Maybe there was a simple explanation—a message to a beloved family or some special sweetheart—but we shall never know. Some, however, have suggested that there is a much more sinister meaning to the message. The inscription came to a wider American audience when Yankee magazine published an article titled “The Words on Nelly’s Tombstone,” which provoked a great deal of interest, especially from occultists but also from the religiously inclined. Indeed, the tombstone had to be removed in the early 1990s to prevent it from being desecrated by religious fundamentalists and vampire hunters. One astute individual has pointed out that many of the homes of the so-called “Vampire Ladies” lie along Route 102, which has subsequently been named “Rhode Island’s Vampire Highway.”
Of course, the events surrounding the Vampire Ladies of Rhode Island can be logically interpreted. A recurrent epidemic of tuberculosis coupled with a credulous, almost hysterical turn of mind is a common answer, and the newspapers of the time (and subsequent publications) have sought to portray these early Rhode Islanders as gullible, superstitious people. But, though we may scoff at such “primitive beliefs” there just might be a hint of wariness in our tone. Maybe there is something lurking out there in the dark New England woods—something that is waiting and watching!
Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland. Since leaving school, he has travelled throughout the world, fascinated by the myths and stories he has found. He has written a number of books looking at culture and lore, including Vampires; Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms; Zombies; and Werewolves, all for New Page Books. He lives in Northern Ireland with his wife and family.