Oct 16, 2013
Vampires in Connecticut; Dracula author Bram Stoker's Descendant to Give Presentation
Although vampires are now in vogue year-round, the interest in them is especially strong during the month of October. To that extent, there are multiple events "dead"-icated to the "undead" around the state, including "Vampires!" featuring a screening of The Tillinghast Nightmare, a documentary chronicling the transformation of the blood-thirsty vampire from vile, menacing neighbor in rural Eastern Europe to the beguiling, aristocratic stranger known as Dracula that also explores the Tillinghast family's decision to exhume the body of their beloved daughter Sarah and burn her heart in 1799 Exeter, R.I.
The event is on Sunday, Oct. 27 at the Garde Arts Center in New London, and on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at the Mark Twain House in Hartford. It's sponsored by Historical Haunts, and features a presentation from author, writer and vampire expert Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Dracula author Bram Stoker. Dacre Stoker will discuss some of the mysteries behind the writing of Dracula that really pertain to the New England vampire scare of the early 1800s, including an 1896 article in the New York World about it found in Bram Stoker's notes.
"When Bram read this interesting article that was in the New York World, and saw all that vampires being considered as a real thing in New England, he made the connections to the research he was doing," says Stoker, who with Elizabeth Miller, published The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years. "I’ve looked at the date of this article and it was about two-thirds of the way through the writing of Dracula. My feeling is that a lot of these little things lined up. He did the research in the British Museum and found stories of the early vampire scares in the 1500s and 1600s, and that was great. But when he reads this thing in the United States, it was really scaring people to the point where they were digging up graves and having to do these rituals—either staking hearts or burning the hearts—it became the real deal. Plus, it was in a newspaper, not in a research book, so that brought an influence to Bram that he used newspaper articles in Dracula to make the story more realistic."
Stoker also suggests that the article may have been the inspiration for another now-iconic part of the Dracula mythos. "There’s nowhere else in his notes where he references bats; so people say, ‘How did Bram bring bats into this thing? How did people in those days know about South American vampire bats?’" says Stoker. "Well, sure enough, in this New York World article, there’s a reference to these Europeans in South America and sailors sleeping on the deck of the ship and getting bit by a bat, and someone else’s horse having this bat sitting on its back and lapping up blood. So these two pieces gave Bram sort of a feeling of credibility even though he knew this was fiction. He could see that fiction was making its way into mainstream media and was like ‘Great, this is a perfect insertion into my story.’"
Obviously, the subjects of these stories were not actual blood-sucking entities roaming the Earth. Rather than the debonair, romantic fictional creations like Count Vlad, the “vampires” of the 19th century and earlier were thought to be the undead—arisen zombie-like from the grave to find nourishment in the blood of family members.
"Back in the 1500s and 1600s in Europe, the plague and other communicable diseases were unexplained," says Stoker, and in the absence of scientific medical knowledge, people looked for answers in the paranormal. "In lots of other parts of the world, there were plenty of other diseases that nobody knew what was going on—'Why did the father die, and then three days later, the mother dies? Well, she wasn’t mourning properly, or she wasn’t faithful, or the kids weren’t crying enough and so now they got sick, too.' So [the deaths were] explained in those days that someone was coming out of the grave and sucking the life out of them rather than it was a communicable disease."
Thus the "vampire" as a nefarious supernatural creature was born. "The bodily signs of coughing up blood, the body wasting away, the heavy pressure on the chest like a spirit is sitting on the victim and making it difficult to breathe," says Stoker. "Because medicine hadn’t advanced very far, it all was ripe to create legend and myth to explain these situations and give people a way out."
Of course, now that the "cause" of deaths had been "identified" as the dead rising up from their graves to feed upon the living, the solution was simple, says Stoker. "‘We don’t have medicine to fix it? So let’s go into the grave, take their hearts out, burn them, cut their heads off, put garlic in, stake them to the ground’—all these things that gave the, let’s say, less-than-educated people, a way to deal with it."
And across Europe and eventually North America—including right here in Connecticut—that's exactly what happened when communities were felled by undiagnosed communicable diseases. Bodies were exhumed and "taken care of" so that they could no longer prey upon the living.
It's this mix of actual events and ignorant beliefs—and much more—that Bram Stoker wove into his seminal vampire tale, Dracula.
"The novel is so complex on so many levels," say Dacre Stoker (right), who in 2010 along with Ian Holt, wrote a "sequel" to Dracula entitled Dracula The Un-Dead. "Conferences have been going on about Bram Stoker and the hidden meanings inside Dracula—how many of these things did Bram consciously decide and put in his books? We don’t know but certainly, many people have gotten their money’s worth writing stories about the writing about Dracula and giving papers and earning master’s degrees and doctoral theses, and I think it’s great. On one hand, it’s a little strange that it’s just so deep and rich and the possibilities and the different layers, and then I go back and I think, ‘Boy, Bram, you really got them. You wrote a helluva a scary story, and the world over a hundred years later, is still baffled by it. Good for you.’"
From Twilight to "True Blood" to the new "Dracula" series that starts this month on NBC—vampires continue to take up a large place in our consciousness. Why are we continually drawn to stories like Dracula?
"I think the fact that it’s based on semi-realism has kept it really close to people’s consciousness," suggests Stoker. "Frankenstein is a great novel, and a great story, but it was a really creative thought—it was something that was created about putting a body together when science and technology were just busting out. It wasn’t based on myths and legends like Dracula."
The talk of vampires this month goes beyond the iconic count. Also coming up on Oct. 22 at noon at the Old State House in Hartford and Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. at the Danbury Museum and Historical Society in Danbury: "New England Vampire Folk Belief," presented by Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, the Connecticut state archaeologist, during which he will discuss "the history of the Jewett City vampires, including origins of the beliefs in the undead seeking nourishment from family members and how the living were protected." Dr. Bellantoni was involved with excavation of the "vampire" graves.
Yes, that's right—Connecticut has its own vampire legend.
In this particular case, the family was the Rays of Jewett City, who over the course of nine years lost multiple family members to consumption, which is now known as tuberculosis. The first to die from the mysterious disease was 24-year-old son Lemuel in 1845; less than four years later, family patriarch Henry B. Ray was felled by the same disease. He was followed to the grave in the same manner by 26-year-old son Elisha, only two years afterward.
Three short years later, in 1854, when eldest son Henry became stricken with the now all-too-familiar symptoms, true panic set in. Now convinced that they were dealing with something well beyond normal death, the family somehow decided that the untimely demises were being caused by their dead relatives rising from the grave during the night and returning to feast on the blood of the living—perhaps the legacy of the Tillinghast incident in nearby Rhode Island? Nonetheless, something drastic needed to be done, and done quickly.
According to newspaper accounts, it was with the pure intent of protecting the living that the decomposing bodies of Lemuel and Elisha were dug up and burned immediately. Although it appears the body of Joseph Sr. was spared, it was believed the incendiary action did the trick—history does not record a specific date for Henry’s demise, so it’s thought that he survived his affliction.
Interestingly, evidence was discovered in the 1990s that there may have been other earlier suspected “vampires” outside the Ray family. In neighboring Hopeville, 29 graves were unearthed — an unmarked cemetery of the Walton family, who had lived only two miles from the Rays’ farm about 50 years earlier in the early 18th century. Upon archaeological exhumation, it was determined that one of the bodies, which had been decimated by consumption, apparently had been dug up after it was buried, had its head removed, what was left of the skeleton faced down and its femur bones crossed over the chest. Other Walton family members had also evidently died from consumption.
Another "victim" of Connecticut's "vampire" panic.
Vampires in Connecticut; Dracula author Bram Stoker's Descendant to Give Presentation