“Vampyrism” By Herbert Mayo, M.D.
from On the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions with an Account of Mesmerism (3rd ed.), Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1851 pp. 22-43
–Tale exemplifying the superstition — The Vampyr state of the body in the grave — Various instances of death-trance — The risk of premature interment considered — The Vampyr Visit.
In acknowledging my former letter, you express an eager desire to learn, as you phrase it, “all about Vampyrs, if there ever were such things.” I will not delay satisfying your curiosity, although by so doing I interrupt the logical order of my communications. It is, perhaps, all the better. The proper place of this subject falls in the midst of a philosophical disquisition; and it would have been a pity not to present it to you in its pristine colouring. How came your late tutor, Dr. H., to leave you in ignorance upon a point on which, in my time, schoolboys much your juniors entertained decided opinions?
Were there ever such things as Vampyrs? Tantamne rem tam negligenter! I turn to the learned pages of Horst for a luminous and precise definition of the destructive and mysterious beings whose existence you have ventured to consider problematical.
“A Vampyr is a dead body which continues to live in the grave; which it leaves, however, by night, for the purpose of sucking the blood of the living, whereby it is nourished and preserved in good condition, instead of becoming decomposed like other dead bodies.”
Upon my word, you really deserve, since Mr. George Combe has clearly shown, in his admirable work on the Constitution of Man, and its adaptation to the surrounding world, that ignorance is a statutable crime before nature, and punished by the laws of Providence–you deserve, I say, unless you contrive to make Mr. H. your substitute, which I think would be just, yourself to be the subject of the nocturnal visit of a Vampyr. Your scepticism will abate pretty considerably when you see him stealthily entering your room, yet are powerless under the fascination of his fixed and leaden eye–when you are conscious, as you lie motionless with terror, of his nearer and nearer approach–when you feel his face, fresh with the smell of the grave, bent over your throat, while his keen teeth make a fine incision in your jugular, preparatory to commencing his plain but nutritive repast.
You would look a little paler the next morning, but that would be all for the moment; for Fischer informs us that the bite of a Vampyr leaves in general no mark upon the person. But he fearfully adds, “It (the bite) is nevertheless speedily fatal,” unless the bitten person protect himself by eating some of the earth from the grave of the Vampyr, and smearing himself with his blood. Unfortunately, these measures are seldom, if ever, of more than temporary use. Fischer adds, “if through these precautions the life of the victim be prolonged for a period, sooner or later he ends with becoming a Vampyr himself; that is to say, he dies and is buried, but continues to lead a Vampyr life in the grave, nourishing himself by infecting others, and promiscuously propagating Vampyrism.”
This is no romancer’s dream. It is a succinct account of a superstition which to this day survives in the east of Europe, where little more than a century ago it was
frightfully prevalent. At that period Vampyrism spread like a pestilence through Servia and Wallachia, causing numerous deaths, and disturbing all the land with fear of the mysterious visitation, against which no one felt himself secure.
Here is something like a good solid practical popular delusion. Do I believe it? To be sure I do. The facts are a matter of history: the people died like rotted sheep; and the cause and method of their dying was, in their belief, what has just been stated. You suppose, then, they died frightened out of their lives, as men have died whose pardon has been proclaimed when their necks were already on the block, of the belief that they were going to die? Well, if that were all, the subject would still be worth examining. But there is more in it than that, as the following o’er true tale will convince you, the essential points of which are authenticated by documentary evidence.
In the spring of 1727, there returned from the Levant to the village of Meduegna, near Belgrade, one Arnod Paole, who, in a few years of military service and varied adventure, had amassed enough to purchase a cottage and an acre or two of land in his native place, where he gave out that he meant to pass the remainder of his days. He kept his word. Arnod had yet scarcely reached the prime of manhood; and though he must have encountered the rough as well as the smooth of life, and have mingled with many a wild and reckless companion, yet his naturally good disposition and honest principles had preserved him unscathed in the scenes he had passed through. At all events, such were the thoughts expressed by his neighbors as they discussed his return and settlement among them in the Stube of the village Hof. Nor did the frank and open countenance of Arnod, his obliging habits and steady conduct, argue
their judgment incorrect. Nevertheless, there was something occasionally noticeable in his ways–a look and tone that betrayed inward disquiet. Often would he refuse to join his friends, or on some sudden plea abruptly quit their society. And he still more unaccountably, and as it seemed systematically, avoided meeting his pretty neighbor, Nina, whose father occupied the next tenement to his own. At the age of seventeen, Nina was as charming a picture of youth, cheerfulness, innocence, and confidence, as you could have seen in all the world. You could not look into her limpid eyes, which steadily returned your gaze, without seeing to the bottom of the pure and transparent spring of her thoughts. Why, then, did Arnod shrink from meeting her? He was young; had a little property; had health and industry; and he had told his friends he had formed no ties in other lands. Why, then, did he avoid the fascination of the pretty Nina, who seemed a being made to chase from any brow the clouds of gathering care? But he did so; yet less and less resolutely, for he felt he charm of her presence. Who could have done otherwise? And how could he long resist–he didn’t–the impulse of his fondness for the innocent girl who often sought to cheer his fits of depression?
And they were to be united–were betrothed; yet still an anxious gloom would fitfully overcast his countenance, even in the sunshine of these hours.
“What is it, dear Arnod, that makes you sad? It cannot be on my account, I know, for you were sad before you ever noticed me; and that, I think,” (and you should have seen the deepening rose upon her cheeks,) “surely first made me notice you.”
“Nina,” he answered, “I have done, I fear, a great wrong in trying to gain your affections. Nina, I have a fixed impression that I shall not live; yet, knowing this,
I have selfishly made my existence necessary to your happiness.”
“How strangely you talk, dear Arnod! Who in the village is stronger and healthier than you? You feared no danger when you were a soldier. What danger do you fear as a villager of Meduegna?”
It haunts me, Nina.”
But, Arnod, you were sad before you thought of me. Did you then fear to die?”
“Ah, Nina, it is something worse than death.” And his vigorous frame shook with agony.
“Arnod, I conjure you, tell me.”
“It was in Cossova this fate befell me. Here you have hitherto escaped the terrible scourge. But there they died, and the dead visited the living. I experienced the first frightful visitation, and I fled; but not til I had sought his grave, and exacted the dread expiation from the Vampyr.”
Nina’s blood ran cold. She stood horror-stricken. But her young heart soon mastered her first despair. With a touching voice she spoke–
“Fear not, dear Arnod; fear not now. I will be your shield, or I will die with you!”
And she encircled his neck with her gentle arms, and returning hope shone, Iris-like, amid her falling tears. Afterwards they found reasonable ground for banishing or allaying their apprehension in the length of time which had elapsed since Arnod left Cossova, during which no fearful visitant had again approached him; and they fondly trusted that gave them security.
It is a strange world. The ills we fear are commonly not those which overwhelm us. The blows that reach us are for the most part unforeseen. One day, about a week after this conversation, Arnod missed his footing when on top of a loaded hay-waggon, and fell from
it to the ground. He was picked up insensible, and carried home, where, after lingering a short time, he died. His interment, as usual, followed immediately. His fate was sad and premature. But what pencil could paint Nina’s grief?
Twenty or thirty days after his decease, says the perfectly authenticated report of these transactions, several of the neighborhood complained that they were haunted by the said Arnod; and, what was more to the purpose, four of them died. The evil, looked at sceptically, was bad enough, but, aggravated by the suggestions of superstition, it spread a panic through the whole district. To allay the popular terror, and if possible to get to the root of the evil, a determination was come to publicly to disinter the body of Arnod, with the view of ascertaining whether he really was a Vampyr, and, in that event, of treating him conformably. The day fixed for this proceeding was the fortieth after his burial.
It was on a gray morning in early August that the commission visited the quiet cemetery of Meduegna, which, surrounded with a wall of unhewn stone, lies sheltered by the mountain that, rising in undulating green slopes, irregularly planted with fruit trees, ends in an abrupt craggy ridge, feathered with underwood. The graves were, for the most part, neatly kept, with borders of box, or something like it, and flowers between; and at the head of most a small wooden cross, painted black, bearing the name of the tenant. Here and there a stone had been raised. One of considerable height, a single narrow slab, ornamented with grotesque Gothic carvings, dominated over the rest. Near this lay the grave of Arnod Paole, towards which the party moved. The work of throwing out the earth was begun by the gray crooked old sexton, who lived in the Leichenhaus, beyond the great crucifix. He seemed unconcerned
enough; no Vampyr would think of extracting a supper out of him. Nearest the grave stood two military surgeons, or feldscherers, from Belgrade, and a drummer-boy, who held their case of instruments. The boy looked on with keen interest; and when the coffin was exposed and rather roughly drawn out of the grave, his pale face and bright intent eye showed how the scene moved him. The sexton lifted the lid of the coffin: the body had become inclined to one side. Then turning it straight, “Ha! ha!” said he, pointing to fresh blood upon the lips, “Ha! ha! What! Your mouth not wiped since last night’s work?” The spectators shuddered; the drummer-boy sank forward, fainting, and upset the instrument-case, scattering its contents; the senior surgeon, infected with the horror of the scene, repressed a hasty exclamation, and simply crossed himself. They threw water on the drummer-boy, and he recovered, but would not leave the spot. Then they inspected the body of Arnod. It looked as if it had not been dead a day. On handling it, the scarfskin came off, but below were new skin and new nails! How could they have come there but from its foul feeding! The case was clear enough; there lay before them the thing they dreaded–the Vampyr. So, without more ado, they simply drove a stake through poor Arnod’s chest, whereupon a quantity of blood gushed forth, and the corpse uttered an audible groan. “Murder! oh, murder!” shrieked the drummer-boy, as he rushed wildly, with convulsed gestures, from the cemetery.
The drummer-boy was not far from the mark. But, quitting the romancing vein, which had led me to try and restore the original colours of the picture, let me confine myself, in describing the rest of the scene and what followed, to the words of my authority.
The body of Arnod was then burnt to ashes, which
were returned to the grave. The authorities further staked and burnt the bodies of the four others which were supposed to have been infected by Arnod. No mention is made of the state in which they were found. The adoption of these decisive measures failed, however, entirely to extinguish the evil, which continued still to hang about the village. About five years afterwards it had again become very rife, and many died through it; whereupon the authorities determined to make another and complete clearance of the Vampyrs in the cemetery, and with that object they had all the graves, to which present suspicion attached, opened, and their contents officially anatomized, of which procedure the following is the medical report, here and there abridged only:–
1. A woman of the name of Stana, twenty years of age, who had died three months before of a three-days’ illness following her confinement. She had before her death avowed that she had anointed herself with the blood of a Vampyr, to liberate herself from its persecution. Nevertheless, she, as well as her infant, whose body through careless interment had been half eaten by the dogs, had died. Her body was entirely free from decomposition. On opening it, the chest was found full of recently effused blood, and the bowels had exactly the appearances of sound health. The skin and nails of her hands and feet were loose and came off, but underneath lay new skin and nails.
2. A woman of the name of Miliza, who had died at the end of a three-months’ illness. The body had been buried ninety and odd days. In the chest was liquid blood. The viscera were as in the former instance. The body was declared by a heyduk, who recognised it, to be in better condition, and fatter, than it had been in the woman’s legitimate lifetime.
3. The body of a child eight years old, that had likewise been buried ninety days: it was in the Vampyr condition.
4. The son of a heyduk named Milloc, sixteen years old. The body had lain in the grave nine weeks. He had died after three days’ indisposition, and was in the condition of a Vampyr.
5. Joachim, likewise the son of a heyduk, seventeen years old. He had died after three days’ illness; had been buried eight weeks and some days; was found in the Vampyr state.
6. A woman of the name of Rusha, who had died of an illness of ten days’ duration, and had been six weeks buried, in whom likewise fresh blood was found in the chest.
(The reader will understand, that to see blood in the chest, it is first necessary to cut the chest open.)
7. The body of a girl of ten years of age, who had died two months before. It was likewise in the Vampyr state, perfectly undecomposed, with blood in the chest.
8. The body of the wife of one Hadnuck, buried seven weeks before; and that of her infant, eight weeks old, buried only twenty-one days. They were both in a state of decomposition, though buried in the same ground, and closely adjoining the others.
9. A servant, by the name of Rhade, twenty-three years of age; he had died after an illness of three months’ duration, and the body had been buried five weeks. It was in a state of decomposition.
10. The body of the heyduk Stanco, sixty years of age, who had died six weeks previously. There was much blood and other fluid in the chest and abdomen, and the boy was in the Vampyr condition.
11. Millac, a heyduk, twenty-five years old. The body had been in the earth six weeks. It was perfectly in the Vampyr condition.
12. Stanjoika, the wife of a heyduk, twenty years old; had died after an illness of three days, and had been buried eighteen. The countenance was florid. There was blood in the chest and in the heart. The viscera were perfectly sound; the skin remarkably fresh.
The document which gives the above particulars is signed by three regimental surgeons, and formally countersigned by a lieutenant-colonel and sub-lieutenant. It bears the date of “June 7, 1732, Meduegna near Belgrade.” No doubt can be entertained of its authenticity, or of its general fidelity; the less that it does not stand alone, but is supported by a mass of evidence to the same effect. It appears to establish beyond question, that where the fear of Vampyrism prevails, and there occur several deaths, in the popular belief connected with it, the bodies, when disinterred weeks after burial, present the appearance of corpses from which life has only recently departed.
What inference shall we draw from this fact?–that Vampyrism is true in the popular sense?–and that these fresh-looking and well-conditioned corpses had some mysterious source of preternatural nourishment? That would be to adopt, not to solve the superstition. Let us content ourselves with a notion not so monstrous, but still startling enough: that the bodies, which were found in the so-called Vampyr state, instead of being in a new or mystical condition, were simply alive in the common way, or had been so for some time subsequent to their interment; that, in short, they were the bodies of persons who had been buried alive, and whose life, where it yet lingered, was finally extinguished through the ignorance and barbarity of those who disinterred them. In the following sketch of a similar scene to that above described, the correctness of this inference comes out with terrific force.
Erasmus Francisci, in his remarks upon the description of the Dukedom of Krain by Valvasor, speaks of a man of the name of Grando, in the district of Kring, who died, was buried, and became a Vampyr, and as such was exhumed for the purpose of having a stake thrust through him.
“When they had opened his grave, after he had been long buried, his face was found with a colour, and his features made natural sorts of movements, as if the dead man smiled. He even opened his mouth as if he would inhale fresh air. They held the crucifix before him, and called in a loud voice, ‘See, this is Jesus Christ who redeemed your soul from hell, and died for you.’ After the sound had acted on his organs of hearing, and he had connected perhaps some ideas with it, tears began to flow from the dead man’s eyes. Finally, when after a short prayer for his poor soul, they proceeded to hack off his head, the corpse uttered a screech, and turned and rolled just as if it had been alive–and the grave was full of blood.”
We have thus succeeded in interpreting one of the unknown terms in the Vampyr-theorem. The suspicious character, who had some dark way of nourishing himself in the grave, turns out to be an unfortunate gentleman (or lady) whom his friends had buried under a mistake while he was still alive, and who, if they afterwards mercifully let him alone, died sooner or later either naturally or of the premature interment–in either case, it is to be hoped, with no interval of returned consciousness. The state which thus passed for death and led to such fatal consequences, apart from superstition, deserves our serious consideration; for, although of very rare, it is of continual occurrence, and society is not sufficiently on its guard against a contingency so dreadful when overlooked. When the nurse or the doctor has announced that it is all over–that the valued friend or relative
has breathed his last–no doubt crosses anyone’s mind of the reality of the sad event. Disease is now so well understood–every step in its march laid down and foreseen–the approach of danger accurately estimated–the liability of the patient, according to his powers of resisting it, to succumb earlier or to hold out longer–all is theoretically so clear, that a wholesome suspicion of error in the verdict of the attendants seldom suggests itself. The evil I am considering ought not, however, to be attributed to redundance of knowledge; it arises from its partial lack–from a too general neglect of one very important section in pathological science. The laity, if not the doctors too, constantly lose sight of the fact, that there exists an alternative to the fatal event of ordinary disease; that a patient is liable at any period of illness to deviate, or, as it were, to slide off, from the customary line of disease into another and a deceptive route–instead of death, to encounter apparent death.
The Germans express this condition of the living body by the term “scheintod,” which signifies exactly apparent death; and it is perhaps a better term than our English equivalent, “suspended animation.” But both these expressions are generic terms, and a specific term is still wanted to denote the present class of instances. To meet this exigency, I propose, for reasons which will afterwards appear, to employ the term “death-trance” to designate the cases we are investigating.
Death-trance is, then, one of the forms of suspended animation: there are several others. After incomplete poisoning, after suffocation in either of its various ways, after exposure to cold in infants newly born, a state is occasionally met with, of which (however each may still differ from the rest) the common feature is an apparent suspension of the vital actions. But all of these so-cited
instances agree in another important respect, which second inter-agreement separates them as a class from death-trance. They represent, each and all, a period of conflict between the effects of certain deleterious impressions and the vital principle, the latter struggling against the weight and force of the former. Such is not the case in death-trance.
Death-trance is a positive status–a period of repose–the duration of which is sometimes definite and predetermined, though unknown. Thus the patient, the term of death-trance having expired, occasionally suddenly wakes, entirely and at once restored. Oftener, however, the machinery which has been stopped seems to require to be jogged–then it goes on again.
The basis of death-trance is suspension of the action of the heart, and of the breathing, and of the voluntary motion; generally likewise feeling and intelligence, and the vegetative changes in the body, are suspended. With these phenomena is joined loss of external warmth; so that the usual evidence of life is gone. But there have occurred varieties of this condition, in which occasional slight manifestations of one or other of the vital actions have been observed.
Death-trance may occur as a primary affection, suddenly or gradually. The diseases the course of which it is liable, as it were, to bifurcate, or to graft itself upon, are first and principally all disorders of the nervous system. But in any form of disease, when the body is brought to a certain degree of debility, death-trance may supervene. Age and sex hav to do with its occurrence; which is more frequent in the young than the old, in women than in men–differences evidently connected with greater irritability of the nervous system. Accordingly, women in labour are among the most liable to death-trance, and it is from such a
case that I will give a first instance of the affection as portrayed by a medical witness. (Journal des Savans, 1749.)
M. Rigaudeaux, surgeon to the military hospital, and licensed accoucheur at Douai, was sent for on the 8th of September 1745, to attend the wife of Francis Dumont, residing two leagues from the town. He was late in getting there; it was half-past eight A.M.–too late, it seemed; the patient was declared to have died at six o’clock, after eighteen hours of ineffectual labour pains. M. Rigaudeaux inspected the body; there was no pulse or breath; the mouth was full of froth, the abdomen tumid. He brought away the infant, which he committed to the care of the nurses, who, after trying to reanimate it for three hours, gave up the attempt, and prepared to lay it out, when it opened its mouth. They then gave it wine, and it was speedily recovered. M. Rigaudeaux, who returned to the house as this occurred, inspected again the body of the mother. (It had been already nailed down in a coffin.) He examined it with the utmost care; but he came to the conclusion that it was certainly dead. Nevertheless, as the joints of the limbs were still flexible, although seven hours had elapsed since its apparent death, he left the strictest injunctions to watch the body carefully, to apply stimulants to the nostrils from time to time, to slap the palms of the hands, and the like. At half-past three o’clock symptoms of returning animation showed themselves, and the patient recovered.
The period during which every ordinary sign of life may be absent, without the prevention of their return, is unknown, but in well-authenticated cases it has much exceeded the period observed in the above instance. Here is an example borrowed from the Journal des Savans, 1741.
There was a Colonel Russell, whose wife, to whom he was affectionately attached, died, or appeared to do so. But he would not allow the body to be buried; and threatened to shoot any one who should interfere to remove it for that purpose. His conduct was guided by reason as well as by affection and instinct. He said he would not part from the body till its decomposition had begun. Eight days had passed, during which the body of his wife gave no sign of life; when, as he sat bedewing her hand with his tears, the church-bell tolled, and, to his unspeakable amazement, his wife sat up, and said–“That is the last bell; we shall be too late.” She recovered.
There are cases on record of people who could spontaneously fall into death-trance. Monti, in a letter to Haller, adverts to several; and mentions, in particular, a peasant upon whom, when he assumed this state, the flies would settle; breathing, the pulse, and all ordinary signs of life disappeared. A priest of the name of Caelius Rhodaginus had the same faculty. But the most celebrated instance is that of Colonel Townshend, mentioned in the surgical works of Gooch, by whom and by Dr Cheyne and Dr Baynard, and by Mr Shrine, an apothecary, the performance of Colonel Townshend was seen and attested. They had long attended him, for he was a habitual invalid, and he had often invited them to witness the phenomenon of his dying and coming to life again; but they had hitherto refused, from fear of the consequences to himself: at last they assented. Accordingly, in their presence, Colonel Townshend laid himself down on his back, and Dr Cheyne undertook to observe his pulse; Dr Baynard laid a hand on his heart, and Mr Shrine had a looking-glass to hold to his mouth. After a few seconds, pulse, breathing, and the action of the heart, were no longer to be observed. Each of the witnesses satisfied himself of the entire cessation
of these phenomena. When the death-trance had lasted half-an-hour , the doctors began to fear that their patient had pushed the experiment too far, and was dead in earnest; and they were preparing to leave the house, when a slight movement of the body attracted their attention. They renewed their routine of observation; when the pulse and sensible motion of the heart gradually returned, and breathing, and consciousness. The tale ends abruptly. Colonel Townshend, on recovering, sent for his attorney, made his will, and died, for good and all, six hours afterwards.
Although many have recovered from death-trance, and there seems to be in each case a definite period to its duration, yet its event is not always so fortunate. The patient sometimes really dies during its continuance, either unavoidably, or in consequence of adequate measures not being taken to stimulate him to waken, or to support life. The following very good instance rests on the authority of Dr Schmidt, a physician of the hospital of Paderborn, where it occurred, (Rheinisch-Westphälischer Anzeiger, 1835, No. 57 and 58.)
A young man of the name of Caspar Kreite, from Berne, died in the hospital of Paderborn, but his body could not be interred for three weeks, for the following reasons. During the first twenty-four hours after drawing its last breath, the corpse opened its eyes, and the pulse could be felt, for a few minutes, beating feebly and irregularly. On the third and fourth day, points of the skin, which had been burned to test the reality of his death, suppurated. On the fifth day the corpse changed the position of one hand: on the ninth day a vesicular eruption appeared on the back. For nine days there was a vertical fold of the skin of the forehead–a sort of frown–and the features had not the character of death. The lips remained red until the eighteenth day; and the
joints preserved their flexibility from first to last. He lay in this state in a warm room for nineteen days, without any further alteration than a sensible wasting in flesh. Till after the nineteenth day no discoloration of the body, or odour of putrefaction, was observed. He had been cured of ague, and laboured under a slight chest affection; but there had been no adequate cause for his death. It is evident that this person was much more alive than many are in this death-trance; and one half suspects that stimulants and nourishment, properly introduced, might have entirely reanimated him.
I might exemplify death-trance by many a well-authenticated romantic story.–A noise heard in a vault; the people, instead of breaking open the door, go for the keys, and the authority to act, and return too late; the unfortunate person is found dead, having previously gnawn her hand and arm in agony.–A lady is buried with a jewel of value on her finger; thieves open the vault to possess themselves of the treasure; the ring cannot be drawn from the finger, and the thieves proceed to cut the finger off; the lady, wakening from her trance, scares the thieves away, and recovers.–A young married lady dies and is buried; a former admirer, to whom her parents had refused her hand, bribes the sexton to let him see once more the form he loved. The body opportunely comes to life at this moment, and flies from Paris with its first lover to England, where they are married. Venturing to return to France, the lady is recognized, and is reclaimed by her previous husband by a suit at law; her counsel demurs, on the grounds of the desertion and burial; but the law not admitting this plea, she flies again to England with her preserver, to avoid the judgment of the parliament of Paris, in the acts of which the case stands recorded. There are one or two other
cases that I dare not cite, the particulars of which transcend the wildest flights of the imagination.
It may be thought that these are all tales of the olden time; and that the very case I have given from the hospital at Paderborn shows that now medical men are sufficiently circumspect, and the public really on its guard to prevent a living person being interred as one dead. And I grant that in England, among all but the poorest class, the danger is practically inconsiderable of being buried alive. But that it still exists for every class, and that for the poor the danger is great and serious, I am afraid there is too much reason for believing. It is stated in Froriep’s Notizen, 1829, No. 522, that, agreeably to a then recent ordinance in New York, coffins presented for burial were kept above ground for eight days, open at the head, and so arranged, that the least movement of the body would ring a bell, through strings attached to the hands and feet. It will hardly be credited, that out of twelve hundred whose interment had been thus postponed, six returned to life–one in every two hundred! The arrangement this beneficently adopted at New York is, however, imperfect, as it makes time the criterion for interment. The time is not known during which a body in death-trance may remain alive. Nothing but one positive condition of the body, which I will presently mention, authenticates death. It is frightful to think how, in the south of Europe, within twenty-four hours after the last breath bodies are shovelled into pits among heaped corpses; and to imagine what fearful agonies of despair must sometimes be encountered by unhappy beings, who wake amid the unutterable horrors of such a grave. But it is enough to look at home, and to make no delay in providing there for the careful watching of the bodies of the poor, till life has certainly departed. Many do not dream how barbarous and
backward the vaunted nineteenth century will appear to posterity!
But there is another danger to which society is obnoxious through not making sufficient account of the contingency of death-trance, that appears to me more urgent and menacing than even the risk of being buried alive.
The danger I advert to is not this; but this is something–
The Cardinal Espinosa, Prime Minister under Philip the Second of Spain, died, as it was supposed, after a short illness. His rank entitled him to be embalmed. Accordingly, the body was opened for that purpose. The lungs and heart had just been brought into view, when the latter was seen to beat. The cardinal awakening at the fatal moment, still had strength enough left to seize with his hand the knife of the anatomist!
But it is this—
On the 23rd of September 1763, the Abbé Prevost, the French novelist and compiler of travels, was seized with a fit in the forest of Chantilly. The body was found, and conveyed to the residence of the nearest clergyman. It was supposed that death had taken place through apoplexy. But the local authorities, desiring to be satisfied of the fact, ordered the body to be examined. During the process, the poor abbé uttered a cry of agony–It was too late.
It is to be observed that cases of sudden and unexplained death are, on the one hand, the cases most likely to furnish a large percentage of death-trance; and, on the other, are just those in which the anxiety of friends or the over-zealousness of a coroner is liable to lead to premature anatomisation. Nor does it even follow that because the body happily did not wake while being dissected, the spark of life was therefore extinct. This
view, however, is too painful to be followed out in reference to the past. But it imperatively suggests the necessity of forbidding necroscopic examinations, before there is perfect evidence that life has departed–that is, of extending to this practice the rule which ought to be made absolute in reference to interment.
Thus comes out the practical importance of the question, how is it to be known that the body is no longer alive?
The entire absence of the ordinary signs of life is insufficient to prove the absence of life. The body may be externally cold; the pulse not be felt; breathing may have ceased; no bodily motion may occur; the limbs may be stiff (through spasm); the sphincter muscles relaxed; no blood may flow from an opened vein; the eyes may have become glassy; there may be partial mortification to offend the sense with the smell of death; and yet the body may be alive.
The only security we at present know of, that life has left the body, is the supervention of chemical decomposition, shown in commencing changes of colour of the integuments of the abdomen and throat to blue and green, and an attendant cadaverous foeter.
To return from this important digression to the former subject of the Vampyr superstition. The second element which we have yet to explain is the Vampyr visit and its consequence–the lapse of the party visited into death-trance. There are two ways of dealing with this knot; one is to cut it, the other to untie it.
It may be cut, by denying the supposed connection between the Vampyr visit and the supervention of death-trance in the second party. Nor is the explanation thus obtained devoid of plausibility. There is no reason why death-trance should not, in certain seasons and places,
be epidemic. Then the persons most liable to it would be those with weak and irritable nervous systems. Again, the first effect of an epidemic might be further to shake the nerves of weaker subjects. These are exactly the persons who are likely to be infected with imaginary terrors, and to dream, or even to fancy, they have seen Mr or Mrs such a one, the last victims of the epidemic. The dream or impression upon the senses might again recur, and the sickening patient have already talked of it to his neighbours, before he himself was seized with death-trance. On this supposition, the Vampyr visit would sink into the subordinate rank of a mere premonitory symptom.
To myself, I must confess, this explanation, the best I am yet in a position to offer, appears barren and jejune; and not at all to do justice to the force and frequency, or, as tradition represents the matter, the universality of the Vampyr visit as a precursor of the victim’s fate. Imagine how strong must have been the conviction of the reality of the apparition, how common a feature it must have been, to have led to the laying down of the unnatural and repulsive process customarily followed at the Vampyr’s grave, as the regular and proper preventive of ulterior consequences.
I am disposed, therefore, rather to try and untie this knot, and with that object to wait, hoping that something may turn up in the progress of these inquiries to assist me in its solution. In the mean time, I would beg leave to consider this second half of the problem a compound phenomenon, the solutions of the two parts of which may not emerge simultaneously. The Vampyr visit is one thing; its presumed contagious effect another.
The Vampyr visit! Well, it is clear the Vampyr could not have left his grave bodily–or, at all events, if he
could, he never could have buried himself again. Yet in his grave they always found him. So the body could not have been the visitant. Then, in popular language, it was the ghost of the Vampyr that haunted its future victim. The ghostly nature of the visitant could not have been identified at a luckier moment. The very subject whch I next propose to undertake is the analysis of ghosts. I have, therefore, only to throw the Vampyr ghost into the crucible with the rest; and to-morrow I may perhaps be able to report the rational composition of the whole batch.