Vampires at Walden Pond?

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A fascinating piece from two weeks ago by a writer named Caleb Crain posits that Ralph Waldo Emerson could have believed that his wife was a vampire and thus decapitated her after her death to prevent rising from the grave.

The always-excellent Paul Collins, author of (among other fine books) Banvard’s Folly, was the source of my first reading of this and expands on the idea a bit.

You see, it seems there was a belief in early New England that those who died of consumption might become vampires after their death and rise again. The only way to prevent this was to decapitate them and place a femur bone across their necks.

Though there’s no conclusive evidence that Emerson believed or did this, there is this tantalizing description of the exhumation of the corpse of Emerson’s wife: “the act remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane.”

Interesting stuff and good material at both Collins’ and Crain’s sites.

Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, published last year, provides a wealth of information on the topic of this superstition. An interview with the author (sadly not available online), Michael Bell, in The Believer last year, also put forward the hilariously-tongue-in-cheek idea that some might have considered a post-Wilkes Booth Abraham Lincoln to be a vampire.

Having read this story made a recent trip to Emerson’s family home (and one-time residence of Nathaniel Hawthorne) in Concord, Mass., a much more exciting event. I didn’t have the heart to tell the story, or ask questions about it, to Hannah, our tour guide who looked to be about 14. Not one to scare the children, me.

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