Updated: Mar 18, 2020
So, picture this: It’s 1567, and Italy is experiencing a devastating plague that’s killed tens of thousands of people. As if that isn’t bad enough, it gets worse — you’re an Italian gravedigger. One day, you’re burying the body of a woman, who was probably in her sixties when she was killed by the plague. You don’t think much of it — as sad as it is, it’s pretty much business as usual at this point. You bury the body of the woman, as well as the others, and go about your day.
But it’s not long before the bodies start piling up again — and there aren’t many places to bury them. So you open up the last mass grave you dug and see the corpses you buried a few days earlier, all wrapped in burial shrouds. But there’s something…strange about one of them. The area of the shroud that should be at the corpse’s mouth is completely decayed. The shroud is also much bigger than the others — as if the corpse it holds just ate a full meal. But that’s impossible — dead people can’t eat...or can they?
Gingerly, you reach out a hand to unwrap the burial shroud from around the corpse’s head. It’s the body of the old woman, bloated and flushed, fluid seeping from her mouth.
You’re horrified but, fortunately, you know just what to do. Taking a brick or rock laying nearby, you open the woman’s mouth and place the rock in between her jaws. This will prevent the horrible creature she’s become from being able to eat, consequently starving to death.
Incidents like this have happened in multiple different countries all over Europe, as well as a few in the United States. Stories of the dead returning to life to consume the living stretch back to ancient times. They may sound like they fit our modern definition of zombies, but these creatures have more commonly gone by another familiar moniker — vampires. Let’s explore some of these so-called “vampire graves” and “vampire burials.”
a brief vampire history
So today, we have a pretty specific view of what a vampire is, give or take a few traits. Vampires drink the blood of their victims. They’re hurt or at least weakened by the sun. They’re often charming and attractive. And even though they’re technically undead, they don’t look like corpses at all.
But this isn’t how people have always viewed vampires. Generally speaking, a vampire is any undead creature that returns from the dead to consume the living. Obviously that definition has changed a bit over time — as I mentioned earlier, a creature like that would probably be described today as a zombie. So before we continue, let’s discuss the relationship between these two words.
The 1954 novel I Am Legend follows the last man on earth, surrounded by vampires.
“Robert Neville may well be the last living man on Earth . . . but he is not alone. An incurable plague has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him.
By day, he is a hunter, stalking the infected monstrosities through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn….”
Does that sound familiar? It should. About fourteen years later, George A. Romero used the novel as inspiration for his iconic movie, Night of the Living Dead. The stories were so similar, when I Am Legend author Richard Matheson first saw the movie, he thought it was another adaptation of his book that nobody had told him about!
By the way, I am Legend is really good. If you’re looking for something new to read and enjoy post apocalyptic horror, I recommend it.
some examples of "vampire burials"
In 2017, the body of an adult male from the third or fourth century AD was found in Northamptonshire, in the U.K. According to an article on the University of Arizona’s official website, the man was found facedown with his tongue removed and replaced with a stone. I’m not sure how they could tell his tongue was intentionally removed if his entire body had presumably decomposed by the time he was discovered.
Another discovery in the Czech Republic in 2008 is thought to date back even further, around 4,000 years. This grave held a skeleton with stones placed over its head and chest. Another Czech “vampire” discovery was found back in 1966 in Celakovice, just outside Prague. All the skeletons there had some sort of “anti-vampire” warding, including face down burials (otherwise know as “prone burials”), decapitations and even nails driven through their temples!
In the summer of 2018, the grave of a so-called “vampire child” was found in the commune of Lugnano in central Italy. The child was thought to be about 10 years old, though their gender couldn’t be determined. They had been buried on their side with an “egg sized chunk of limestone” inserted into their mouth. At the time of the child’s death, there was a malaria outbreak in the region, and the child was thought to have died from malaria. After the discovery, locals began calling the child “the vampire of Lugnano.” Also found at the gravesite were animal bones, used in witchcraft rituals believed to keep the dead from rising.
Other examples of these rituals include one body found in Rutland in the U. K. This grave was found in a quarry in what used to be a church cemetery. The body dates back to medieval times, when Christian burials were done in a very specific way. Bodies had to be inside a churchyard, with their heads facing east and their arms crossed over their bodies. Anything deviating from that was worth noting. By the way, these (suspected) vampire graves and vampire burials are more formally known as “deviant burials.”
There were 73 graves in the cemetery, but one stood out. The body was of a young girl whose head had been taken off and buried between her legs.
There’s not much more information on this grave or burial, which kind of leaves it open for speculation. At first, she was believed to have possibly been a criminal, but this isn’t likely. For starters, she wouldn’t have been buried at the front of the church with her grave easily visible, as was the case. In fact, if she were a criminal, she probably wouldn’t have been buried on church grounds at all. There were no signs that she had been exhumed and reburied. So clearly someone — probably her parents — had done this pretty soon after she died and before she was ever buried. Was this young girl believed to be susceptible to returning from the dead? Or was there some other reason?
Another discovery about 160 miles north in Yorkshire was a bit more gruesome. This find was in the medieval village of Wharram Percy. The bodies of 10 people, ranging from toddlers to adults, were mutilated, decapitated and burned after they died. These rituals were thought to have been carried out to keep their corpses from rising from the dead.
But by far, the country with the most vampire burials — or at least the most media surrounding these burials — is Poland. In 2008, archaeologists began excavating a 400 year old cemetery in the Polish village of Drawsko. 333 corpses were found in the cemetery, six of which were initially thought to be “vampire burials.” The corpses ranged from teenaged to about 60 years old and were buried with sickles across their throats and hips.
In 2013, more bodies were found during a railway construction in the town of Gliwice in southern Poland. The skeletonized bodies are thought to date back to the 1500’s and, just like the Rutland burial, had their heads cut off and placed between their legs. Of the 43 bodies found at the burial site, 17 of them had been buried this way.
2014 brought another discovery. These bodies were found in the Polish town of Kamien Pomorski and thought to date back to the 1600’s. They had rocks on their necks, sickles on their throats, missing upper teeth and stakes driven through their legs.
why did people do this?
So, let’s address the question you’ve probably thought at least once at this point: Why was this done? Why did these people believe the dead would return to life and eat them?
Beliefs differed by culture as to who was susceptible to becoming a vampire after death. In Slavic folklore, babies who were born with teeth or physical deformities could be vampires. Lots of cultures believed people who committed suicide were more prone to vampirism. Some thought the first person to catch a disease during an outbreak was at risk. Others were suspicious of children born out of wedlock or unbaptized babies.
Speaking of baptism — or lack thereof — there are mixed opinions on how the church has viewed these “vampire burials.” Some sources say they believed vampires were creatures of the devil and therefore embraced anti-vampire rituals. Others think various churches saw the belief in vampires as antithetical to biblical teachings, but accepted them in an attempt to appease pagans of the time, maybe in the hopes of converting them to Christianity later on.
According to a 2014 paper about the Drawsko burials, vampire burials were used “as a way to enforce social and Christian order, to serve as an explanation for unknown disease and death, and as an economic and monetary commitment to the dead.”
And some people might not have been suspected vampires until after they died. The woman I talked about in the intro was found on Lazzaretto Nuovo Island, just off the coast of Venice, Italy in 2006. She was one of about 50,000 victims of the Venetian plague of 1576 and was discovered with a brick between her upper and lower jaws. It was likely put there by a priest or gravedigger who found her body when the mass grave was reopened and mistook her bloating and mouth leakage for vampirism.
Since tens of thousands of people died in Venice over a couple of years , I’m guessing these graves were reopened pretty often. The body of this woman and others like her may have been unearthed after being in the ground for just a few days — and we now know that bloating and leaks from the nose and mouth happen about 3 to 5 days after death as a natural result of decomposition. But 1500’s Venetians would have seen this as a sign of the undead recently feeding. The shroud being decayed around the corpses’ mouths were caused by bacteria from this fluid, which were themselves a result of the fluid being pushed up through the mouth from the stomach. But at the time, it was seen as a sign that a vampire had eaten away at their shroud.
Vampires of the time were thought to seek out the living in an attempt to regain their strength. In many instances, they were also blamed for the plagues themselves — the idea being that they used magic to spread the plagues so they could increase their ranks.
And the Italians weren’t the only ones who made the “connection” between disease and vampirism. The “vampire” graves at Kamien Pomorski are thought to be cholera victims. Villagers at the time didn’t understand how diseases were spread and thought it was a supernatural phenomenon. So they subjected their dead cholera victims to these rituals — which included taking out their upper teeth and driving stakes through their legs — to keep them from returning from the dead. The Polish were also known to place sickles over the vampires’ throats so they’d be decapitated if they tried to get out of their graves. The rocks that they and other cultures placed in the persons’ mouths were, of course, to pin their jaws shut and keep them from feeding.
But is it fair to call these vampire burials at all? A few sources suggested these people weren’t buried the way they were because they were feared to be vampires. According to a 2015 paper on the vampire burials of Poland, a lot of the so-called “deviant burials” were thought to be of common criminals or other “social deviants,” not necessarily people who were feared to become vampires. The skeletons found in Gliwice were close to the site where gallows used to be, further adding evidence to this theory. It’s also been speculated that the Drawsko burials were thought to be subjects to these rituals not because they were believed to be vampires, but simply to ward off evil spirits. It’s also been theorized these “vampires” actually died unexpectedly, such as from violence. Because of this, they weren’t able to receive last rites, so these rituals were done to keep their bodies from being possessed by demons.
the vampires of America
But if the fear of vampires was true in Europe, it managed to find its way across the pond to the United States. In 1990, a group of children in Griswold, Connecticut accidentally discovered what turned out to be a colonial era cemetery. The 29 graves were all pretty typical of the time — except for one.
The skeleton was of a man in his 50’s, with the initials ‘JB’ spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin — which had been smashed. The skeleton of ‘JB,’ as the man came to be known, had been beheaded, and his thighbones had been moved up to his rib cage and arranged in a ‘skull and crossbones’ pattern. Everything unusual about this burial, from the smashed in coffin to the rearranged bones, hadn’t been done until about five years after JB’s death.
‘JB’ was taken to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. to be studied. At first, scientists there were baffled — they had no idea what had caused someone to rearrange JB’s body like this so long after he had died. Then one person asked if the others had heard of the Jewett City vampires.
Jewett City was another nearby town where a few corpses had been unearthed because people thought they were vampires rising from their graves to feed on the living. JB had died of tuberculosis — which was called consumption at the time. Tuberculosis symptoms include paleness, severe weight loss and the victims generally appearing to be wasting away — all thought to be signs of vampirism.
By this point, people knew a little bit more about human decomposition. But they didn’t usually study or observe corpses in the weeks or months following death. So it’s possible that someone, for some reason, exhumed JB’s body, saw signs of vampirism and subjected his corpse to these rituals. Why they waited five years after he died is anyone’s guess.
JB was one of the more well known “vampires” of this time, but he wasn’t the only one. This belief in vampires here in the U.S. stretched all the way to the late 1800’s with the woman who could come to be known as the last American vampire.
Mercy Lena Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island and probably went by her middle name, Lena. But I’m going to call her Mercy because that’s how I usually see her addressed (and for clarity). Mercy died of tuberculosis on January 19, 1892 at the age of 19. The disease had already claimed the lives of her mother and sister, and her brother was also sick with it at the time of her death.
The rumors of vampirism started after Mercy’s death. By this point, her brother, Edwin, and their father, George were the only family members left, having lost all the women of the household to tuberculosis. People reportedly spotted Mercy walking through the town cemetery and fields, and Edwin even claimed Mercy had, at one point, been “sitting on his chest, suffocating him.” Maybe he meant this in some sort of metaphorical sense, but it certainly wasn’t taken that way.
Like I mentioned earlier, tuberculosis had symptoms similar to vampirism. According to Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell, the symptoms “progressed in such a way that it seemed like something was draining the life and blood out of somebody.”
Although they were more knowledgeable about disease than they had been a few hundred years earlier, people still didn’t fully understand tuberculosis at this time. Some doctors even thought it was caused by “drunkenness, and want among the poor.” Because of all this, speculation began that Mercy was the one who had infected not only Edwin, but her mother and sister — both named Mary — even though they had died almost a decade earlier. Finally, two months after Mercy’s death, George agreed to allow her body to be exhumed, along with the bodies of both Marys.
The Marys — Mercy’s mother and sister — were completely skeletonized, having been dead for years at this point. But Mercy’s body was found laying on its side, and still fully intact — she hadn’t decomposed at all. Her face also appeared flushed. A doctor on site told everyone Mercy’s body hadn’t decomposed because she’d only been buried for two months, and because it was cold at the time — it being Rhode Island in March. But to other townspeople, all these peculiarities were proof Mercy was a vampire.
A few townspeople, some of them relatives of Mercy, cut out her heart and lungs and burned them on a pile of rocks. These ashes were mixed with water and given to Edwin to drink as a cure. He still died two months later, so this clearly didn’t work. But it did seem to appease the townsfolk, who reburied Mercy in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, where she remains today.
Fortunately, George Brown managed to avoid the tuberculosis outbreak that killed his entire family. He died in 1922.
Mercy’s legacy still lives on. Visitors to her grave leave memorabilia like fake vampire teeth and cough drops. There are rumors of her ghost haunting a nearby bridge, as well as visiting terminally ill patients and telling them “dying isn’t so bad.” She’s thought to have inspired H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House” as well as one of the most famous modern vampire stories, “Dracula.” The legend also played a role in the 2015 horror movie called Almost Mercy. It wasn’t really my thing, but I’ll leave some links below if you want to check it our for yourself.
Petre Toma (Romania)
Our last story is the most recent one, having taken place in 2004. That’s right — vampire belief is not a thing of the distant past.
This case took place in Marotinu de Sus, a village in the commune of Celaru in southern Romania — a country already linked with modern vampirism. A man named Petre Toma died in December 2003 after a string of illnesses. Just days after his death, his niece said she was having nightmares and feeling ill. She believed her uncle was a strigoi, an undead creature who travels at night to feed on the living. You might have also heard this word from the Vampire Academy novels, in which strigoi were basically the most evil kind of vampires.
Six villagers in Marotinu de Sus, including the woman’s own father, went to Petre Toma’s grave, opened his tomb and removed his body. According to them, his mouth was stained with blood and swollen. They split open his rib cage with a pitchfork, impaled his heart and burned it at the village crossroads. Then, much like in Mercy Brown’s case, they made a potion from the ashes and gave it to Toma’s niece to drink as a cure.
Either Petre Toma’s daughter or wife (different sources said different things) ended up going to police with the story. There was an investigation, and all six men were charged with illegally exhuming Petre Toma’s corpse. They were all given six month suspended sentences.
This incident made international news, but how did the people of Marotinu de Sus view it? Belief in vampires — or at least similar creatures — is nothing new in Romania. This was the home of Vlad the Impaler, whose link to modern vampires doesn’t even need to be stated. The belief in vampires is passed down through generations in the country, and incidents like what happened to Petre Toma aren’t unheard of. According to one of the villagers: “No one is bothered who did it, it's their own business. This ritual often takes place, but in secret, within the family. The problem comes when the police get involved.”
Most of the villagers didn’t take issue with the ritual, though at least one Romanian Orthodox priest and the village’s mayor have both condemned the act.
When you look at cases like Petre Toma or even Mercy Brown, it’s easy to ridicule the people involved. Both these incidents took place in times when we were supposed to be too enlightened, too scientifically advanced to believe in things like vampires. But I don’t think we should judge them too harshly. As folklorist Michael Bell said regarding the American vampire pandemic: “I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are. I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.”
It’s also important to remember that people believe all sorts of strange things today. I won’t name anything specific, but I’m sure you can think of something that bugs you. In the modern day United States, or maybe in the country you’re from if you’re outside of the U.S., belief in vampires might come across as bizarre — and, to be clear, I’m not condoning criminal activity. But to people who are genuinely concerned for their loved ones, digging up a corpse and burning its heart might be, in their eyes, the only option.
But, of course, that’s just my opinion and I would love to hear yours in the comments. If you’re interested in vampire fiction, you should check out my novella, Children of Dust which, like Dracula, was inspired by Mercy Brown’s story. I won’t lie and pretend it’s anywhere near as good as Dracula, but I hope you’ll still enjoy it.