Hunting for Thoreau’s Vampire in Vermont

reuben grave in contextjpg

On September 26, 1859, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal (volume 30, page 20),

The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont– who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned [?] the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.

“Consumption” is tuberculosis, from which Thoreau died a few years later, decades before the bacterial cause of the disease was identified. Until then, macabre incidents like Thoreau’s happened in New England. When a living person seemed to have their life force gradually sucked out, then family and friends might look to the graveyard to find someone who’s responsible.

With Hallowe’en upon us, it’s an apt time to investigate Thoreau’s report. Your Ob’d Uncertaintist set out to hunt a vampire in Vermont. Who could resist that? Something unusual happened there long ago, suggesting the essential truth of Thoreau’s story, but also hinting that a tale about superstitious caution may have improved in the retelling.

Burned or buried?

Hanwritten by Thoreau

Click to enlarge

Above is the handwritten paragraph from Thoreau’s journal. The word usually transcribed as burned, looks just as plausible to be buried. The “dot” over from the i is in the right place for Thoreau’s custom, but faint, and could be a stray mark or photocopying phantom. Comparison with other instances of -ri- and -rn- was inconclusive. Is the underscore significant? Maybe, but Thoreau used underscoring frequently, often for words with no plausible emphasis.

Could the story have been about the mere separate burial of vital organs? Yes, burial of a heart separate from the rest of the body (about a foot away) as a tuberculosis precaution is attested in New England. See the July 1788 case from Belcherstown Massachusetts, about 50 miles south of Brattleboro Vermont, reported by folklorist Michael E. Bell, at the beginning of this article.

Which Vermont vampire?

There are two infamous stories about burning the vital organs of an exhumed 1790’s Vermonter to cure (not to prevent) tuberculosis. One comes from Manchester. Rachel Burton, first wife of Isaac Burton, was disinterred for the benefit of Huldah, his second wife. These are real people (check at Nevertheless, one death hardly matches “several” in the family. Also, the root version of the story, in an unpublished town history, has unrealistic details: a February exhumation, despite frozen ground, supposedly witnessed by hundreds of people, about half the town’s population in the 1790’s, yet no other account survives. Uh huh.

More promising is the other story, concerning the family of Lieutenant Leonard Spaulding of Dummerston, Vermont, about five miles north of Brattleboro. The Spaulding name rings bells. Thoreau frequently crossed paths with descendants of Edward Spalding, a 1630’s resident of Massachusetts Bay, the subject of a landmark American genealogical reference. A Spaulding neighbor could explain how Thoreau might have been seen this story about another branch of that huge family.

The standard tale told today comes from The History of the Town of Dummerston, written by its long-time school superintendent, David Lufkin Mansfield, published in 1884 as volume 5 of the Vermont Historical Gazetteer series, available freely here and here.

If this is Thoreau’s story, then what follows is a later version of the tale than his. Mansfield had no special ties with Dummerston before 1861. From page 27 of Mansfield’s history,

Although the children of Lt. Spaulding. especially the sons, became large, muscular persons, all but one or two, died under 40 years of age of consumption, and their sickness was brief.

It is related by those who remember the circumstance; after six or seven of the family had died of consumption, another daughter was taken, it was supposed, with the same disease. It was thought she would die, and much was said in regard to so many of the family’s dying of consumption when they all seemed to have the appearance of good health and long life.

Among the superstitions of those days, we find it was said that a vine or root of some kind grew from coffin to coffin, of those of one family, who died of consumption, and were buried side by side; and when the growing vine had reached the coffin of the last one buried, another one of the family would die ; the only way to destroy the influence or effect, was to break the vine ; take up the body of the last one buried and burn the vitals, which would be an effectual remedy: Accordingly, the body of the last one buried was dug up and the vitals taken out and burned, and the daughter, it is affirmed, got well and lived many years. The act, doubtless, raised her mind from a state of despondency to hopefullness.

Mansfield’s story turns out to leave some physical traces. There are half-a-dozen Spauldings buried “side by side” and one conspicuous, doubtfully explained interruption in that neat pattern.

The Dummerston Spauldings

Mansfield gave many genealogical facts about Vermont pioneers Leonard and Margaret (Love) Spaulding and their 11 children. Three daughters survived into the 1840’s (Anna, Sarah and Olive Mixer, the latter two dated based on gravestone inscriptions). Any of them could have been the “beneficiary” of the reported ritual. Margaret, their mother, died in the 1820’s. The other nine family members, including all the men, died before 1800.

Four family members died in the 1780’s, three children (Mary, Esther and Timothy), followed by their father in 1788. Five more children died in the 1790’s (Betsey, Leonard, John, Reuben and Josiah). The decade of the 1790’s, then, would have been the time for “six or seven” already dead.

There is an anomaly in Mansfield’s genealogy. He reports nine marriages among the children. In all but one case, he provides the spouse’s full name and a wedding date. The exception is Reuben, whose marriage to an otherwise unidentified Gates lacks any date. Looking further, on page 56,

Lt. Daniel Gates …probably had a sister who married Reuben Spaulding, for when Spaulding died he was not buried in the family lot of his father, Lieut. Leonard Spaulding, but was buried in the lot belonging to Lieut. Daniel Gates. It is said that Reuben Spaulding married a Gates, and after his death in 1794, she remarried and left town.

So, the reason why Mansfield thinks Reuben married a Gates, or even that there “probably” was a suitable Gates for him to marry, is that Reuben is buried among the Gateses. Plus, it’s an anomalous burial in the 1790’s. Needless to say, we’re looking for Reuben Spaulding. And where is he? Lt. Gates’ grave is at Dummerston Center Cemetery. So, off to Vermont.

On-site with the vampire

Dummerston Center Cemetery is the kind of place where people exclaim “I want to be buried here.” The graveyard rests on a hillside, overlooking unspoiled hill country. On the sunny fall day when I visited, even “past peak,” the setting was a tourist bureau panorama of colors.

reuben's grave with gates tags

Upper left detail of headline photo

The headline photo atop this posting shows Reuben Spaulding’s grave, second row. Reuben’s stone is lichen-covered and largely illegible. I worked it gingerly and just enough to make a positive identification. Reuben’s grave is indeed flanked by Gates graves (Eli Gates, d. 1792, on the left, Daniel and Sarah Gates, Eli’s parents, larger stones on the right),  but in 1794, when Reuben died, the grave sites on the right of the picture in his row would have been empty.

reuben grave with spaulding tagsIs there a line of Spaulding children’s graves? There is, immediately abutting the Gates graves, the very next row westerly, beginning half-a-plot south of Reuben’s grave, and running southerly from there. In 1794, when Reuben died, there were five Spauldings side by side: Esther, Mary, John, Timothy and Leonard. The first four are the graves shown in the foreground of the photo.

Reuben Spaulding was thus visibly buried with his brothers and sisters, but not in a line with them. Years later, perhaps when the “vine” was thought to be broken, a sixth Spaulding, Josiah, completed the current line of six.

There is no solid reason to think Reuben ever married a vanishing Gates woman, whose “probable” existence was inferred from the burial layout. Daniel Gates was a Yankee who did the neighborly thing. For years, nobody but a land surveyor would realize that Reuben was buried among the Gateses rather than the Spauldings. Visually, the scene would look like the Spauldings owned all of the children’s graves. Only in 1807 did Daniel Gates’ headstone disturb that picture. When somebody eventually asked about the situation, it’s easy enough to say “Reuben must have married a Gates.” As the years pass, “must have” could gently harden into “did,” or in Mansfield’s phrase, “it is said” that he did.

There is no way to know whether any additional ritual was really performed. Reuben died in January, so the ground was frozen. His body probably would have been above ground or in the cemetery’s receiving tomb for several weeks – easy enough to “dig up” privately, if you wanted to phrase it that way. If so, maybe his vitals were buried in that line among his brothers and sisters, close to the rest of him, as in the nearby and then-recent Belcherstown case.

Whether or not anything extraordinary was done to Reuben’s corpse, the linear pattern of Spaulding burials in Dummerston Center Cemetery was deliberately disrupted in 1794, a pattern that had held as recently as John’s death in 1793 and resumed with Josiah’s death in 1798. Even if the motive was superstitious, or “savage” in Thoreau’s words, the disruption was elegant. Reuben rests as close to his kin as if he were buried among them, removed just enough to break the supposedly cursed line. Superstitious? Maybe, but mightn’t a prudent Yankee avoid unnecessary chances?


Note about two other period Vermont tuberculosis-vampire stories:  Both are set in Woodstock, and both have enjoyed notoriety since late in that century. The local historical society offers an excellent brief summary of the pair,

The Corwin case (1830) features several real people as “accessories.” However, the principal family’s existence hasn’t been confirmed, and the tale suffers from unrealistic details. The Ransom case (1817) has no such defects, but our only informant, the brother of the exhumed, was three years old at the time. Written seven decades later, much of the story seems to be the author’s surmise from family legends and lore.


1 Comment

Filed under Hallowe'en, Psychology

One response to “Hunting for Thoreau’s Vampire in Vermont

  1. busterggi

    Hooray for Lt. Spaulding even if he didn’t explore Africa!

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