Category: plague

#32 Vampires, Shroud-Eaters, and the White Plague

#32 Vampires, Shroud-Eaters, and the White Plague

This episode explores the connection between vampires and disease, beginning in 19th-century New England with a strange graveyard ritual involving the exhumation of the bodies of Mercy Brown and family members in 1892. The gruesomely ritualistic destruction of Mercy’s body parts was spurred by a belief that those who succumbed to tuberculosis might live on in the grave and infest loved ones with the disease.

Mercy Brown's Grave
Mercy Brown’s Grave

Mercy’s case is the last and best known of cases like this beginning in the late 1700s and occurring throughout the area, particularly in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont.  Accounts of several more cases involving cursed vines growing from corpses and a shockingly macabre and bloody ritual occurring on an idyllic village green in the town of Woodstock, Vermont, are read by Mrs. Karswell. (We even hear a clip of a little tourism spot for Woodstock, though surely not in the context it was imagined when produced.)

The association of vampiric entities with times of plagues and epidemics came to New England from Europe, and might be compared to the German belief in the Nachzehrer, an undead creature known to appear in times of pestilence to spread disease. A defining attribute of the Nachzehrer is its tendency to feed upon its shroud and even its own body, a repast providing the creature the nourishment necessary to then rise and continue feasting on the living.  Another interesting term for the Nachzehrer deriving from the noises that it produced in its grave would be schmatzende Toten or “smacking dead.”  We hear a number of accounts of such creatures from German/Latin texts dating to the 1400s, including the definitive work on the topic, the 1679 volume by theologian Philippus Rohr, called in Latin, “The Masticating Dead.”

Miraculis Mortuorum
De Miraculis Mortuorum

Moving even further back to the Middle Ages, we examine some stories of plague-spreading vampires from England, including a 12th-century account from William of Newburgh, which includes the grisly destruction of a corpse swollen with blood, and an account from 1135 by Geoffrey of Burton, featuring an evil spirit in the form of a crow arising from the monster’s burning heart.  Both stories associate the vampire particularly with the spread of disease.

We also have a quick look at archeological evidence for the type of vampire rituals discussed — disordered graves identified  as “deviant burials,” or “therapeutic burials” in which bodies believed to be undead may be mutilated, staked into the grave, or — in cases like those we are focusing on — have rocks or other objects stuffed into their mouths to stop the creature from feeding on its shroud, or worse, the blood or vitality of those above the earth.

Also discussed is the use of plague imagery in German versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu, both Director F.W. Murnau 1922 version and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake.

Whether Bram Stoker may have been influenced by reports of the New England tuberculosis vampires of the 1800s is addressed, and we have a deeper look at how romantic 19th-century ideas about tuberculosis influenced not only his portrayal of vampirism, but the work of other literary artists, painters, and composers. Among the artists mentioned are Lord Byron, Alexander Dumas, Claude Monet, John Keats, and Edgar Allan Poe. We also hear some clips of musical deaths by tuberculosis from the operas La Traviata and La Boheme.

Monet's "Camille Monet on her deathbed"
Monet’s “Camille Monet on her deathbed”

We conclude the show, as we began, with another musical composition played at graveside, and a story of heart removed and preserved in cognac, that of Frédéric Chopin, another victim of “the white plague.”

 

Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left

Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left

In this episode, we explore the story of the Pied Piper, a folk tale uniquely anchored in grim historical realities. We begin with evidence of an actual historical mystery, including text inscribed on a gable of one of Hamelin’s medieval buildings as well as the initial 1384 entry in the Hamelin town chronicle, announcing, “It is 100 years since our children left.”

"The Pied Piper Of Hamelin" by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes
“The Pied Piper Of Hamelin” by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes

The Piper’s extermination of rats by drowning in them in the nearby river raises a question about rats swimming — which they do quite well — and how swimming rats figure into another German legend, one about the wicked Bishop Hatto and the famous “Mice Tower” located on an island in the Rhine near the city of Bingen. Wilkinson provides a fine reading of an early Romantic poem based on this horrific legend.

Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Certain elements of this Hatto story bring to mind the sub-subgenre of rat horror films and its prime exemplars, 1972’s Willard and its 1973 sequel Ben.  The 2006 remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover is featured in a special musical confection specially created for this episode.

Movie poster for Willard, 1972
Movie poster for Willard, 1972

We then take a side trip to Sweden where we learn of similarly macabre story featuring a mysterious musician leading  village youth away to the top of the fabled Hårga mountain.  Wilkinson’s reading of the tale is accompanied by the rather well known and rather spooky Swedish folk song by which the tale is known. The Hårgalåten song is popular enough in Sweden to have been covered by everything from metal bands to classical choirs.  Our favorite version (heard in this episode) is by Viktoria Tocca.

Next we discuss several of the theories that have been put forward to explain the disappearance of Hamelin’s children in 1284.  The Black Death, emigration, and participation in the ill-fated Children’s Crusades of the 13th century are all explored, as well as a recently advance, and more exotic notion about pagan rites and executions around the town of Coppenbrügge, in a swampy area known as the “Devil’s Kitchen, about 30 miles north of Hamelin.

"Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers" Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564
“Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

A final theory — if not the best at least one of the more entertaining —  explains the disappearance of the Hamelin youth via the medieval phenomenon known as Dancing Plague or Dancing Mania, sometimes also called the St Vitus Dance.  We review a bit of its history and symptoms with dramatically rendered passages from Wilkinson, taking particular note of certain ludicrous and destructive extremes as well as incidents like that in the town of Erfurt, Germany, where in 1257 groups of children dancing their out the city gates call to mind the youth in the Piper’s tale.

Similar to the northern European Dancing Plagues is the slightly later phenomenon of tarantism in southern Italy.  Named for the “tarantula,” a local spider somewhat different from our own idea of the species, tarantism is a superstitious belief that the bite of this pest can cause bouts of mad dancing and other aberrant behaviors.   We recount a few historical examples of these outbursts, including incidents of the tradition all the way up into the early 1960s explored by the Italian scholar of religion Ernesto de Martino in his book and documentary film, La Terra Del Rimorso.

The show concludes with a visit to the delightfully named “Chapel of the Tarantula” in Galatino, Italy.