Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sarah Josepha Hale, President Lincoln, and Thanksgiving

A few days late and a few pounds heavier, I emerge from my turkey coma to bring you my Thanksgiving blog.

The American Thanksgiving tradition didn’t actually begin with the first New England settlers in Plymouth. From time to time, these pious souls would announce a “day of Thanksgiving” in response to some stroke of luck or divine providence. These 17th century events were not hearty feasts such as we enjoy today, but days of fasting and prayer. Thanksgivings were called in response to rainfalls which saved crops, the arrival of ships bearing additional supplies and settlers, and other fortunate occurrences, but they were not regular scheduled events. Over the next 200 years, however, the tradition seems to have flourished in New England, despite being little known throughout the rest of the country.

One of the first references to a recognizable American Thanksgiving came in an 1827 novel called Northwood. This fictional account of New England family virtues spends an entire page and a half describing the parlor of New Hampshire’s Romelee family, laid out in anticipation of their Thanksgiving feast. Another two pages are then dedicated to the amount and variety of foodstuffs arranged around the dinner table; the quintessential roasted turkey and “savoury stuffing,” “innumerable bowls of gravy,” “the celebrated pumpkin pie,” “a sirloin of beef,” “a leg of pork and joint of mutton,” “a goose and pair of ducklings,” and “that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.” There’s also a reference to some sort of vegetable, buried somewhere underneath everything else.

The author of Northwood was a prodigy named Sarah Josepha Hale, who would later go on to make a name for herself as the supposed author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the organizer of a massive public bake sale that provided the funds necessary for completion of Boston’s Bunker Hill monument. Born in New Hampshire in 1788, she seems to have been fascinated with New England’s Thanksgiving traditions for most of her adult life, writing a short story entitled “The Thanksgiving of the Heart” in 1835.

As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ms. Hale wrote an editorial in 1837 calling for New England’s informal Thanksgiving tradition to become a national, annual holiday, “on the same day in November, say the last Thursday of the month.” Between 1851 and 1871, she would issue a yearly call for a day of National Thanksgiving. As the years passed and no action was taken at the national level, her arguments became more forceful, noting the growing popularity of the custom and the increasing amount of state support. By 1858, perhaps a little exasperated, she was really hammering home her point:

“We are most happy to agree with the large majority of the governors of the different States as shown in their unanimity of action for several past years, and which, we hope, will this year be adopted by all that THE LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY OF NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people.”

Whether 19th century readers considered her print version of the Twitter shout bad etiquette is not clear.

As the United States edged closer and closer to civil war, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale coyly suggested that “the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people… Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”

In September of 1863, in the midst of war, the gloves came off, and a letter was dispatched to no less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln. “Sir,” it begins, “Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book,” to request a few minutes of your precious time.”Over the next 8 paragraphs, she laid out her case point by point, and listed supporters that include state and territorial governors, foreign ministers, missionaries, and even naval commanders. She urged the President to make a proclamation to affirm Federal support for the holiday. At one point, she casually mentioned having enlisted her friend William H. Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) to confer with Lincoln and presumably advance the cause. At the end of her letter, Ms. Hale crisply informed the Commander in Chief that “an immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments.”

Seemingly bowing before the onslaught, Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863. In it, he acknowledged that even in the midst of a war of “unequaled magnitude and severity,” the United States had been blessed by good harvests, expanding settlements, and increasing population. He emphasized that these blessings had stemmed not from man, but from God, and that the nation should accordingly give thanks where thanks was due.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

This Thanksgiving season, in addition to many, many other blessings, I am thankful to President Lincoln and even more to the relentless, indomitable Sarah Josepha Buell Hale.

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The author of this blog has absolutely no authority to make official proclamations of any kind regarding existing or theoretical holidays, days of fasting, days of prayer... days of any kind, really. If you have a non-holiday related comment, post incessantly below.


Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell. Northwood: A Tale of New England. New York: H. Long and brother, 1852.

--- “Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863 (Thanksgiving).” Letter to Abraham Lincoln. 28 Sep. 1863. The Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

---  "Sarah J. Hale to William H. Seward, Sunday, October 09, 1864 (Thanksgiving)." Letter to William H. Seward. 9 Oct. 1864. The Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Day of National Thanksgiving. By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation.” 3 Oct. 1863. The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Licolniana. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Friday, November 16, 2012

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An Interview with William Fowler, Professor of History

Professor William Fowler is a Professor of American Colonial, Maritime and Revolutionary War history at Northeastern University. He is also the author of Under Two Flags: The Navy in the Civil War, Rebels Under Sail: The Navy in the Revolution, and Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan, which came the closest of any book that I've read to explaining the enigma that was Samuel Adams. He was kind enough to sit down with me one cold October night and tell me about his work and his professional life.

AD: I’m speaking with William Fowler on October 5, 2012. Hi Professor Fowler, how are you?

WF: I’m well Aaron, and yourself?

AD: Well, thank you. Just to give us an introduction, would you tell us where you work and what sort of position you hold?

WF: Well, I hold the wonderful title of distinguished professor of history in the History department at Northeastern University.

AD: Can you describe a typical workday in your position?

WF: Sure. I usually arrive in the office usually around 6:15, 6:30 in the morning. I arrive early because that way I can avoid traffic, and I have an opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee and read the paper. Around 7 or 7:15 other people start to arrive, sometimes students who have made appointments with me. And then I have a class at 8:00, which goes until 9:00. After that I return here to the office. Usually more students come by; I’m also the undergraduate advisor, so I see a number of students. Quite often at this time too graduate students come by, working on a Master’s thesis, directed study, dissertation or some such thing. Sometimes there’ll be some sort of meeting, but I don’t go to too many meetings, thank God! I then try to grab a few minutes to go through my email. On an average day I’m probably getting between 50 and 75 emails. I’m also, at the same time trying to write a book proposal. I need to keep researching and writing. Then there’s lunch. Sometimes lunch is 10, 15 minutes, sometimes lunch is 2 hours. Depends on where I am and who I’m meeting with. And then after lunch, come back to the office and the pattern is pretty much the same. By this time I may in fact be over in the library picking up some books; I do quite a bit of work with inter-library loan. And then I return to the office. I find that because of students’ schedules and the schedules of other people as well, sometimes it’s easier to meet in the late afternoon, after classes. So again I’ll probably be talking to some students. Now in the midst of this, depending on which day it happens to be, I serve on several non-profit boards. And so I go to those board meetings probably 6 or 8 times a month. Most of the non-profits I serve on are here in Boston, so usually it’s just a subway ride or a walk. I’m also a trustee of the Rhode Island Historical Society, so that means once a month I’m down to Providence, and occasionally down to places like Concord. So that’s Monday through Friday. And I work here on Saturdays, which are a little different. I use Saturdays primarily for writing. I arrive a little bit later; traffic’s not so bad. So I’m in the office by about 8 or 8:30 and usually spend as much of that time as I can trying to write, and then I’ll go home by about 3 or 4. Sometimes during the week I have evening obligations, mostly here on campus with various student groups. So I don’t know if that’s an average day, but that’s a day. Yeah.

AD: Sounds like even in your position as a professor you have quite a bit to do with the local non-profits.

WF: Yeah, I get great fun out of that. Great joy. One of the things I really enjoy doing, aside from teaching students, which is probably the most enjoyable, is to be working in the community bringing history out beyond the walls of the university. So yeah, I think that’s valuable. I think that’s very important for professionals like myself. Whatever expertise we have, we share that, and I learn a lot from these boards. I serve with a variety of men and women, and so the board meetings are always interesting, and the perspectives that other people bring to the issues at hand are always quite enlightening.

AD: How did you come to get this job? The position that you’re in right now?

WF: Well, Aaron that’s a long story. It’s a bittersweet story, in an important kind of way. I went to Northeastern as an undergraduate, and I graduated in 1967. People can now do their calculations on age! I went off to graduate school, to the University of Notre Dame, received my PhD there in 1971. At the time, when I received my degree, I had expected one of two things would happen; either I’d be in the army, which I was in the army at the time, I was a commissioned officer. Or I was perhaps going to end up teaching in some small school in some remote place. And then a very sad thing happened. The person who had been my mentor here at the university, Bob Feer, passed away, and Bob’s death left a gap, an opening here at Northeastern for an early American historian. And so they asked if I would come back to take Bob’s place, and I of course immediately said yes. And that return here to Northeastern is how I got to be here. And that was in 1971 that I began teaching here, taught here from 1971 to 1998, and then from 1998 to 2005 I was the director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. And then in 2005 I was fortunate enough to be able to come back here, to resume my career here at the university as a teacher.

AD: What skills would you say make you successful in this job?

WF: Patience. Lots and lots of patience. Patience with myself; that is to say, when you’re a scholar and when you’re a writer, you really want things to get done. You want that book to get done. And you have to remind yourself that it’s a careful kind of business. You don’t want to rush it; you want to do it methodically. Push yourself, but not to the point of carelessness. And secondly, patience with the people with whom you work. You work in an incredible environment, a university environment, in which there is an incredible diversity of opinions, of people, of students, etc. etc. Not all of whom you agree with, and you need to be patient and understanding and listen to others. Particularly with students; they’re here to learn, and sometimes you may think that they’re not learning fast enough, or learning the wrong things, or misbehaving, or whatever judgment you come to. It’s a mistake to act too quickly in that. So you need to be patient with yourself, patient with the students with whom you’re working, patient with your colleagues… and they need to be patient with me, by the way! I’m sure that if you would ask some of my colleagues, they would tell you that sometimes they need to be patient with Fowler as well. So it’s a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of great toleration, and a willingness to learn from one another.

AD: And I imagine that a lot of these skills are transferrable over to your career as the director of the Mass. Historical Society, or serving on the boards of these non-profits?

WF: Yes, I think that’s true, Aaron. I think one of the things that I’ve learned in the business that I’ve been in for some time is that you value the people that you work with for what they know and what they can do. And that means that you need to be able to understand… embrace, perhaps, sometimes idiosyncratic behavior. Not behavior that’s damaging. I’m not talking about that. That cannot be tolerated. But these are people who prize what they know, have spent their career learning it, and so you have to really embrace that approach. They are valuable people, and sometimes by the canons of normal behavior their behavior may seem a little strange. The same with students, too. Students don’t always follow all the norms, you know? But at the same time, you have to be understanding of that, tolerant of that, and understand that what the eventual goal here is to learn. Sometimes there are little digressions, little bumps in the road, but you can’t be distracted by them.

AD: What’s your favorite part of your job?

WF: Oh, teaching. No question about that. Without question, my most comfortable enjoyable moments are in the classroom. There’s nothing else that equals that. If there’s anything that’s number two in that list, it would be writing. Being able to research and to write. But writing is not easy; it’s difficult. The moments of joy in writing are not always as frequent as they are in the classroom. The classroom clearly takes precedence, and then the writing is secondary.

AD: In either teaching in the classroom or writing, has anything changed since you began your career?

WF: Oh God, yes! Oh, are you kidding me? Oh, my God! You know, when I started in this business, essentially in the late 1960s, in terms of books and publications and communications, not much had changed since Gutenberg invented moveable type and Bell invented the telephone. Since then it’s all blown apart, I mean it’s just completely blown up! The digital world, telecommunications… now, when I say come apart, I mean the old world has come apart, and a new one has formed. It’s an extraordinary opportunity. The information I now have access to is incredible I can now find in five minutes what in the 1960s would have taken me weeks to find and maybe even a trip to London.  Now the material which is available at my fingertips is absolutely incredible. Now again, when I started in this business, you had your conference hours, and students rarely came to see you. Now, they think nothing of emailing me and expecting an instantaneous answer. SO the pace of this has increased tremendously. It’s just been an incredible, wonderful, extraordinary revolution.

AD: When you first started in this field, is there anything that you wish you had done differently… anything that you feel would have prepared you better for academia?

WF: Well, that’s a good question. If I think that I have one failing… and only one! I wish that I had pursued a foreign language. I did the requisite stuff, enough to get by. But I think that having proficiency in a second language, as I do not, is an essential tool. You can get by without it; I did. But were I to have that opportunity again, getting proficiency in a foreign language is something that I would do.

AD: If you had obtained that proficiency, do you think that would have changed what your focus was on, or would have changed your interpretation of history, or anything like that?

WF: I don’t think that it would have changed my interpretation, but it certainly would have expanded my horizons. I think that I’m an American historian, so I work in English. I think that had I an expertise in another language, that it would enhance my capacity to understand American history by understanding it through the culture of another nation. If I knew what the Germans were saying, in German, not through a translation. Or Spanish scholars, or French scholars… I think that would open up my vistas to a broader horizon. SO that’s what I would urge young people to do; expand your horizons, in a way that I did not.

AD: And that leads in quite neatly to my last question. DO you have any advice for young people who want to do what you do, who want to be a professor at some accredited university, teaching in the field of history?

WF: Understand the essential nature of this profession. They are parallel worlds, teaching and scholarship. If you wish to be a university professor, you have to understand that at the same time, you need to be both teacher and scholar. You cannot get ahead in this world; you cannot even get into this world, unless you understand that. The sooner you do the better. Don’t wait until you leave graduate school to begin publishing. Publish as soon as you can, whether its book reviews, essays, or whatever it happens to be. The sooner the better. And also, I meet with a lot of young people who see the academic world as a place they want to be, but don’t fully understand the pressure. It is a pressured world. I know people on the outside think that we have a wonderful, relaxing life… we have a wonderful  life, that’s true. But you have to be self-disciplined, because it’s also the world in which you are your own boss. No one’s looking over your shoulder. This isn’t like being an undergraduate; where’s the paper, its due today, we have an exam on Thursday. That isn’t the way this works. You must have an enormous amount of self-discipline to get the job done. If you don’t have that self-discipline, you don’t have that motivation, you don’t have that willingness to work hard at research and writing, you don’t belong in this business. And also, get ready for rejection. I always point out to my students my file cabinet. I always point out to my students, I have a small, thin file labeled “Acceptances, “and a have a big, thick file labeled “Rejections.” So prize the acceptances and get over the rejections. And don’t wait to perfect everything. You need to get out there, you need to have criticisms, and you need to engage. SO that would be my advice, don’t wait, try it now. And by the way, as you’re trying it you may realize that you’re not good at it. You better learn that early on so you don’t waste a lot of time.

AD: Sounds like good advice to me! Professor Fowler, thank you very much for sitting down with me.

WF: Aaron, my pleasure.

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You can see Professor Fowler's Northeastern webpage here. Have you met with Professor William Fowler? Are you the real Professor William Fowler? Is the man I interviewed with a confidence man only in the office to heist books? Do you have proof of this? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, or even if you said "no," you can let me know in the comment section below.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hurricanes of Atlantic City

I’m writing this post on October 29, 2012. As I write, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the Mid-Atlantic coast, presumably going to make landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Even hundreds of miles away as I am, that radar map is showing angry blotches of orange and red centered over New Jersey but easily extending up to Cape Cod. I’ve never been on the East Coast during a full-fledged hurricane before; those storms that have targeted Massachusetts over the last few years have come when I was visiting my brother in Washington, or attending a cousin’s wedding in Michigan. So as I sit here at my computer, nervously Googling weather updates and “Atlantic City + Hurricane,” I’m coming across a lot of information than I had not expected. It turns out that this is not the first hurricane to seemingly target Atlantic City.

When the storm came ashore, witnesses reported waves of 25 to 30 feet high, and a record high tide level 9 feet above the norm. At about 4:00 PM, portions of the famous miles-long boardwalk were picked up by a 50 foot tall storm surge and flipped backwards, crushing boats that had been pulled up and secured along the shoreline. Steel Pier, once billed as the “showplace of the nation,” was badly damaged, as was the grandiose Young’s Million Dollar Pier. A third pier, owned by the Heinz ketchup company, was completely destroyed.

On September 9th, 1944, a large hurricane was detected near the Leeward Islands, east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. On the evening of the 12th, the storm had reached such epic proportions that warning communications in Miami, Florida had begun to refer to it as the “Great Atlantic Hurricane.” By September 14th the eye of the storm was near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Between September 14th and 15th, this monster moved quickly north, passing approximately 50 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. By this point it was considered to be a Category 2 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of about 80 knots (approximately 92 miles per hour)

In 1944, the United States was embroiled in World War II. Because of wartime restrictions on radio communications of ships at sea, and the hurricane’s location miles off the coast, it often approached coastal cities with little advance warning. Atlantic City schools opened as usual on the morning of the 14th, and then abruptly closed, sending their students home with a simple storm warning. The term hurricane was never used.

The United States Army had troops stationed in hotels along the Atlantic City boardwalk, and these soldiers assisted in the cleanup and reconstruction of the city. So did German prisoners-of-war brought from a camp in the nearby town of Vineland. Ever mindful of the possibility of U-Boats and saboteurs along the Atlantic coast, the Coast Guard dispatched its staff to patrol the beaches lest the Germans try to land spies in the confusion.
By now, as I’m wrapping up this post, Hurricane Sandy has come and gone. Sandy, of course, caused  considerable damage in Atlantic City before moving on to Manhattan, and as of November 8th, crews are still working to restore power and clean up debris. Since 1944, weather forecasts and early warning systems have improved, communication with affected regions has become faster and easier. But looking at photos of the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, and then the recent photos of Sandy’s aftermath, the damage doesn’t look much different.

Author and ’44 survivor Margaret Buchholz may have put it best when she told Kathleen O’ Brien of the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

“People are always surprised to see the storm photos. Every generation always thinks they’re experiencing everything new for the first time.”

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For more photos of the aftermath of the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane in Atlantic City, you can browse the archives of the New Jersey State Library.


“Hurricanes in History.” National Hurricane Center. Web. 28 October, 2012. <>

O’Brien, Kathleen. “Hurricane Irene's predecessor: The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.” The Star-Ledger. New Jersey Online LLC. Aug. 28, 2011. Web. Nov. 2, 2012.
PCCTV. “Storm Stories: 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane.” You Tube. Web. 28 October, 2012. <>

Sumner, H. C. “The North Atlantic Hurricane of September 8-16, 1944.” Monthly Weather Review. Print. Weather Bureau, Washington D.C.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

Bad, Bad Mercy Brown

Let’s face it; it’s Halloween. Every website and every blogger has been talking about creepy things for weeks now, and I’m determined to go with the flow. If you make a quick Google search for the phrase “Halloween Massachusetts,” the number one result will be the website “Salem Halloween City,” supposedly the site of the Salem witch trials and the Halloween capital of the world. Everyone knows the story of Salem’s seventeenth century witch trials (or thinks they do!), its standard New England fare. Today I’m interested in talking about a lesser-known chapter of New England’s spooky past.

In 1892, the town of Exeter, Rhode Island was swept by an hysteria not so different from the Salem Witch Trials that had occurred exactly two hundred years before. In the ancient, settled, and supposedly modern region of New England, an outbreak of tuberculosis (known then as “consumption”) led a furtive group of townspeople to believe that a vampire was loose in Rhode Island. To protect themselves against this supernatural parasite, they exhumed the grave of a recent consumption victim, mutilated it, and reinterred the body in the hope that the corpse would stay dead. The target of their macabre wrath was a girl named Mercy Brown, called “Lena” by her family.

Lena’s family had been ravaged by tuberculosis starting in 1882. Her mother, Mary Eliza, succumbed in December of that year. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, died of the disease in 1883. Within the next few years, brother Edwin would catch a slower-acting form of TB and move to the supposedly more healthful climate of Colorado Springs. Lena probably contracted the disease sometime in late1891 or early 1982; her obituary was printed in January 1892 and her death appears to have come suddenly.

Soon after the poor girl succumbed, a band of skittish townspeople convinced her father to allow the exhumation of his dead family members to make sure that they were all… staying dead. Having most recently passed on, Lena exhibited symptoms of decomposition that the superstitious farmers took as evidence of an unholy life after death. Even examination by the Brown family doctor and the discovery of TB bacterium in the body’s lungs was not enough to change their minds. The party removed Lena’s heart, burned it to ashes, and gave them in a drink to Lena’s sickly brother Edwin in the hope that he would be cured. Edwin himself would be dead in less than two months.

The whole incident is grimly fascinating. Every culture has its stories of vampires and vampire-like undead creatures, but it’s not a piece of folklore that I find generally associated with New England. Thus from a modern perspective, the case of Lena “Mercy” Brown seems to emerge in a region not known for such stories, in a time when many people—certainly most Americans—were beginning to leave these sorts of dark fairy tales behind. Where did these American vampire tales come from? Why did they wait until 1892 to surface?

In re-examining the historical record, however, we find that vampires had been popping up in New England for at least a century before the incident with the Brown family. One case specifically arose in the Brown’s hometown of Exeter, Rhode Island! In the late eighteenth century, the children of Exeter’s Tillinghast family began to die of consumption. Each child in turn complained of being visited by the first of their siblings to die of the disease, sister Sarah Tillinghast. She came “every night and sat upon some portion of their body, causing great pain and misery.” Being a pragmatic sort, Father Tillinghast exhumed the bodies of his six deceased children and cremated their hearts. Upon opening Sarah’s coffin, he supposedly found the body swollen with fresh red blood, the eyes open, and the hair and nails still growing. After dealing with Sarah in the same way as the other children, the family apparently found peace.

Writing in 1896, George R. Stetson refers to the region around Exeter as one in which “agriculture is in a depressed condition and abandoned farms are numerous.” He goes on to state, “naturally in such isolated conditions, the superstitions of a much lower culture have maintained their place […] despite the church, the public school, and the weekly newspaper.”

As pointed out in Smithsonian Magazine’s “The Great New England Vampire Panic,” 19th century New England was a great deal less church-going than popular culture would have us believe. A good portion of the population didn’t even belong to an established church. When disease and catastrophe reared their ugly heads, many people turned to superstition instead of religion; fertile soil for all kinds of long-legged beasties. For more on this, see their excellent article here.

Is it Rhode Island? I’ve been there and I found nothing particularly creepy about the place. Perhaps its Exeter in particular that gives rise to all these stories of the undead. Or maybe the stories are all true. If so, as small as the state is, I’d put money on most of the population being undead by now. Just saying, for those of you thinking about visiting on Halloween night.

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Do you need help in “checking” on your family? If so, count me out; you may have found your way to this site by accident. For all other communications, please use the handy comment box in the space below.


Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-Corpse?” Folklore. 117.3. (December, 2006): pp. 241-260.

Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” The American Anthropologist. 9.1. (January 1896): pp. 1-13.

Tucker, Abigail. “The Great New England Vampire Panic.” Smithsonian Magazine. (October 2012). <>