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Letter to the Editor on Vampyrism

Published in The Athenaeum (1807)

This early 'letter to the editor' not only provides some interesting contemporary details about vampirism, but also attempts to establish a link to a strange Dutch phenomenon of blood-sucking leech-creatures that accompanied many childbirths in Holland. Of which we were completely unaware.

To the Editor of the Athenaeum,

On Some Popular Superstitions, More Particularly
on That Relating to Vampyres or Blood-Suckers,

In answer to an Enquiry made in the last Number of the Athenaeum
concerning it

I must ask pardon of your Correspondent, Scrutator, for having unintentionally misled him by referring to some volumes of the Gentlement's Magazine for an account of Vampyres, which I find, does not come within the limits under which I had conceived it fell.

When I submitted my Legend of "The Dead Men of Pest" to your notice, I wrote concerning the sources from which I had drawn it, from the vague recollection of what I happened to read about four or five years ago, and had not the books within my reach to make my reference more perfect. On examining with attention all the early Magazines, the only passage I can find distinctly relating to this singular superstition is in p. 681 of the second volume for the year 1732, under the head of "Foreign Advices for the month of March." It appears from that extract (which I shall take the liberty of inserting entire for the satisfaction of your Correspondent) that the particular instance there alluded to, was only one of many, and that the belief of vampyres had been long established in those parts of the world. The very term "vampyre" is mentioned as familiar to the people, and some curious points of old doctrine concerning those imaginary beings are hinted at. We may therefore safely imagine, that the similar instances recorded by Dr. Henry More, as having taken place at Breslaw, in Selesia (and, I believe, in other parts also) all originate in the same belief which has prevailed among the common people in different parts of the Sclavonian countries from his time (and how much earlier we known not) down to the middle of last century. I have not been able to meet with More's philosophical works since I perceived the enquiry of the Scrutator; but, in the course of the summer I expect to fall in his company, and will then furnish you, Sir, with some more particulars of the strange stories related by him.

Extract from the Gentleman's Magazine.

"From Medreyga, in Hungary, we learn, that certain dead bodies, called Vampyres, had killed several persons by sucking out all their blood. The commander in chief and magistrates of the place were severally examined, and unaminously declared, that about five years ago a certain heyduke, named Arnold Paul, in his life-time was heard to say he had been tormented by a vampyre, and that for a remedy he had eaten some of the earth of the vampyre's graves, and rubbed himself with their blood. That, twenty or thirty days after the death of the said Arnold Paul, several persons had complained that they were tormented, and that he had taken away the lives of four persons. To put a stop to such a calamity, the inhabitants having consulted, their hadnagi took up his body forty days after it had been dead, and found it fresh and free from corruption; that he bled at the nose, mouth, and ears, pure and florid blood, and his shroud and winding-sheet were all over bloody, and that his finger and toe-nails were fallen off, and new ones grown in their room. By these circumstances they were persuaded that it was a vampyre, and, according to the custom, drove a stake through his heart, at which he gave a horrid groan. They burned his body to ashes, and threw them into his grave. 'Twas added, that those who have been tormented by vampyres, become vampyres when they are dead; upon which account they served several other bodies in the same manner."

This horrible account caused a good deal of conversation about the time when it first appeared. In page 750 of the same volume, we find an humerous number of the paper called the Craftsman, on the conceit that the whole story of the vampyres was but a political allegory; that Arnold Paul, the heyduke, was a minister of state, and his blood the treasure he had sucked out of the public funds, &c. &c. &c.; and in page 755 is a grave attempt to reason on the causes of so uncommon a superstition.

It is cetain that dead bodies have occasionally been dug out of the earth, which, after lying for as many years, or more, as the heyduke is said to have lain days, have exhibited appearances as extraordinary as those attributed to these vampyres. Take, for example, the following account, which I found in the 20th volume of the same Magazine in the course of my search.

"Some men at Staverton, in Devon, being employed to rid the church-yard of water, under it in a vault full of water found two coffins, one quite rotten, the other quite sound, and the person in it as fresh as just dead. On searching the register, they found one had been buried 81, the other 84 years; the person who looked so fresh died abroad, and was brought home, wrapt in a tar-cloth, to be buried: On dissection, his heart appeared nearly consumed, but surrounded with fat; on opening the thigh, the blood appeared fresh; all the limbs were pliant, as if scarce cold; the beard was grown down to the navel; but upon being exposed to the air, the countenance turned black."

There is a most curious case of a murder in Hertfordshire, preserved by Hargrave in his edition of state-trials (vol. x. p. 29. Appendix.) Some persons, who had been taken up on suspicion, were tried at the assizes and acquitted, but so much against the evidence, that an appeal was afterwards brought, and "because the evidence was so strange," says Sir John Maynard, "I took exact and particular notice; and it was as follows:"

"An ancient and grave personage, minister to the parish where the fact was committed, being sworn to give evidence according to the custom, deposed - That the body being taken up out of the grave thirty days after the party's death, and lying on the grass, and the four defendants being present, were required each of them to touch the dead body. The appellant did touch the body, whereupon the brow of the dead, which was before a livid and carrion colour, began to have a dew, or gentle sweat, arise on it, which encreased by degrees till the sweat ran down in drops on the face; the brow turned to a lively and fresh colour, and the deceased opened one of her eyes and shut it again; and this opening of the eye was done three several times; she likewise thrust out the ring or marriage finger three times, and pulled it in again; and the finger dropped blood from it on the grass."

On being questioned, who saw this besides himself? the witness answered "I cannot swear what others saw; but, my Lord, I do believe the whole company saw it;" and afterwards, observing some wonder in the auditors, "My Lord, I am minister of the parish, and have long known all the parties, but never had occasion of displeasure against any of them, or they with me; but I have no interest in the matter, but as called upon to testify the truth, and that I have done."

"This witness (proceeds the learned Serjeant) was a very referend person, as I guessed, of about seventy years of age; his testimony was delivered gravely and temperately, but to the great admiration of the auditory." His brother, also a man in years, and the minister of the adjoining parish, having been likewise present, was called, and being sworn, deposed in every point, "the sweating of the brow, the change of the colour, thrice opening the eye, and thrice motion of the finger." The first witness added, that he had dipped his own finger in the blood which came from the dead body, and swore he believed it was real blood.

This evidence would alone have been sufficient for the people who were convinced, by the supernatural interposition of the dead woman herself, that heaven marked out the accused for its vengeance. The Judge, however, required further proof; and the circumstantial evidence which then follows is of a very remarkable nature, but wholly unconnected with my present subject.

The appearances described as having taken place in this corpse are so very similar to those on the vampyres (excepting as to the alteration said to have been visibly taken place before the by-standers) that I thought this story well worth relating by way of comparison. It seems highly probable that the murdered person did actually, from some natural cause, exhibit the phenomena of a fresh skin and a fullness of blood, and even that the sudden removal into the air produced some apparent change. The rest must be wholly placed to the account of imagination in the good old clergymen.

As for the more wonderful part of the vampyre-superstition, that from which the name itself was derived, the sucking of the blood of the living, we find a parallel belief to have obtained, nearly about the period of Arnold Paul's death, in Holland. A book of midwifery, published in the year 1730, by Dr. Mowbray, entitled, "The Female Physician," treating unnatural births, and mentioning some observations made by himself in Holland, proceeds in the following words: "That these births in those parts are often attended with a monstrous little animal, the likest of any thing in shape and size to a moodiwarp, having a hooked snout, fiery sparkling eyes, a long round neck, and an acumulated short tail, of an extraordinary agility of feet. At first sight of the world's light, it commonly yells and shrieks fearfully; and seeking for a lurking hole, runs up and down like a little Daemon, which indeed I took it for, the first time I saw it, and that for none of the better sort."

He then tells us a story of what happened to himself; that being on his passage in the ordinary fare vessel from Harlingen to Amsterdam, the voyage being much delayed by contrary winds, a woman fell in labour before they got to shore, and he took upon himself the office of delivering her, he says, "this fore-mentioned ANIMAL made its wonderful egress, filling my ears with dismal SHREIKS and my mind with greate CONSTERNATION."

"Afterwards," says he, at some intervals, "I had occasion to talk with some of the most learned men of the several famous universities in the provinces upon this head, who ingenuously told me that it was so common a thing among the sea-faring and meaner sort of people, that scarce ONE of these women in three escaped this kind of strange BIRTH; which my own small practice among them afterwards also confirmed, insomuch that I always as much expected the thing, de suyger (as it is called) as the CHILD itself; and, besides, the women in like manner make a respective suitable preparation to receive it warmly, and throw it into the fire, holding sheets before the chimney, that it may not get of; as it always endeavours to safe itself by getting into some dark hole or corner. They properly call it de suyger, which is (in our language) the SUCKER, because, like a leech, it sucks up the INFANT's blood and aliment." *

It should seem that some Daemon, similar to the suyger, was supposed by the inhabitants of Medregga to enter into the bodies of the deceased, and, in like manner, suck up the blood of the living. But, without insisting too strongly on the analogy between the two superstitions, this relation of Dr. Mowbray must be regarded as another curious instance of the strange propensity of the human mind to torment itself with imaginary terrors. In this case we see that a general belief has obtained over a whole province of a thing absolutely impossible in the course of nature, and which it comes within the evidence of the senses of thousands totally to contradict; and yet we find it supported by a man of learning in his profession, who states himself to have been an eye-witness of what he relates, not once, but often, and has thus made himself guilty either of a most wanton and useless lie, or of a credulity and aptness to be deluded that almost exceeds belief. I have no doubt that the story of Lerinus Lumnius (whom Mowbray quotes as an authority for the same ridiculous fiction) is equally impudent and strange.



* In this quotation from Dr. Mowbray, I have preserved the Italics and Capitals just as he himself inserted them, in order to impress his readers with the more horror and astonishment.

From The Athenaeum, Volume 2 (July to December, 1807), J. Aikin, M.D. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, London, 1807.

Not only is this letter noteworthy for its antiquity, but the discussion of the Dutch tradition of de suyger is a rare find indeed, lingering among the more bizarre tales of midwifery.