This Halloween, be on the lookout for vampires – and tuberculosis.
Charles Sohaskey, post-doctoral research faculty at Chapman University, explores if this disease could play a part in the origin of vampire mythology.
Charles Sohaskey is the biological safety officer at Chapman University. He also does work at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach, California. His principle area of study is the lung disease tuberculosis. While his lab focuses on latent tuberculosis, the carrier state of the disease, he is also interested in the long grim history of the disease. He is the author of over 20 peer reviewed papers and has given lectures on the role of this disease in art and literature.
Vampires and Tuberculosis
Edwin Brown was the victim of a vampire in the village of Exeter, Rhode Island, in the midst of the New England Vampire Panic in 1892. Brown’s mother and sister had previously wasted away and died, and now his last sister, Mercy Lena Brown, had died.
Legends of the dead returning to drink human blood are found in nearly every culture and are often associated with outbreaks of the disease tuberculosis – a disease that affects the lungs. Patients with active disease cough up blood and die a slow death that takes months or even years, as if something were draining the life force from them. Often bed ridden, they would be taken care of by other people in the family who would become infected themselves. This had happened with the Brown family.
The scariest aspect of the disease was that the cause was unknown at this time. With a lack of solid scientific understanding, folklore took over. The villager came to Edwin’s father and told him that his daughter Mercy Brown had become a vampire and was feeding on the life force from her brother. Her body was exhumed and it was found to be well preserved with the heart containing fresh blood. She had been buried only a few months in the cold winter ground, but these facts were ignored and instead her lack of decay was taken as positive proof that she was a vampire; sustaining her undead existence by consuming the life and blood of her brother. Her heart was burnt to ashes, and then fed to Edwin. Despite this treatment he was dead within a year of tuberculosis.
The New England Vampire panic was one of many linked to high mortality from tuberculosis. This may be why the vampire legend survived for so long, because it allowed action – a treatment for a disease that otherwise resulted in passive waiting for death.