A vampire doctor is not your average cosplayer. Today, vampires are seen as twinkly, tame creatures, contrary to pictures painted in the old days.
Modern vampire characteristics are relatively well established. They can’t see themselves in mirrors, have fangs, and consume human blood. Garlic can be used to fend them off, or a stake through the heart can be used to kill them. Some of them are aristocrats who reside in castles, like Dracula.
However, the definition of a vampire was only sometimes so obvious. According to scholars, the idea of these Halloween creatures may have sprung from various old beliefs prevalent throughout Europe. These ideas were based on the worry that the dead, even after being buried, may still hurt the living.
These myths frequently developed because people didn’t understand how corpses decay. A corpse’s teeth and fingernails may appear to have grown longer as its skin thins. A dark “purge fluid” can also leak out of the nose and mouth when internal organs degrade.
Unaware individuals would mistake this liquid for blood and surmise that the corpse had been consuming it from the living. Read “Archaeologists Suspect Vampire Burial: An Undead Primer” for more information.
But the case of the vampire doctor, Dr. Alfort, is one prominent one in demonology.
The Case of Dr. Alfort: The Vampire Doctor
Dr. Alfort and his family arrived in the small mountain town of Dillsboro, North Carolina, in the spring of 1788, when they made land purchases and constructed a lovely mansion close to the Tuckasiegee River.
The doctor designated some of the first-floor rooms in the spacious home for his office and apothecary. Townspeople were pleased to have another doctor in the area because there were suspicions that the Alfort family was royally related.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly at first, but two patients who had been receiving gout treatment from Dr. Alfort suddenly died from unidentified causes. Both were well-liked and useful community residents, and many people thought how they died was strange.
The local minister was able to cool the irate individuals who accused Dr. Alfort of misconduct by stating that no man is guaranteed tomorrow and that anyone can pass away at any time in accordance with God’s will. Though some residents claimed that Dr. Alfort was a vampire doctor, they backed down since they did not have any evidence.
Normalcy was restored to Dillsboro, and there weren’t any more instances until that fall when the minister’s wife walked into their small daughter’s chamber and saw what she described as a black figure hovering over her; the kid had been in excellent health when she had gone to bed.
When the woman shouted, the girl was dead, and the rest of the family rushed in. Besides a small quantity of blood on the pillow from two puncture wounds on the child’s throat, there were no overt symptoms of illness or injury.
In Dillsboro, something wasn’t right after that. One night, a witness claimed to have seen a massive animal that resembled a bat and was flying around. Families gathered together as people began to close their doors and windows out of fear of leaving their children alone in an unprotected room.
A little lad rushed into town a few nights later and urgently knocked on his grandparents’ door. He insisted that his parents were being attacked in their home up the hill by “something.” The boy’s parents and two young children were discovered dead inside the house on the hill after his grandfather called for some of the neighborhood’s help.
All four corpses had puncture wounds on their necks. The people in the surrounding areas were informed, and over the following few days, the hills and valleys were meticulously scoured, but nothing suspicious was found.
By February 1789, people started to unwind a little, but they kept an eye on their kids and avoided venturing alone at night. But eventually, they persuaded themselves that whoever—or whatever—had murdered the family on the hill had vanished.
Then, one evening, neighbors heard cries coming from a house about halfway up the hill. When they came, they saw a black form that appeared to be a member of the human species run down the hill and enter the Alfort residence. The young couple who lived there was discovered dead, their throats bearing odd bite marks.
This confirmed the villagers’ worst fears. Dr. Alfort was indeed a vampire doctor.
The men came together as a vigilante group and marched to the Alfort residence. Dr. Alfort rebuffed their requests to enter after they banged on the door repeatedly. After a brief conversation, it was determined that while others went to bring reinforcements, some of the men would stay watch outside the home.
A sizable group of town residents broke into the Alfort home by daybreak, believing he was a vampire doctor. In the beginning, when Dr. Alfort tried to reason with the group, he was hauled outdoors and bound to a tree. Even though it was still early in the morning, the beds in each upper chamber were made just that morning and did not appear to have been used the night before.
They looked through the ground floor, including the pharmacy and doctor’s office, before forcing open a large, locked door and down the steps to the cellar. They found three coffins there. Ms. Alfort was found in one. She was vibrantly alive and wearing all black.
As she was extricated from the casket, she hissed and cursed. The 15-year-old son of the couple was nowhere to be located.
The selected leader of the vigilante group spoke to the audience that had assembled outside the Alfort home, declaring that the Alfort family, including their son, were evil, unnatural beings that relied on the blood of the living to survive. The bodies of Dr. and Mrs. Alfort were hanged, placed inside the residence, and set afire.
Was the Alfort family really a vampire family when the attacks and murders stopped? Or had someone in Dillsboro lately traveled to, or learned about, the ‘attacks,’ which started about the same time, and made snap judgments?
The Dillsboro deaths, however, were distinct from those in New England in that none of the New England deaths featured neck injuries, such as puncture wounds or broken bones, or actual blood consumption.
Instead, these were “wasting deaths.” Of course, it’s conceivable that someone in Dillsboro had read Henrich August Ossenfelder’s 1748 German poem “The Vampire” My dear young lady clings to all the long-held instruction of a mother who has always been right, as People on the Theyse’s gateway believe heyduck-like vampires.
“My dear young maiden clingeth
Unbending, fast and firm
To all the long-held teaching
Of a mother ever true;
As in vampires unmortal
Folk on the Theyse’s portal
Heyduck-like do believe.
But my Christine thou dost dally,
And wilt my loving parry
Till I myself avenging
To a vampire’s health a-drinking
Him toast in pale tockay.
And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life’s blood drain away.
And so shalt thou be trembling
For thus shall I be kissing
And death’s threshold tho’ it be crossing
With fear, in my cold arms.
And last shall I thee question
Compared to such instruction
What are a mother’s charms?”
However, the poem does not mention vampires’ ability to transform into bats. Thus, it’s probable that the “big bat-like creature” was added to the tale at a later stage.
Despite the passing of more than 200 years, we will never be able to know with certainty what truly occurred or what happened to Dr. Alfort’s 15-year-old son unless someone discovers an ancient diary or notebook that describes the “vampire” attacks in Dillsboro.
Other True Vampire Stories from Around the World
Mercy Brown, a 19-year-old from Exeter, Rhode Island, passed away from tuberculosis, sometimes known as consumption, in 1892. Her mother, sister, and brother were already deceased, and Edwin was ill. According to concerned neighbors, the recently deceased Brown women’s relatives were frightened that Edwin would be in danger from the grave.
When they discovered blood on Mercy Brown’s lips and heart when they opened her grave, they interpreted this as an indication of vampirism (though they didn’t call it that). As a customary anti-vampire strategy, the neighbors burnt Mercy’s heart and turned the ashes into a drinkable elixir for Edwin. He was supposed to be healed by the potion, but a few months later, he passed away.
This wasn’t a one-off occurrence. According to folklorist and Food for the Dead author Michael Bell, there are at least 60 documented instances of anti-vampire rituals from New England’s 18th and 19th centuries and several others from other parts of the nation.
Professor of history at Central Washington University, Brian Carroll, claims that these rites were most prevalent in eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island. He is now researching a book on the subject.
Carroll theorizes that German physicians who served the Hessian armies were “introduced as medical technicians during the American Revolution” to these anti-vampire rituals. Because of this, he believes the German Nachzehrer served as the inspiration for the New England vampires.
He contends that New England’s vampires, as opposed to blood-sucking vampires from Romania, remained in their graves and harmed the living by “sympathetic magic” from a distance.
However, Bell contends that anti-vampire beliefs spread throughout New England and that the alleged vampires there were actually more related to Romanian vampires than to Nachzehrer. He claims that New Englanders searched for liquid blood in the important organs, just like Romanians, rather than signs of shroud chewing.
Romanians also used the anti-vampire treatment of “cutting the heart out, burning it to ashes, and distributing the ashes to the sick person or sick people.”
Regardless of where these ideas originated in New England, they were motivated by the same societal issues as those who came before them: a dread of sickness and a desire to limit it.
Horrifying Vampire Tales from Europe
As a result, plague outbreaks frequently coincided with vampire scares. In Venice, Italy, in 2006, archaeologists discovered a 16th-century skull with a brick in its jaw that had been interred with plague corpses.
The brick was perhaps a burial technique to stop Strega, Italian vampires or witches, from emerging from the tomb to consume victims.
It was once believed that not all vampires actually arose from the dead. The Nachzehrer, also known as “after-devourers,” remained buried while nibbling on the shrouds of the dead in northern Germany.
The purge fluid, which may cause the shroud to sag or tear and give the impression that a corpse had been biting it, is likely the root of this myth once more.
These stationary masticators were considered active aboveground still and were assumed to be most active during plague epidemics. A Protestant theologian charged the Nachzehrer with torturing their living relatives through occult practices in the 1679 tract “On the Chewing Dead.” According to his writing, one way to stop them is to exhume the body and pack it with soil, possibly along with a stone and a coin for good measure. The tract declared that the corpse would die if it couldn’t chew.
To the dismay of some politicians, vampire tales persisted in southern and eastern European countries throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. By the middle of the 18th century, the Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa and Pope Benedict XIV had denounced vampires as “fallacious fictions of human fantasy.”
However, the fight against vampires persisted. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, two centuries after the historic Salem witch trials, one of the last significant vampire scares took place in 19th-century New England.
Vampires In Today’s World
In European works like The Vampyre (1819), Carmilla (1871–72), and Dracula (1897), as well as in plays with a vampire theme, vampires were assuming a new role at the same time as the vampire craze in New England.
These aristocratic, sexual vampires were more like the vampires we know now, even though they were based on folklore and earlier vampire frights.
As these made-up creatures replaced folklore and as medical knowledge advanced, vampire panics subsided in the 20th century. However, there was an odd resurgence in the late 1960s when Seán Manchester, the president of the British Occult Society, claimed that a vampire was causing people to experience strange visions in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
Journalists soon adopted Manchester’s hypothesis that these sightings were the work of an eastern European vampire after reading stories of a tall figure with blazing eyes and other spectral sights floating in the cemetery.
Newspapers went so far as to exaggerate his allegations somewhat, referring to the man as a “king vampire” or claiming that he had engaged in black magic in Romania before traveling to London in his coffin.
Manchester revealed to a TV news crew in 1970 that he intended to practice the vampire on Friday the 13th. At Highgate Cemetery that evening, many young people showed up to witness him perform an exorcism (which he ended up not doing).
The Highgate Panic was a media sensation and an example of “legend tripping,” not a case of vampires being used as a crutch for disease (young people going to a supposedly haunted place to test their bravery).
The Highgate incident is a more recent occurrence in vampire lore history. It has more in common with contemporary scares, such as the spooky clown sightings that went viral this year, where even if people don’t believe it, they are still pulled to the buzz. This has less to do with the goal of regulating a community’s health.
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