The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz (1854)
Apologies to those readers who have subscribed to the blog; I know I’ve been very slow with my updates so far this year. I can’t promise regular content, but I can promise that it will keep coming! This latest is about vampires again, I’m afraid!
So, I recently read a piece in BBC History Magazine (Sep 2013, p.36) by Dr Richard Sugg of Durham University, quite rightly pointing out the link between historical reports of vampire or revenant activity and maladies that we now know to be sleep disorders. However, his first cited example raised an eyebrow with me.
The article references an unnamed American journalist, writing in 1870, who describes his own brush with a ‘vampire’ in a Hungarian village called ‘Hodmir’. This presents us with our first problem, as whilst spellings of ‘foreign’ places are frequently all over the place at this time (see ‘Dracula’ itself!), I can’t find reference to any such place. However, I was able to track down the source, a letter to the New York based World newspaper, in an edition dated June 1 1870. Sadly this isn’t available online, only in archive or microfilm form.
Fortunately, aside from the sections quoted by Sugg, the complete thing is available online in a contemporary California paper, the Daily Alta for July 24 the same year. According to contemporary journal The Nation, the author of this letter is a “William St. John”. I’ve had no luck tracking down any such person, either. The letter crops up again nearly twenty years later in the Globe-Democrat and a literature review that references it, and again in the New York Evening Telegram for June 28 1889.
Now, the account itself reads superficially like a bona fide account of a folkloric case of vampirism, i.e. an educated observer recording the superstitious activities of eastern European peasants who are digging up dead bodies and misinterpreting differential decomposition as vampirism. The man describes a very believable account of his own sleep paralysis, but it his subsequent story about supposed local vampire activity that poses real issues. Have a read.
Vampire fans will recognise many details from the famous story of Arnod Paole, an incident that occurred not in Hungary in the late 19th century, but in Serbia in 1731-2. The original source is ‘Visum et Repertum’, published in January 1732. The Serbian girl ‘Stanoska’ that Sugg refers to was actually a ‘victim’ of Paole’s at this same time (i.e. 1731, rather than the 1738 cited in the article. She appears as ‘Stanacka’ in the English translation.
The name given to the supposed vampire himself, ‘Peter Dickowitz’, is clearly a corruption of ‘Peter Plogojowitz’ (Petar Blagojević), another Serbian case from 1725. This was reported by an official called Frombald who visited the village of Kisiljevo. His report was published in the Austrian newspaper ‘Wienerisches Diarium’ on 21 July that year.
Both of these historical sources are well documented, both appear in the very Paul Barber book (‘Vampires, Burial, and Death’) that Sugg cites in his article, and both owe their fame to Dom Augustin Calmet’s book ‘The Phantom World’, originally published in 1746.
Where this story parts company with its cobbled bits of real folklore is in “St John’s” claim that the ‘vampires’ unearthed by the locals were not the usual differentially decomposed corpses, but victims of premature burial. Not only that, but the poor buggers were apparently murdered right in front of his eyes! At this point alarm bells were ringing in my head, as the idea that vampire folklore originated with live burial is an idea as old as the vampire phenomenon itself, but one that, along with porphoria, was consigned to the wastebin of folklore studies years ago. Live burial did happen, and fear of it was something of a Victorian preoccupation, so it made sense at this time to associate the two. But there’s just no evidence for a connection with vampirism (apart from this suspect account), and as Sugg himself points out, folkloric vampires are now known to be corpses whose signs of decomposition are misinterpreted by their would-be ‘slayers’ to create scapegoats for perceived ills in their community (sleep paralysis no doubt being one of these). Back to the story, what are the chances of not one, but TWO premature burials occurring in the same graveyard? Why the hell didn’t this guy report these murders (not the supposed live burial, the staking, decapitation and burning of the victims) to the authorities? Hungary in 1870 was a civilised European country and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I don’t care how remote this rural village might have been, opportunities to report these killings would have been plentiful and readily investigated by local law enforcement. The answers to those questions, by the way, are ‘slim’ and ‘because he made the story up’.
So how did genuine 18th century history end up being reported as current affairs in 1870? Well, I have a theory. I mentioned that both source stories appeared in Calmet’s ‘Phantom World‘ in 1746. Well, this was first published in English in 1850, and like the 1870 story, also places the Plogojowitz/Dickowitz case in Hungary. Chances are that our Victorian letter-writer used this, as well as perhaps his own experience of sleep paralysis, as the inspiration for a sensationalist cock-and-bull story that would appeal to the educated audience as a cautionary tale about the hazards of superstition.
Note that none of this actually undermines Sugg’s argument that sleep paralysis would have reinforced and even originated incidences of ‘vampirism’. But it’s definitely not the best source to use to make that argument. I fired off a letter to BBC History Magazine, so we’ll see if they do anything with it.