One Staked Every Minute

Whenever I think to write on another subject, another one of these flaming VKKs crops up. This time, it’s pretty poor. The ones I looked at last time are at least superficially convincing. The thing featured in this video for the US TV show ‘Auction Kings’ is really not the best I’ve seen:

Anyway, I was amused by the seller’s assessment, which is as follows, with my comments;

The kit was ‘Made during 1800’s when some people believed vampires were real’.

All evidence points to c1900 at the absolute earliest, more likely 1970 or later. Particularly this motley collection of bits and bobs in a dodgy case.

The knife has a blade made of silver.

Edwin the Seller apparently collects antique weapons, so far be it from me to contradict him. However that blade looks like ferrous metal to me – you can even see the faint active red rust at the forte of the blade at 0:51 in the video. I have never seen a knife blade made of silver – it really doesn’t lend itself to the job. Not only does it lack strength, it can’t hold an edge.

If silver pierces the vampire’s skin, it incapacitates them.

Edwin also has an interest in vampire lore. I’m not sure how deep this goes, however – I’m sure he’s a busy businessman with lots of interests. In any case, that idea dates to circa 1998 and the movie ‘Blade’ – or possibly earlier pop culture that I can’t currently recall. Suffice to say that silver bullets for vampires first appear in 1928 as we’ve seen, and blades or silver stakes are a very recent thing.

“Is that actual holy water…? …I would think so…”

I would love to know on what basis he makes that assertion. If only water could be tested for holiness.

“The vampire craze took off in 1897 with the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

No, it didn’t.

“Vampires are hot right now…”

This is one of the only accurate statements in the whole video (and is of course why so many of these things are coming out of the woodwork) – the other being the claim that VKKs with crossbows are very rare. I’ve seen only two others (both on Spookyland’s site), the first of which amusingly has the reference to a pistol on the Blomberg label obliterated. They obviously wanted the cache of the label but couldn’t be bothered to draft their own fake label. But I digress. That example doesn’t really resemble this new kit aside from the bow. Applying the same folklore/fiction approach as I have in the past, I struggled to find a single reference for the crossbow as anti-vampire weapon pre-‘Tomb of Dracula’. This Hammer movie from 1972 may be the earliest – if so these crossbow kits are in serious peril ‘authenticity’ wise.

Based on the clip, the owner of the auction house himself has reservations, but seems to agree to accept the consignment regardless. A quick look at their current inventory suggests that this place is more of a bric-a-brac shop than an antiques dealership or auction house. If I ever get to see the actual episode of the show (showing Oct 26 in the US), I’ll be intrigued to find out what this chap’s dad, who apparently has sold “two or three” such kits in the past, makes of this one. No doubt it will turn out to be just as “legit” as the others.


Towards a Typology of Vampire Killing Kits

It seems we have a new VKK on the market – a “high-end” piece regardless of its authenticity and age.

For once we have hi-res images to work with, and it’s almost believably “19th century”, with a pistol that’s clearly hand-made. However, there is a lot of bright steel and fresh scratching on the under-side of the pistol. The red felt lining, though worn in places, is pristine in others and still suspiciously bright. In fact the dye used in its manufacture has stained the ivory on both pistol and the case.

One might expect someone familiar with working with such materials not to have made this mistake, which must have manifested soon after manufacture of the kit and marrs an otherwise attractive object. Someone turning out a modern curio, on the other hand, might not anticipate this result or have hung onto the kit long enough to see the dye bleed in this way. I also see the remains of adhesive on the inside of the lid, and have to wonder whether this kit might too once have borne a spurious “Ernst Blomberg” trade label. I’m not discounting the possibility of a very late (post-Dracula!) C19th kit,

Whatever the authenticity/age of this new kit, I thought it a good opportunity to try to make sense – if such a thing is even possible – of the some of the kits out there.

As you can see from Spooky Land’s attempt to classify and categorise VKKs, it is a daunting task, as no two kits are identical, and very few are even similar, despite the precisely-worded (“Blomberg”) label that many they share. This in itself suggests many different places and persons of origin. However, there are some parallels between kits that may be significant.

According to the seller of the new kit, there were three others like it from the same source. This we can’t confirm, but aside from its unique ivory case and accoutrements, this new kit is very similar to a pair of equally fancy kits sold by Sotheby’s in April 2007.

A very similar fourth kit with cruciform pistol was sold by Fain & Co in 1997.

Like the other three, it is also inscribed ‘I.H.S.’ (for the first three letters of Christ’s name in Greek). A fourth kindred kit is that published in Guns & Ammo magazine (1989) that I mentioned last time. There are no images of this kit anywhere else online, so far as I know (including on G&A’s own site);

It too is really nicely done, and though without “IHS” inscription, contains that unusual under-hammer cruciform pistol. To get techy for a moment, the similarity between the pistols is far from superficial. All are muzzle-loaded, featuring a combined mainspring and (under-)hammer that is ‘cocked’ into a notch on a folding trigger. When this is pulled, the tensioned spring slaps down onto a percussion cap at the breech and fires the main charge. A crude but clever way to incorporate a gun barrel into a wooden cross-shaped stock. The Fain kit lacks the combined ramrod/stake of the Forgett piece, as well as the bevelled arms of the cross/stock on the latter (probably an attempt at ergonomics)! The new (Greg Martin) gun opts for a folding knife-bayonet in lieu of a stake. The other cross-pistols also have wooden ivory-faced cruciform stocks, where this new one is solid steel with ivory cladding. Otherwise they are clearly either by the same maker, or are close copies of each other.

There is one other possible example of kit with cross-pistol at the Gatlinburg branch of Ripley’s, however the contents of the kit don’t seem to match their own caption. In any case, the pistol visible in that kit does have a similar underhammer system of ignition albeit fitted to a much more conventional mid-C19th pistol.

Where to go from here? I decided to look for parallels beyond kits with cruciform guns. I found it in the Ripley’s kit from San Francisco, which has a cross in the same style as the guns (possibly even a gun in its own right) which, like the two Sotheby’s kits and this new example, is also ivory-clad and marked ‘IHS’.

We then have yet another Ripley’s kit with what appears to be a folding plug bayonet (with silver-tipped stake attachment) for its (unusually flintlock), again marked ‘IHS’. Incidentally, despite its cheesy appearance, it is also more convincing than most kits, as the typically French case design, complete with cruciform cut-out for the bayonet, all look to be genuinely mid-C19th in date. It is essentially a cased pistol with the one specialised “anti-vampire” component, rather than the usual mish-mash in which the pistol is just one element.

There are then many more kits containing small wooden crosses faced with ivory – it is tempting to include these also, but I don’t want to over-reach myself by making such tenuous connections.

Returning to the Mercer museum’s kit – proven to be of modern manufacture, let’s not forget – we find yet another cross, lacking the IHS inscription but containing the same clipped circular religious medallion at its centre as the Forgett kit’s cross-gun. The author of the Guns & Ammo article supposed this to be St Peter, but given the analogies of impaling demonic creatures with long phallic objects, this is most likely Saint Michael.

This probably relates to the association of St. Michael with the exorcism of evil spirits in the Catholic religion. Not really something seen with the folkloric vampire, and so tempting to take as another hint that we’re dealing with the post-Dracula era.

From the Mercer kit, which has silver balls marked with crosses, we can also include this kit, now in the Victoria Police Museum in Australia.

This in turn takes us right back to the Forgett kit, as all three contain silver (possibly actually pewter) balls (i.e. bullets) with crosses cut into them. As I’ve commented before, the literary references for this practice date from the ’60s and ’70s.

The Victoria Police Museum kit is another fascinating one for which I have some more details. The pistol is a late percussion type made by Calderwood & Son of Earl Street, Dublin. This version of the name plus its obsolete form lets us date the gun to the period 1857 to 1870. No other kit contains a pistol of this size and type. In addition, its case bears an unusual inscription in a vaguely medieval script;

aski kataski
haix tetrax

It’s a version of an old supposedly magical phrase (think ‘abracadabra’) found on the statue of Artemis at Ephesius (c500BC) – a phrase of unknown origin that was used in everyday magic and ritual in the classical world. It seems to have survived via Gnostic Christianity into the 19th century in the form found on that lid – which whatever the maker’s rationale for using it, certainly appears in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical glossary (Theosophy being a new age religion from the 1870s onwards). It’s still in ‘use’ today with ritual ‘magicians’ of one sort or another. The inscription is in a bizarre typeface resembling none I have ever seen (answers on a postcard). It is inlaid in a style that to me suggests mid-19th century at the earliest – but shows cleaned areas in the aged/treated wood around each letter, suggesting that they are later additions. Pistol cases typically either eschewed decoration altogether, or had an escutcheon plate or decorative shape inlaid into the centre of the lid. The lining itself is not very mid-C19th as it uses cut-out forms with finger slots instead of the usual divided compartments. I think it likely that this is a re-use of an older pistol case.

What conclusions can we draw from this group of kits? Sadly, not many. Though far from being copies of each other, there are clear connections between these half-dozen or so kits that suggest a common origin. One possibility is a ‘school’ of vampire kit makers turning out multiples in order to make money. Another, just as likely, is that we are witnessing an organic string of copyists taking ideas from a kit or kits that they’ve seen and making their own version with the antique items and craft skills that they have available to them. In any case, this web of connections includes our only proven fake, casting doubt upon the others by association and to varying degrees. This doesn’t automatically make them all fakes of course.
Given that Val Forgett was a replica gunmaker by trade from 1956 onwards, it would be a neat conclusion indeed if we could say that he was the originator of the Blomberg kits. However, he was also an international dealer in antique arms and armour, and claimed in the article that he bought the kit ‘at a gun show’ in the US. This is unlikely to be the kit allegedly sold by Michael De Winter in England in 1972, as he made no mention of such an unusual pistol. Is it the product of an imitator? As with most other questions surrounding these kits, we are unlikely to ever know unless more VKKs can be scientifically tested or at least subjected to closer scrutiny by specialists outside the auction houses that do so well out of selling them.

Un kit d’extermination de vampires

<Update> – the below kit went for 6875 Euros ($9364).

Just a quick comment on the latest Vampire Killing Kit (VKK) to appear on the market, which is being offered by Christies in Paris. It’s a very unusual piece even for a VKK, departing significantly from the Blomberg pistol-case concept and indeed the traditional ad-hoc doctor’s-bag of popular fiction. It’s more of a custom travelling case. Interestingly they’ve had their head of modern art sales comment on the piece, including this knowing caveat:

“Although it is classified as a piece of furniture, the humour of this work means one might also regard it as a piece of contemporary art.”

I’d agree entirely. Contemporary. About time someone acknowledged the elephant in the room. Yet, perhaps for fear of alienating a quarter of the customer base for this kind of thing, she goes on to date it to;

“…the late 19th century, when legends about vampires were widely believed.”

…despite even the actual lot description saying;

“early twentieth century, with later additions”.

…though they don’t specify what they believe those additions to be.

This seems contradictory, as contemporary art is usually defined as post-WW2. In any case, as this is not a ‘Blomberg’ kit, with no spurious label, no firearm, and no silver bullets, this is actually a plausible enough date on the face of it. Dating of the individual components aside, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t have been familiar in western Europe post c1730 with the original reports from the east, and particularly into the 19th century with the growing number of fictional tales about vampires. The kit itself looks just about old enough for the claimed date(s), though there’s something odd about the pattern of wear on the case, which also looks somewhat bodged together – the joints at the arms of the cross for instance appear to be simply butted together.

However, I’m not sure that vampires were ‘widely believed’ by even the late 19th century, at least not in ‘western’ world, which is where every single known example of kit has been ‘found’. The closest we’ve got to a kit being owned in earnest is the example recovered by police in Australia from a Romanian immigrant – but there’s still no evidence that the kit itself had come from there. The usual interpretations of VKKs are;

1) ‘Genuine’ i.e. mid-late C19th, actually intended for killing vampires (their actual existence notwithstanding).

2) Period novelty items.

3) Modern novelty items.

4) Out-and-out fakes of (1) and (2).

I discount 1) entirely, would love to find an example of 2), and think that most if not all actually fall into categories 3) and 4).

Now, as the lady from Christies herself says, there is ‘humour’ in this piece – it’s cross-shaped, for goodness sake. Hardly practical for carrying about, nor even for brandishing the box at a vampire if caught short. The arrangement of the contents is oddly symmetrical. The whole thing is even more obviously tongue-in-cheek and stylised than the Blomberg kits. Like those, it’s likely a play on the religious war aspect of vampire literature (typified by ‘Dracula’) – the vampire as demon to be exorcised. So which is it? Late C19th and made in earnest to kill ‘real’ vampires? Or a piece of modern art? You can’t have it both ways. Unless you’re trying to sell a badly-made pine box full of trinkets for 2000 Euros, that is. It’s whatever you want it to be. If past sales are anything to go by, and with the current vamp-craze still in full swing, this is likely to realise substantially more than that. It’s enough to give one ideas…

Vampire Killing Kits 2

Firstly, apologies for my extended hiatus. I’ve tried to catch up on comments, but if I’ve missed anyone that’s been trying to reach me, please add a fresh comment below.

Now, I see that I’ve been quoted on the skepticblog re Vampire Killing Kits, which is rather flattering and also a handy coincidence as I’ve been working on a follow-up to my original article on the subject, which follows below (with a final part to follow soon afterward). Some information below actually somewhat contradicts my claim that silver bullets were “…originally associated with werewolves…”. That’s because that claim is, well, ‘BS’. Look for another piece in future on silver bullets. In the meantime, on with the vampire-slaying whackiness…

The excellent ‘Magia Posthuma‘ and ‘Diary of an Amateur Vampirologist‘ (which recently blogged re VKKs also) blogs have inspired me to revisit this subject (here’s my original article from 2007).

I thought it was time that we tried to pin these kits down with some known facts and dates.

1. In 2005 a Michael De Winter of Torquay in Britain claimed to have created the first of these kits – or at least, those bearing the infamous ‘Professor Ernst Blomberg’ label, in 1972. Whilst this is anecdotal, his name, age and location all check out and it seems unlikely to me that an old man would go online to claim to have invented such an obscure class of object. In any event, this is just one, widely-known piece of the puzzle.

2. The first printed reference to the existence of the kits is really very recent, being the October 1989 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine (itself footnoted in the 1994 ‘The Vampire Book‘) and deals with a kit belonging to collector Val Forgett (now deceased) who gives no earlier date, claiming that he found it for sale at a US gun show.

3. The only scientifically tested kit in the world is that in the possession of the Mercer museum, analysed by the world-renowned Winterthur Museum. Their results showed no constituent earlier than 1945, and the Mercer place the kit into the 1970s to ’80s.

4. Firearms do appear as vampire killers in folklore as early as 1836, but this source was not published in English until 1974 (see Folklore Forum 7(4), p260). The fictional ‘Varney the Vampire’ appeared in 1847 and was widely read, but Varney was a) not known to be a vampire by his hunters, and b) only incapacitated, reviving shortly afterward. Though Emily Gerard’s non-fiction ‘Land Beyond the Forest’ and Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (which paraphrases Gerard) both were published in 1888 and 1897 respectively, only Dracula was to become mainstream, and then not until post-1922 (once ‘Nosferatu‘ had raised the profile of its source novel).

5. Silver bullets against vampires do not appear in print until 1928 (Montagu Summers’ ‘The Vampire: His Kith and Kin’), and on film until 1959 (Universal’s ‘Curse of the Undead’). The idea would not be well-known until the years following 1973 (1978 for the US) – the year Hammer’s ‘Satanic Rites of Dracula’ was screened.
NB Regarding my werewolf mistake – the earliest reference in print for werewolves dates from 1933. So the vamps have it!

6. Two vampire kits, the Forgett kit and this one, contain silver bullets marked with crosses. I have found two printed references for this ultra-obscure practice – a 1965 issue of Penthouse magazine (!) and issue #31 of the graphic novel ‘Tomb of Dracula’ (1975).

All of this gives us a maximum date range of 1928 to 1989. Given that awareness of guns and silver bullets against vampires would not have been common knowledge until at least the 1960s, I think we’re looking at something closer to 1989 for that first kit. It is unlikely that anyone would incorporate obscure vampire lore into an item relying upon a high recognition factor for credibility (and indeed marketability). By the early 1980s, the idea of a vampire slayer with a gun and silver ammunition would no longer come as a surprise to many, truly opening up the market to the vampire killing kit as a product.

As I’ve commented before, there’s no historical precedent for a ‘kit’ of this sort. But for me the question has always been whether any of the kits could be genuine in the sense that Ripley’s claim – novelty items sold to mid-19th century travellers to eastern Europe. This assessment appears to be a face value interpretation of the Blomberg label and the type of pistol found in each kit (invariably 1830s – 1860s). As we have seen, there are difficulties with that approach. Even Ripley’s seem to admit this with the statement:

“If I’ve got a vampire-killing kit made in 1962 — or in 2002 — it still allows me to talk about vampires,”

Given that Ripley’s possess the largest collection of these kits in existence, and are generating revenue from their exhibition to the public, it ought to be possible to have some of them analysed in the same way that the Mercer/Winterthur has. Until an authenticated example or a verified reference are found, we have no reason to believe that vampire killing kits as a category of object antedate the 1960s, and are likely even more recent.

In the next instalment, I’ll look at some of the kits, and the connections between them, in some more detail.