The notion of a vampire is not, as is imagined by many, a mere romancer’s dream. It is a superstition which to this day survives in the east of Europe, where little more than a century ago it was frightfully prevalent. At that period vampirism spread like a pestilence through Servia and Wallachia, causing numerous deaths, and disturbing all the land with fear of the mysterious visitation, against which no one felt himself secure.
The Polish maiden in Dumas’s story makes allusion to the disinterment of a number of vampires in one single village. As this is probably the most extraordinary case of vampirism on record, we shall transfer an account of it to our pages from Dr. Herbert Mayo’s newly-published work*, previously quoted.
In the spring of 1727 there returned from the Levant to the village of Meduegna, near Belgrade, one Arnod Paole, who, in a few years of military service and varied adventure, had amassed enough to purchase a cottage and an acre or two of land in his native place, where, he gave out, he meant to pass the remainder of his days. He kept his word. Arnod had yet scarcely reached the prime of manhood; and though he must have encountered the rough as well as the smooth of life, and mingled with many a wild and reckless companion, yet his naturally good disposition and honest principles had preserved him unscathed in the scenes he had passed through. At all events, such were the thoughts expressed by his neighbors, as they discussed his return and settlement among them in the Stube of the village Hof. Nor did the frank and open countenance of Arnod, his obliging habit, and steady conduct, argue their judgment incorrect. Nevertheless, there was something occasionally noticeable in his ways, a look and tone, that betrayed inward disquiet. Often would he refuse to join his friends, or on some sudden plea abruptly quit their society. And he still more unaccountably, and as it seemed sytematically, avoided meeting his pretty neighbor Nina, whose father occupied the next tenement to his own. At the age of seventeen, Nina was as charming a picture as you could have seen, of youth, cheerfulness, innocence, and confidence, in all the world. You could not look into her limpid eyes, which sleadily returned your gaze, without peeking to the bottom of the pure and transparent spring of her thoughts. Why, then, did Arnod shrink from meeting her ? He was young, had a little property, had health and industry, and he had told his friends he had formed no ties in other lands. Why, then, did he avoid the fascination of the pretty Nina, who seemed a being made to chase from any brow the clouds of gathering care ? But he did so. Yet less and less resolutely, for he felt the charm of her presence. Who could have done otherwise? And how could he long resist the impulse of his fondness for the innocent girl, who often sought to cheer his fits of depression ?
And they were to be united ; were betrothed; yet still an anxious gloom would fitfully overcast his countenance, even in the sunshine of those hours.
“What is it, dear Arnod, that makes you sad ? It cannot be on my account, I know, for you were sad before you ever noticed me ; and that, I think,” (and you should have seen the deepening rose upon her cheeks), ” surely first made me notice you.”
“Nina,” he answered, ” I have done, I fear, a great wrong, in trying to gain your affections. Nina, I have a fixed, impression that I shall not live ; yet, knowing this, I have selfishly made my existence necessary to your happiness.”
“How strangely you talk, dear Arnod! Who in the village is stronger and healthier than you? You feared no danger when you were a soldier : what danger do you fear as a villager of Meduegna ?
“It haunts me, Nina.”
“But, Arnod, you were sad before you thought of me; did you then fear to die?”
“Ah, Nina, it is something worse than death.” And his vigorous frame shook with agony.
“Arnod, I conjure you, tell me.”
“It was in Cossova this fate befell me here you have hitherto escaped the terrible scourge. But there they died, and the dead visited the living. I experienced the first frightful visitation, and I fled; but not till I had sought his grave, and exacted the dread expiation from the vampire.”
Nina’s blood ran cold. She stood horror stricken. But her young heart soon mastered her first despair. With a touching voice she spoke:
“Fear not, dear Arnod, fear not now. I will be your shield or I will die with you.”
And she encircled his neck with her gentle arms ; and returning hope shone, Iris-like, amid her falling tears. Afterward they found a reasonable ground for banishing or allaying their apprehensions, in the length of time which had elapsed since Arnod left Cossova, during which no fearful visitant had again approached him; and they fondly trusted that gave them security.
It is a strange world. The ills we fear are commonly not those which overwhelm us. The blows that reach us are for the most part unforeseen. One day, about a week after this conversation, Arnod missed his footing when on the top of a loaded hay-wagon, and fell from it to the ground. He was picked up insensible and carried home, where, after lingering a short time, he died; his interment, as usual, followed immediately. His fate was sad and premature; but what pencil could paint Nina’s grief?
Twenty or thirty days after his decease, says the perfectly authenticated report of these transactions, several of the neighborhood complained that they were haunted by the deceased Arnod; and what was more to the purpose, four of them died. The evil looked at skeptically was bad enough; but aggravated by the suggestions of superstition, it spread a panic through the whole district. To allay the popular terror, and if possible to get at the root of the evil, a determination was come to publicly to disinter the body of Arnod, with a view of ascertaining whether he really was a vampire; and in that event of treating him conformably. The day fixed for this proceeding was the fortieth after his burial.
It was on a gray morning in early August that the commission visited the quiet cemetery of Meduegna, which, surrounded with a wall of unhewn stone, lies sheltered by the mountain, that, rising in undulating green slopes irregularly planted with fruit trees, ends in an abrupt craggy ridge feathered with underwood. The graves were for the most part neatly kept, with borders of box or something like it, and flowers between; and at the head of most, a small wooden cross, painted black, bearing the name of the tenant. Here and there a stone had been raised ; one of considerable height, a single narrow slab, ornamented with grotesque gothic carvings, dominated over the rest. Near this lay the grave of Arnod Paole, toward which the party moved. The work of throwing out the earth was begun by the gray crooked old sexton, who lived in the Leichenhouse beyond the great crucifix; he seemed unconcerned enough ; no vampire would think of extracting a supper out of him. Nearest the grave stood two military surgeons, or feldscheerers, from Belgrade, and a drummer-boy, who held their case of instruments. The boy looked on with keen interest; and when the coffin was exposed, and rather roughly drawn out of the grave, his pale face and bright, intent eye showed how the scene moved him. The sexton lifted the lid of the coffin; the body had become inclined to one side; when turning it straight, ” Ha! ha!” said he, pointing to fresh blood upon the lips. ” Ha! ha! what, your mouth not wiped since last night’s work ?” The spectators shuddered, the drummer-boy sank forward fainting, and upset the instrument-case, scattering its contents; the senior surgeon, infected with the horror of the scene, repressed a hasty exclamation, and simply crossed himself. They threw water on the drummerboy and he recovered, but would not leave the spot. Then they inspected the body of Arnod. It looked as if it had not been dead a day. On handling it the scarfskin came off, but below were new skin and new nails! How could they have come there, but from its foul feeding! The case was clear enough; there lay before them the thing they dreaded, the vampire. So without more ado they simply drove a stake through poor Arnod’s chest; whereupon a quantity of blood gushed forth, and the corpse uttered an audible groan. “Murder! oh,murder!” shrieked the drummer boy, as he rushed wildly with convulsed gestures from the cemetery.
The drummer-boy was not far from the mark. But quitting the romancing vein, which had led me to try and restore the original colors of the picture, let me confine myself, in describing the rest of the scene and what followed, to the words of my authority.
The body of Arnod was then burnt to ashes, which were returned to the grave. The authorities farther had staked and burnt the bodies of the four others, which were supposed to have been infected by Arnod ; no mention is made of the state in which they were found. The adoption of these decisive measures failed, however, of entirely extinguishing the evil, which continued still to hang about the village. About five years afterward it had again become very rife, and many died through it. Whereupon the authorities determined to make another and a complete clearance of the vampires in the cemetery; and with that object they had again all the graves, to which present suspicion attached, opened, and their contents officially anatomized ; of which procedure the following is the medical report, here and there abridged:
- A woman of the nameof Stana, twenty years of age, who had died three months before of a three days’ illness following her confinement. She had before her death avowed that she had anointed herself with the blood of a vampire, to liberate herself from his persecution. Nevertheless, she, as well as her infant, whose body, through careless interment, had been half eaten by the dogs, both had died. Her body was entirely free from decomposition. On opening it, the chest was found full of recently-effused blood, and the bowels had exactly the appearances of sound health. The skin and nails of her hands and feet were loose and came off, but underneath lay new skin and nails.
- A woman of the name of Miliza, who had died at the end of a three months ‘illness. The body had been buried ninety and odd days. In the chest was liquid blood. The viscera were as in the former instance. The body was declared by a heyduk, who recognized it, to be in better condition and fatter than it had been in the woman’s legitimate lifetime.
- The body of a child eight years old, that had likewise been buried ninety days; it was in the vampire condition.
- The son of a heyduk named Milloc, sixteen years old. The body had lain in the grave nine weeks. He had died after three days’ indisposition, and was in the condition of a vampire.
- Joachim, likewise son of a heyduk, seventeen years old. He had died after three days’ illness; had been buried eight weeks and some days ; was found in the vampire state.
- A woman of the name of Rusha, who had died of an illness of ten days’ duration, and had been six weeks buried, in whom likewise fresh blood was found in the chest. (The reader will understand, that to see blood in the chest, it is first necessary to cut the chest open.)
- The body of a girl ten years of age, who had died two months before. It was likewise in the vampire state, perfectly undecomposed, with blood in the chest.
- The body of the wife of one Hadnuck, buried seven weeks before and that of her infant eight weeks old, buried only twenty-one days. They were both in a state of decomposition, though buried in the same ground, and closely adjoining the others.
- A servant, by name Rhade, twenty-three years of age; he had died after an illness of three months’ duration, and the body had been buried five weeks. It was in a state of decomposition.
- The body of the heyduk Stanco, sixty years of age, who had died six weeks previously. There was much blood and other fluid in the chest and abdomen, and the body was in the vampire condition.
- Millac, a heyduk, twenty-five years old. The body had been in the earth six weeks. It was perfectly in the vampire condition.
- Stanjoika, the wife of a heyduk, twenty years old; but died after an illness of three days, and had been buried eighteen. The countenance was florid. There was blood in the chest and in the heart. The viscera were perfectly sound : the skin remarkably fresh.
The document which gives the above particulars is signed by three regimental surgeons, and formally countersigned by a lieutenantcolonel, and sub-lieutenant. It bears the date of June 7, 1732, Meduegna, near Belgrade. No doubt can be entertained of its authenticity, or of its general fidelity; the less that it does not stand alone, but is supported by a mass of evidence to the same effect. It appears to establish beyond question, that where the fear of vampirism prevails, and there occur several deaths in the popular belief connected with it, the bodies, when disinterred weeks after burial, present the appearance of corpses from which life has only recently departed.
What inference shall we draw from this fact that vampirism is true in the popular sense; and that these fresh-looking and well-conditioned corpses had some mysterious source of preternatural nourishment ? That would be to adopt, not to solve the superstition. Let us content ourselves with a notion not so monstrous, but still startling enough. That the bodies which were found in the so-called vampire state, instead of being in a new or mystical condition, were simply alive in the common way, or had been for some time subsequently to their interment; that, in short, they were the bodies of persons who had been buried alive, and whose life, where it yet lingered, was finally extinguished through the ignorance and barbarity of those who disinterred them. In the following sketch of a similar scene to that above described, the correctness of this inference comes out with terrific force.
Erasmus Francisci, in his remarks upon the description of the Dukedom of Krain by Valvasor, speaks of a man of the name of Grando, in the district of Kring, who died, was buried, and became a vampire, and as such was exhumed for the purpose of having a stake thrust through him.
” When they opened his grave, after he had been long buried, his face was found with a color, and his features made natural sorts of movements, as if the dead man smiled He even opened his mouth as if he would inhale fresh air. They held the crucifix before him, and called in a loud voice, ‘ See, this is Jesus Christ, who redeemed your soul from hell, and died for you.’ After the sound had acted on his organs of hearing, and he had connected perhaps some ideas with it, tears began to flow from the dead man’s eyes. Finally, when, after a short prayer for his poor soul, they proceeded to hack off his head, the corpse uttered a screech, and turned and rolled just as if it had been alive, and the grave was full of blood.”
But this is not all; there still remains the vampire-visit to be explained. The vampire visit! Well, it is clear the vampire could not have left his grave bodily; or at all events, if he could, he never could have buried himself again. Yet there they always found him. If the body could not have been the visitant, then, in popular language, it was the ghost of the vampire that haunted its victim.
” There are two ways,” Dr. Mayo remarks, ” of dealing with this knot; one is to cut it, the other to untie it.”
It may be cut, by denying the supposed connection between the vampire-visit and the supervention of death-trance in the second party. Nor is the explanation thus obtained devoid of plausibility. There is no reason why death-trance should not in certain seasons and places be epidemic. Then the persons most liable to it would be those of weak and irritable nervous systems. Again, a first effect of the epidemic might be, further, to shake the nerves of weaker subjects. These are exactly the persons who are likely to be infected with imaginary terrors; and to dream, or even to fancy, they have seen Mr. or Mrs. Such-a-one, the last victims of the epidemic. The dream or impression upon the senses might again recur, ana the sickening patient have already talked of it to his neighbors, before he himself was seized with death-trance. On this supposition the vampire-visit would sink into the subordinate rank of a mere premonitory symptom.
To myself, I must confess, this explanation, the best I am yet in a position to offer, appears barren and jejune; and not at all to do justice to the force and frequency, or, as tradition represents the matter, the universality of the vampire-visit as a precursor of the victim’s fate, imagine how strong must have been the conviction of the reality of the apparition, how common a feature it must have been, to have led to the laying down of the unnatural and repulsive process customarily followed at the vampire’s grave, as the regular and proper and only preventive of ulterior consequences.
From Chambers Edinburgh Journal
*From Herbert Mayo, Letters on the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions, (Frankfort, Edinburgh, 1849, pp.24-31)