The 18th Century Vampire Controversy

by JoHarrington

Throughout the 1700s, a vampire epidemic overtook Europe. Clerics, monarchs and even the cynical philosopher Voltaire had their say, before the panic finally abated.

In a wave from Eastern Europe to the West, the 18th century vampire hysteria took its toll. Graves were opened and stakes driven into the hearts of loved ones. Newspapers fueled the terror with lurid reports of fresh outbreaks.

It took the intervention of the Austrian Empress, before the exhumation of suspected vampires was made illegal. For those living through these times, the threat was no fictional nightmare lifted from popular culture. It was all very, very real.

Recent excavations have revealed the lengths that people went to, in order to protect themselves and their families.

The Age of Vampires

Undermining the Age of Enlightenment was something altogether more supernatural and deadly. An infestation of the undead seemed to have taken over Europe.

Image: Vampire Romance by 666BloodWolf666The 18th century was not a fun time to be in Europe, particularly in the East.

War, epidemics of diagnosed pestilence and the Little Ice Age all held their terrors. It was also fertile ground for the vampire hysteria which overtook the continent and spread into the New World.

Widespread belief reached such a crescendo of panic, that Empress Marie Theresa, imperial ruler of the Hapsburg Empire, was forced to send a party of government officials to investigate. They included her own personal physician Gerhard van Swieten. Their documented reports describe a world where no corpse could be certain to rest in peace, and whole villages on the brink of desertion for fear of the vampire.

From France, a generation earlier, monks had been dispatched to collect evidence of the blood-sucking undead. Even then, the fear had been growing and the vampire stories were becoming more frequent.

It was all a subject of most deadly seriousness. Church and state alike had to react, as concern exploded into panic and threatened social unrest amongst the population of Europe. It's a tale which rarely makes it into the history, but it was most definitely true.

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Background to the 18th Century Vampire Epidemic

Ancient safeguards against potentially troublesome corpses, and a strange story from Croatia, do not a media scare make. But they certainly set the groundwork.

Image: Vampire burial from BulgariaThe scare did not begin in a vacuum. Vampires did not enter the folklore fully formed and dangerous, at the beginning of the 18th century.  Belief in them had persisted for centuries.

Ancient legends from Asia attest to vampiric figures, like Lamia and Kali.  Skeletons have been unearthed from 6th century Southwell, in England, showing how they had been buried with iron spikes pinning down the ankles, pelvis, wrists, chest and throat. From 13th century Bulgaria and Poland, archaeologists have uncovered yet more bodies interred with sickles securing skeletal necks, while rods protruded from the chest.

During the Black Death in Venice, suspected vampires were buried with bricks in their mouths, to stop them eating through their shrouds. The same has been found in Ireland, in graves dating from the 8th century.

They all provide evidence that humanity has feared the vampire, across the world, for a very long time. But what happened in the 18th century lifted this from the vague realms of folklore into the very real and present news headlines. There were stories.

Nor were they necessarily confined to the 1700s alone. Back in 16th century Hungary, an aristocrat named Countess Bathory was imprisoned in solitary confinement after murdering over 600 peasant women. She had bathed in their blood, in a bid to render herself young and beautiful. Though very much a living woman, it had underscored the notion of blood containing the elixir of life.

Then, in 1672, a terrifying report emerged from the Croatian village of Khring. A man named Guire Grando had attacked his neighbors in the street, and drunk their blood. He had also made strong sexual advances towards his terrified wife. The man in question had been dead for over twenty years.

Upon opening his grave, the villagers discovered that Grando's body had not decomposed. His torso was subsequently pinned to the ground with an iron stake. His body was decapitated and his head burned. His vampiric self was seen no more.

Tales like this were mere fodder for parlor room morbid titillation, while they were isolated instances which happened far away. But the 18th century witnessed a veritable onslaught of such stories, until it seemed that no-one was safe from the vampiric menace sweeping across the world.

Sixteen people died and the resultant telling of the story kick-started a vampire scare throughout 18th century Europe.
It should have been a new life, a new beginning, in lands made peaceful after the war. But the villagers of Kisilova were preparing to flee from a vampire in their midst.

An Eighteenth Century Vampire Media Scare

It all really began, as far as Western Europe and the Americas were concerned, with a newspaper report.

Image: Letter mentioning Arnold PaoleA writer for the Nuremberg based journal Commercium Litterarium broke the Arnold Paole story, which quickly became a sensation. This was on February 13th 1732, and it can really be viewed as the birth date of the vampire as a figure in Western popular culture.

As with today, any news story which sells will be picked over from every angle, with journalists scrambling to uncover more details, or produce a similar tale. All over Germany, then Austria, France and Britain, rival publications featured the same vampiric tale out of Serbia. But one Austrian newspaper hit pay-dirt.

As the controlling country behind the Habsburg Empire, Austria had access to all of the official documents coming out of Serbia.  In amongst them was a flowery and quite sycophantic report from a regional provisor in Rahm. He too had witnessed a vampire outbreak in Kisilova, a village beside the Danube. 

Vienna's Wienerisches Diarium newspaper headlined the Peter Plogojowitz story, alongside a retelling of that involving Arnold Paole.  They had many similarities. Both were about purported vampires terrorizing German speaking Serbs in villages overseen by Austrian officials. They each involved loss of life and a grisly exhumation of the corpses.

Put together, in a medium which was otherwise reporting the hard news of the day, it all looked not only extremely real, but the start of an actual vampire epidemic.

Nor did the reports stop there. With such a hot story, newspapers throughout Europe and into the New World continued publishing all that their reporters and correspondents could find on the subject of vampires. This had the inevitable effect upon the minds of their credulous readers.

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Christian Church Embraces Vampire Lore

By the early 1740s, so many reports of vampires had been featured in newspapers, that it was widely accepted as fact. The Church had hitherto denied the reality of the undead, but suddenly changed tack in the face of public pressure.

A Benedictine monk named Dom Augustin Calmet traveled into Eastern Europe to investigate vampire claims for himself.

His findings were published in 1746 under the title Traité sur les apparitions des Esprits, et sur les vampires ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie &c. (Treatise on Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires and Revenants from Hungary, Moravia, etc.).

It was full of stories which even the newspapers hadn't uncovered, and it included ways in which to protect yourself from vampires. Though the monk never stated that vampires were real, the implication was there.

Calmet's 'Treatise on Vampires and Revenants: The Phantom World'

Dom Augustin Calmet took great pains to find witnesses, whom his readers in France (and elsewhere) would find credible. Particularly those learned men and nobles, whom the French royal family appeared to be sending in droves into Eastern Europe to uncover the reality of vampires.

Amongst their number, all quoted in Calmet's treatise, were:

  • Charles Ferdinand de Schertz, an author who investigated vampires in a 'lawyer-like way', and dedicated his book to the Prince of Lorraine.
  • Monsieur de Vassimon, appointed to the Chamber of the Counts of Bar by the Duke of Lorraine.
  • Monsieur the Count de Cabreras, head of the regiment of Alandetti infantry.

They all reported vampires, on a regular basis, throughout Hungary, Silesia and Moravia. They were certainly in Bohemia. In short, this wasn't an infestation confined to Serbia anymore. The undead were increasing in number and spreading further afield.

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Vampire Exhumations Banned in the Hapsburg Empire

For Empress Marie Theresa, vampire legends did not sit well with her Enlightenment world view, and digging up the dead was downright unsanitary.

Image: Empress Marie TheresaBy now, people throughout Europe were not just talking about vampires. They were actively seeking to protect themselves from the feared onslaught. Each time an unknown, or poorly understood, epidemic claimed lives, there was the chance that a vampire would be blamed.

Amongst those who harbored deep suspicions about this was the Hapsburg Empress Marie Theresa. She was already looking at reforms surrounding funeral arrangements. These would later include all burial sites requiring governmental permission, to ensure that none were created in places which may promote diseases.

In 1755, the Empress became increasingly concerned by the number of graves being dug up, so that frightened locals could check for the signs of vampirism. Yet she progressed cautiously, not wishing to dismiss such concerns out of hand, before she had the evidence to support her doubts. Her opportunity came when a report of a suspected vampire reached her before the grave had been exhumed.

She dispatched her personal physician, Dr Gerhard van Swieten, a Dutch born advocate of Enlightenment rationality. He traveled into Silesia to oversee the case of Rosalina Polakin. He returned utterly scathing about all notions of vampires, or any other revenant, rising from the dead.

His report was published in the same year. It was entitled Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts) and attributed a natural cause for all purported signs of vampirism. Dr van Swieten stated that there was nothing in the tales, which could not be explained by natural decomposition processes in human corpses. For example, a lack of oxygen in the grave could delay decay for up to fifty years.

As for the vampire lore itself, it was the 'barbarism of ignorance', nothing more and nothing less.

It was enough to convince Empress Marie Theresa. She prohibited the exhumation of all 'vampire' graves throughout her empire. As this included countries such as Serbia, Hungary and all of the other hot-beds of vampire legends, the ban did a lot to stem the tide of tales hitting the newspapers.

Though it would be naive to imagine that all such practices were eradicated overnight, they weren't being reported. For those not actually at the scene, that was the same as them stopping altogether. It began to feel more like a crisis averted, than one which had Europe in its grip.

Voltaire's Take on Vampires

Voltaire was one of the leading voices of the Enlightenment. His Dictionnaire philosophique was published in 1764, as a series of 73 articles all criticizing the Catholic church.

His brand of critical thinking and emphasis upon the certifiable and the rational did not go down well in some quarters. There were public burnings of his book in European city squares.

Yet even Voltaire demonstrated belief in vampires, in this seminal tome.

"These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer."

Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)

Voltaire's 'Philosophical Dictionary'

The 18th Century Vampire Controversy in the USA

Fear of vampires was not confined to Europe. By the late 1700s, it was firmly entrenched in the American consciousness too, and ran alongside outbreaks of TB.

Image: Connecticut GraveyardIn June 1784, a worried town clerk from Willington, Connecticut, wrote a letter to his local newspaper.

Moses Holmes was concerned about a 'quack' doctor providing an unorthodox prescription to sufferers of a mysterious malady.

The deadly illness was tuberculosis, or consumption, but they didn't know that. The doctor, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was telling families to dig up the bodies of those who had already perished. They were to check for signs that one or more had become a vampire. They were to take steps accordingly.

Holmes himself had witnessed a farmer named Isaac Johnson exhume the graves of his two adult children. He'd taken organic matter from around the bodies - including vines which had grown into the burial plot - and taken it away to eat. It was supposed to save him and his surviving family from joining them.

This is the earliest known example of how the 18th century vampire controversy leapt the Atlantic to cause terror in rural New England. It was an opening salvo in a panic, which was to run throughout the northern United States, until it apparently ended with the case of Mercy Brown in 1892.

But the New England Vampire Epidemic is another story.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, New England suffered a vampire epidemic. At least some thought so, and Connecticut was a hotbed for this belief.
In Exeter, Rhode Island, the villagers gathered to exhume the body of a suspected vampire. It happened right on the eve of the 20th century.

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Updated: 05/08/2013, JoHarrington
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frankbeswick on 01/08/2016

The church would probably have investigated to ascertain whether there was any dangerous cultic activity going on, or whether indeed the roots of the problem lay in something demonic, as vampires play no part in Christian thought.

rahul on 01/08/2016

they are real or fake

JoHarrington on 05/01/2013

LOL Unfortunately I could so see this happening again. All it would take is the Daily Mail to lead the charge, all of Murdoch's papers slowly following suit and hey presto! The 21st century vampire controversy!

kate on 05/01/2013

HA, its a good job we have evolved as a species beyond such media led moral panics eh? *takes tongue out of check for fear of chocking*

JoHarrington on 04/27/2013

You know, I really wouldn't put that past Voltaire. Especially in the context. Great insight! Thanks for giving me something to muse upon.

And you're welcome. Thanks for your kind words.

EliasZanetti on 04/27/2013

Somehow, the adjectives used to describe the 'bloodsuckers' "...grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite ..." brought to my mind an image of the clergy :) Could Voltaire using an imagery of vampires as a metaphor for Catholic church?
As always a well-writen article Jo. Many thanks!

JoHarrington on 04/25/2013

Who knows? We only really have that passage to go on. His Enlightenment principles would suggest not, but you would expect that to transfer to his Philosophy. He was quick enough to criticize the Catholic church for superstition throughout, but then wrote about vampires at face value.

Paul on 04/25/2013

So did Voltaire really believe in vampires?

JoHarrington on 04/23/2013

Thank you very much for reading it and sharing it! Yes, Marie Theresa certainly had her head screwed on!

cmoneyspinner on 04/23/2013

Wow! What an incredible read! Thanks goodness the Empress stopped the desecration! I'm sharing this.

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