By Gareth Henderson
Some haunting history of Woodstock received honorable mention in the recent book, “A History of Vampires in New England,” by Thomas D’Agostino.
This is D’Agostino’s latest work in a long line of books about the paranormal, including “A Guide to Haunted New England” and other regional ghost books. D’Agostino and his wife, Arlene Nicholson, have been studying and investigating paranormal accounts for over 28 years.
The History of Vampires, published this month just before Halloween, recounts various stories from all over this region during the 18th and 19th centuries. They are essentially tales of death – which spawned more death. The cause? Tuberculosis. But back then, without a cure for this disease, people said vampires were to blame.
“Where medical science failed, folklore took over,” D’Agostino said.
Right in the thick of the book, readers will find “1817- Woodstock, Vermont.” This is the story of local man Frederick Ransom, which was penned by his brother, Daniel, in his memoirs. Frederick Ransom, a Dartmouth College student, grew sick with consumption (a.k.a. tuberculosis) and died on Feb. 14, 1817. Frederick’s father feared his son would rise from the grave and feed on the family.
“He therefore sought to have Frederick exhumed and his heart cut from his body and burned in order to save the family from imminent death,” D’Agostino wrote. “Daniel was only three years old at the time of the incident but recollected the eerie event with strikingly vivid detail.”
This vampire exorcism was said to have taken place on the Woodstock Village Green, like another such incident involving a man named Corwin. However, D’Agostino said he has never been able to find other local graves with the name Corwin – calling into doubt the Corwin account.
When it comes to the vampire myth, D’Agostino tries to explain it with historical accounts.
“I try to put the person who’s reading it into that time, so they saw how the people were reacting to their situations, and why they did what they did,” he said.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, death was much more prevalent than it is now. According to D’Agostino, one out of four children in rural New England were not expected to live past age 5, given the scarcity of doctors. The number was one in 10 in healthier environments. Try as they might have, doctors could not stop the spread of this disease.
When the often-bizarre treatments failed, people turned to superstitions that probably had root in their European homelands. Chief among them was the vampire. This feared specter of the night helped explain why tuberculosis spread so rapidly among families – it had to be the result of a predeceased loved one coming back as a blood-sucking vampire.
In truth, it was contagion that was responsible. D’Agostino said it was common at the time for several family members to share one bed, thus increasing the risk of contagion.
Once a vampire was suspected, it was very common for the family to dig up the grave of the suspected vampire, with plans to destroy the vile creature by burning the heart. Telltale signs of vampirism would be: blood around the mouth, a bloated corpse, a heart with blood still in it, and nails and hair appearing longer. However, those last three signs were normal for a decaying corpse, D’Agostino said. He further explained that blood around the mouth would be common for a deceased victim of tuberculosis.
At the time, newspapers also got into the hysteria, including the Norwich Courier and the Providence Journal. The Frederick Ransom account was published in the Vermont Standard in the 1890s.
D’Agostino said the whole vampire phenomenon would have left reporters “pretty stunned,” since no one knew tuberculosis was contagious. Physicians of the day thought the disease – then called “consumption” – was hereditary.
Some Rhode Island vampires tales also made it into the “History of Vampires.” And that’s no surprise, knowing that D’Agostino calls his home state of Rhode Island the “vampire capital of the world.” D’Agostino said his interest in the paranormal started early in life, as he grew up in a haunted house built in the 1920s. D’Agostino said his family heard footsteps, banging and doors unlatching and flying open.
“The vampires in Rhode Island just go hand-in-hand with any ghost lore,” he said.
During his childhood, D’Agostino looked into the history that paralleled these myths, to see how people lived and where their beliefs came from. His psychology degree from Rhode Island College gave him some more context, D’Agostino said.
He now lives in Putnam, Connecticut with his wife, Arlene, and D’Agostino said their place in Connecticut is “extremely haunted.” Everything from apparitions to voices have been seen and heard in the house, and some ghost hunters who were called in left stumped. Even the neighbors have seen specters there, D’Agostino said, as have with their guests.
“All our friends that come over experience something wild.”
By Gareth Henderson