Can Killing Vampires Cure Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, or TB, is an infectious disease that’s been around for millennia and has been responsible for millions of human deaths. It’s caused by a bacterial infection that can spread through the air; if someone with it coughs, laughs, or sings near someone else, there’s a decent chance it will spread. Today, it’s treatable and in many nations, contact tracing helps us prevent outbreaks. But for centuries, TB was widespread and often fatal; for example, in the mid-1800s, according to the CDC, “TB killed one out of every seven people living in the United States and Europe.”

Understandably, the people of that time period did everything they could to stop the spread of TB, such as sending patients to warmer climates, inhaling turpentine, massaging themselves with vinegar — and by digging up dead bodies and burning their hearts.

Because killing vampires seemed like a great way to stop a disease. Really.

In 1882, a microbiologist named Robert Koch first identified the bacterium that causes TB, now called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. With that discovery came a better understanding of the disease. Before the 1880s, TB was believed by many to be hereditary, not infectious. And it was best described not by its cause, but by its symptoms. For that reason, TB, for centuries, was known as “consumption,” named such because patients would suffer extreme weight loss, wasting away until they were too weak to continue living. Many patients would develop horrible coughs, expelling phlegm and even blood. As death approached, patients’ complexion became pallor, as if the life was being sucked out of them — which, coincidentally, sounded something vampiric.

That coincidence, though, was enough to fuel a panic. Because TB spread in close quarters, it was common for the disease to ravage families. One death was painful enough, but as multiple kids or parents fell ill, desperate families were open to any solution to stop the disease from killing their loved ones. There were plenty of odd theories that spread throughout communities, and the idea that your family was cursed by a vampire was one of the many. And the most likely culprit was a dead family member who happened to be a vampire themselves. As Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “in most depictions, vampires are ‘undead’ — that is to say, having been somehow revived after death—and many are said to rise nightly from their graves or coffins.” So if you want to stop the vampires from consuming your still fully-living loved ones, the story went, you should dig up your dead relatives, check for any proof of undead life, and drive a stake through their hearts or take other vampire-defeating precautions.

The first such effort to “cure” TB was from the 1790s. According to the Yankee Express, Isaac Burton, a deacon at a church in Manchester, Vermont, lost his wife Rachel to the disease about a year or two after they were married. A bit more than a year later, Burton married another woman, Hulda Powell — and within 18 months, Huida also came down with consumption. Per the Express, Burton’s friends and family “concluded that the first wife was coming back from the grave and feeding on the lifeblood of Hulda, thus creating her consumptive condition. They were convinced that if the vitals of the first wife were reduced to ashes, Hulda would be cured of the terrible wasting illness.” Burton, desperate, agreed to have Rachel’s body exhumed to reduce some of her now-decomposing organs to ashes, all in hopes of preventing Rachel from rising from the grave to attach Huida. The efforts didn’t work; Huida didn’t last a year.

In the 1800s, there are at least six other similar stories. The most notable was the horrible story that befell the Browns, a family of five from Exeter, Rhode Island. From 1883 through 1892, three members of the family — the mother, Mary Eliza, and two daughters, Mary Olive and Mercy, died from TB. As the Science History Institute retells, “With just one remaining family member, his son, Edwin and no solutions, George T. Brown was desperate. Friends and neighbors pleaded with him to consider the obvious. There must be a vampire haunting his family and, if he didn’t act quickly, it would get Edwin next.”

Ultimately, George agreed, and had the bodies of his dead wife and daughters dug up. Per, the bodies of Mary Eliza and Mary Olive had decomposed beyond recognition, but Mercy’s was “‘oddly well preserved’ despite lying in a crypt for several months. It looked as if her hair and nails had grown, and, when pierced, her delicate skin still contained drops of blood. For those who had gathered, these telltale signs confirmed their suspicions. Mercy was a vampire.” A local doctor explained that Mercy’s body had been preserved by the cold weather, but it didn’t matter — reason gave way to desperation. Mercy’s heart and liver were cremated and, per some sources, fed to Edwin as some sort of elixir. But, like the story of the Burtons, it didn’t matter — Edwin died from tuberculosis shortly thereafter.

The story of the Browns was the last known exhumation-and-exorcism on record. Medical science became more effective at managing the disease not long after Koch’s discovery — although not quickly enough for the Brown family. Before the world entered the 1900s, the legend that the undead caused consumption vanished like a vampire in a mirror.

Bonus fact: Ice cream cones exist, in part, because of tuberculosis. Before we knew how TB spread, ice cream vendors would sell their desserts in small glass cups known as “penny licks,” as seen here. For the price of one cent, customers would be given a small amount of ice cream in the cups, lick the glass clean, and then return it to the vendor — who would then give the penny lick the his next customer. But, as PBS explains, “once word spread about the highly contagious nature of tuberculosis and several other diseases, vendors needed to find a different way of serving their ice cream to customers,” with London banning the penny lick in 1899. Various forms of ice cream cones were invented a few years later, and found near immediate popularity.

From the Archives: Hero Rats: Meet the rats that can sniff out land mines and, maybe, TB as well. (Sorry, the video in the bonus item no longer works, and I couldn’t find a good replacement!)