America's Real Life Vampires
In the recent years, many literary and cinematic offerings have gradually bastardized the original interpretation of the vampire from that of a terrifying and murderous monster into a somewhat romanticized and almost comedic ridicule. But the reality behind the concept of vampirism is far more terrifying, born out of a flurry of brutal and truly horrifying murders. In this post, we explore the real life America's vampires.
Early references to vampirism
The earliest references to vampirism can be found in the folklore of Eastern European and Baltic cultures. These stories told of nocturnal creatures endowed with supernatural powers, which had the ability to bewitch and enthrall in order to drain the blood of those unlucky enough to encounter them. All of that changed with the publication of a novel written by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897.
The story achieved international success and acclaim, and introduced the world to the most iconic portrayal of the vampire legend, the enigmatic Count Dracula. Almost overnight, the vampire ceased to be a cannibalistic forest-dwelling entity and morphed into a charming yet sinister European nobleman. Successive interpretations of the vampire legend have almost universally utilized Stoker's Source material as the blueprint to work from.
Audiences have been invited to fear this creature, in some cases to sympathize, and then in others to ridicule it. But the central message has always been that vampires are easy to detect when you look for the tell-tale signs, and equally as easy to defeat using appropriate techniques. Whilst the medical ailment of vampirism itself is a work of pure fiction, it does bear striking similarities to some existing diseases. The maddening psychological effects of rabies on the human body and the need for sufferers of porphyria to ingest large amounts of haem into their bloodstream have both been identified as being similar to the core concepts of the vampiric condition.
Incidents involving alleged vampirism in Western Society do exist, predating Stoker's novel and conceivably having influenced his writings. But the antagonists in these stories were a far cry from the mustache-twirling, cape-sporting dandy that would eventually become the accepted face of the vampire. They were seemingly ordinary members of society with very dark secrets that they sought to keep hidden from the rest of their communities.
Was James Brown the First Vampire?
In May of 1866, a wailing barque named the Atlantic set sail from the port of Boston, on a two-year hunt amidst the Indian Ocean. She was a vessel of significant size and tonnage and carried a crew of 38 sailors. The majority of those aboard were migrant workers, who had joined the crew at various stages of her previous voyages, including a 25 year old Guyanan national named James Brown.
Brown had enlisted aboard the Atlantic as a cook and had acquired something of a reputation for being quick to temper. He had been repeatedly warned about his extreme behavior by the ship's Captain, Benjamin Wing, as his constant quarreling and fighting with fellow crew members proved difficult to diffuse on such lengthy voyages. Not long into the journey, Brown came to blows with a 19-year old mate by the name of James Foster. As he was being physically restrained by the rest of the crew, Brown raged that Foster had used a racial slur against him, an allegation that Foster fervently denied. Eventually, Brown seemed to calm and reluctantly resumed his duties in the galley. The following morning, Foster did not report for his watch, which necessitated a search of the vessel. A short time later, another ship's mate named James Gardner found Brown crouched behind some crates in the smothering darkness of one of the vessel's holds. Underneath him were the mutilated remains of James Foster.
The dead man's body was covered in deep and bloody lacerations, apparently inflicted by a whaling knife wielded by Brown. The cook was crouched down on all fours when he was discovered, lapping up blood that had pooled on the deck. Gardner immediately cried out in horror, bringing more of the crew down to the bloody scene who are able to incapacitate and restrain the murderer. A cursory check of Foster's corpse found it had been completely exsanguinated by the deep and vicious knife wounds that have been inflicted upon it. Worse still, the body of a second young crew member laid hidden a short distance away, similarly drained of blood.
Hissing and lashing out at anybody who tried to communicate with him, seemingly possessed by the devil himself, Brown was clapped in irons and thrown into the brig until a vessel could return him and the witnesses back to Boston for his trial. On November the 13th, he was found guilty of the two murders and sentenced to death. In a bizarre quirk of fate, Brown would be saved from the gallows by none other than the president of the United States himself. Andrew Johnson had assumed the presidency following the death of Abraham Lincoln and was notorious for his sympathy and clemency towards those who had been given the death penalty. Brown's execution was rescinded and he was instead sentenced to life imprisonment.
The sailor was transferred to the Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts, quickly becoming one of the most problematic inmates. It was rumored that the murder of two other prisoners by Brown was kept quiet by the prison authorities, to prevent undue interest from the press. But in 1873, Brown was dragged off a fellow inmate having stabbed the victim seven times, in an apparent attempt to drain him of his blood.
The attack resulted in Brown being transferred to solitary confinement, but prison records show that he still managed to perpetrate a further 26 attacks on guards and other inmates, despite apparently being held in segregation. The jailers were at a loss as to how the prisoner repeatedly escaped from his confinement, possessing almost supernatural levels of strength and stealth. In 1892, Brown was found hunched over the lifeless corpse of one of his guards. He had apparently murdered the jailer with a broken chair leg and was repeatedly tearing away with his teeth at a jagged wound he had inflicted to the dead Man's throat. In the aftermath of his third murder, he was declared criminally insane, and was transferred to St. Elizabeth's Mental Institution in Washington DC.
The former sailor would remain there until his death three years later. The majority of his crew mates had already perished when the Atlantic was wrecked off the coast of San Francisco during an almighty storm, which some commentators have noted may have served as inspiration for the arrival of Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel. But whilst Brown is one of America's most notorious vampiric killers, he was by no means the first.
The remote community of Dillsboro in North Carolina sits halfway between the cities of Charlotte and Atlanta, nestling at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. It would not be officially recognized as a town until the early 1880s, with the arrival of the Murphy Branch Railroad, but the settlement would first come to national attention over a century before this, following a series of brutal slayings.
The Notorious Alfort Family
In the spring of 1788, a Doctor by the name of Alfort moved into the settlement with his wife and son, building a large residence on the banks of the nearby Tuckasegee River. A surgery and apothecary were installed in two of the upstairs rooms and a steady flow of townsfolk were soon visiting the family in search of treatment for a variety of mundane illnesses and ailments. After a few months, two local laborers who had recently been treated by Dr. Alfort both died suddenly. Their passing had been completely unexpected, and when no obvious cause of death could be identified, accusations against the good doctor began to circulate.
It would take the intervention of the local minister to calm the more hot-headed members of his congregation, before things eventually settled down again. But several weeks later, the Minister's wife is about to retire to bed for the evening when she noticed the door to their young daughter's bedroom was ajar. On entering the room, she saw the silhouette of a dark figure standing over the girl's bed and screamed for assistance. As the Intruder fled via the open bedroom window, the minister came running, his lantern illuminating the body of their dead daughter, and the two fresh gaping wounds to her throat.
Over the next few evenings, the population was gripped with fear, as reports of a giant flying creature circling above the town spread like wildfire. Doors and windows that would previously have been left open at night were now tightly secured and bolted, with families huddled together overnight in one bedroom for safety. One evening, a pair of elderly residents were awoken by an almighty hammering on their front door. They found their young grandson outside, breathless and terrified claiming that a monster had attacked his mother and father.
Once a sufficient number of able-bodied men had been gathered, they set off for the family's home. Upon their arrival, they discovered the bodies of both his parents and two young sisters, all killed as a result of blood loss from horrific injuries to their necks. An extensive search of the settlement and surrounding areas by detectives, paid for by a townhall collection, uncovered no clue as to the identity of the family's killer. And as the next six months passed without further incident, the townsfolk gradually began to lower their guard.
But in February 1789, death once again came to the streets of Dillsboro. Two brothers were awoken by screaming from the house of their neighbors, and having armed themselves with their laboring tools, they quickly ran next door to investigate.
As they burst in through the front entrance, they saw a dark shape fleeing through an open window, leaving behind the lifeless bodies of the young couple who resided in the house. Consumed by anger, the brothers gave chase, following the fleeing figure a short distance to the Alfort residence. Within minutes, the alarm had been sounded, and a posse of enraged and vengeful townsfolk had surrounded the doctor's home. The decision was made to stand guard around the premises until morning, and to send for help from neighboring settlements. At the break of dawn, several hundred men armed with a variety of tools and weapons were ready, and the front doors to the premises were smashed in.
The house appeared empty with all the beds freshly made as if they had not been slept in the night before. The mob refused to be sated, surging once again through the household, until they finally uncovered a trapdoor leading down into the cellar. With no small amount of foreboding, the vigilantes cautiously made their way down into the darkness.
By the light of their lanterns, they found the cellar completely bare, save for three elongated wooden crates. Dr. Alfort and his wife were fast asleep in two of these, while the third remained unoccupied. Of their 15 year old son, there was no trace. As the couple were hauled from their slumber by angry and vengeful hands, Mrs. Alfort began to hiss and spit, clawing at the faces of her attackers with cold, undead hands.
For his part, the doctor remained silent as he was manhandled out into the sunlight. He refused to answer any of the questions put to him, sitting in stony silences as his wife held and struggled alongside him. After a short conference, the decision was made to execute the couple and then leave their corpses inside the house they had built, whilst it was burned to the ground. With the deaths of the Alforts, the murders in Dillsboro immediately ceased.
For a few months afterwards, they were fleeting reports of a lone shadowy figure moving through the town streets at night, but these quickly died down. It was never fully ascertained if the doctor's son had been complicit, or if he was another target of the evil that possessed his parents. Sadly, this would not be the first time that members of the same family would be accused of killing and feasting on the blood of their victims.
Whilst allegedly vampiric incidents have been documented all over North America, an overwhelming number of these reports herald from the Southern United States, with the location of New Orleans emerging as an apparent focal point for the phenomenon. This is perhaps unsurprising, given its rich and diverse history, with the city housing several notorious residents who were suspected of being vampires.
Vampires of New Orleans
During the late 18th century, a European nobleman named Comte de Saint Germain arrived in New Orleans. In possession of a small personal fortune and an aptitude for a variety of different musical instruments, he soon cemented his position within the city's upper social echelons. One evening, a young lady was found to have fallen from a balcony at his home, claiming that the Count had attacked her and tried to bite her neck.
When the authorities eventually forced entry to the premises, they found the nobleman long gone, but what appeared to be flasks of wine mixed with blood hidden in his cellar. During the 1930s, this nightmarish scenario was seemingly repeated, when a teenage girl managed to escape from inside a residential property in a city's French Quarter. As she showed the attending officers deep lacerations to both of her wrists, she told them that she had been abducted from the street by two brothers, and that more people were still trapped up in the third storey apartment.
The police found four of the victims barely alive inside, tied to chairs and all with identical cuts to their wrists, which had slowly drain their bodies of blood. Some had apparently been there for over a week, with the survivors claiming that the flat's two occupants would go to work during the day, and then return to systematically drain their victims of blood every evening.
At approximately half past 5 that same day, John and Wayne Carter returned home from their shift at the docks to find a small army of police officers waiting. The two men fought with what the arresting officers described as superhuman strength, with seven or eight officers needed to incapacitate each brother and wrestle them to the ground. A search of another nearby property belonging to the family uncovered the remains of 14 further victims, all of whom had died from extreme blood loss.
The brothers were subsequently tried for multiple counts of abduction and murder and were sentenced to death. The Carter family had resided within New Orleans for several generations and owned a crypt with in one of the city's graveyards. After they were executed, the bodies of the two brothers were conveyed to this crypt, their remains placed inside atop those of previous family members. Several years later, when the tomb was again opened for another relative, it was found that both John and Wayne's bodies were inexplicably missing.
Unconfirmed sightings of a pair of shadowy figures resembling the brothers were later reported in the vicinity of their apartment. But the story of the Carter vampires still had a further bizarre twist of fate in store. It was reported that one of their surviving victims, a young man named felipe, would later go on to be arrested himself for the brutal and bloody murders of several local homeless men.
It is clear that whilst the fields of science and medicine undermine the traditional depiction of vampirism as depicted by Bram Stoker in his novel, social history is littered with incidents containing mysterious and bewildering events, which are difficult to explain using conventional investigative techniques. There is something not yet quite quantifiable that seemingly drives a small minority of antagonists to seek life through the deaths of others.
Whether this is a human condition that is contracted physiologically or psychologically remains to be seen. But given the significant number of crimes that fit these characteristics, it seems that at least something fitting the description of a well-known folklore may indeed have some sort of basis in reality. Whether the causes behind the cases we have related a supernatural or more psychological in nature, there is no denying how deeply disturbing they are. We can only hope that our knowledge of the vampiric condition evolves to a point where we can understand and manage those afflicted by it in a humane and effective manner.