I just spent three-quarters of an hour leafing through The Encyclopedia of New England, which promises pleasures nearly as great as The Encyclopedia of New York City, which it emulates, even unto its typeface. I regret to report that it has no entry devoted especially to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who deserves one. But it does have an entry on vampires.
New England vampires didn’t speak in faux-Hungarian or lurch about, waggling unkempt fingernails. Without using the word “vampire,” however, New Englanders did believe that people who died of consumption (i.e., tuberculosis) could suck the life out of those above ground who still loved them, especially those in their own family. To remove the threat, you had to dig up the corpse. You were looking for flesh still on the bones—and blood still in the heart. If you found it, you could turn the body face down and rebury it. Or you could burn the flesh off the skeleton and then re-inter the bones. For good measure, you might also arrange the bones in special patterns. Exhumations and reburials of recent consumption victims happened across small-town New England throughout the nineteenth century; the Encyclopedia of New England lists cases in 1793, 1794, 1796, 1799, 1807, 1810, 1817, 1827, 1830, 1854, 1874, 1889, and 1892, among other years.
Here’s my question: Did Emerson fear that his first wife was a vampire? Robert Richardson famously began his biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire with an account of Emerson opening the grave of Ellen Tucker Emerson on 29 March 1832. To Richardson, the act was a sample of Emerson’s existential courage; it demonstrated his willingness to see all of life, including death. Richardson noted that the practice wasn’t unheard of; Rufus Griswold and James Freeman Clarke also opened their wives’ coffins. But the doing of a thing by Rufus Griswold is not much of an extenuation. (I can’t quickly lay hands on whether Mrs. Griswold or Mrs. Clarke died of consumption, but if they did, I’m willing to include them too in my speculation.)
In Waldo Emerson: A Biography, Gay Wilson Allen saw the exhumation of the first Mrs. Emerson more darkly: “the act remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane” (182). Both Allen and Richardson remarked on the brevity of Emerson’s description in his journal. “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin,” he wrote, and nothing more.
In several respects, the Emerson case fits the profile. Ellen died of tuberculosis, and at the time that Emerson opened the coffin, his brothers Charles and Edward were endangered by the same disease. Emerson himself suffered greatly in his mourning of Ellen, and might have wondered about her hold on him. I doubt Emerson would have believed simple-mindedly in the New England vampire folklore, but I suspect he was aware of it, and it must have been part of the wider social context for his act.