Since we already have a blog post on vampire bats and on Hungary's "vampire countess," Elizabeth Bathory, I thought I would go for the hat trick (wow, my first sports analogy ever! for the record, I almost wrote "complete the trilogy") and tackle the subject of the 18th-century vampire controversy.
18th-century Vampire Epidemic
It seems that in the 1700s, a wave of vampire hysteria swept across Eastern Europe. Many incidents of alleged vampire attacks and of the exhumation and desecration of corpses by angry villagers occured among the, mainly Slavic, subjects of East Prussia and the Austrian Empire. In some cases there were even reports written by government officials or doctors attesting to the unnatural appearance of the disinterred bodies of suspected vampires. These events received wide attention, introducing Western Europe to vampire legends (in fact the word "vampire" first entered the English lexicon during this period, probably coming via German from a Serbian root) and leading a lot of educated people to entertain the notion that these monsters might actually exist.
From what I've read the average vampire incident basically went like this:
(1) someone dies (we'll call him or her "patient zero")
(2) not long afterwards, some other people in the same village die, maybe after only a short illness. Invariably, one of these victims reports being tormented by visions of patient zero or one of the other previously deceased.
(3) the villagers dig up the body of the suspected vampire (probably patient zero), maybe after getting permission from some local authority. Sometimes they note how the body doesn't look decomposed at all but is rather fat and healthy looking. They may also notice liquid blood coming out of the suspected vampire's mouth/nose/eyes/ears. Some of the other people who died may also have become vampires in which case their bodies can be dug up too.
(4) the villagers finish off the suspected vampire(s) by doing one or more of the following: driving a stake through the corpse's heart, decapitating it, burning it.
Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole: background information
Two of the oldest, most famous, and best documented cases of the 18th-century vampire epidemic are those surrounding "Peter Plogojowitz" and "Arnold Paule" (as their names have been recorded): both of these episodes took place in Serbia in the 1720-30s (during the reign of Emperor Karl VI), and both involved the participation of Imperial authorities.
It's interesting to note that Serbia, along with Lesser Wallachia and a tiny bit of northern Bosnia, had been under Turkish rule up until 1718 when it changed hands under the Treaty of Passarowitz. Austria would later return these lands to the Ottoman Empire under the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade. So at the time Serbia was ravaged by war: its population was poor and partly nomadic, and agricultural activities were mostly limited to raising cattle. This newly conquered territory was also under direct military control. The Austrians tried to encourage German-speaking subjects to move to the region, and many Serbs migrated here from territories that were still under Turkish rule. Those who served in the Austrian army as hajduks (freemen and infantry soldiers) were rewarded with certain legal rights and small parcels of land.
The Case of Peter Plogojowitz
Plogojowitz was a Serbian peasant who died in 1725. Within 8 days of his death, 9 others in his village died after a 24-hour illness. Before their demise, some of these victims supposedly claimed that they were throttled by the late Plogojowitz at night. Other phoney sounding stories told how after his death Plogojowitz came to his wife asking for his shoes and/or that he came to his son begging for food (and then he killed him!).
At this point the remaining villagers decided to dig up Plogowitz's corpse, and they called on the local priest and one Imperial Provisor Frombald (I'm not sure whether the "kameralprovisor" was an ecclesiastical, administrative or military official) to bear witness as representatives of the State. According to his report, Frombald told the villagers that they should first request permission from the Imperial authorities in Belgrade, but they refused to wait saying that otherwise the whole community might be wiped out (this sort of thing had happened before in Turkish times) and threatening to quit the village.
So they disinterred the body, and Frombald was surprised to discover that it had not decomposed (it sounds like it'd been less than 2 weeks). He wrote that its hair and beard had grown and that its skin and fingernails had fallen away revealing new skin and nails underneath. Also there was blood in its mouth. Satisfied that he was a vampire, the angry mob of villagers drove a stake through Plogojowitz's heart which caused a load of fresh blood to gush out of his ears and mouth. After that they burned the body. Problem solved!
The Case of Arnold Paule
Paule (his last name in Serbian was probably "Pavle") was a hajduk who had moved to Austrian Serbia from Turkish-controlled territory. Villagers later claimed that, when he was alive, Paule would talk about how he had been plagued by a vampire back in Kosovo and that he had eaten dirt from the vampire's grave and smeared the vampire's blood on himself in order to ward it off.
Around 1726, Paule broke his neck falling off a haywagon. Within 20-30 days of Paule's burial, 4 other villagers fell ill, claiming that the late Paule was tormenting them, and died. After 10 more days had passed, the people of the village dug up his grave. Once again the corpse wasn't decomposed; his fingernails had fallen off and new nails had grown in their place. Liquid blood flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears and his coffin and clothes were also bloody. When they drove a stake through Paule's heart, he bled and groaned audibly. They then burned his body and dispatched of the other 4 deceased in the same way.
For five years after that everything was quiet, but then in 1731 there was a second outbreak in the village. 17 people died over the course of 3 months, many of them previously healthy and after only suffering a short illness. The vampires were back! The villagers attributed this new outbreak to the fact that some people (specifically one of the deceased, a 69yo woman named Miliza) had eaten the flesh of sheep that had been killed by the first round of vampires. Another victim (a 20yo woman named Stana) had admitted to smearing herself with vampire blood for protection. Another classic way to catch vampire! Way to go, ladies! For those who need further convincing that vampires were behind these deaths, one of the victims (Stanoika a 20yo hajduk's wife) had complained before her death of being tormented by the ghost of Milloe (a 25yo hajduk and yet another victim).
The people of the beleaguered village complained to one Lt. Col. Schnezzer, a military commander in charge of the area, who in turn called on an Imperial Infectious Disease Specialist ("Contagions-Medicus") by the name of Glaser to investigate. Glaser found no evidence of an epidemic and he attributed the string of deaths to malnutrition. Nevertheless, when the people threatened to abandon the village, he agreed to have the bodies disinterred. Some of the bodies were found -- surprise, surprise -- to be undecomposed and plump with blood in their mouths.
Glaser recommended that authorities allow the villagers to "kill" the vampires if only to pacify them. The vice commandant in Belgrade then sent a second commission to check things out, led by a military surgeon named Johann Fluckinger. It is through Fluckinger's report (which you can read in its entirety, translated into English here) that we learn of this incident.
Fluckinger's report is really an interestingly window into not only the incident but also the time and place in general. First off, he notes that 10 or so of the bodies (some or all of which had presumably been exhumed some time ago) showed the classic vampire characteristics (fresh new skin, healthy-looking coloring or plumpness, intact organs that look like those of the living, blood in the chest cavity or mouth) while the rest had decomposed normally. Specifically, the old woman Miliza had achieved a pleasing plumpness in death that she had never achieved in life. Another interesting fact (neither here nor there really in terms of the vampire discussion), is that he noted that Stana, who had died soon after giving birth, had an inflamed uterus and that the corpse of her baby, who had died soon after birth and before being baptized, had been half eaten by dogs due to its careless burial.
At the end of the report, Fluckinger notes how the vampires' bodies were decapitated by the gypsies who had been called on for this purpose (interesting that the gypsies are the people who know how to deal with vampires) before being burned and having their ashes thrown in the river.
The Scientific Explanation
It turns out that most of the unnatural traits that were noted in the vampires' bodies are actually consistent with documented characteristics of cadavers in various stages of decomposition. First off, the timing and nature of a dead body's decomposition is affected by many factors such as how the person died, how he was buried, and the temperature of the soil.
As a body rots in the ground, it is normal for the skin to peel away revealing the pinkish layer of skin underneath. The corpse's hair and nails do not keep on growing post mortem but it is possible for people to get the impression of longer hair because of how the dermis rots away around the follicles and I guess people might misinterpret the bed of the corpse's fingernails as new nail. As for the healthy plumpness, this is actually swelling caused by the bodies decomposition (it's being consumed by bacteria). This swelling of gases in the cadaver's abdomen is also responsible for creating pressure which may push blood out through the orifices of the body. Likewise, the ruddy or healthly-looking coloring may be discoloration which is another result of decomposition (cf. livor mortis).
Depending on conditions, the blood in a dead body can indeed coagulate and then liquify again, and we shouldn't be surprised if this liquid blood comes gushing out when a stake is driven into the body's heart. And believe it or not it is also not unheard of for a corpse to emit a sound like a groan when air is pushed over the vocal cords and out through the mouth -- say, by the force of a stake being driven into the body's heart.
The End of the Controversy
During her reign, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sought to modernize the Empire and put an end to superstition. Thus, in 1755, when people suspected the recently deceased Rosalina Polakin of being a vampire she sent her court physician, Dr. Gerhard van Swieten, to Silesia to investigate.
The Dutch-born van Sweiten wrote a treatise called "Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts" in which he noted that factors such as lack of oxygen can inhibit a corpse's decomposition and that it wasn't unheard of for a body to still be largely intact even after being buried for 50 years. As for those uneducated villagers who claimed to be haunted by the recently deceased they were probably just trippin', and their deaths were undoubtedly due to some natural cause. Moreover, van Sweiten fiercely denounced the barbaric way people would deal with "vampires," desecrating the deceased's body and maligning the reputation of him and his family. Armed with his report, Maria Theresa banned these practices throughout the Austrian Empire.
Images: map depicting Southeastern Europe and the lands gained to Austria under the Treaty of Passarowitz found on emersonkent.com; 1864 "Le Vampire" lithograph by R de Moraine found on wikipedia; title page and frontispiece from Gerhard van Sweiten's Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster found on magiaposthuma blog.