During the nineteenth-century, it wasn't unusual for several members of the same family to die of consumption, what we now call tuberculosis. People didn't know then that TB is caused by a contagious bacterial infection, or that it's spread when people who have an active infection sneeze, cough, or otherwise transmit their saliva through the air. Most people who have TB are asymptomatic, but about ten percent of such latent infections eventually become active, and if untreated, more than half die.
People are more likely to become infected when they're living in close quarters and when coughs and colds are many, as they were particularly in previous centuries with large families living in small, cold houses in New England. Such a deadly wasting illness gave rise to superstition.
When a member of a family died of consumption and then others fell ill, the living sometimes blamed the deceased, thinking him or her a vampire who preyed on the living. Occasionally, in order to protect other family members, the deceased was exhumed and the heart burned.
In June 1830, six months after a son in the Corwin family of Woodstock died of consumption, another son fell ill. Fearing that the deceased was sapping the life-blood from his living brother, family and townspeople reputedly went to the cemetery, disinterred the deceased, and checked to see if his heart contained fresh blood. They concluded that it did; they removed the heart, took it to the center of the Woodstock Green, and burned it.
Folklorist Michael Bell's book Food for the Dead, On the Trail of New England's Vampires and a recent article in Smithsonian magazine by Abigail Tucker relate this and similar incidents that occurred throughout New England, including another one that apparently also occurred in Woodstock. After twenty-year-old Frederick Ransom died of consumption on February 14, 1817 , his father had his son disinterred and the heart burned at a blacksmith's forge. Nevertheless, his wife, a daughter, and two more sons died of consumption.
And in February 1793 in Manchester, hundreds reputedly gathered for a heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith's shop where, an early town history reports, "Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton."
Henry David Thoreau's journals refer to such an incident. On September 26, 1859 Thoreau wrote, "The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of' a family in Vermont who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs, heart, and liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it."
Such incidents apparently happened throughout New England, often with the blessing or even at the recommendation of town leaders, physicians, and ministers. These were people of reason and intelligence. But then, as now, ignorance, fear, a sense of helplessness, and perhaps social pressure can cause people to believe and to do the most extraordinary things.