Vampire hunting in the 19th century

In the 18th and 19th centuries it seemed to spread throughout Europe an epidemic of vampirism. Rousseau already said it in 1762: «If there has ever been a certain and proven history in the world, it is that of vampires. Nothing is missing: official reports, testimonies from reliable people, from surgeons, priests, magistrates». Of course there have always been skeptics such as Rousseau himself or the writer Charles Nodier, who declared in 1822: «Of all popular errors, the belief in vampirism is certainly the most absurd.’ But because so many people were firm believers in the existence of vampires and did they even testify that they had seen any?


In Transylvania, a man shoots an exhumed corpse that had previously had a stake driven through the heart.  19th century engraving

In Transylvania, a man shoots an exhumed corpse that had previously had a stake driven through the heart. 19th century engraving

Photo: White Images / Scala, Florence

The interest in the “undead” owed much to the Benedictine monk Agostino Calmet, author of a work entitled Dissertations on apparitions of spirits and vampires (1746) in which the religious collected numerous cases of vampirism. Calmet described these beings as dead people who return to “disturb the villages, offend men […] suck the blood of the neighbors, bring them diseases, and make them die, in such a way that one cannot free oneself from the harassing lives, and from the anxieties of them, except by digging them up, impaling them, cutting off their heads, ripping out their hearts, or even burning them». The lack of decomposition of the corpse was one of the first indications of the transformation of a deceased into a vampire: «One considers the unearthed body to see if there are the ordinary signs […] such as the mobility and flexibility of the limbs, the fluidity of the blood», writes Calmet.

Living dead

The fact that a body does not decompose can be the result of two phenomena that are well known today: the mummificationwhich occurs in hot and dry environments, and saponification, which instead occurs when the corpse is exposed to cold and damp conditions, a common case in Central and Eastern Europe. With the saponification process the fatty acids are transformed into a waxy compound similar to soap which covers the corpse avoiding putrefaction. A body that undergoes a similar alteration does not have the elasticity of a living being, but still has relative flexibility. It is therefore probable that those who took the trouble to observe the corpses described in the treatises on vampires were actually examining saponified bodies.


Portrait of Friar Augustine Calmet.  XVIII century

Portrait of Friar Augustine Calmet. XVIII century

Photo: Bnf

Another sign that according to the belief of the time identified the “undead” were the bloodstains that some exhumed corpses had. Calmet tells it like this: «They come to suck blood […] in such abundance, that sometimes it comes out of his mouth, nose and especially his ears, so that not infrequently the corpse in the sepulcher swims in its own blood». According to another testimony gathered by the monk, “corpses like leeches fill up so much with blood, that it can clearly be seen going out through the ducts, and through the pores again”.

This phenomenon has a logical explanation: the time during which the blood of a deceased remains fluid depends above all the characteristics of the environment in which it is stored. At low temperatures it can remain liquid for more than three or four days. In cases of suspected vampirism, if the bodies were exhumed within this margin of time it was therefore possible to find them still with “the veins […] filled with fluid blood.


Anti-vampire equipment composed of tools from the 19th and 20th centuries, partly inspired by novels and cinema.  Royal Armory Museum, Leeds

Anti-vampire equipment composed of tools from the 19th and 20th centuries, partly inspired by novels and cinema. Royal Armory Museum, Leeds

Photo: Royal Armories Museum / Alamy / Aci

In any case, a slowdown in the coagulation process can be determined by various factors. When you read of corpses with bloodstains around their mouths or swimming in their own blood (certainly an exaggeration), it could simply be a post-mortem hemorrhage produced precisely in this phase of blood fluidity. A blow sustained during transport to the cemetery or while the coffin is being lowered into the grave can cause trauma and the consequent more or less abundant leakage of blood from the nose or oral cavity. Plus the concentration of anticoagulant enzymes in the plasma of a dead person may vary depending on the cause of death. There are therefore various natural explanations for blood loss from the orifices of a corpse’s face without it being necessary to resort to vampirism as popular belief would have it.

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Cries from beyond the grave

Legends have it that to put an end to the apparitions of a vampire it was necessary dig him up and drive a stake through his heart. As soon as he was stabbed, the corpse would have let out a cry. In his Dissertations Calmet reports one such case: a local governor “had a sharp stake driven, as usual, into the heart of the dead […]and pierce him from side to side, so that he let out a horrible cry, as if he were alive.” The scream was therefore considered another proof that the vampires were still alive and only the staking procedure could really kill them.

But obviously even episodes of this type have a scientific explanation. The violence of the blow inflicted with the cue causes the rapid release of the air present inside the ribcage of the corpse, which passing through the throat can produce a kind of sound. Those who witnessed the exhumation and planted the peg in the heart of the deceased interpreted the noise as a roar like a cry of pain.


The end of a vampire.  Engraving from Les Tribunaux Secrets, 1864

The end of a vampire. Engraving from Les Tribunaux Secrets, 1864

Photo: Mary Evans / Scala, Florence

Nails and hair

Another sure index of vampirism was that of the dead “whose beard, hair and nails grow”. Of course, when a person dies the cells no longer receive nourishment and hair and nails stop growing, although some optical illusions can give the opposite impression. In the case of hair, the post-mortem processes of drying, dehydration and retraction of the skin of the skull can leave uncovered hair of the parts previously hidden under the scalp. The hair of the deceased also tends to fall back giving the feeling of having grown. The same happens with the nails which, when the epidermis of the fingers retracts, appear longer than they actually are.

A rereading of the ancient cases of vampirism therefore demonstrates that popular beliefs were fueled by an accurate observation of corpses and of many then apparently supernatural phenomena. However, the explanations were far from scientific. To a certain extent, therefore, the belief in vampires was nothing more than the product of ignorance regarding the processes of decomposition and the causes of some natural phenomena that are now perfectly explainable.


Nosferatu.  Film version of Dracula, the most famous vampire in history

Nosferatu. Film version of Dracula, the most famous vampire in history

Photo: Albums

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Vampire hunting in the 19th century