What is a Vampire?
Vampire lore (or Vampir as it was in the original German spelling) has existed in countless cultures across the world. In European lore, vampires were usually someone who rose from the dead at night and would terrorize/kill their family or neighbors. They would often drink the blood of their victims by biting their chest above the heart, and were described as looking bloated and sporting long fingernails, teeth, and hair. These physical descriptions are medically correct as they are the early stages of human decomposition: when a supposed vampire was dug up not too long after their burial, they would be bloated from bodily gases and their receding skin and tissues made their nails, teeth, and hair appear as if they had grown.
Historically, tales of vampires ravaging towns is typically linked to periods of famine and disease, with vampires being blamed for the pain, suffering, and death of the townspeople. For example, as something like tuberculosis spread, the consumption would be blamed on the first person who died from it coming back as a vampire and killing everyone else in the same manor. (Some supposed vampire graves belonged to victims of tuberculosis, which can leave behind evidence of the infection in their bones.) That first person who died was then exhumed from their grave, and a number of things could be done to the corpse to keep them from rising from their grave again. Some options include: the heart being removed and burned (sometimes the ashes were then eaten by anyone that was afflicted by the vampire), wooden steaks being driven through the body, the body being decapitated, garlic being shoved into the vampires mouth, or one of my personal favorites is a method that comes from Germany that called for tying hundreds of knots into a piece of rope and leaving it in the supposed vampires grave. It was believed that the vampire couldn’t resist trying to untie the knots, thus distracting them for eternity. This is just European lore, and many other regions and cultures have similar undead creatures and other methods of dealing with them.
Pop culture has spun the idea of what a vampire is over the years, such as the Bram Stoker’s Dracula which played a large role in shaping how we view vampires today: thin, pale, drinking blood by biting the victims neck, and turning into a bat to flee the scene. Alas, the Kansas City “vampires” I will be talking about do not consist of the undead rising from their graves, or beings transfiguring into bats after sucking a victim dry. Despite this lack of Hollywood flare, it is still interesting to study.
The Kansas City “Vampires”
It is believed that sometime around 1888 or 1889 a traveling preacher named Silas Wilcox arrived in Kansas City, Missouri and taught the idea that drinking blood would cure a number of illnesses. This belief was derived from the biblical passage Leviticus 17:11 (KJV) which states “For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” Wilcox went on to gather about 20 followers and they referred to themselves as the Samaritans.
The Samaritans started by visiting slaughterhouses and drinking the blood of freshly killed cattle, but it was rumored that they decided human blood was the better route to take. They began voluntarily drinking the blood of their fellow Samaritans, which was surprisingly legal as it was done with consent. Unfortunately this practice took a more sinister turn when The Sacramento Daily Union printed an article on January 30, 1890 that read as follows:
“Blood Drinkers Go Hand in Hand With Christian Science.
For some time past there have been rumors of a peculiar sect in Missouri, near here, whose methods require investigation. Finally the Humane Society took the matter up, and the officers investigating it have just made a report revealing a horrible state of affairs.
A year ago one Silas Wilcox appeared in the vicinity of Blue river, and began going about preaching the doctrine of doing good for the sick in accordance with biblical injunctions. Silas had eleven followers, and founded a sect which was called “Samaritans.” He gradually widened his teachings until he advocated drinking blood for all diseases, giving the authority of the Bible teaching that blood was life.
At the home of John Wrinkle an officer found a man lying on a bed in the last stages of consumption. Two emanciated children were in the house. Wrinkle denied that he bad been drinking the blood of the children. Their appearance, however, aroused the suspicions of the officer and he stripped them. Their limbs were in a terrible condition, their arms being covered with sores about the elbows, showing plainly his efforts at bleeding. When confronted with this Wrinkle confessed that he had availed himself of the opportunity, and asserted that the children gave their blood voluntarily to restore him to health. The man could not be moved, but the children were brought to this city and placed in a home. The Humane Society will lay the matter before the Governor, as the Kansas City authorities are powerless.”
Here is another newspaper clipping by the Cincinnati Enquirer from January 28, 1890 which details the same accounts:
Although they were not vampires in the traditional sense, some people have dubbed the practice of drinking blood in this manor as clinical vampirism, also known as Renfield’s syndrome (named after a character in Bram Stokers Dracula). This is characterized by an obsession with either drinking ones own blood (auto vampirism) or drinking the blood of animals (zoophagia). The idea of a group of people who religiously drink blood is interesting to say the least, and becomes concerning when the wellbeing of children is brought into the mix. Fortunately, this story cannot be confirmed and some historians believe it might be a product of fiction. The only real evidence we have is the occasional newspaper printing like the examples I gave above. This stories lack of credibility also comes from the fact that the rest of Leviticus 17:12-13 (KJV) states that people should not actually drink blood: “Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.”
In the end, this wouldn’t be the first account of someone cherry-picking a biblical passage for a specific agenda (in this case, justifying and defending the consumption of animal and human blood) so who knows…