Not Your Average Vampire: The Use of the Word “Vampire” in Ninteenth Century America

When people think of vampires in the 21st century they tend to think of the likes of Edward Cullen, Bram Stoker’s popularized version of Dracula, or any of the other well popularized vampires we see in popular culture today. But, as it would turn out the idea of vampires hasn’t always been used in a positive manner in the past. Instead the connotations surrounding the word “vampire” and the idea of vampires were quite different than those we are used to today.

Instead of referring to pop culture icons or literary figures during the 19th century the word vampire was often used as a way to call out those who were judged to have or hold less than savory occupations or positions in the social sphere. That often meant it applied to politics, and the issue of slavery most frequently. A cursory search of America’s Historical Newspapers using the word “vampire” as the sole search term brought up a few hundred results.

Most of those results were articles attacking the “accursed vampire of Slavery.”¹ With the same or similar language. Another interesting example of this kind of usage is this quote from The Pennsylvania Freeman that says “Williams is the name of the reptile who owns and maintains the slave barracoon*…he is shamed and avoided as if he were a vampire.”² The usage of the term “reptile” is also interesting, taking it a step further beyond just the use of the word vampire and into the realm of the creepy and the crawly as well.

I had mentioned that politics also used the word “vampire” in a similar way. An example that can be looked to is from the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette which alludes to what is likely Republican politicians as “secret vampires.”³ Similarly a Republican newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer can be quoted as referring to members of the Democratic party as being “miserable vampire[s]…which threaten to suck up every drop of blood from the veins of a free people.”4

What I thought would be more of a needle in a haystack-esq kind of search turned out to be an interesting bunch of newspaper articles. I made this discovery while doing some emergency research looking for the use of the word vampire in relation to slavery between 1852-1860. I had always been under the assumption that the word vampire was left more to the literary side of things. So it was a pleasant surprise to find out that there was more to it than mentions of Dracula or vampire bats and that it gives a glimpse into the way social history can shape even the most common day to day discussions.

*an enclosure or barracks formerly used for temporary confinement of slaves or convicts —often used in plural (from the Merriam Webster dictionary)

¹ Frederick Douglass’ Paper, July 14, 1854.

² General News/ Domestic, The Pennsylvania Freeman, July, 15, 1852, 63.

³ The Coming Campaign, The New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, Jan. 07, 1852, 1.

4 Kossuth; Liberty; Bayonet; Purchased; Jackson; Washington; Republican, Richmond Enquirer, Feb. 03, 1852, 4.


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