Stukeley Tillinghast, so the story goes, was a prosperous Rhode Island farmer around the time of the Revolutionary War. He and his beloved wife were the parents of fourteen children.
Stukeley had an apple orchard on his farm. One night in 1776 he woke from a horrifying dream. He told his wife, startled awake when he bolted upright, that he had dreamed half the trees in his orchard had died. He was certain the dream meant something, but damned if he could figure what. Comforted by his wife, he went back to sleep, still puzzled.
Not long after Stukeley’s dream, his oldest daughter, Sarah, fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis in its most virulent form, the so-called “galloping consumption.” Characterized by shortness of breath, fever, weight loss, violent cough, and in its late stages by hemorrhages of blood from the lungs, it could kill within weeks.
So it was with Sarah Tillinghast. She died not long after her diagnosis.
In this form, tuberculosis can spread with lethal speed. By the time Sarah died, Stukeley’s second daughter was already ill. Soon five more were dead, and another was desperately ill. Now Stukeley saw his dream becoming horrible reality: not half his orchard, but half his children—and now his wife began to show the early signs of the dreadful illness.
And Stukeley had an idea why they were dying, for in her delirium his second daughter had complained that dead Sarah had come to her in the night and sat on her chest.
In broad daylight, Stukeley and a band of nearby farmers went to the cemetery where Sarah and her five siblings lay buried. They dug up each of the graves and inspected the bodies. Five showed normal signs of decay and were reverently reburied.
Sarah’s did not. Her eyes were open, according to one account, fixed in a stare, and fresh blood was found in her heart and veins.
Stukeley and the farmers knew what they must do. They cut out Sarah’s heart and burned it to ashes, then reburied her.
Although the seventh child died after the desecration of Sarah’s grave, his wife recovered and no others of his children fell ill.
Although this sounds like a vampire tale, particularly in details of the ritual that ended Sarah’s nocturnal visits to her siblings, it actually is about another type of legendary killer altogether: the nosferatu, a word often mistranslated as “vampire” but actually meaning “plague bearer.” Frequently in old lore these monstrous creatures bore such infectious diseases as bubonic plague; in this case tuberculosis was a plague of another sort. Nor was Sarah Tillinghast the only victim of tuberculosis so treated to save family members after her own death. The most famous of these cases happened in the 1890s, also in Rhode Island, when several family members of a girl named Mercy Brown were stricken following her death from tuberculosis. In Mercy Brown’s case the ritual went farther; the ashes of her heart were mixed with wine and her brother made to drink it in hopes of curing him of his own ailment or at least slowing the progress of the disease. It failed; he outlived Mercy only by a few months.
But I’ve always preferred Sarah Tillinghast’s story, because it began with a dream—a dream that came dreadfully true.