“Legend Tripping” at Graves of “Witches” and “Vampires”

March 29, 2018

Increasingly, “legend tripping” (a term used by folklorists) is becoming popular. A “legend trip” is a visit to a site having a legend—typically about uncanny events there—the purpose being to test the legend or to otherwise engage it (Brunvand 1996, 437–440).

Perhaps it is best known in the form of a nighttime visit to some creepy place—a haunted house, perhaps, or the supposed lair of a monster—often as the result of a dare. Such a practice may accompany what I have named the abandonment-creates-haunted-place phenomenon in which an old neglected building begins to look creepy and prompts talk of ghosts. Such a place was the deserted Buffalo asylum where people made legend trips and broke in to see if they could have a spooky experience (Nickell 2017).

Other examples of legend trip activities include hanging road-killed animals in trees (say at a “cursed” site) as “sacrifices,” donning black robes to jump in front of passing cars, and so on. Unfortunately, it may become more than just fun, even taking the form of vandalism or even worse. Norma Sutcliffe, who is skeptical of demons and lives peacefully in the eighteenth-century house made infamous by the scary movie The Conjuring (2013), told me of Internet discussions about destroying the house because “it’s so full of evil” (Nickell 2016). One legend trip resulted in seven men being arrested for the suspected arson of a “haunted” historic plantation house (Nickell 2013). Other legend trippers have been killed at dangerous sites like “haunted” railroad trestles (Nickell 2010; Tucker 2012).

Among the more harmless practices I have become very familiar with is that of visiting a grave—where, supposedly, a scary ghost or witch or vampire or the like abides–and leaving some charm or other gift item. One site I recall vividly was the New Orleans tomb of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, where visitors had left coins, candles, Mardi Gras beads, etc., in the tradition of voodoo offerings. At my visit in 2000, the tomb was also littered with markings—including a cross, heart, pentagram, and so on, as well as inscriptions or other graffiti (Nickell 2001).

The meanings of such placements vary. For example, stones have been put on graves as a supposed means of keeping down evil spirits (such as vampires), but, again, others intend the practice as a sign of respect (“A Grave” 2012). Coins and other items also have various symbolic meanings, as discussed on several websites.

Another grave where I have seen such attention belongs to Bathsheba Sherman, defamed as a witch who allegedly hanged herself in the barn on the previously mentioned property now owned by Norma Sutcliffe. Sherman—who was actually a Christian woman who died elsewhere of a stroke—is buried next to her husband, Judson, in the Riverside Cemetery in Harrisville, Rhode Island. I found her gravestone bearing several items including coins and a seashell. (See photo.) It is claimed that the breaking of this stone (since repaired) was done by vandals “who now believe she is an evil entity possessing mothers to kill their children” (Rubio 2014). 

Yet again, I observed this phenomenon when I made an investigative legend trip to the grave of America’s best-known and “last vampire,” that of Mercy Lena Brown.( I stopped there, at Exeter, RI, soon after visiting Bathsheba Sherman’s resting place in Harrisville.) Lena (as she was known) died at nineteen in 1892. But because some local folk thought her lethargy, pale appearance, coughing of blood, and contagiousness were evidence of vampirism, her body was exhumed and examined. Although a doctor found only the signs of “natural decomposition” following consumption (tuberculosis), her heart and liver were nevertheless cremated to quell people’s fears (Nickell 2009; 2018).

Placed on the grave marker were coins, stones, and other items; on other occasions wags have left cough drops and plastic vampire teeth. Because the tombstone has been stolen in the past, an iron strap now secures it to the ground (Tucker 2012). Visiting such a site to appreciate history is one thing, but those who go out of ignorance or mischief need to—well, get a life.

References

Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1996. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland.

A Grave Interest. 2012. Online at agraveinterest.blogspot.com/2012/04/leaving-stones-on-graves-html; accessed February 6, 2018.

Legend Tripping. 2018. Online at https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/legend_tripping; accessed February 2, 2018.

Nickell, Joe. 2001. Secrets of the Voodoo Tomb. Skeptical Briefs 11:4 (December), 10–13.

———. 2009. Searching for Vampire Graves. Skeptical Inquirer 33:2 (March/April) 16–19.

——— 2010. “Ghost Train” Death. Investigative Briefs blog, Sept. 21. Online at www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/ghost_train_death/; accessed Feb. 5, 2018.

———. 2013. Ghost-hunter Arsonists? Investigative Briefs blog, Dec. 16. Online at www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/ghost-hunter_arsonists/; accessed Feb. 5, 2018.

———. 2016. Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at the Conjuring House. Skeptical Inquirer 40:6 (November/December), 20–24.

———. 2017. Haunted Buffalo Asylum. Investigative Briefs blog, August 10. Online at https://www.google.com/search . . . ; accessed February 5, 2017.

———. 2018. Visiting the Grave of the Last Vampire. Investigative Briefs blog, February 5. Online at www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/visiting_the_grave_of_the_last_vampire; accessed February 5.

Rubio, J’Aime. 2014. The Real Bathsheba Sherman. Dreaming Casually (Investigative Blog); accessed June 28, 2016.

Tucker, Abigail. 2012. The Great New England Vampire Panic. Online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878; accessed February 5, 2018.