The road ahead for the ol’ Bobbo

July 30, 2011

Busy times, people. When my summer class wraps up on Monday, I will begin down a road that can lead only to lots of hours hunched over a computer. My first project to nail down is a book chapter that has been killing me. I have until the 10th to finish it–or else.

Over the long Labor Day weekend comes Dragon*Con, which is a bit of a dream come true for me, really. Two years ago, when I fell off the truck in Atlanta, I attended Dragon*Con sort of on a whim. I’m not even sure how I heard about it…possibly through Eve’s connections at the JREF. Within my first 20 minutes (not counting the line, of course), I had spoken to Eugenie Scott and was hooked. I saw all the awesome gathered the onstage and decided that, hell yes, I wanted to be up there. Apparently the only thing stopping anyone from doing whatever they want is asking, because I am running two panels, the first on “Skepticism and the Humanities” and a second on conspiracy theories (I can hear the collective gasp of shock from our audience). The Skepticism and Humanities panel is exciting not only because Massimo Pigliucci and Joe Nickell are going to appear, but because Eve and Jenna will both be on the panel, which will make for a pretty bitchin’ SH photo-op. My Georgia Tech colleague Tom Lolis will be with me on the conspiracy theory panel, as will Ben Radford and Kylie Sturgess. My arm is going to be sore what with all the pinching myself the whole weekend. Kylie also asked me to be on the superstition panel, and what Kylie wants, Kylie gets.

I will spend a good chunk of this year’s Dragon*Con at one of the tables, something that I have not done before. I will be representing the Independent Investigations Group–Atlanta with a number of volunteers, and we’ll be sharing a table with CSI. If you are going to be in Atlanta for Dragon*Con, please come by the IIG table! IIG-Atlanta is bringing magician Mark Edward to Dragon*Con, and he will be doing psychic readings at our table and drumming up interest in IIG. Mark has a show (a psychic demonstration) and a talk at Dragon*Con, and we’re insanely excited to bring him here.

Turns out that the paranormal track also has a psychic.

I will be teaching in the fall, of course, but in mid-September, the job hunt season opens, and I’m going to be applying for a lot of jobs. This is my last year on the academic job market, so I’m going to give it everything. But if it doesn’t work out, I’m getting out. When I landed the Georgia Tech gig, I applied for over 120 jobs, and this is the one that I got. I’m not doing that forever. At some point, I need to pin down a permanent, professional life. I’m a compositionist and an Americanist. There are Americanists to spare, but comparatively few English grad students leave school ever wanting to teach freshman writing again. I’m the exception, I suppose. I love it. I get to do all sorts of fun, creative things and teach my research. When you come out of Tech’s Britt program, you are sort of a teaching superstar.

Next is what gets me positively giddy, CSICon, which takes place at the end of October. I’ll be giving a talk about conspiracy theories. If you look at the list of presenters there, you will realize that I am, by almost any measure (except perhaps weight) the least accomplished person there. A total thrill for me, I have to say. At the end of the year, I am scheduled to present at M/MLA in St. Louis, but I am really not in love with the topic I proposed. And I may just be freaking exhausted by then.

So, I have a busy schedule this fall.


This Week in Conspiracy (24 July 2011)

July 25, 2011

It’s been another busy week in the wackosphere. We’re also reminded that the racism and fear that lies behind our tendency to demonize people who are not like us can kill. A lot is coming in from Norway still, but it seems clear that the guy who went on a rampage is speaking the language of the conspiracist. This is why this is important. More about Oslo below, but trust me, I’d rather be making snarky remarks about people who think Amy Winehouse is still alive or was murdered or has been dead for months….

  • Beware of fears of 9/11 10th anniversary scares, warns Federal Jack. You just can’t win with these people. Clearly a symbolic date, so if they didn’t at least “warn” people, they’d take it on the nose if something happened.


My take on the Oslo massacre? The suspect’s rant, “2803: A European Declaration of Independence” (warning: huge pdf) is long. Like 1,500 pages long, and I’ve only been able to get a sense of the sweep of the conspiracy theory overall. Honestly, right now I’m working on another project and can’t quite dig too deeply into the conspiracy. But the tropes of national infiltration and media/government complicity are common in just about every perceived global conspiracy. The one thing that stuck out to me was his fear of “cultural Marxism,” is not foreign to American conspiracy theories. When you google that term, whatever it is supposed to mean (usually, “being more liberal than me”), you get Joseph Farah’s WorldNetDaily (home of the birth certificate conspiracy). You get Brannon Howse from Worldview Weekend. And these conspiracy theories get people killed. The most dismaying thing is the number of people who just don’t get it, even when they are horrified by such a massacre, people who say, “What a nightmare, but you do have to worry about the cultural Marxists.” And this is why we will certainly see this type of slaughter again.

Certain conspiracists think that the comparisons of Breivik to Timothy McVeigh are part of the government’s plan to sculpt a narrative. They are, based on my reading of sections of Breivik’s manifesto, extremely apt comparisons. Take, for instance, the sections detailing how someone should go about hiding weapons and carrying out guerilla warfare against the state. There was a section on preparing and burying weapons for later use that could have been lifted from The Turner Diaries, a book (really, violent porn for racists) that was apparently in McVeigh’s car when he was arrested, and which has a scene in which a government building (in the Turner Diaries, it is the FBI HQ) is destroyed by a truck bomb. Oh, and there is that whole truck bomb element in Oslo. This is not a random attack, but one which is (within limits) predictable and which you can anticipate by immersing yourself in…the type of stuff that I have had to read lately.

My copy of The Turner Diaries, by the way, has a blurb by Tim McVeigh on it. How’s that for a ripe little slice of publishing hell? And you wonder why I’m grumpy all the time.

So, let’s get dirty.

That’s all I can stomach this week. No conspiracy theory of the week. It’s just not that type of week.


Nellie Vaughn: The Vampire who Wasn’t a Vampire

July 21, 2011

Nellie Vaughn was never a vampire. Now, you may be saying, “Well, duh!” but the point is that she was never suspected of being a vampire by her family and friends. Her body was never exhumed*; she was never found to be in an insufficient state of decomposition; her internal organs were never removed and burnt. This all may seem very normal. After all, most people are spared the indignity of being dug up and burned as vampires. What makes Nellie unusual is that nearly a hundred years after her death, she acquired an undeserved reputation as a vampire, and her story illustrates how legends can develop.

Between (roughly) 1790 and 1899, at least a dozen bodies were exhumed in New England because family members and neighbors suspected them of being vampires. Actually “vampire” isn’t the right word. The people involved in these rituals apparently didn’t use the word and, according to George R. Stetson, weren’t even familiar with it. Rather, they were trying to halt the relentless depredations of consumption.** As folklorist Michael E. Bell notes in his excellent book on the subject, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, the New Englanders seem to have been practicing a kind of folk medicine by digging up people who had died of consumption and burning their hearts (and sometimes their livers and lungs). Sometimes the ashes were mixed into a solution and given to an afflicted family member as a treatment. The term “vampire” is convenient though, but keep in mind, these were not animated corpses wandering around and sucking people’s blood.

The best known of these New England vampires was the last, Mercy Brown. Her mother Mary died of consumption on December 8, 1883; her sister Mary Olive died six months later on June 16, 1884. Several years later, Mercy’s brother Edwin became ill and left for Colorado, the climate of which was thought to be salubrious for consumptives. For a while, his condition seemed to improve. Meanwhile, Mercy became ill and died at the age of nineteen on January 18, 1892. Around the same time, Edwin’s condition deteriorated, and he returned home to die. Friends and neighbors urged Mercy and Edwin’s father George to have the bodies of his wife and daughters exhumed. George himself did not believe in this superstition, but he acceded to the wishes of his neighbors and, in March, sent a message to Dr. Harold Metcalf, who had treated Mercy, asking him to autopsy the bodies. George did not attend. The two Marys, who had been dead between seven and eight years, were essentially skeletons with some tissue and hair still attached. Mercy, who had been dead for only a couple of months, hadn’t even been buried yet: her body had been stored in a crypt until the ground became soft enough to dig a grave. Dr. Metcalf removed the heart and liver and declared them to be in the condition one would expect. Nonetheless, the neighbors burnt the heart, mixed it with water or medicine and gave it to Edwin. He died shortly thereafter.

The exhumation of Mercy’s body received a great deal of publicity almost immediately. The reporters who wrote about the event were familiar with the word “vampire” and the European vampire tradition and imposed certain sensational elements onto the Mercy Brown story. An article about Mercy Brown was found among Bram Stoker’s papers.

Although Mercy Brown is the best-known of the New England vampires, she was not unique. Similar rituals occurred all over New England, but especially in Rhode Island and the area of Connecticut that borders Rhode Island. Nellie Vaughn was not one of the vampires. According to her death certificate, she died of pneumonia, not consumption; there seem to have been no other deaths in her family that could blamed on her. But somehow, by the 1970s, she had earned a reputation as a vampire. This reputation has attracted visitors and vandals to the cemetery behind the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church in West Greenwich, RI. In 1977, a newspaper article reported that Nellie’s was

the only sunken grave in the cemetery and continues to sink into the earth. “No vegetation or lichen will grown on the grave,” reports a local university professor[,] despite numerous attempts by grave tenders and the curious. Along the bottom of the grave are inscribed the words, “I am waiting and watching for you” (qtd. in Bell 82)

Oooh, spooooky. But a creepy inscription does not a vampire make, especially if the inscription is a perfectly common sentiment looking forward to resurrection and reunion in heaven (and the inscription was probably chosen by Nellie’s parents). There has to be more to it than that, surely. Well, yes, there is.  The historic church is remote and only has a semiannual service. Otherwise, it is boarded up (its apparent abandonment may itself attract vandals). According to a 1982 article in the Providence Journal-Bulletin:

“As far as we can tell, it started 15 years ago when a teacher at Coventry High School told his students that there was a vampire buried in a cemetery off [state route] 102,” reports church historian Evelyn Smith (qtd. in Bell 82).

The teacher didn’t name the vampire or the cemetery. Presumably, he meant Mercy Brown, buried in Exeter, RI, but some intrepid students, armed with this lack of information, went on a vampire hunt and found Nellie Vaughn, buried in West Greenwich, RI. Her age was about right, her date of death was about right, and there was that spooky inscription. Mission accomplished: vampire found.

There’s a problem with this explanation, though. Bell went to West Greenwich and interviewed a number of people, including former town clerk Cora Lamoureux and unofficial town historian and genealogist Blanche Albro. They were understandably upset by the vandalism to the church and graveyard and by Nellie’s undeserved reputation as a vampire. As Blanche said:

[W]e never had one [a vampire] ’til this kooky teacher. And the only reason she started it, ’cause it says, ‘watching and waiting for you’ on her stone in the cemetery (Bell 86).

Notice how the teacher from Coventry, who was a “he” in the newspaper article, has become a “she?” Bell was never able to track down the teacher from Coventry. People said they knew who he/she was–Blanche said her nephew was there when the vampire story was told–but Bell was never able to get a name or details. So, while the story seems plausible and may indeed be true, the “teacher from Coventry” seems to have a whiff of legend about him/her (as does the professor at the local university who reported that no vegetation grows on Nellie’s grave). He or she has become part of the story. Bell equates the teacher with the FOAF (friend of a friend) who tends to be at the center of urban (and rural) legends.

But, wait, there’s more! Now Nellie’s become a ghost, and why? because she’s pissed that people think she’s a vampire. Charles T. Robinson, in his book New England Ghost Files, reports on the experiences of Marlene Chatfield, who has had several ghostly encounters with Nellie. On one occasion, a woman’s voice said, “I am perfectly pleasant.” As notes, this “must be some kind of ghost code for ‘I am pure evil,’ because red scratches then appeared on [Marlene’s] husband’s face, prompting him to leave the cemetery.” On another occasion, Marlene met a young woman in the cemetery who said she was with a local historical society. When they got to Nellie’s grave, Marlene asked the woman what she thought of Nellie’s reputation as a vampire. The woman said it was silly. Then her behavior changed, and she began repeating the phrase “Nellie is not a vampire.” Marlene freaked out and hurried back to her car. When she looked back, the woman was gone! [cue spooky music]. Marlene believes that Nellie’s ghost returns because she is troubled by her reputation as a vampire. This is why she assures people that she is perfectly pleasant. Her assertion would be more compelling if she didn’t then attack people.

For those keeping score:

  • Nellie is a vampire
  • No she isn’t
  • The story was started by a teacher from Coventry
  • Maybe it wasn’t
  • A college professor said no vegetation grows on the grave
  • Maybe he didn’t
  • Nellie’s ghost appears because she’s unhappy that people think she is a vampire
  • She claims to be perfectly pleasant
  • She isn’t

This, gentle reader, is how legends are born and grow. One woman Bell interviewed not only believed that Nellie Vaughn was a vampire but that the semiannual service at the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church was a black mass attended by devil worshipers. Because of vandalism, Nellie’s gravestone has been moved to an undisclosed location (it had been broken up). Now that no one knows where the grave is, grass grows on it.

I keep saying that Nellie Vaughn’s reputation as a vampire is undeserved, but, let’s be fair, Mercy Brown doesn’t really deserve the reputation either. The poor girl lost her mother and her sister, watched her brother get sick and then died herself at nineteen. Then people hauled her out of her temporary crypt, cut out her heart and liver and burnt them. And it didn’t help her brother. Because of Mercy’s fame, her grave has also attracted vandalism (at one point her gravestone was stolen) and stories of hauntings.

But while we know that she was thought to harbor some sort of evil influence, there is something odd about her story as well. I’ve given the chronology above: Mercy’s mother and sister died years before Mercy began showing symptoms of consumption, and, although she predeceased her brother Edwin, he became ill before she did. Therefore, Mercy herself could not conceivably have been responsible for her mother’s and sister’s deaths nor for her brother’s illness. This doesn’t seem entirely logical and doesn’t fit with the pattern of European vampires. None of the contemporary reports explains this discrepancy, but it seems likely that the malevolent force that was held responsible for consumption infected the dead in much the same way that consumption itself infected the living. It may have moved from one corpse to the next. The corpse with the (reasonably) fresh heart was the one that was currently infected by the evil.

*Actually, her body was moved from a family plot to a public cemetery, but the exhumation had nothing to do with vampirism.

**I use the non-medical term “consumption” advisedly. While “consumption” usually refers to primary pulmonary tuberculosis, it could also be applied to other respiratory ailments.



Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. Will be reprinted in Oct. 2011. Currently available as an e-book.

Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” American Anthropologist 9 (1896): 1-13.

This Week in Conspiracy (17 July 2011)

July 18, 2011

Sorry this is a little late. Class and other projects are impinging on my alone time with wackjobbies. Also, I was hypnotized by a certain item on eBay. Yum. Nonetheless, there was some noteworthy craziness this week, so let’s get to it.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

  • Not knowing how irony works, 9/11 Truth parodist portrays movement as a bunch of Nazis:


Amaz!ng Sites at the TAM Pre-Show

July 14, 2011

The Amaz!ng Meeting doesn’t officially start until tomorrow with the opening slate of workshops, but skeptics and critical thinkers have already descended en masse in Vegas.

This afternoon (Wed.)  I attended the volunteer luncheon at the hotel buffet. No, I didn’t crash it, I’m volunteering as a ticket taker for several hours tomorrow. There was an air of fun and frivolity as friends noticed each other in person and “touched each other for real, not on a computer screen,”  as Jennifer Michael Hecht noted.

At TAM you get to meet all sorts of people in real life, not just Twitter peeps. But don’t take my word for it, here’s a photo of James Randi performing slight of hand conjuring at the lunch table.

This entry is cross-posted at SheThought.


Fry and Laurie’s Take on Rupert Murdock

July 13, 2011

One of my favorite British comedy series unsurprisingly featured Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Their A Bit of Fry and Laurie is a refreshingly intelligent sketch comedy show from the 1990s that took a special delight in wordplay. Here they riff on It’s a Wonderful Life to show what Britain would have looked like if Rupert Murdoch had never been born.

Of course, Hugh Laurie’s show, House, is on Fox.


Go the Fuck to Sleep

July 12, 2011

I’m using children’s books to teach visual design in my classes these days.

Not this one:

Or, if that is not to your liking, how about Samuel L. Jackson’s rendition: