During the early 18th century in Eastern Europe, the countryside was claimed to have been plagued by a disease that was infecting the local inhabitants, their food and ultimately their souls. The illness had the power to turn men into ravenous, bloodsucking creatures. These man-beasts slept in their graves during the day and rose at night to feast on the blood of cows, sheep and even humans. They were also said to have even cannibalised their victims. For those who were lucky enough to survive an attack, their mutilated body would live on for three days… only to then die, and join the legion of the damned – cursed with an insatiable appetite for blood. These creatures would feast on the living, with an indomitable strength and even the ability to shape-shift into any number of animals, mostly wolves and bats. They were known as vampires.
Stories of vampires had been commonplace in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. However, a plague of bloodsuckers was relatively unheard of in the West. It was not until a medical physician and officer of the Austrian royal army, Johann Flückinger, published a report titled “Seen and Discovered” in 1732 that vampires started to become a sensation. Flückinger’s report was written plain and simply, but its content was extraordinary. The report concerned itself with a hajduk named Arnold Paole, who had fallen from a hay wagon and died in 1727, near Medvegia in modern day Serbia.
Arnold Paole and the vampire
The circumstance of Paole’s death was the only mundane element of the entire report. For it went on to describe how the unfortunate militiaman had allegedly been stalked by a vampire throughout his life. In an attempt to rid himself of the creature, the report described how he “had eaten from the earth of the vampire’s grave and had smeared himself with the vampire’s blood” 1
This apparently had little effect. For within a fortnight of his death, he would be at the throats of his fellow villagers. Four people and much livestock perished by Paole’s bloodied claws over the following weeks.
By the 40th day, the villagers had had enough. They exhumed Paole’s body, and were horrified by what they saw. Fresh blood was flowing from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears. His pallor seemed otherwise fresh and undecayed, with new hair, nails and skin on his body. This was evidence enough for the villagers that they indeed had a vampire in their midst. Thus, with the wooden stake at hand, they plunged the spear deep into his heart. Arnold Paole was said to have gasped and groaned as fresh, red blood copiously poured from his chest. Finally, the vampire was dead.
However, even from beyond the grave, Paole would continue his killing spree.
The villagers, aware of the danger that Arnold’s illness posed, disinterred his four known victims. They were found in a similar condition, and so were also staked through the heart. Yet, even as the groans of the dead echoed across the Serbian countryside, the plague of vampirism was tightening its grip. Many had eaten Paole’s brutalised livestock, and who is to say if the four that he had killed had not already attacked and infected others.
News of the spreading plague eventually reached the attention of the Austrian Imperial Army governing the region. A colonel-lieutenant by the name of Schnezzer was the first to send an official doctor to investigate the area, in order to ascertain that it was not an epidemic disease. The doctor’s name was Glasser.
When he arrived in the December of 1731, thirteen people were known to have died, supposedly of vampirism. In his report, Glasser stated that he could find no evidence of an epidemic and that illnesses, such as fevers, were merely the cause of the deaths.
However, this did little to diffuse the panic. The villagers threatened to leave the area if the dead men were not properly dealt with.
Thus, in his pursuit to calm the hysteria, the doctor dug up ten of the bodies. Some of them had decomposed, but others had blood pouring from the orifices on their faces, almost as though they had recently feasted on bloody delights. Terrifying for their own safety, the villagers demanded that the vampires needed to be killed. Glasser was left with no choice but to write to his commander to ask for permission to execute the corpses.
At this point, the imperial authorities decided to send a regimental surgeon, Johann Flückinger, and his team, to follow up on Glasser’s investigation. As these men had served as medics in the war against the Turks from 1714-18, they were highly experienced in dealing with cadavers. It was hoped that their expertise could solve the riddle of the vampires.
By the time Flückinger and his team arrived, the vampires had been busier than ever. According to his later report, “17 young and old people died, among them some who, with no previous illness, died in two or at the most three days.”2
With the death toll rising, Flückinger exhumed all the bodies for inspection and dissection. He would confirm Glasser’s report that most of the corpses were indeed covered in blood. Not only that, “The vessels of the arteries and veins, were not, as is usual, filled with coagulated blood, and the whole viscera, that is, the lung, liver, stomach, spleen, and intestines were quite fresh as they would be in a healthy person. Also that they had mysteriously died of an illness that had lasted only three days.”3 It was almost as if the bodies of the dead were still living.
Flückinger’s report describes the case of a 20-year-old woman named Stana. She had died in childbirth after a three-day illness some two months prior to the surgeon’s arrival. Her baby had also died, and because of a careless burial had been half eaten by dogs. Before her death, Stana had confided that a vampire had been stalking her. In an attempt to protect herself, she had painted herself with its blood. Yet, upon examination by Flückinger’s team, Stana’s corpse was found to have been “quite complete and undecayed” with “fresh and vivid skin”.4
One of the most bloodthirsty vampires who was said to have succeeded Paole was Miloe, who had died and supposedly turned six weeks prior to Flückinger’s visit. It was he who was believed to have strangled another young woman of twenty years old. She had managed to survive the assault, to only expire three days later of the terrible disease. Having been infected by Miloe, she too became a vampire. Similar to the other bodies, when Flückinger disinterred her 18 days later, fresh blood poured from her nose, and that her internal organs, skin and nails were “as though completely fresh.”5
Once the medical team had finished their examinations, the supposed vampires were all beheaded by the local gypsies. The gypsies would then burn the heads and throw the accursed ashes into the river.6
After the report was filed and examined by the emperor, it would subsequently be publicly published, becoming a bestseller throughout Europe. Translated into every language, it would someday reach the hands of an obscure Irish theatre manager by the name of Bram Stoker, no doubt inspiring his book Dracula. Yet, in spite of the cultural significance of Flückinger’s report, science does not see anything too extraordinary in this case.
The scientific response to vampires
The process of decomposition is better understood today than it was in the 18th century. Science can now inform that, as a corpse rots away, it is normal for the deceased’s lungs to become filled with blood. The brain also liquefies during decomposition. And, as it was customary for those suspected of being vampires to be buried face down (in the belief that it made it harder for them to escape their graves), the liquefied brain could have quite easily oozed through facial orifices, thus giving the appearance of a overfed bloodsucker. In addition, gases get trapped in a corpse’s lungs. If one were to put a stake through them, there could be a gasp or a groan emitted under the pressure.7 Moreover, science now knows that if a corpse is interred eight feet underground in near freezing temperatures, as it would have been in Serbia, the body takes much more time to decompose.
Even the supposed vampire disease can be explained. Juan Gomez-Alonso, a Spanish neurologist, has suggested that vampirism is in fact rabies. 8 This is evidenced by the fact that rabies spreads in the same way as vampirism, causes fevers, madness and physical aggression. At this point, it must be remembered that the suave, seductive vampire of literature and film is a modern fabrication. Traditionally, they had been depicted as something akin to a grotesque, shape-shifting, living corpse. Folklore seems to add credence to Gomez’s theory, since vampires were often said to have been able to shape-shift into wolves and bats, two animals which are known to be carriers of rabies.
How does this compare to the Flückinger report?
However, whilst this may explain vampirism in part, there are some questions which remain. In Flückinger’s case, the burials of all those believed to have been afflicted by vampirism were not always so methodical. Stana’s baby, as previously mentioned, was so carelessly buried that dogs ate part of the corpse. This detail runs in conflict with the theory of bodies being preserved by careful burials in cold temperatures.
Also, according to Flückinger’s report, many of the victims succumbed after a rapid, three-day illness. Rabies can take anything from 10 days to two years to culminate in death. 9.
Moreover, it has been stated that doctors knew that there had been a plague of rabies in Serbia between the years 1721 to 1728. Indeed, rabies is one of the oldest known diseases, having been recognised both in Ancient Egypt and Greece. Surely someone as experienced as Flückinger, a senior regimental surgeon, would have alluded to a rabies epidemic as a possible explanation. Instead, he himself concluded that the bodies were in fact “vampires”. 10 He had no other way to describe what he was seeing.
Every year archaeologists find new “vampire graves” across Europe, filled with headless skeletons, or bodies faced down to the ground. Corpses with rocks forcibly stuffed into the mouths, to halt the blood-lust of the vampire, have also been found. Previously science had dismissed such findings and beliefs in vampirism as a mixture of local hysteria and misunderstood illnesses. However, this standpoint is being challenged, leaving no scientific consensus as to what traditional cases of vampirism could have been. One example is a recent study conducted in Poland, which found that skeletons in a vampire grave did not show any real differences in disease or malformations than did those buried in normal graves. 11 The reasons for their peculiar burial is unknown.
Ultimately, the truth behind the curious case of Arnold Paole is yet to be fully understood. As such, the question remains: did the disease of vampirism once exist? And, more frighteningly, could the vampire plague one day return?