16th century vampire-slaying in Italy

Back in the 16th century, the best way to kill a vampire wasn’t a garlic necklace or a stake through the heart. To stop alleged vampires from spreading disease and feeding on blood, the ancients would stuff a brick in the vampire corpse’s jaw.

Thousands of people perished in the Italian plague of 1576, so many that individual burial became unwieldy. The solution was to bury victims together in mass graves, many of which were later dug up to dispose of fresh bodies. Some of the decomposing corpses found in the old graves were bloated, their mouths dripping with blood, and their burial shrouds eaten away around the mouth. Diggers thought these corpses were keeping themselves alive by feeding on the dead, and devised a simple tactic keep their vampire brethren from doing so: the old brick-in-the-mouth trick.

Recently, the skeleton of a 60-year-old female who died from the plague was found in a mass grave in Venice. She had a large brick wedged deep in her jaw–the first skeleton to be found this way, and supporting anthropologists’ theories about 16th-century vampire¬† tradition. Experts suggest that she was believed to be a “shroud-eater”–it’s likely that the bacteria around her mouth ate away at her burial shroud, leaving a creepy gaping hole. Gasses built up in her body may have produced a bloating, “alive” effect, and if there was blood around her mouth, it was probably from decomposing organs. Today we have science to provide these explanations, but 16th-century diggers likely thought that this woman was a member of the clandestine ranks of the vampire underworld, spreading the plague around Venice and thereby securing lots of tasty fresh prey.

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