I recently listened to a fascinating podcast. Marian Pierre Louis interviewed Michael Bell about his book “Food for the Dead” which focused on a specific treatment for tuberculosis treatments in the 1800s. At the time, there were not any effective treatments and it was terrifying to watch loved ones suffer and literally waste away as the disease ravaged their body.
Michael explains it better than I can so you should definitely listen to the podcast. What I took away though was that people believed that evil spirits could inhabit the bodies of family members or neighbors who had recently died. They believed that some of these spirits could then feast on blood of the living.
If you think of the symptoms of consumption this makes sense. During the final stages of the disease, people would cough up blood. They would also have difficulty breathing–it often felt like there was a big weight on their chest. In the morning the patient would wake up complaining of someone sitting on their chest during the night and there would be blood on the bedclothes.
Once they had identified a likely corpse which the evil spirit inhabited, the corpse was exhumed and the heart was examined for evidence of blood. If blood was found, many believed that was evidence of the evil spirit. The heart, and sometimes the entire body, was burned so that the spirit was destroyed. Sometimes the sick patients would breathe in the smoke or drink the ashes as both were felt to be purified and could help purify the person who was ill.
As we look back, this seems a very strange practice. My favorite part of the podcast was when Michael talked about what he wanted readers to take away. He said, “Let’s not be so judgmental of our ancestors. It’s easy to look back at them from the perch of the 21st century.” The following is a paraphrase of his comments. While we have the benefit of scientific knowledge, we are not any smarter than our ancestors. They were pretty smart too. He encourages us to have empathy and gives the example of cancer in our day. Do we know the cause or a cure for cancer? We have some knowledge, but not enough to prevent it or always successfully treat it. When people have tried all that modern medicine can provide and the prognosis is not good–what do people do? They often look into alternative medicine or other therapies. They don’t want to give up on their loved one and want to try everything possible to save his or her life.
I love how he explained this because I think it is so easy to cast judgments on our ancestors. But judging our ancestors does absolutely nothing to help us better understand them. Rather, trying to understand what they did and why they did it leads us to a greater understanding as well as greater sympathy.