Vampires, Cannibals, and Killing Machines

I may or may not get around to seeing or reading Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but I do enjoy the amusingly predictable  show of professional historians tsk-tsking over the most outrageous counterfactual fantasies, as though some deeper social issue were at stake (pun, no). Maybe this was justified when Oliver Stone set his sights on JFK (pun, maybe), but it's plain silly when a scholar rhetoricizes that "If demons were responsible for slavery, that would be a whole lot less horrible than what really happened," as though the enormity of human bondage hadn't been sufficiently imprinted on impressionable young Stephenie-Meyer-polluted minds by now.

Besides which, as Reason correspondent Jesse Walker notes in a short comment banking off a longer piece by a less obtuse historian, the most fanciful re-imaginings of history may be particularly well-suited to illuminate the psycho-cultural backdrop that must inform any master narrative. In present context, this permits us to reflect on the meaning of once widespread rumors concerning slavery as a ruse for "white cannibalism."

Walker writes:

Like many conspiracy stories, [stories of white cannibalism] emerged through a combination of empirical observation and frightened guesswork. One man captured in Africa remembered seeing "parts of a hog hanging, the skin of which was white — a thing which we never saw before; for a hog was always roasting on a fire, to clear it of the hair, in my country; and a number of cannonshots were arranged on the deck. The former we supposed to be flesh, and the latter the heads of the individuals who had been killed for meat."   

The idea was widespread. One slave recalled his fellow captives jumping overboard "for fear that they were being fattened to be eaten." As Poole mentions, Africans arriving in Louisiana and Haiti reportedly mistook their masters' red wine for blood. Worries about white appetites would persist after slavery ended, as with the long-lived legend that Caucasian scientists were using black bodies' blood to make medicine. During the Atlanta child murders of 1979–1981, a gruesome rumor claimed the government was harvesting the kids' genitals to make aphrodisiacs.

When a piece of conspiracy folklore is this popular, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat the tale, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself. The slave traders really were conspiring against their prisoners; it was just the nature of the conspiracy that was misunderstood. The captives were to be consumed by the white economy, not by white mouths.

(Walker's comment is light on sourcing, but I used to have a book — this book — that provides a neat historical overview — or underview — of cannibal-centered antebellum lore. I must have loaned the thing out at some point, but tust me: It's a fascinating read.)

At this point, those of you who are familiar with my ebbing and waning interests (at least such that find expression in my occasional scribblings here or in my sporadic adventures as a small-time publisher of "underground" books) will rightly suspect that I have something additional in mind when I focus on this variety of psychogenic undergrowth. (Hence the boldfacing, no?) While I've been perhaps increasingly coy about the subject of late, I want to be very clear now in observing that Walker's uncontroversial account of the meaningful resonance of "conspiracy folklore" in one troubling context tracks more or less precisely with the central thesis developed in Samuel Crowell's The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding (Oxford comma absolutely intended) in another troubling — and siesmically controversial — context.

If antebellum (and postbellum) rumors of white cannibalism can be understood to say "something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat the tale, even if [such rumors] say nothing true about the objects of the [conspiracy] theory itself," Crowell's argument,  unfairly distilled, is simply that rumors of industrialized ethnic destruction — purportedly affected through electrocuted floors, vacuum chambers, pneumatic brain-smashing conveyers, and subterfuged gas chambers — arose in a similarly tunneled atmosphere of social confusion, strife, and upheaval, where "frightened guesswork"  latched to the palpable fear of German technological prowess and, more fatefully, to the fear of gas warfare. The deeper truth, to trace it all the way down, is that a kind of "destruction" — call it a "conspiracy" if you prefer — was in fact taking place all over Eastern Europe, even if, as Crowell credibly speculates, the presumed means of such destruciton should likewise turn out to say "nothing true about the theory itself."

A key difference, of course, is that emancipated slaves never had their stories documented before an internatioinal tribunal. They never got around to writing history books, either — or they came too late to the game. Another difference: Only Bad People are wont to speculate on mythic or confabulated elements of Holocaust narratives, while reputable libertarian journalists are free to place other historical rumors in socio-historical context without courting reprisal. No pseudonym or poor judgment is required.

So, was John Wilkes Booth a vampire? My own research suggests that he was actually a shapeshifting Wendigo. Eichmann and Höss, on the other hand, were definitely vampires werewolves. And Hitler was a necrophile. It is important to recall these facts. It is just as important to know what they mean.

Memento mori         

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