Killing Vampires in Delaware

Photo Courtesy of the Mercer Museum

In the final section of the Treasures on Trial exhibition, visitors can pass their judgement on three objects: an Elmyr de Hory painting, a 19th-century Vampire Killing Kit, and a Winslow Homer landscape. Are these objects what they purport to be or are they fake?

In the case of the Vampire Killing Kit, opinion is almost completely divided between those who believe it is a genuine 19th-century object, and those who believe it is a fake. It is easy to see why this object, on loan from the Mercer Museum, attracts attention. There is quite a bit of mystery and romance that surrounds vampires in gothic fiction, old black-and-white Hollywood movies, and the more recent blockbusters and TV series, which lends to visitors to Winterthur will recognize all the hallmarks of ‘antique’  this object embodies. Faded and yellowing paper labels, a rich dark-wood interior and a cracked, peeling leather exterior all combine to create an object that is both consistent with the nineteenth-century in the public imagination and can easily be visualized in the hand of a vampire killer out on a wet and stormy night, pursuing their next target. The case contains all the objects one may need to kill a vampire; a stake, a gun, gunpowder, silver bullets, vials of serum, and a syringe among others items. All of the objects are held in specially shaped and made compartments.

Photo Courtesy of the Mercer Museum

On face value this object certainly looks nineteenth century, but it presents a really interesting case study of ‘the art and science of detecting fakes’. In assessing this object, as Winterthur’s curators and scientists were tasked to, museum professionals cannot be fettered with their beliefs that vampires are fictional; the object must be assessed within the context of beliefs of the period. For the nineteenth century, as a print of ‘Varney the Vampire’ in the exhibition shows, belief in vampires was not unheard of. In fact, in some areas it was widespread — perhaps stemming from a misunderstanding of the decomposition of dead bodies. The printed label on the inside of the box lid — fake or otherwise — captures this belief:

“Vampire Killing Kit. This box contains the items considered necessary, for the protection of persons who travel into little known countries of Eastern Europe, where the populace are plagued with a particular manifestation of evil known as VAMPIRES. Professor Ernst Blomberg respectfully requests that the purchaser of this kit, carefully studies his book in order, should evil manifestations become apparent, he is equipped to deal with them efficiently. Professor Blomberg wishes to announce his grateful thanks to that well-known gunmaker of Liege, Nicholas Plomdeur whose help in the compiling of the special items, the silver bullets etc. has been most efficient.”

Such eastern European vampires are well documented: the Upier of Poland, Vǎrkolak of Bulgaria, and F.W. Murnau’s 1922 on-screen vampire Nosferatu, who hailed from Romania. But other vampires were believed to exist closer to home: the Chupacabra, the Fifollet, and the Richmond Vampire are all recorded in folklore in the United States.

Set against a strong historical context in which to place a possibly genuine vampire killing kit, Winterthur’s Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory were able to test the materials used to make the kit for their authenticity. A combined analysis using X-ray fluorescence (XRF), UV light, and fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) suggests that the ivory-faced side of the cross is ivory, and therefore a genuine antique, and FTIR used on the green felt inside and the leather case outer are good matches with real materials. By comparison, the identification of optical brighteners in the paper labels challenges that they were made in the 19th century. Optical brighteners were a product of the 1940s, and so therefore these labels cannot date from the 19th century. Similarly the supposed silver bullet of the kit, when tested with XFR, was revealed to comprise large quantities of lead, tin, and antimony, but no silver. This suggests that the bullet is made of a pewter alloy instead of silver. Therefore, even if the bullet is a genuine 19th-century object, which has not been ruled out, this poses an interesting question in terms of determining whether this object is fake or genuine. Namely, if this is a genuine vampire killing kit made in the 19th century, why would its bullet be made of the wrong metal?

These scientific findings therefore can confirm connoisseurial doubts over the authenticity of the material by demonstrating that although some of the objects in the case may be genuine antiques, some of the significant components are either not what they purport to be or date from the mid-to late 20th century. Visitors to Treasures on Trial at Winterthur will have until January 2018 to view the Vampire Killing Kit and make the decision for themselves. In either case, this exciting object is an example that fake ideas and beliefs can leave behind a material trace that is as physically real as the beliefs are to those who hold them. Fake histories can be real things, but we must be careful to know when we are in the process of creating them and knowing when they have been misused.

Post by Tom Rusbridge, a second-year Ph.D. student from the University of Sheffield and visiting scholar at Winterthur until the end of April (funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities). Twitter: @tom_rusbridge

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