We’ve spent some time over the last month or so building a secret history of the United States in the 19th century, for use in your favorite conspiratorial RPG. Cards on the table: the Illuminerdy are playing a lot of Night’s Black Agents right now, so this is going to be another post about vampires. That’s OK, right? Here’s the gist of what we’ve come up with so far: The nascent intelligence apparatus of the young United States survived the end of the Revolutionary War, ultimately fighting a undocumented war with a supernatural threat that had — for lack of a better term — invaded the young nation in the closing days of the 18th century.
Vampires, particularly powerful in New England, preyed upon isolated villages and families, spreading a plague of undeath hidden among the vast number of contemporary cases of pulmonary Tuberculosis. Even as an ultra-secret espionage organization fought them, these vampires used influential men among America’s elite to forward their agenda: Aaron Burr may have been one of their most prominent human agents, as might have been the powerful diplomat and former Presidential secretary (and possible Presidential assassin) Tobias Lear — after all, he was the last man to see George Washington alive. One of the cool things about Night’s Black Agents is that the vampires — despite their central importance to the game — are not explicitly defined. So taking what we know so far, who — or what — are these vampires? The answer may lie with their victims.
Prophets and Presidents
William Henry Harrison was the President of the United States for only 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes before he died in the White House on a cold April day in 1841. The official cause of death was a respiratory infection, ultimately leading to fatal pneumonia: not terribly different from the symptoms suffered by the other apparent victims of the vampire plague. Assuming for the moment that President Harrison’s death was something other than completely natural, it’s not hard to find potential enemies who could have set the undead against him.
As governor of the barely settled Indiana Territory in the early years of the 19th century, Harrison had led numerous efforts to expand white settlement into lands traditionally held by Native Americans, coming into direct conflict with a confederacy of Algonquin-speaking tribes led by the warchief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskatawa (who might have been his twin, depending on who you ask) by 1809.
Tenskatawa was a dissolute drunk who — following a series of dramatic mystic visions that he believed had been granted by powerful spirit — had become a highly regarded prophet and witch-hunter. As a prophet, Tenskatawa was quick to blame many of his tribe’s ills on the invading whites; as a witch-hunter, he unearthed (or fabricated) evidence of heinous sorcery allegedly committed by his brother’s rivals. Tecumseh’s charisma and Tenskatawa’s connection to the spirit world allowed them to gather thousands of tribesmen, women, and children on the banks of the Tippecanoe river. As Tenskatawa instilled a sense of religious fervor, Tecumseh led the warriors in limited raids against white settlements, hoping to prevent further incursions into his people’s territory.
By 1811, the conflict had expanded to open war between the United States and Tecumseh’s alliance, eventually driving Harrison — leading a combination of US Army regulars and territorial militia — to attack the Tippecanoe settlement, winning a decisive victory that made him a national hero in the US and helping solidify a political reputation that would help pave his way to the presidency some 30 years later.
The decisive battle at Tippecanoe did not end Tecumseh and Tenskatawa’s war with the United States: they led the Shawnee to ally with the British during the War of 1812. Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, while Tenskatawa faded into relative obscurity, coming to his own end in 1836 near the present-day site of Kansas City, Kansas.
But What About the Vampires?
The Shawnee’s legends speak of malevolent spirits known as Wendigo, alternately depicted as body-less cannibal hunger spirits and hairy, bigfoot-like giants. Or both — some of the legends suggest that prolonged contact with the Wendigo spirit can cause an otherwise normal human to become one of the ferocious giants. Which is kind of awesome. One thing is clear — the Wendigo’s primary source of food was humans.
It woudn’t be difficult to suggest that the powerful spirit — or manitou — Tenskatawa contacted in 1805 was one of the Wendigo; even dismissing the idea that he had been corrupted by then, his long crusade against native “witchcraft” — assuming of course that the whole movement wasn’t just political theater — would have given him ample opportunity to discover the forbidden rituals needed to summon and bind them…and then, in the last moments of his life, set them against his brother’s oldest enemy. You’d have to explain why it took four years for the creatures to reach Harrison himself, unless their plan all along was to engineer the ascendancy of Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, who opened China to trade with the United States (and perhaps also to the starving consumptive spirits that had been long-trapped in the wilds of North America) and helped pave the way for the U.S. Civil War decades later.
Alternatively, one could suggest that the British had awakened — or at least discovered — the Wendigo in their dealings with the Shawnee and other Algonquin tribes during the previous century, perhaps explaining the dramatic rise in vampire cases in the days following the end of the Revolutionary War. This also gives you the option of making men like Burr and Lear earlier agents of the Wendigo, and gives you ample evidence that the immortal manitou are working on a time-scale that will be difficult for mortal agents to oppose.
This is, of course, just one way to go. There are all sorts of shadows for vampires to hide in the 19th century. Where are yours?