Town Council meetings can have some pretty strange requests. Sometimes it is a noise ordinance to stop peacocks from screeching. It may be a citizen who does not like certain signs posted or parking on a street. One of the strangest requests comes early in our nation’s history. The request was at the very first town council meeting held in Cumberland, Rhode Island on February 8, 1796. This is how it is written.
“Mr. Stephen Staples of Cumberland appeared before this council and prayed that he might have liberty granted unto him to dig up the body of his dofter (daughter) Abigail Staples late of Cumberland single woman deceased in order to try an experiment on Livina Chace wife of Stephen Chace which said Livina was sister to said Abigail deceased which being duly considered it is voted And resolved that the said Stephen Staples have liberty to dig up the body of the said Abigail deceased and after trying the experiment as aforesaid that he bury the body of the said Abigail in a deasent (decent) manner.”
That is what was entered into town records. We know that Abigail Staples was born January 26, 1773 and died about 1795, most likely of consumption. Consumption is what we now call tuberculosis. Whole families were wiped out by the malady that held New England in a grip of fear for over a century. The people feared that those who died from the disease were returning in spirit and feeding upon the surviving members of the family and as long as the body remained whole or decomposing in the grave the spirit would feed upon the living and return to the grave to nourish the body.
Thus they were called “spectral ghouls” and the only way to stop the ghouls from their nightly carnage was to exhume the body, cut out the vitals and burn them. In many cases, the ashes of the burned remains were fed to the sick with medicine. This hysteria lasted until 1892 as far as we know, terminating with the case of Mercy Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island.
Incidentally, there is no record of what Mr. Chace did or the outcome of the “experiment.” The Staples lot in Cumberland has many fieldstone markers so the exact whereabouts of the grave is also lost to antiquity.
So, next time you attend a town council meeting think about the strange requests from citizens and think back to the request once asked in Cumberland. I am sure they will not compare.