The release of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had us fact-checking about any real-life connections between U.S. presidents and the undead. We dug one up, involving Lincoln’s hand-picked successor–and an alleged presidential vampire pardon.
The story is a bit complicated, and on further review, an 1892 newspaper account of President Andrew Johnson’s pardon of a self-professed vampire in 1867 seems to be overstated.
As Lincoln sought re-election in 1864, he dumped his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, for Johnson, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee.
Lincoln liked Johnson’s southern connections and his anti-slavery stance. However, Johnson showed up intoxicated for his own inauguration and then got the shock of a lifetime when Lincoln was killed and Johnson inherited the presidency.
Historians routinely rank Johnson as the worst president in U.S. history. He survived an impeachment vote, left his own party while he served as president and made some baffling decisions.
So it’s no surprise that a passage in a 1933 book, called Wild Talents, lists President Johnson as pardoning a man in 1867 who was convicted of killing two sailors as he drank their blood.
The book was written by Charles Fort, who was no ordinary author. Fort had a big following as a pioneer in the field of paranormal explanations, and his friends and admirers included Theodore Dreiser, Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken.
Thanks to Google, we found the footnote in Wild Talents that is the source of the Andrew Johnson vampire story. Fort cites a story from Nov. 4, 1892 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for the tale.
And since the Brooklyn Public Library has the Eagle’s archives online, we found image of the article from 1892.
The report says that a convicted murder, a Portuguese sailor named James Brown, was just sent to the national asylum in Washington from a federal prison in Ohio.
“Twenty-five years ago he was charged with being a vampire and living on human blood,” the article said, adding the Brown was seen drinking blood from two men he killed on a whaling vessel. It also claimed President Johnson commuted Brown’s death penalty to life in prison.
Fort’s recounting of the story went down into occult folk lore until 2004, when a writer who is a fan of Fort used Fort’s own theories to shed new light on the story.
Robert Damon Schneck is the author of The President’s Vampire, where he does some investigating into incidents like the Brown “vampire attack.”
According to Schneck, James Brown was an African-American cook on a ship and he got into an argument with another sailor after he was insulted. Brown stabbed the man, was convicted of murder, and had his death sentence commuted by President Johnson.
There were no mentions of vampires or multiple murders in accounts of the crime, Schneck says.
His theory was that it was a slow news day at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the story was embellished.
Schneck said there was another “vampire” case in 1892 that involved a family named Brown digging up deceased family members, and the writer might have been inspired to concoct a tall tale.
In an interesting twist, among the more than 600 people pardoned by President Johnson was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth after he killed Lincoln.
The vampire connection to Andrew Johnson might not fade away.
Author Christopher Farnsworth has written three novels for Penguin Group about a fictional vampire pardoned by President Johnson who has served presidents for the past 140 years. The first book in the series has been optioned as a movie by one of the producers of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.