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Mercy Brown’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Baptist Church in Exeter.

Mercy Brown Vampire Incident

Every town has its mysteries, but some places hold secrets far more bizarre than others do. The Mercy Brown vampire was roaming the streets and taking lives. She apparently wouldn’t stay dead. In these enlightened times, vampires are relegated to literature and folklore. This was not always so. As recent as the 19th century, many Americans believed that there were undead humans that walked among us and fed on the blood of the living.

The case of Mercy Lena Brown, a 19-year-old resident of the town of Exeter, was the last known instance in the state of Rhode Island of a large group of otherwise sensible folks exhuming, mutilating, immolating, and cannibalising a corpse to kill a vampire.

The Mercy Brown vampire incident occurred in 1892 and is one of the best-documented cases of the exhumation of a corpse in order to perform rituals to banish an undead manifestation. The incident was part of the wider New England vampire panic.

Several cases of consumption (tuberculosis) occurred in the family of George and Mary Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island. Friends and neighbours believed that this was due to the influence of the undead. Two family members’ bodies were dug up, and they exhibited the expected level of decomposition, so they were thought not to be the cause. Daughter Mercy, however, was held in a freezer-like, above-ground vault, and her corpse exhibited almost no decomposition. This was taken as confirmation that the undead were influencing the family to be sick. Mercy’s heart was burned, then the ashes were mixed with water and given to her brother, Edwin, to drink as he was sick, in order to stop the influence of the undead.

The case of Mercy Brown was the last known instance in Rhode Island and probably the rest of the States of a large group of otherwise sensible folk exhuming, mutilating, immolating, and cannibalising a corpse to cure the dreaded scourge of…vampirism.
Today we know the condition as tuberculosis…

Arguably one of the main culprits for these beliefs was Tuberculosis (aka TB), an illness that was usually fatal to victims in the 19th century. One common symptom was a significant weight loss, giving the impression that life was being slowly sucked out of the patient. Very little medically accurate information was known about the disease.

Children playing near a hillside gravel mine found the first graves. One ran home to tell his mother, who was sceptical at first—until the boy produced a skull.

Because this was Griswold, Connecticut, in 1990, police initially thought the burials might be the work of a local serial killer named Michael Ross, and they taped off the area as a crime scene. But the brown, decaying bones turned out to be more than a century old. The Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, soon determined that the hillside contained a colonial-era farm cemetery. New England is full of such unmarked family plots, and the 29 burials were typical of the 1700s and early 1800s: The dead, many of them children, were laid to rest in thrifty Yankee style, in simple wood coffins, without jewelry or even much clothing, their arms resting by their sides or crossed over their chests.

Except, that is, for Burial Number 4.

Bellantoni was interested in the grave even before the excavation began. It was one of only two stone crypts in the cemetery, and it was partially visible from the mine face.

Scraping away soil with flat-edged shovels, and then brushes and bamboo picks, the archaeologist and his team worked through several feet of earth before reaching the top of the crypt. When Bellantoni lifted the first of the large, flat rocks that formed the roof, he uncovered the remains of a red-painted coffin and a pair of skeletal feet. They lay, he remembers, “in perfect anatomical position.” But when he raised the next stone, Bellantoni saw that the rest of the individual “had been com­pletely…rearranged.” The skeleton had been beheaded; skull and thigh bones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni recalls.

Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.

The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not “J.B.,” as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelt out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did a robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.

Finally, one colleague asked: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?”

In 1854, in neighbouring Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. A few newspaper accounts of these events survived. Had the Griswold grave been desecrated for the same reason?

In the course of his far-flung research, Bellantoni placed a serendipitous phone call to Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist, who had devoted much of the previous decade to studying New England vampire exhumations. The Griswold case occurred at roughly the same time as the other incidents Bell had investigated. And the setting was right: Griswold was rural, agrarian and bordering southern Rhode Island, where multiple exhumations had occurred. Many of the other “vampires,” like J.B., had been disinterred, grotesquely tampered with and reburied.

In light of the tales Bell told of violated corpses, even the posthumous rib fractures began to make sense. J.B.’s accusers had likely rummaged around in his chest cavity, hoping to remove, and perhaps to burn his heart.

Almost two decades after J.B.’s grave was discovered, it remains the only intact archaeological clue to the fear that swept the region. Most of the graves are lost to time (and even in the cases where they aren’t, unnecessary exhumations are frowned on by the locals). Bell mostly hunts for handwritten records in town hall basements, consults tombstones and old cemetery maps, traces obscure genealogies and interviews descendants. “As a folklorist, I’m interested in recurring patterns in communication and ritual, as well as the stories that accompany these rituals,” he says. “I’m interested in how this stuff is learned and carried on and how its meaning changes from group to group, and over time.” In part, because the events were relatively recent, evidence of historic vampires isn’t as scarce as one might imagine. Incredulous city newspaper reporters dished about the “Horrible Superstition” on front pages. A travelling minister describes an exhumation in his daily log on September 3, 1810. (The “mouldy Spectacle,” he writes, was a “Solemn Site.”) Even Henry David Thoreau mentions an exhumation in his journal on September 29, 1859.

Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. Indeed, the medical museum’s tests ultimately revealed that J.B. had suffered from tuberculosis, or a lung disease very like it. Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and—even though they often received the standard medical diagnosis—the survivors blamed early victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire’s predations.

The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbours participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire face down in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)

Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Bell attributes the openness of the Vermont exhumations to colonial settlement patterns. Rhode Island has about 260 cemeteries per 100 square miles, versus Vermont’s mere 20 per 100 square miles. Rhode Island’s cemeteries were small and scattered among private farms, whereas Vermont’s tended to be much larger, often located in the centre of town. In Vermont, it was much harder to keep a vampire hunt hush-hush.

As satisfying as such mini-theories are, Bell is consumed by larger questions. He wants to understand who the vampires and their accusers were, in death and life. During his Middletown lecture, he displays a picture of a man with salt-and-pepper sideburns and weary eyes: an artist’s reconstruction of J.B.’s face, based on his skull. “I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are,” Bell says. “I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation on African-American voodoo practitioners in the South who cast love spells and curses; it’s hard to imagine a population more different from the flinty, consumptive New Englanders he studies now, but Bell sees strong parallels in how they tried to manipulate the supernatural. “People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels,” he explains. “The folk system offers an alternative, a choice.” Sometimes, superstitions represent the only hope, he says.

The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses and their children. “Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative,” Bell says.

The tale he always returns to is in many ways the quintessential American vampire story, one of the last cases in New England and the first he investigated as a new PhD coming to Rhode Island in 1981 to direct a folk life survey of Washington County funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In Exeter, Rhode Island, in the 1890s, one family would become infamous for being the focus of a true vampire hunt. George and Mary Brown had settled into the Exeter area with their children. There is no reason to suspect they were anything but a normal family of that era.

History knows the 19-year-old, late-19th-century vampire as Mercy Brown. No one ever called her Mercy, her first name. Like so many folks with Swamp Yankee roots, her first name was strictly honorary, a way to remember a dearly loved grandparent. Everyone who knew her called her by middle name, Lena.

Satirical cartoon from the Boston Daily Globe accompanying an article describing superstitious beliefs in rural Rhode Island.

Mercy Lena Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island—“Deserted Exeter,” it was dubbed, or simply “one of the border towns.” It was largely a subsistence farming community with barely fertile soil: rocks, rocks and more rocks. Farmers heaped stones into tumbledown walls, and rows of corn swerved around the biggest boulders.

In the late 19th century, Exeter, like much of agrarian New England, was even more sparsely populated than usual. Civil War casualties had taken their toll on the community, and the new railroads and the promise of richer land to the west lured young men away. By 1892, the year Lena died, Exeter’s population had dipped to just 961, from a high of more than 2,500 in 1820. Farms were abandoned, many of them later to be seized and burned by the government. Some sections looked like a ghost town, and tuberculosis was harrying the remaining families. “Consumption,” as it was called, had started to plague New England in the 1730s, a few decades before the first known vampire scares. By the 1800s, when the scares were at their height, the disease was the leading cause of mortality throughout the Northeast, responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths. It was a terrible end, often drawn out over years: a skyrocketing fever, a hacking, bloody cough and a visible wasting away of the body. “The emaciated figure strikes one with terror,” reads one 18th-century description, “the forehead covered with drops of sweat; the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk…the breath offensive, quick and laborious, and the cough so incessant as to scarce allow the wretched sufferer time to tell his complaints.” Symptoms progressed in such a way that it seemed like something was draining the life and blood out of somebody.”

The above ground crypt where Mercy’s body was kept.

People dreaded the disease without understanding it. Though Robert Koch had identified the tuberculosis bac­terium in 1882, news of the discovery did not penetrate rural areas for some time, and even if it had, drug treatments wouldn’t become available until the 1940s. The year Lena died, one physician blamed tuberculosis on “drunkenness, and want among the poor.” Nineteenth-century cures included drinking brown sugar dissolved in water and frequent horseback riding. If they were being honest, the medical establishment would have said, there’s nothing we can do, and it’s in the hands of God.

The Brown family, living on the eastern edge of town, probably on a modest homestead of 30 or 40 stony acres, began to succumb to the disease in December 1882. Lena’s mother, Mary Eliza, was the first. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, died the next year. A tender obituary from a local newspaper hints at what she endured: “The last few hours she lived was of great suffering, yet her faith was firm and she was ready for the change.” The whole town turned out for her funeral and sang “One Sweetly Solemn Thought,” a hymn that Mary Olive herself had selected.

Within a few years, Lena’s brother Edwin—a store clerk whom one newspaper columnist described as “a big, husky young man”—sickened too, and left for Colorado Springs hoping that the climate would improve his health.

George Brown was beside himself with the loss of his beloved family members and the threat to his son Eddie. They called it consumption back then, the most common cause of death in America at that time. It was truly the scourge of the 18th and 19th centuries. Tuberculosis literally consumed a person at that time, and sometimes it consumed entire families, and occasionally even whole communities. No one then understood that tuberculosis was caused by a germ and was a communicable disease. If you could have, in private, pulled a physician like aside and gotten him to be quite honest, he would have told you, “There is nothing I or any other medical professional can do about consumption.

Lena, who was just a child when her mother and sister died, didn’t fall ill until nearly a decade after they were buried. Her tuberculosis was the “galloping” kind, which meant that she might have been infected but remained asymptomatic for years, only to fade fast after showing the first signs of the disease. A doctor attended her in “her last illness,” a newspaper said, and “informed her father that further medical aid was useless.” Her January 1892 obituary was much terser than her sister’s: “Miss Lena Brown, who has been suffering from consumption, died Sunday morning.”

Her body was placed in an above ground crypt until a proper burial could be conducted after the arrival of spring because of the severe cold.

As Lena was on her deathbed, her brother was, after a brief remission, taking a turn for the worse. George Brown and Edwin returned to Exeter and his condition started deteriorating. This was when the neighbours started suspecting the dead. They concluded that one of the members of the Brown family must have had returned from the dead and now was determined to draw the life out of her entire family. Some claimed that they had seen Mercy walking among the graves in the cemetery. Edwin himself claimed that he had felt his sister trying to take away his life. Everyone was convinced that a vampire was behind all of this.

Edwin had returned to Exeter from the Colorado resorts “in a dying condition,” according to one account. “If the good wishes and prayers of his many friends could be realised, friend Eddie would speedily be restored to perfect health,” another newspaper wrote.

The Graveyard where Mercy is buried.

But some neighbours, likely fearful for their own health, weren’t content with prayers. Several approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all, instead secretly feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin,” as the Providence Journal later summarised. If the offending corpse—the Journal uses the term “vampire” in some stories but the locals seemed not to—was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbours asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.

George Brown gave permission.

On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. George was absent, for unstated but understandable reasons.

George Brown allowed his wife and two daughters to be exhumed and examined, and he allowed the still extant heart and liver of Lena to be removed. What shocked them was Mercy’s corpse. It was discovered that not only had her body changed position inside the coffin, her face was flushed, her skin had not decomposed and most importantly, her nails and hair had continued to grow. This confirmed that Mercy was indeed the vampire who was responsible for all the tragedies. They did what had to be done to save everyone. They cut open Mercy’s body to find liquid blood, which they concluded was the fresh blood she had drunk from others.

If he had asked George Cranston why this was so two months after Lena’s burial, George would have told him, “She died and was buried in the winter, her earthly remains were frozen when they entered the grave and would stay that way long into the spring thaw.” In order to guarantee that she would never rise from the grave againGeorge Brown then allowed Lena’s removed organs to be burned to ashes on a nearby bedrock outcrop and then, with trepidation, fed these ashes to Eddie in the hope that he would not die. This effort was not based on science, but on the suspicion that vampires had killed members of the Brown family. Because Lena’s heart and liver were seen to have blood still in them, locals thought that only by performing this strange ritual could Eddie’s life be saved. What did they know about consumption? They knew about vampires.

After nearly a decade, Lena’s sister and mother were barely more than bones. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. “The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” the correspondent later wrote. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.” During this impromptu autopsy, the doctor again emphasised that Lena’s lungs “showed diffuse tuberculosis germs.”

Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. In those days, it was believed that consuming a vampire’s ashes would bring an end to the curse of death. This might all sound ridiculous to us in the twenty-first century but back then, Tuberculosis was unheard of. Science offered no explanation for it and people were desperate and turned to folklore and superstition. The symptoms of Tuberculosis or Consumption are the gradual loss of strength and skin tone. The victim becomes pale, stops eating, and literally wastes away. In the later stages of Tuberculosis, a person does look like a walking corpse, like a vampire.

Mercy Brown died before embalming became a common practice. During decomposition, it is possible for bodies to sit up, jerk, even sounds can emit from them because bloating can occur, and if the wind escapes by passing over the vocal chords, there could be groans. The freezing weather had kept her body ‘too well preserved’.

Love and desperation drive parents to do anything and everything to save their children. Is there a difference between George Brown, “vampire ashes” and the 19th century, and any number of 20th-century parents who bankrupt themselves sending their dying partners and children to South America for treatment focused on peach pits or coffee enemas?

The desperate effort to save Eddie did not work. He died two months later.

So-called vampires do escape the grave in at least one real sense: through stories. Lena Brown’s surviving relatives saved local newspaper clippings in family scrapbooks, alongside carefully copied recipes. They discussed the events on Decoration Day when Exeter residents adorned the town’s cemeteries.

But the tale travelled much farther than they knew.

Even at the time, New England’s vampire panics struck onlookers as a baffling anachronism. The late 1800s were a period of social progress and scientific flowering. Indeed, many of the Rhode Island exhumations occurred within 20 miles of Newport, high society’s summer nucleus, where the scions of the industrial revolution vacationed. At first, only people who’d lived in or had visited the vampire-ridden communities knew about the scandal: “We seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and Christian,” one writer at a small-town Connecticut paper opined in the wake of an 1854 exhumation.

But Lena Brown’s exhumation made news. First, a reporter from the Providence Journal witnessed her unearthing. Then a well-known anthropologist named George Stetson travelled to Rhode Island to probe “the barbaric superstition” in the surrounding area.

Published in the venerable American Anthropologist journal, Stetson’s account of New England’s vampires made waves throughout the world. Before long, even members of the foreign press were offering various explanations for the phenomenon: Perhaps the “neurotic” modern novel was driving the New England madness, or maybe shrewd local farmers had simply been pulling Stetson’s leg. A writer for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition (even though many families in the area could trace their lineage directly back to England). In the Boston Daily Globe, a writer went so far as to suggest that “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.”

One 1896 New York World clipping even found its way into the papers of a London stage manager and aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker, whose theater company was touring the United States that same year. His gothic masterpiece, Dracula, was published in 1897. Some scholars have said that there wasn’t enough time for the news accounts to have influenced the Dracula manuscript. Yet others see Lena in the character of Lucy (her very name a tempting amalgam of “Lena” and “Mercy”), a consumptive-seeming teenage girl turned vampire, who is exhumed in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. Fascinatingly, a medical doctor presides over Lucy’s disinterment, just as one oversaw Lena’s.

Whether or not Lucy’s roots are in Rhode Island, Lena’s historic exhumation is referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House,” a short story about a man being haunted by dead relatives that include a living character named Mercy.

And, through fiction and fact, Lena’s narrative continues today.

Modern science, looking back on the episode, has postulated that Mercy’s remains being above ground in the freezing winter temperatures could account for the lack of decay. It would be the equivalent of keeping her corpse in a freezer. This wouldn’t explain the movement of the body or the hair and nail growth, but these may be pieces of folklore added to the story later.

As the 20th century dawned, and especially after TB was better understood, the link between the disease and vampirism dissipated.

They eventually buried Mercy in a local cemetery, sans her heart. Mercy’s grave exists to this day in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, a small graveyard behind a tiny, white Baptist church. A path goes directly through the centre of the cemetery, about halfway down which and on the left is the Brown family plot, beneath an evergreen tree. Many curious tourists go to her cemetery today in remembrance of the Mercy Brown vampire story.

Mercy’s grave is reinforced with a metal band connected to a post embedded in the ground to protect the famous grave from being stolen. Directly across the cemetery from the Brown plot is a small, triangular stone building the crypt.

Most vampire graves stand apart, in wooded spots outside modern cemetery fences, where snow melts slower and there’s a thick understory of ferns. But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is still in use. And there is Lena. She lies beside the brother who ate her heart and the father who let it happen. Other markers are freckled with lichen, but not hers. It has been stolen over the years, and now an iron strap anchors it to the earth. People have scratched their names into the granite. They leave offerings: plastic vampire teeth, cough drops. “Once there was a note that said, ‘You go, girl,’” Today, there’s a bunch of trampled daisies, and dangling from the headstone’s iron collar, a butterfly charm on a chain.

Lena hasn’t left entirely. She is said to frequent a certain bridge, manifested as the smell of roses. She appears in children’s books and paranormal television specials. She murmurs in the cemetery, says those who leave tape recorders there to capture her voice. She is rumoured to visit the terminally ill and to tell them that death isn’t so bad.  In spite of all the scientific explanations, Mercy’s story remains a mystery.

Mercy Brown vampire incident – Wikipedia

Grave of Mercy Brown – Exeter, Rhode Island – Atlas Obscura

The Mercy Brown Vampire Story | Historic Mysteries

The Gothic Embrace: The Legend of Mercy Brown: A Vampire Story

The Great New England Vampire Panic | History | Smithsonian

A vampire named Mercy Brown: The New England vampire panic of …

The Story Of Mercy Brown – The Rhode Island Vampire – Icy Tales

The Vampirologist: The case of Mercy Brown

Mercy Brown – Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives

The Vampire Graves of Jewett City: The Legend of Connecticut’s …

Jewett City Vampires – The Consumption Diaries – Real Unexplained …

In 1854, vampire panic struck Connecticut town – The Register Citizen

Vampire Graves in Connecticut: Jewett City Vampires • Vampires.com

Archaeologists Unearth a Vampire Grave | smellslikescience.com


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