Mercy Brown and the New England Vampire Panic
By Charles Spratley
When I think of New England, I usually think of Lovecraft or some horrific ghost story in a sleepy Colonial era town. But there is that twinge I get in the back of my skull that whispers only one word: vampires.
Being a historian by trade, one normally doesn’t think of vampires in New England. They are the stuff of European legend or for you modern readers, New Orleans. In fact, there was such a fear of vampirism it can only described of as a panic in which vampire hunters crossed the countryside looking for the remains of victims who fell afoul of these creatures of the night and exhumed countless graves in the attempt to rid their community of evil once and for all.
One folklorist in the New England area, Michael Bell, has discovered almost 100 exhumations of graves in the region for the sole purpose of destroying the vampire within. Archeologists would find the coffin in good order but would find the cadaver was beheaded, its chest ripped open and thigh bones crossed over the chest, making the dreaded skull-and-crossbones motif a reality. The vampire panic of New England is not the musings of a medieval mind. The panic itself started in the early 1700s and went almost to the 20th Century. But it’s most famous case took place in the small town of Exeter, Rhode Island. The year is 1892.
In the 19th Century, Exeter was a very sparsely populated town. What damage the Civil War did to the populace of the sleepy farming community was only magnified by the young men leaving town for jobs on the railroad. Tuberculosis, or TB, was well known in the area although at the time it was called “Consumption”, and it was one of the leading causes of death during the time period. Even though, tuberculosis bacteria were officially found 1882, rural areas were unfamiliar with the actual cause and drugs to counter TB didn’t become widespread until the 1940s. The stage is set for a vampire hunt.
George and Mary Brown lived on a farm in the with their three children, Mary Olive, Mercy Lena, and Edwin. It would be Mary, the mother, who will succumb in 1883. Mary Olive, who was then 20 years old, will become ill and die in 1884. She was well liked in the community and her funeral was attended by many of the local townsfolk and a bittersweet excerpt from her obituary said all that needed to be said, “The last few hours she lived was of great suffering, yet her faith was firm and she was ready for the change.”
Edwin fell ill, and left to Colorado Springs, a common place for respite from tuberculosis and he
remained there for a few years. Mercy Lena who was just a child when her mother and sister passed didn’t become ill until years later and it is believed that she had a “galloping” case of TB. One where symptoms would show and then dissipate for years. Edwin, upon hearing of Mercy’s deteriorating condition, came home to the family farm. Mercy finally succumbed in January 1892. The town prayed that Edwin’s health would improve.
But certain townsfolk had a different idea on their mind and they came to the father, George, with a macabre idea. It was believed by these locals, that the cause of the family’s misfortune is that one of the Brown women who was previously interred was not truly dead, but instead undead, and that she was preying on Edwin, draining him of his life.
George Brown gave permission and on March 17, 1892, they exhumed the graves of the Brown women. Both Mary and her daughter Mary Olive was decomposing at a natural rate but when they opened the coffin of Mercy, they were shocked. She was in pristine condition. Passing two months earlier, she showed no signs of decomposition. They determined she was indeed a vampire and her heart was removed and was burnt up on a nearby rock and the ashes mixed into a tonic for Edwin to consume in hopes of curing him. He will instead die two months later.
Now what was the cause of Mercy’s unusual lack of decomposition? Was she an undead vampire, stalking the living to feed her need for blood and tissue? The true answer is actually quite simple and probably not thought of at the time. Mercy died in January, the ground was quite hard from the freezing temperatures and so in lieu of putting her into the ground, she was placed in an above ground crypt in the cold of Rhode Island and on the first thaw they interred her into the still cold earth. In layman’s terms, they made a “corpse-cicle”. Her body froze in the above ground crypt and they placed the coffin into the cold earth, so naturally it didn’t decompose as it should have. But it made a good story, and the Brown family collected the newspaper clippings on the incident and it became family history.
The story of Mercy Brown would inspire many people in their visions of the vampire. It is believed that an 1896 copy of the story made its way into the hands of a London stage manager by the name of Bram Stoker. Dracula is published in 1897. The rest…is history.