"There are such beings as vampires, some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples," said Dr. Seward’s diary in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was Bram Stoker who took the vampire of folklore and made him beautiful, powerful, and sexy. There were cases of vampires all over the world before, during, and even after Dracula both seduced and frightened us — one of these cases was Mercy Brown, the Rhode Island vampire.
Mercy Brown has the distinction of being the last of the North American vampires — at least in the traditional sense. Mercy Lena Brown was a farmer’s daughter and an upstanding member of rural Exeter, Rhode Island. She was only 19 years old when she died of consumption on January 17, 1892. On March 17, 1892, Mercy’s body would be exhumed from the cemetery because members of the community suspected the vampire Mercy Brown was attacking her dying brother, Edwin.
For help with Mercy Brown and vampirism, I spoke with Dr. Michael Bell, a folklorist and author of Food for the Dead, a book that explores the folklore and history behind Mercy Brown as well as several other cases of New England vampires. Many people’s understanding of what a vampire is comes mostly from Bram Stoker’s work and Anne Rice novels, but the traditional vampire is actually quite different.
So what is a traditional vampire? "Paul Barber wrote a book called Vampires, Burial, and Death," Dr. Bell said. "He gives a forensic interpretation of vampire incidents. They’re a natural phenomenon that wasn’t understood by the people at the time because they didn’t really know what happens to the bodies under different conditions. His definition is that a vampire is your classic scapegoat. I think his definition, if I can paraphrase it, is something like a vampire is a corpse that comes to the attention of a community during a time of crisis, and is taken for the cause of that crisis." Vampires of folklore were not the romantic characters of modern cinema — they were the walking dead who literally drained the life out of their victims. Attacking vampires was a way for a community to physically embody and fight an evil that is plaguing them. In the case of Mercy Brown, that evil was consumption.
During the 1800s, consumption, or pulmonary tuberculosis, was credited with one out of four deaths. Consumption could kill you slowly over many years, or the disease could come quickly and end your life in a matter of weeks. The effects were devastating on families and communities. Dr. Bell explained that some of the symptoms of consumption are the gradual loss of strength and skin tone. The victim becomes pale, stops eating, and literally wastes away. At night, the condition worsens because the patient is lying on their back, and fluid and blood may collect in the lungs. During later stages, one might wake up to find blood on one’s face, neck, and nightclothes, breathing is laborious, and the body is starved for oxygen.
Dr. Bell feels there is a direct connection between vampire cases and consumption. He said, "The way you look personally is the way vampires have always been portrayed in folklore — like walking corpses, which is what you are, at least in the later stages of consumption. Skin and bones, fingernails are long and curved, you look like the vampire from Nosferatu."
Consumption took its first victim within the Brown family in December of 1883 when Mercy’s mother, Mary Brown, died of the disease. Seven months later, the Browns’ eldest daughter, Mary Olive, also died of consumption. The Browns’ only son, Edwin, came down with consumption a few years after Mary Olive’s death and was sent to live in the arid climate of Colorado to try and stop the disease. Late in 1891, Edwin returned home to Exeter because the disease was progressing — he essentially came home to die. Mercy’s battle with consumption was considerably shorter than her brother’s. Mercy had the "galloping" variety of consumption — her battle with the disease lasted only a few months. Mercy was laid to rest in Chestnut Hill Cemetery behind the Baptist church on Victory Highway.
After Mercy’s funeral, her brother Edwin’s condition worsened rapidly, and their father, George Brown, grew more frantic. Mr. Brown had lost his wife and two of his daughters, and now he was about to lose his only son. Science and medicine had no answers for George Brown, but folklore did. For centuries prior to Mercy Brown there have been vampires. The practice of slaying these "walking dead" began in Europe — some of the ways people dealt with vampires was to exhume the body of the suspect, drive a stake through the heart, rearrange the skeletal remains, remove vital organs, or cremate the entire corpse. All of these rituals involve desecrating the mortal remains. The practice happened with enough regularity that the general population felt it could cure, or at the very least help, whatever evil was overwhelming them.
So much death had plagued the Brown family that poor George Brown probably felt he was cursed in some way. It wouldn’t take too many chats with those empathizing with George’s plight to come up with a radical idea to stop the death. Maybe the Brown family was under vampire attacks from beyond the grave. Was Mercy Brown the vampire, or was it Mercy’s mother or sister? George Brown was willing to dig up the body of his recently deceased daughter, remove her heart, burn it, and feed the ashes to his son because he felt he had no other choice.
In Dr. Bell’s book, Food for the Dead, he recounts an extensive interview he conducted with Everett Peck, a descendent of Mercy Brown and life-long resident of Exeter, Rhode Island. "Everett heard the story from people who had been there [at the exhumation of Mercy Brown] — who were alive at the time," Dr. Bell said. "The newspaper [Providence Journal] says they exhumed all three bodies, that is, Mercy’s mother, her sister who had died before her, and Mercy. Everett said they only dug up Mercy. He implied that there was some sign that Mercy was the one — that’s the supernatural creeping into his story. Everett said that after they had dug her up, [they saw that] she had turned over in the grave — but there’s no mention of that in the newspaper or the eyewitness accounts."
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 wind escapes by passing over the vocal chords, there could be groans.
We don’t know exactly what position her body was in on that day in March when George Brown, and some of his friends and family, came to examine Mercy’s body. We do know that she looked "too well preserved."
"There’s a suggestion in the newspaper that she wasn’t actually interred in the ground," Dr. Bell said. "She was actually put in an above-ground crypt, because bodies were stored in the wintertime when the ground was frozen and they couldn’t really dig. When the thaw came, they would bury them. So it’s possible that she wasn’t even really interred."
Her visual condition prompted the group to cut open her chest cavity and examine her innards. Dr. Bell said, "They examined her organs. The newspaper said her heart and liver had blood in it. It was liquid blood, which they interpreted as fresh blood." Bell explained how forensics can clarify how blood can coagulate and become liquid again, but at the time, the liquid was taken as evidence that Mercy was indeed a vampire and the one draining the life from Edwin and possibly other consumption victims in the community.
Dr. Bell said, "They cut her heart out, and as Everett said, they burned it on a nearby rock. Then according to the newspaper, they fed them [the ashes of the heart] to Edwin." The folklore said that destroying the heart of a vampire would kill it, and by consuming the remains of the vampire’s heart — the spell would be broken and the victim would get well.
The community’s vampire slaying had failed to save Edwin — he died two months later, but maybe it helped others in the community? Dr. Bell’s view on Mercy Brown is that she was the scapegoat author Paul Barber discussed. Dr. Bell said, "She basically absorbs the ignorance, the fears, and in some cases the guilt that people have because their neighbors, friends, and family are dying, and they don’t understand why and they can’t stop it."
Mercy Brown is arguably North America’s most famous vampire because she is also the most recent. The event caused such a stir in 1892 because newspapers like the Providence Journal editorialized that the idea of exhuming a body to burn the heart is completely barbaric in those modern times.
As Dr. Bell said, "Folklore always has an answer — it may not be the scientifically valid answer, but sometimes it’s better to have any answer than none at all."