By Charles Spratley
I received an email from a friend of mine on the board for a historical home I am quite fond of in San Diego, the Villa Montezuma. Included in her email was all the news about the house and upcoming lectures (one that I am doing in San Diego on the 18th of October), was a mention that October’s issue of Smithsonian Magazine covered an article on New England’s vampire scare. And sadly, I am not talking New England of the 1600s or 1700s. The most famous incident happened in 1892.
The article opened with an exhumation of a colonial-era graveyard in Connecticut by a state archeologist by the name of Nick Bellatoni. In the exhumation and recordings of the remains, they discovered one body that was obviously exhumed before, decapitated and his heart removed. The skeleton, named “J.B.”, after finding the initials placed in the coffin with tacks, was in his 50s when he died and it seems he was also an accused vampire. The article, as well as others I have read on the subject like to go one about “vampire epidemics” in New England. And unfortunately, in a way there were. As we know, religions, philosophies and superstitions travel along with people and New England of pre-colonial and early colonial eras were full of German and Slavic immigrants. With them came the vampire legends. There is documentation of towns forming mobs and exhuming bodies and burning the hearts of these supposed demonic creatures. But were they truly creatures of the night?
What they were instead were the victims of a different epidemic, tuberculosis. Tuberculosis, or as it was known then, consumption, is basically a disease that causes a degenerating of the lung tissue. Along with it comes weight loss, pallid skin, expelling of blood (think Val Kilmer in Tombstone). This could easily lead a superstitious mob into believing that their township is dying of unnatural means. A person who recently died of the disease would sometimes be blamed, the body when then is exhumed and decapitated and the heart burned. That is after all, how you kill European vampires.
The most famous vampire story of this region is Mercy Lena Brown, or just called Mercy Brown for you vampire fans. In a nutshell, after the deaths of her mother in 1882 and her sister in 1883, Mercy joined them in death in 1892. Her brother, Edwin, also suffered from tuberculosis and was residing in Colorado for a time, hoping the crisp, dry air would cure him. Eventually he came home Exeter, Rhode Island, and the family homestead, to die. There were stories of vampire already in the air and the Brown’s took the brunt of it. Both the mother and sister were exhumed and since they died a decade earlier, were no more than dust. Mercy, though, seemed very well preserved. Let’s just not throw in the fact that she had only been dead a few months and interred during the cold of winter. (So in essence you put her in an earthen freezer). According to the story, an impromptu autopsy was done and even though the doctor determined that she died of tuberculosis, because there were remnants of blood in her heart, she was judged a vampire. Her heart and liver were burned and the ashes fed to Edwin, in hopes of curing him of the plague of vampirism. George Brown, the father, didn’t contract tuberculosis, and instead lived well into old age, dying in 1922. True vampire or just a “torch and pitchfork” mentality of a mob. I myself am going for the mob mentality and superstition, but that doesn’t stop people from writing about Mercy Brown, the Rhode Island Vampire.
The influence of Mercy Brown on popular culture isn’t ignored either. H.P. Lovecraft wrote a short story called the Shunned House in 1924. It’s an old fashioned ghost story about a New England man and the dead relatives that haunt him. One of the characters in the story is Mercy Dexter. Lovecraft tipping his hat to the local legend, for he himself is from Providence. Dexter, Mercy’s last name is far too similar to the real Mercy’s hometown of Exeter, Rhode Island.