The little boy hugged close to his mother. Men were
breathing hard in the cold March air of the Rhode Island farming
community. Digging through the tenacious cemetery dirt, mists formed
around their perspiring flesh. Suddenly, a thud of shovel on coffin lid
came from the dark hole. Grunts ensued as the heavy box lifted in the
last red glints of sunset. The boy's pappy pried loose the lid to reveal
the girl. Men nearly wretched as the cadaverous grave odor from the pine
box wafted through the twilight.
The boy's uncle was a serious man, a no-nonsense farmer.
Desperation had driven him to this point. Tears filled his eyes as he
reached into the box, plied a steel knife, and then ripped the heart of
his daughter from the dead body. Over to the red-hot kettle he
staggered. His trembling hand dropped the icy thing into the glowing iron
pot. Immediately the sizzle emitted a bloody spew of rancid steam. In a
few minutes, the charred muscle became charcoal. The boy's pappy ground
it into dust. He added water to make a rusty nail smelling tea.
The stooped farmer, the boy's Uncle, spoke in his loud
baritone as all listened. "Drink this! We must save ourselves from the
Then taking a deep swig, he passed the cup around for the
moaning men, gagging children and weeping women to drink.
So, you think you know all about vampires. Did you know
for more than 150 years they lurked in the green valleys of New England?
These revenants, ghost-like beings that came back from the
dead, were once living victims of consumption. The disease came upon them
slowly at first. Shortness of breath grew steadily worse as infected
bronchia swelled. There was no rest as something constantly attacked the
body. Fever accompanied night sweats. Appetite faded. Pains in the
shoulder blades from fatigued breathing felt like gnarled claws ripping to
Finally, lungs filled with pustules of infections. Oxygen
could not enter the blood, so arteries ran blue making the skin pallid.
Tissue necrosis ensued. Victims coughed up dead lung tissue accompanied by
dark blood. After weeks of wasting disease, death came quickly, often at
night when the damp air was worse.
In the days before the Revolutionary War, several clans of
families immigrated to America. Facing the challenges of a savage land,
they chose to remain isolated from their neighbors. As disease struck,
the rustics believed they could do more for themselves, especially as they
saw physicians at the turn of the nineteenth century have no success at
curing tuberculosis. They had brought their own eclectic myths from their
native lands coupling them with legends the Native Americans told. These
folk tales told how the dead, lonely when they died, so cold in the
ground, that they came back at night to suck the heat and life out of the
living family members.
These dead departed had no malice in their behavior. Yet
the living had their rights also. The clan leaders assembled to decide
how to remedy this. They reasoned that the first who died started the
chain reaction, so if that revenant stopped, the curse would stop.
Therefore they must exhume that body and burn the heart. If they did
nothing, more would die of the disease until the dead outnumbered the
living, thus killing the entire community.
Why the heart?
We turn to "body forensics". In order to understand this,
thanks goes to both the prolific author Patricia Cornwell and the hit show
CSI. When a body deteriorates in the grave, the temperature and
conditions of the ground very greatly, but in general, the fatty tissues
succumb first, then the muscles. The heart's dense muscle often takes
decades for bacteria to break down the organ. Extracted from the earth,
even years later, the heart resides in place within the skeleton.
Frequently the organ still contains sour blood dark with iron-laden
The elders in the clan knew this, too. The durability of
the heart made it the seat of the spirit in folklore legend. When they dug
open the grave they received a shock. After burial in the cold New
England soil, the body might look reasonably preserved for several months
or longer. In special cases, the corpse might still have bloody froth
about the lips. Certainly they felt the dead had come from the ground in
a spirit form to feed on the remaining family members. This had to be the
work of the devil!
We turn now to the marvelous research of Michael E. Bell in
his book Food For The Dead. A remarkable folklore researcher, this
scientist has combed the legends of New England. Through hard work over
decades, including interviews with family descendents, he discovered that
immigrants to western Rhode Island just before the Revolutionary War came
up with this unique way to deal with tuberculosis.
The first documented cases Bell found came from the
Tillinghast clan and their acquaintances. In the 1790's, the Harris,
Spaulding, Staples and Tillinghast families all participated in digging up
graves and burning hearts.
The practice continued sporadically for nearly 150 years.
In all, Bell found at least twenty occurrences he documented around Rhode
Island, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Ontario and
Illinois. As the clans married, they carried the practice with them
whenever an outbreak of tuberculosis struck.
At the turn of the twentieth century, progressiveness was
king. Powerful men such as Bell, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford and his
close friend Edison forged ahead with electric motors, electric lights,
telephones, 'auto-mobiles', and gas powered engines. Others steered steel
ships and built steel bridges over huge waterways, harnessed radio
transmissions, or utilized medical x-rays from radioactive elements.
It was an era of science. In the midst of this, the 1892
Providence Journal editors fumed over scandalous barbarism just outside
their modern city. A group of rustic know-nothings had dug up a body and
burned the heart in order to rid the community of tuberculosis. This last
case of a heart burning to stop tuberculosis vampirism is that of Mercy
Brown. The Brown family lived in a farming community near Exeter, Rhode
Island during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
The Brown family situated between Exeter and North
Kingstown experienced several bouts of consumption. In 1883 the mother,
Mary Eliza, died. Shortly after this, a daughter Mary Olive died. Then,
in early 1891, the only son Edwin contracted the disease. Brown sent the
man to Colorado hoping the change in climate might rescue his heir. Later
in 1891, daughter Mercy Lena caught 'galloping' tuberculosis and died
Faced with a decade of death, the community leaders
gathered to suggest the old folk remedy handed down by clan elders. Brown
was aghast, but peer pressure coupled with desperation caused him to call
the attending community physician, Dr. Metcalf. Metcalf came to dissuade
the leaders to not do this horrendous ceremony, but he arrived too late.
He found Brown surrounded by four men who had taken three bodies from the
Mrs. Brown's corpse had most of the muscle tissue
remaining, but no blood in the heart. Mary Olive's corpse was but
skeleton and hair. Mercy Lena's cadaver was but two months in the cold
earth. The men pulled out the heart and liver for examination. The heart
was dripping with blood, a sure sign that Mercy was the vampire! They
incinerated the organs to powder.
Old Doc Metcalf seemed to quickly cover his culpability
when he spoke to the reporter at the newspaper. No one could agree
whether or not Edwin drank a tea made with the ashes, though it seems that
the community leaders would insist on this. Editors and Mayors exploded
in anger throughout New England over such barbaric practices in their
modern, progressive society. The scandal apparently provoked the rural
authorities to insure this never happened again.
The newspaper pages yellowed as the story faded into
oblivion and rumors throughout Rhode Island. However, two great horror
writers, Bram Stoker and H. P. Lovecraft preserved the incident in their
Stoker sat struggling in his study working on a complicated
novel about a modern day vampire. It was to be his homage to his hero J.
S. LeFanu. What would a man of science do if he encountered a medieval
myth? How would late Victorian London react? Could science or faith
succeed in such an encounter? From out of the blue, a New York Times
reprint of the Providence Journal article crossed his desk. Inspired by
the clipping, he created the character of Lucy Westenra. Perhaps the name
playfully alluded to western Rhode Island.
Yet it is H. P. Lovecraft we must thank most for preserving
the legends of Mercy Brown in his satirical weird tale: The Shunned
House. Written between October 16-19, 1924, he reflected the disgust that
the modern elitist gentry of Rhode Island had on such a barbaric
tradition. Lovecraft, having been born in 1890, had lived in Providence
most of his life. He knew the details of the legends well, though he
relied heavily upon the folklorist Sidney Rider for many of the details he
used in the story.
As Lovecraft's Mercy Dexter character allows the plot to
flow, he cagily reveals, "[don't] hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill
country â€¦ seat of uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892, an
Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in
order to prevent certain alleged visitations."
So, there we have it. Real vampires lurked in the
imagination of numerous rustic farmers and merchants for over 150 years.
Finally, progress coupled with embalming techniques eradicated the
practice by 1892. Mercy Brown was the last case. Or was it?
Christopher Coleman's Strange Tales of The Dark and Bloody
Ground reports that just before WWI in the hill country of Bradley County,
Tennessee, road workers uncovered an old unmarked grave. The mummified
remains of a woman had a stake driven in its heart! As archaeologists or
folklore scholars continue to look, perhaps other vampires will show up?
Look around. Is there someone in your own community still waiting to
stake a vampire?