Mercy Brown–a Real Rhode Island Vampire
By Richard Spiers
The little boy hugged 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 a shovel on a 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 the lid loose 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 19-year-old daughter from her 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 devil’s curse!”
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 get inside.
Finally, the lungs filled with pustules of infection. 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 who had 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 dearly 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 particular 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 vaaries 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 hemoglobin.
The elders in the clan knew this.
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 combed the legends of New England. Through hard work over decades, including interviews with family descendants, 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 that 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 quickly.
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 forego this horrendous ceremony, but he arrived too late. He found Brown surrounded by four men who had taken three bodies from the family vault.
Mrs. Brown’s corpse had most of the muscle tissue remaining, but no blood remained in the heart. Mary Olive’s corpse was but a skeleton with 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 the community leaders insisted that he had. 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 writings.
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 whom 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, the seat of uncomfortable superstitions. As late 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 she?
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?
Michael E. Bell, Food For The Dead, isbn 0786708999.
Christopher K. Coleman, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, isbn 1558536612.
Bram Stoker, Dracula. This can be found in many printed editions and is downloadable on-line.
H. P. Lovecraft, The Shunned House. This is found in many editions and on-line. I recommend S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, More Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, isbn 0440508754.
Many stories about the legend of Mercy Brown can be found on-line by searching either her name or Rhode Island Vampire.
© 2004 by Richard Spiers
Photo credit: Frank Grace