April 10, 2010

The Rhode Island Vampire

Exeter, Rhode Island “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 was exhumed from the cemetery because members of the community suspected the vampire Mercy Brown was attacking her dying brother, Edwin. For a deeper understanding of 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 was 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, and her battle with the disease lasted only a few months. She 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 descendant 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, 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 perhaps 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.”

Today some claim to see Mercy Brown’s specter near her headstone. Others have also spotted a glowing ball of light above her grave. Dr. Bell said, “That’s called a ‘corpse light’ in folklore. That’s a wellknown phenomenon—it’s been reported all over the place. There have been explanations, like the process of decomposing organic matter, like human flesh creating methane gas that can be ignited, and so on, but who knows? Things like that, you feel that there must be something behind it even if you can’t explain exactly what it is.”

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 such as 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.”

From Wikipedia The Mercy Brown Vampire Incident, which occurred in 1892, is one of the best documented cases of the exhumation of a corpse in order to perform rituals to banish an undead manifestation. In Exeter, Rhode Island Exeter, the family of George and Mary Brown suffered a sequence of tuberculosis infections in the final two decades of the 19th century.

Tuberculosis was called "consumption" at the time and was a devastating and much-feared disease. The mother, Mary, was the first to die of the disease, followed in 1888 by their eldest daughter, Mary Olive. Two years later, in 1890, their son Edwin also became sick. In 1891, another daughter, Mercy, contracted the disease and died in January 1892. She was buried in the cemetery of the Baptist Church in Exeter. Friends and neighbors of the family believed that one of the dead family members was a vampire (although they did not use that name) and caused Edwin's illness. This was in accordance with threads of contemporary folklore linking multiple deaths in one family to undead activity.

Consumption was a poorly understood condition at the time and the subject of much urban mythology. George Brown was persuaded to exhume the bodies, which he did with the help of several villagers on March 17, 1892. While the bodies of both Mary and Mary Olive had undergone significant decomposition over the intervening years, the more recently buried body of Mercy was still relatively unchanged and had blood in the heart. This was taken as a sign that the young woman was undead and the agent of young Edwin's condition. The cold New England weather made the soil virtually impenetrable, essentially guaranteeing that Mercy's body was kept in freezer-like conditions in an above-ground crypt during the 2 months following her death. Mercy's heart was removed from her body, burnt, and the remnants mixed with water and given to the sick Edwin to drink. He died two months later.

Sources : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercy_Brown_vampire_incident.

According to Richard Spiers, 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 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, 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 hemoglobin. 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 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 not do 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 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 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 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 … 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?

Sources : http://www.underworldtales.com/submissions/mercy.htm.

7 comments:

Hello my friend, thank you very much for your visit, Tuesday of happiness and successes. Hugs Valter.

Have you wrote any posts on Vlad the Impalers castle in Romania? The original Dracula, would be a great read if you did.

(@Valter) Thank you for dropping by my friend, have a nice day

(@Ryan) Hi, thank you for visiting my blog. Vlad the Impaler? i think its a good idea. Let me collect the sources first.

Hii friend..how are u?? nice postt.. I don'tlike vampire..hhaha;)lol but i'm not afraidd.. hahaha

I certainly enjoyed reading everything
that is posted on your site.Keep the blogs coming. It’s interesting!-exeter barbers

i love this site. i will share. thanks so much

@akhatam & @exeter barbers: Sorry for my late reply. Thank you so much for dropping by and read my blog here. I've been busy with my job, i'll update again on January.

Happy Holiday to all :)

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