On March 17, 1892, town residents, along with Dr. Harold Metcalf, entered Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island. They weren’t mourners attending a funeral. They weren’t there to bury but to dig up three bodies. The doctor was there to examine the bodies for signs of decomposition. The townspeople of Exeter wanted to detect whether or not there was a vampire among the dead. They dug up the bodies of Mary Eliza Brown, who passed away in 1883, her daughters Mary Olive, who passed away six months later, and Mercy Lena who died in 1892. The case of Mercy Brown is one of many documented cases of suspected vampirism during 19th century New England now referred to as The New England Vampire Panic.
Mary Eliza was the wife of local farmer George Brown who reluctantly consented to the exhumations. George refused to attend the exhumations. George’s son, Edwin, had become sick with the disease that killed his mother and sisters. Back then, it was known as consumption. We now know it as tuberculosis.
The citizens of Exeter had no knowledge of how the disease was caused and spread. According to the popular lore of the region, there was only one explanation—one of the Brown women was a vampire. They believed a vampire must be feeding on Edwin.
Mary Eliza and Mary Olive had decomposed to skeletal remains. However, Mercy still appeared freshly dead after being buried for two months. Her organs had blood in them. The people believed they found the vampire.
Dr. Metcalf tried to reason with the townspeople. He said that because Mercy had been buried during the winter, it wasn’t unusual that her corpse still appeared fresh. The townspeople wouldn’t listen. Instead, they removed Mercy’s heart and liver and burned them. The ash was mixed with water for Edwin to drink. He died two months later.
The New England Vampire Panic
We all know the story about the Salem Witch Trials in 17th century New England. Normally, vampire lore is associated with eastern Europe. Contrary to that assumption, vampires, as well as witches, were real in the mind of colonial America. Mercy Brown is said to be the last case of suspected vampirism but it wasn’t the first.
According to a 2020 Yankee Magazine article, “Vampire Mercy Brown: When Rhode Island Was The Vampire Capital of America” by Charles T. Robinson, there was a lot of vampire activity specifically in South County, Rhode Island, from 1870-1900. Robinson even goes on to say that even Bram Stoker, author of the iconic vampire novel Dracula (1897) was aware of Mercy Brown’s story. A newspaper clipping about her was found among his notes.
Mercy Lena Brown
In a 2012 article on the Smithsonia website, “The Great New England Vampire Panic,” writer Abigail Tucker spoke to Sheila Reynolds-Boothroyd, president of the Exeter Historical Association. Reynolds-Boothroyd describes Exeter as resembling a ghost town at the time of Mercy Brown’s birth. Known as “Deserted Exeter,” the town was a farming community. Reynolds-Boothroyd described the land as rocky and not very fertile. The Civil War plus westward expansion depleted the population. At the time many of the farms had been abandoned. The government acquired the land and burned it.
Reynolds-Boothroyd told Tucker that Mercy Brown, called Lena by her family, and her family most likely lived on a small plot of land in the eastern section of town. The first death in the family was in December 1882 when her mother, Mary Eliza passed. Mary Olive, the Browns’ eldest daughter, died the next year. She was only 20 years old and a seamstress.
Tucker quotes Mary Olive’s obituary, “The last few hours she lived was of great suffering, yet her faith was firm and she was ready for the change.” Tucker adds that the entire town attended her funeral and sang a hymn chosen by Mary Olive herself, “One Sweetly Solemn Thought.”
A few years later, Brown’s son, Edwin, began to feel sick. He worked as a store clerk and was described as “a big, husky young man,” in the local newspaper. Edwin was sent to Colorado Springs in the hopes that the weather there would improve his health. By all accounts, Edwin’s health did not improve and he soon returned to Exeter.
Lena wouldn’t show any signs of tuberculosis until about 10 years after the death of her mother and sister. She was a child at the time that they died. Tucker reports that Lena was most likely infected by the disease but remained asymptomatic until shortly before her death. Her obituary read, as quoted by Tucker, “Miss Lena Brown, who has been suffering from consumption, died Sunday morning.”
After Lena became ill, Edwin returned from Colorado Springs. His condition didn’t improve but became worse. The local paper printed the following, “If the good wishes and prayers of his many friends could be realized, friend Eddie would speedily be restored to perfect health.”
It was after Lena’s death that her father, George Brown, was, by all accounts, pressured by townspeople to exhume his wife and two daughters in the hopes of saving his son. George Brown reportedly never suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1922.
The Jewett City Vampires
In 1854, local newspapers in Griswold reported that Lemuel and Elisha Ray were exhumed and burned. The two were the sons of Henry and Lucy Ray. The two died of consumption in the late 1840s to early 1850s. The Rays’ youngest son, Henry Nelson, got sick in 1854.
Jewett City Cemetery still has the Ray family plot. Each member of the family is buried side by side except for one. Henry Nelson Ray is buried on the other side of the cemetery. The death date inscribed on his headstone is 1854.
More Vampires in Griswold
Tucker’s article on the Smithsonian website talks about a 1990 excavation that unearthed mutilated skeletal human remains in Griswold, Connecticut.
Children accidentally stumbled across human remains while playing near a gravel mine. At first, authorities thought the bones belonged to a victim of local serial killer Michael Ross. They were wrong. Retired Connecticut State Archeologist, Nick Bellantoni, determined that the bones dated from colonial times.
Bellantoni investigated further and unearthed a cemetery—coffins with human skeletal remains complete with clothing and jewelry. However, one grave stuck out.
As he was exploring a stone crypt, he found bones that were rearranged. He was able to determine that the body had been decapitated. The skull and thigh bones were arranged on top of the ribs and vertebrae. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni said.
Tucker writes that further analysis discovered the remains were mutilated approximately five years after death. It also was determined that the coffin had been smashed. The skeleton was analyzed and found that they were the remains of a man in his 50s and dated from the 1830s. While the other skeletons that were discovered were reburied, this particular skeleton was sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC for further study.
Bellantoni contacted Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission folklorist, Michael Bell, about his bizarre find. Bell had been studying American vampire lore for more than 30 years. He found approximately 80 cases of suspected vampirism dating back to the 18th century in various locations with the most reported in rural 19th century New England.
Tucker quotes Bell as saying, “You read an article that describes an exhumation, and they’ll describe a similar thing that happened at a nearby town.” Bell wrote a book about his research, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires (2011). Besides newspaper archives, Bell uses sources such as old cemetery maps, tombstones, and handwritten records kept in town hall archives. He traces genealogies and sometimes finds descendants to interview.
“As a folklorist, I’m interested in recurring patterns in communication and ritual, as well as the stories that accompany these rituals,” Bell said. “I’m interested in how this stuff is learned and carried on and how its meaning changes from group to group, and over time.”
Most historic documentation can be found in newspapers from the time. References to these suspicions and practices also can be found in journals from the period. For example, Tucker cites Henry David Thoreau’s journal in which he included a mention of exhumation in his entry on September 29, 1859.
Nellie Vaughn: A Case Mistaken Identity?
In the Yankee Magazine article, writer Charles T. Robinson mentions the name of another suspected vampire, Nellie L. Vaughn. Reportedly, no vegetation or lichens can grow on Vaughn’s grave. Her tombstone bears the mysterious inscription “I am waiting and watching for you.”
According to “The Unexpected Vampire Case of Nellie Vaughn” on Locations of Lore, Vaughn is buried in Plain Meeting House Cemetery in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. However, it’s speculated that Nellie Vaughn’s story didn’t originate during the 19th century but the 20th century. Vaughn’s vampire status may originate from a case of mistaken identity.
Nellie Louise Vaughn died of pneumonia on March 31, 1889, at the age of 19. Vaughn’s remains were originally buried on her family’s farm. In October of that year, her remains were exhumed and moved to the public cemetery. There are no newspaper reports or any evidence that Vaughn’s family or community suspected her of being a vampire.
According to Locations of Lore, a popular explanation for the Vaughn story is that it originated during the 1960s. The tale of Nellie the Vampire reportedly began with a group of high school students from Coventry, Rhode Island. After their teacher told them the Mercy Brown story, they went looking for Mercy Brown’s grave and found Nellie Vaughn’s instead.
Nonetheless, Vaughn’s grave has entered New England vampire lore. Her grave had to be moved after being vandalized numerous times. After her grave was moved, Lore reports vegetation began to grow on the site again. A logical explanation is that visitors are no longer walking over it.
Paranormal activity of the ghostly and not vampire kind had been reported at the cemetery. Some visitors have reportedly seen the apparition of a woman wearing Victorian-style clothes. Others have said that they heard a woman’s voice near where Vaughn’s grave said, “I am perfectly pleasant.” Locations of Lore reports that believers in the paranormal think that the voice and apparition belong to Vaughn and that she’s trying to “clear her name.”
Origins of Vampire Panics
Mostly, when we think of vampires, we think of eastern Europe. How did colonial-era New England become home to such a strong belief in vampires?
One common thread that links all of the cases of suspected vampirism in New England was tuberculosis which was known as consumption.
It was later determined that the skeletal remains of the remains that Bellantoni found had tuberculosis or similar lung disease. Even after being given a medical diagnosis, people looked to the paranormal to explain why another family member became sick. They believed that the only solution was digging up the suspected vampire.
A 2019 article, “Why The Mercy Brown Case Remains One Of History’s Craziest ‘Vampire’ Incidents” on All That’s Interesting reports that tuberculosis, or consumption, was a leading cause of death in the U.S. in 1892. In addition to night sweats and fatigue, patients cough up white phlegm or even “foamy blood.”
In a 2019 History article, “When New Englanders Blamed Vampires for Tuberculosis Deaths” by Crystal Ponti, Bellantoni said, “Consumptives lost weight, coughed up blood, their skin turned ashen and they sometimes died a slow death—almost as if something was ‘sucking the life’ out of them.”
Little was understood about consumption until 1882 when Robert Koch, a German scientist, was able to find the true culprit—the bacteria that caused tuberculosis. However, it would take about 10 years for germ theory to catch on and the cause and spread of disease would be better understood.
What exactly happened with a suspected vampire?
The process of going about an exhumation varied. Sometimes only family members and neighbors would be involved. Other times, town officials could decide on whether or not to have the examination and clergymen could be involved.
How the body of a suspected vampire was treated also differed depending on the area. Tucker points out that in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont the deceased’s heart was usually burned and the smoke was inhaled as a possible cure. However, in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, the body was just flipped over in the grave and left like that. European countries differed in the way vampires were dealt with. In some areas, the corpses had their feet found with thorns, and others beheaded the undead.
Exhumations could be public or private affairs. Burning the heart sometimes took place in the town square in locations such as in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1830. In 1793, in Manchester, a vampire’s heart was burned at a blacksmith’s forge.
Tucker quotes a town history that read, “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton…It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
According to Bell, the public versus private issue varied simply because of where the cemeteries were located. Rhode Island had a larger number of small cemeteries located among private farms. Vermont had fewer but larger cemeteries all located in the center of town making a private exhumation less possible.
Bell dives deeper into the lore by looking to understand the people who believed in it. Tucker quotes Bell as saying, “I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are…I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.”
Bell references Black voodoo practitioners in the South. He wrote his doctoral thesis on how voodoo practitioners cast love spells and curses. The common thread is that both groups look to control a desperate situation through belief in and manipulating the supernatural.
“People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels,” Tucker quotes Bell. “The folk system offers an alternative, a choice.”
How did belief in vampires come to the American colonies?
Besides tuberculosis, contemporary researchers point out diseases such as rabies and the rare genetic disorder porphyria (symptoms include sensitivity to sunlight and reddish-brown teeth) as possibly stirring up vampire tales. During the time of the exhumations, Tucker says that Exeter residents said that the exhumations were a Native American tradition.
Tucker says that Bell believes that German and Slavic immigrants brought vampire lore into the colonies during the 18th century. Hessian mercenaries served in the Revolutionary War and Palatine Germans colonized Pennsylvania. Bell told Tucker “My sense is that it came more than one time through more than one source.”
According to Crystal Ponti’s History article, eastern European and German healers traveling through the area may have introduced the ideas of vampirism and exhumations. Bell told Ponti about a letter to the editor of a Wilmington, Connecticut, newspaper. The writer talked about a “foreign quack doctor” who was promoting exhumations and consumption of the deceased’s burned internal organs as a remedy for vampirism. The doctor even got a local to exhume his two children.
By most accounts, Mercy Lena Brown’s 1892 exhumation is the last recorded case of suspected vampirism in the United States. As stated, Koch’s research provided a scientific explanation as to the cause and spread of consumption. It would take a decade for knowledge of germ theory to spread and catch on which lead to better sanitation and disease prevention.
Lena Brown’s descendants haven’t forgotten their somewhat-famous ancestor. All That’s Interesting reports that Lena’s descendants have saved newspaper articles. They have even shown up to talk about the event during the town’s Decoration Day when residents decorate the local cemeteries.
Tucker met some of Lena’s descendants who managed to preserve a quilt that she made. Tucker described the quilt as blue, pink, and cream-colored with large brown patches that, upon closer inspection, are fields of daisies. She writes that “textile scholars at the University of Rhode Island have traced her snippets of florals, plaid, and paisley to the 1870s and 1880s, when Lena was still a child; they wondered if she used her sister’s and mother’s old dresses for the project.”
Brown descendant, Dorothy O’Neill, told Tucker, “I think the quilt is exquisite, especially in light of what she went through in her life…She ended up leaving something beautiful. She didn’t know she’d have to leave it, but she did.”
Tucker mentions one final detail about the well-preserved quilt. The pattern Lena used is called the Wandering Foot which has a superstition surrounding it. Tucker writes, “Anybody who slept under it, the legend said, would be lost to her family, doomed to wander.”
In Exeter, Mercy Lena Brown left behind more than a quilt. Those fascinated by her have built up their own lore around her. Lena’s spirit is said to visit those who are terminally ill to assure them that death isn’t anything to fear. Her spirit, announced by a rose scent, is said to be seen on a particular bridge. Some visitors at the cemetery say they have recordings of her voice. Besides documentaries, Mercy has been mentioned in children’s books.
To this day, visitors still leave little gifts and notes at Mercy Brown’s grave including jewelry, plastic vampire fangs, and a note that said, “You go, girl.” Modern science put an end to the New England vampires, but their story continues to fascinate.