Saturday, December 3, 2011

Mercy Brown- Exeter, RI

The Grave of Mercy Lena Brown
Last of the New England Vampires
Anyone who has looked into odd pieces of New England history has come across the now famous case of Mercy Lena Brown. From the perspective of most outsiders to New England, she might just seem like a late nineteenth century victim of a tuberculosis outbreak in Rhode Island. However, to many Yankees and others in the know, she has unwillingly earned the title of the last of the New England Vampires.

The strange case of Mercy Brown begins in Exeter, Rhode Island with the family of George T. Brown. George was born about 1842 in Rhode Island. According to the 1880 Federal Census, George had a growing family of six children with his wife Mary E. Brown in rural Exeter, Rhode Island.

However, as it often does, tragedy began to target the family. In 1883 George’s wife Mary died of consumption. Today, consumption is known as pulmonary tuberculosis, a serious bacterial infection.

Grvestone of Mary E. Brown
The first of the Browns to contract consuption
In the late nineteenth century, the understanding of bacterial infections and antibiotics was just beginning to develop. For instance, Alexander Fleming did not even discover the antibiotic properties of penicillin until 1928. Therefore, in 1883, the cause of consumption was still unknown. Victims of consumption would develop a cough which would produce blood. They would begin to lose weight, run a fever, become lethargic and sickly, and more than likely they would eventually die.

The name consumption is understandable in retrospect, as the disease seemed to consume the host. In many places, especially in New England, the cause of consumption was rooted in a folk belief associated with the visitation of undead spirits upon living victims. In The Animistic Vampire in New England , an article by George R. Stetson, published in an 1896 issue of The American Anthropologist, Stetson states:
“In New England, the vampire superstition is unknown by its proper name. It is believed that consumption is not a physical but a spiritual disease, obsession, or visitation; that as long as the body of a dead consumptive relative has blood in its heart it is proof that an occult influence steals from it for death and is at work draining the blood of the living into the heart of the dead and causing a rapid decline.”

Today, we would call these spirits vampires, but in the late nineteenth century the concepts which defined vampires, spirits, and ghosts were not as clear cut as our Hollywood and pop culture inspired margins of the supernatural. According to Stetson, sometimes these creatures were believed to literally walk out of their grave and prey on the living, and sometimes they only did so in spirit, floating through the cracks and keyholes of the homes of the living to cause sickness and death. Either way, these were not the type of vampire that sparkled in the daylight or romanced teenage girls.

These beliefs occurred all throughout New England. Stetson mentions that there are cases in Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, as well as several in Rhode Island.

Of course, this folklore is not specific to rural New England. It came to the New World from Europe. In fact, according to Discovery News, two corpses have recently been unearthed in Ireland which demonstrate that as far back as the AD 700s Europeans were burying societal outcasts with stones shoved in their mouths to prevent them from rising from the dead. Although, the article makes it clear that archeologists do not believe these particular burials reflect vampire slaying rituals, because there was no vampire related folklore in the first century AD, this type of belief and ritual was certainly a predecessor to later vampire related beliefs in Europe and nineteenth century New England.

Stetson goes on to explain that in the New England vampire tradition, the undead were believed to begin with one family member, then work its way through the entire clan. Such was the case in the Brown family.

In 1884 George’s oldest daughter Mary O. Brown contracted consumption and died. According to an article published in the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, George’s only son Edwin began to show signs of consumption sometime in 1890. Edwin Brown and his wife left Rhode Island for Colorado Springs, seeking the rumored healing properties of the area. Edwin stayed in Colorado for 18 months, but ultimately found that a change of scenery did not help his condition.

The gravestone of Mary Olive Brown
The second victim of consumption in the Brown family
While Edwin was away, his younger sister Mercy Lena Brown also began to show signs of the disease. The article in the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner indicates that Mercy had been sick for only about a year before she too passed away in January of 1892.

Although, not reflected in any of the contemporary newspaper articles written about the case, many modern sources indicate that Mercy’s body would have been placed in the local crypt in Exeter’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery, rather than buried in the frozen New England ground in the family plot with her mother and sister.
The crypt that supposedly held the body of Mercy Brown
In the winter of 1892 Edwin returned to Exeter Rhode Island. Newspaper accounts indicate that he stayed with his in-laws rather than return home. While in Exeter, Edwin’s health continued to decline. Ultimately George Brown and the remaining members of Edwin’s family must have felt very desperate. In a final effort to save his son, George agreed to have the bodies of his deceased family members exhumed in an attempt to end what was perceived by some to be a vampiric curse on the Browns.

In Animistic Vampires of New England, Stetson explains that New Englanders would have been well versed on how to deal with vampires. He mentions several cases in which the bodies of consumptives were exhumed and the hearts of the corpses burned. In the folklore of the area, there were several cases where such a treatment was supposed to have worked.

This story was heavily covered by the newspapers of the time. Articles from New York to Massachusetts picked up the story and wrote about the event. Although the stories have some variability, most tell a very similar tale.

According to these accounts, George Brown called a doctor named Harold Metcalf from nearby Wickford to oversee the exhumations, which occurred on March 17. When the bodies of George’s wife and oldest daughter were unearthed, it was found that there was little left but bones. This makes sense, as both had been dead for many years.

However, when Mercy’s body was removed from her coffin, at least to the onlookers, it looked like it had not decomposed much at all. Her cheeks still had color and a couple articles even indicate that her body seemed to have changed position since its burial.

To some this was proof that Mercy was indeed a vampire. However, most of the articles also state that Dr. Harold Metcalf observed that the seemingly unchanged condition of Mercy’s remains reflected a natural state of decomposition for a body that had only been buried for nine weeks. In addition, as we all know, the freezing New England temperatures in January would have also preserved the body.

When Mercy’s body was opened, it was found that her heart and lungs still contained blood. These organs (some sources indicate her liver as well) were removed and burned on a nearby rock. The ashes were mixed with water and fed to the ailing Edwin Brown in an attempt to cure his consumption. Unfortunately, Edwin’s condition quickly worsened and he died roughly two months later.
The Brown family plot
See the rock- top right
This is the rock on which Mercy's heart was burned
The gravestone of Edwin Brown
The last of the Browns to contract consumption
Although Edwin was not saved by this folk remedy, it seems as though none of the remaining three Browns contracted the disease. In an attempt to further trace the family, I was able to find George Brown living with his second to youngest daughter Hattie in the 1900 and 1910 Federal Census records.

According to the census information George never remarried. I hardly blame him, after losing the majority of his family he must have been heartbroken. In addition, the articles printed in the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner mention that George did not even believe in the vampire folklore. I’m sure he was simply desperate and would have tried anything to save the rest of his family. George himself died in 1922, unlike the graves of his family members, his shows no inscription.

The gravestone of George T. Brown
When examining this history, I was continually surprised that a vampire slaying ritual like this one would have occurred as late as 1892, so close to the twentieth century. When reading the articles like the one entitled Vampires in New England, which was printed by the New York World in 1896, I find that the authors were just as surprised as I was.

Most of the authors were shocked that this type of superstition would still exist in a modern country at the dawn of industry, scientific advancement, urbanism, and modern technology.

Anthropologist, George R. Stetson, believed that this modernization was part of the problem that explained the continuation of the vampire folklore. Stetson explains that even though Rhode Island was one of the most populated states per square mile in the nineteenth century, the villages and hamlets were actually quite isolated. In addition, much like today, many families were moving from very rural areas like Exeter to more urban areas. This left behind the aging population of the previous generations, acres of abandoned farms and farmland, and social isolation in villages like Exeter. Stetson states:

"Here Cotton Mather, Justice Sewell, and the host of medical, clerical, and lay believers in the uncanny superstitions of bygone centuries could still hold carnival."
In his notes Stetson mentions Exeter as being a part of Rhode Island that was specifically afflicted with this movement toward urbanism. He records that the town of Exeter had only 17 persons per square mile in 1890 and in 1893 had 63 abandoned farms, which equaled one fifth of its total number.

Lastly, Stetson also mentions the fact that it does not matter how educated and cultured a population becomes, because superstition and folklore will always exist to one degree or another. People hang horseshoes, pick four leaf clovers, hunt ghosts, participate in sĂ©ances, and have their palms read even in the twenty-first century. In reality, maybe we haven’t really come too far.

Some researchers have ventured that the case of Mercy Brown might have actually been highly influential to Bram Stoker, the author the Dracula, which was published in 1897. Among the research papers Bram Stoker had in his notes for Dracula was the New York World article, Vampires of New England. Stoker clipped this article during his trip to the US in 1896.

However, Michael Bell, author of Food For the Dead, a book about the New England vampire folklore, discounts this belief. He states that by 1896, when the article was printed in New York, Stoker would have been nearly completely done with his novel.

So Mercy Brown may not have completely influenced the development of Dracula, but Stoker at least looked at the article in the final months of writing his novel. In addition, its hard not to see the similarities between Mercy’s case and the characters and plot line of Dracula. Perhaps the other pieces of folklore collected in Europe were just very similar to the New England tradition.

In conclusion, I was so excited to finally be able to make time to visit this great (though odd) piece of New England history. Yankees have always been an interesting bunch. This enduring belief in vampires having survived so late into the nineteenth century certainly proves the point.

As my fiancĂ© and I walked through Chestnut Hill cemetery last week, I jokingly asked her if she was afraid because we were going to be seeing the grave of a supposed vampire. Having been recently told the story, she responded, “no, I think she was just a really sick girl.” As usual, she gets right to the point. The Brown family suffered a series of real tragedies, among them the death of Mercy.  I certainly feel lucky to live in a time period where antibiotics are available and things like cavities and colds are no longer life threatening, never mind that tuberculosis is now treatable.

However, even in 2011, we Yankees remain somewhat peculiar. As we left Exeter and visited with friends who live close by, the topic of conversation was fitting and instructive of just how little we New Englanders have changed between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s right, with our friends we spent a good portion of the night discussing stories of the undead.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! This was quite an enjoyable read!

    ~ Wendy