Friday, December 23, 2011

Columbus and Syphilis

Map of the voyages of Columbus
That’s right. For hundreds of years people have suspected that Christopher Columbus and the European outbreak of the STD syphilis were connected. Although there has been doubt and confusion over the origins of syphilis, the most recent evidence seems to support that it originated as a New World bacterial infection that made its way back to Europe with the sailors aboard the vessels commanded by Columbus.

Symptoms similar to those caused by modern syphilis were first described after 1494 in Naples, Italy. Syphilis was first called the “French Disease,” because it was originally spread by French soldiers. From Italy, the infection quickly spread all throughout Europe.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond states syphilis was first described in 1495. The symptoms included pustules covering the body from head to knees, it caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and would result in death only months after initial infection. As syphilis was a bacterial infection, there was no effective treatment until the creation of penicillin. Therefore, syphilis infected and killed millions of Europeans after its arrival. A true epidemic.

Syphilis belongs to the Treponema pallidum family of bacteria. Several other less lethal diseases are also caused by treponemal bacteria, including yaws and bejel. However, these diseases are not transmitted sexually. Rather, they are generally passed from mouth to mouth or skin to skin contact.

For hundreds of years, some have theorized that syphilis evolved from one of these tropical bacterial infections initially contracted by men accompanying Columbus on one of his explorations. When the disease was taken back to Europe’s cold climate, it theoretically evolved into a venereal disease in order to survive. Wow, diseases are scary.

Others, however, have argued that Old World human remains dated to before 1492 have shown evidence of syphilitic infections. If this were true, it could not strictly be a disease originating in the New World.

According to Archeology Daily News, anthropologists Molly Zuckerman and Kristin Harper, have conducted an appraisal of all known pre-Columbian claims of syphilitic infections, which appeared in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. They have found that evidence is lacking to support an Old World origin.

Zuckerman states that many of the pre-Columbian skeletons supposedly showing signs of chronic syphilitic infection lack some of the diagnostic criteria of the disease.

In addition, their appraisal found that many of the Old World remains had been carbon dated incorrectly, which can happen in the remains of populations which ate a diet high in seafood. When the cartilage of the bones was re-dated, it was found that all showing definite signs of syphilitic infection came from after Columbus first returned to Europe. This, once again, supported a New World origin for the disease and placed the blame squarely on the head of the Genoan born explorer for hire.

I know that Columbus never entered Yankee territory, but syphilis remained a problem even for the New England colonies. It, therefore, played a fairly significant role in the development of Yankee culture and the United States in general.

I recently posted an article discussing the bottleneck which occurred in native populations due to the spread of European diseases like small pox. Sometimes, this interaction is looked at as a one way action. In reality, it was always a give and a take. New plants and animals were brought from the New World to the Old and vice versa, which is something I try to stress with my history students. However, if the New World origin of syphilis is correct, which seems to be the case, it certainly adds new dimension to the concept of Columbian exchange.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

UMass Professor- Wiki Yankee Ingenuity


I have to thank my sister for sending this story my way earlier this week. According to Masslive.com, a UMass professor was recently nationally recognized for his history wiki.

For those who do not know, a wiki is a website on which a user (often multiple users) can collaborate to add and modify content using a web browser (like Wikipedia). Apparently, “wiki” is a native Hawaiian word meaning quick.

Robert W. Maloy, who is a senior lecturer at the UMass School of Education created a wiki absolutely full of information for history teachers. In fact, it is simply called resourcesforhistoryteachers. If you teach and love history like I do (bad history dork here), you should definitely check this wiki out.

Not only has Maloy compiled resources for all grades of history, including AP, but he has posted resources for electives like Government and Economics. Furthermore, he has correlated his resources with the Ma state frameworks (Awesome!!!)

Professor Maloy is the administrator of resourcesforhistoryteachers, but other history teachers and even students have contributed content to his wiki. This seems like a great idea. Creating an online resource like a wiki is a great educational experience for students. Not only do they do the original research, which is generally how history should be taught and learned, but they get to see how their creation changes and evolves as others contribute to it.

It’s no wonder that Professor Maloy’s wiki was recognized as a runner up by the 2011 Edublogs Awards, in the category of Best Educational Wiki.

As a history teacher and history geek, I have to give a lot of credit to Mr. Maloy. This site is really impressive and could be useful for so many educators and students. I certainly plan to check it often while preparing for upcoming classes and posts.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Maine Coons - That Yankee Cat

If you’ve ever seen a Maine Coon you probably ran through the list of comments and questions that many coon cat owners get all the time. Is that a wild cat? Is that thing tame? Is he a hybrid of something? Where do they come from? Wow, that thing is huge, how much does it weigh?  Of course, the list goes on.

These are all actually pretty decent questions, and as the answers have not been wholly adequate when posed in the past, they keep getting asked. Although the Maine Coon was only recognized as a pedigreed cat in 1973, its history actually extends so far back into our colonial era that it has now become a certified New England mystery. I only call it a mystery because there are so few verifiable pieces of evidence to explain the earliest origins of the coon type cat in New England. These long haired, bigger than average, wild looking, domestic cats seemed to have simply emerged from the primordial forests of New England just like Yankee culture.

It is precisely this mysterious quality, mixed with New England story telling and exaggeration, which has allowed the creation of so many legendary versions of the Maine Coon origin story. What we lack in historical evidence is certainly made up for in historical folktale.

In comparison to other cats, the Maine Coon is a bit larger. According to the breed standard publish by the Cat Fancier’s Association; the Maine Coon should be a medium to large cat. This generally seems to translate into a 15 to 25 pound (25 lbs being unusual) male cat, females would be proportionately smaller. This makes the Maine Coon slightly larger than the average house cat. In addition to their shaggy fur, tufted ear tips, long fluffy tail, and solid rectangular body shape, the Maine Coon can look quite large and wild. Undoubtedly, it is this wild appearance which helps to generate the majority of the Maine Coon origin stories.


In fact two of the most repeated stories about Maine Coons claim that they are the product of hybridization between either raccoons or the New England bobcat. Although a brown tabby Maine Coon superficially resembles a raccoon, it is impossible for a raccoon and any species of cat to hybridize, as they are not genetically closely related.

However, this fact did not stop New Englanders from believing that their coon cats might actually have raccoon origins. In an 1893 publication of the journal Science, a New Englander writes in with what must have been a common question. In his letter he wrote:
“I saw in a private house in Chicago recently, two cats which the owners called ‘coon cats.’ They had been obtained around the edge of the forest around Moosehead Lake, and it was claimed that they were hybrids, or descendents of hybrids of the common domestic cat and raccoons.”
The writer went on to explain that the cats were bigger than normal, had bushy coon-like tails, and they even ran around like raccoons. He even mentioned that one liked to climb on high things to stretch out for a rest. He seemed pretty convinced that what he had seen was a raccoon hybrid.

However, in a later issue of Science two readers also write in response to the original coon-cat letter. Both agree that a hybrid between a raccoon and domestic cat would be impossible. They state that these cats are common all throughout New England and most people believed that they were the result of long haired Angoras from Canada breeding with local domestic shorthair cats. This idea is at least more reasonable.

The idea that the Maine Coon is a bobcat hybrid is also implausible. Though many have recently claimed otherwise, according to a 2007 article published on the site Messybeast.com, there have so far been no proven hybrids between either the North American lynx or bobcat and a domestic cat. Not only would bobcats generally view the domestic cat as a meal option, but attempts at forcing the two to mate have so far produced no offspring.

To see a bobcat in comparison to a domestic cat, check out the following video. This would be cool, but scary.


So, if the Maine Coon is not a hybrid, where in the world did this wild looking cat come from? According to the Maine Coon breed profile belonging to the Cat Fancier’s Association, the Maine Coon is the native long haired cat of the United States. This is somewhat misleading, as North America is not the native homeland of Felis Catus, the domestic cat. Nor is it the homeland of the ancestor of the domestic cat, Felis sylvestris lybica, the African Wildcat.

African wildcat- which still resembles a modern tabby

According to a 2007 study published in Science, all domestic cats can trace their ancestry back to at lest five African Wildcats who may have been domesticated in the Near East roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. From there, cats spread everywhere agriculture did. Like today, cats were used to keep rodents and other pests away from food stores. Since cats don’t generally eat grains or vegetables they could be used to control the pest species that did.

In addition, though Native American tribes had various types of domestic dogs, they did not keep domestic cats so far as we know. Therefore, the first domestic cats to arrive in the New World would have arrived with Europeans. However, when that might have taken place is precisely the mystery at the heart of another one of the most enduring Maine Coon stories.

It seems as though most early colonists did not write much about their cats. Historians know that settlers kept cats aboard ships heading to the New World to control mice and rats, but there just aren’t a lot of sources describing them. Some have posed that cats may have been introduced to North America by Norse explorers who may have come from Greenland and Newfoundland to New England around AD 1000.

Believers in this tale cite the fact that the Norwegian Forest Cat, which is another so-called naturally occurring breed from Scandinavia, looks remarkably like a Maine Coon. However, the Norse explorers did not leave any record of the cats they may or may not have brought with them on their trips to Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland.
Norwegian Forest Cat - They do look like Maine Coons
Yet, in Ring of Seasons: Iceland - Its Culture and History, author Terry G. Lacy states that a DNA connection has been found between cats from Iceland and the cat populations in other places that have or may have experienced Norse visitation. She lists New York and Boston as being two of these areas. However, she also states that there have been no archeological findings to support this connection so far. Therefore, the theory is interesting, but so far unproven. If remains of cats are found in areas of Norse settlement in North America or more DNA research is done to find connections between Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest Cats, I’d be happy to look into this idea further.

The earliest colonial record describing the domestic cat, at least in the New England area, seems to be William Wood’s New England’s Prospect, originally published in 1634. In his book, Wood describes how colonists struggled against the ravenous population of New England squirrels, something anyone with a birdfeeder knows something about. Wood States that colonial farmers were forced to carry their cats into the cornfields to fend off the rodents.

Although he doesn’t mention anything about what their cats might have looked like, from this source we know that the domestic cat had arrived in New England sometime before 1634. In fact they probably arrived in New England with the Plymouth settlers in 1620, but the early Puritans did not make reference to them. In addition to Wood’s source, archeologists have also found that Jamestown settlers ate their cats during the Starving Time between 1609 and 1610.

Between the 1600’s and 1800’s there are many sources describing the presence of cats in the developing New England colonies. Of course many of these sources are connected to Yankee superstition and the fear of witchcraft. Some Puritans believed that witches could take the form of cats to harass and injure their victims. However, there are no references to coon cats or Maine cats as a particular type until at least the nineteenth century.

In fact, according to an 1883 article in The Boston Journal, a coon-type cat by the name of Angora Dick was shown by a Mr. Robinson of Bangor Maine. The author describes the cat as being a savage looking animal of fourteen pounds. In 1895, at the first national cat show held in Madison Square Gardens, a coon-type cat from Maine won first prize for best long haired cat. It’s apparent that in these early cat shows, cats were not classified by breed, but by type. A New York Herald article covering the 1895 cat show lists among the prizes, first place awards for best short haired tiger cat, largest and heaviest cat, best pair of kittens, and best short haired cat.

Cosey- winner of the 1895 cat show
So, sometime between 1630 and 1880, coon-type cats began showing up in New England. By 1883 they seem to have become very well known. In Frances Simpson’s 1903, The Book of the Cat, a chapter is dedicated to the mystery of the Maine cat. The chapter is authored by F.R. Pierce, a resident of Maine.

In her chapter, Pierce offers some insights into the history behind the origins of the Maine Coon. However, even she seemed a little unsure. According to Pierce:


“As to how and when they came, I would say, like Topsy, they just ‘growed,’ for their advent reaches far back beyond the memory of the oldest inhabitants.”
Hence, it seems that even the residents of Maine didn’t quite know how their coon cats came to be. However, Pierce offers what must be the most believable and probable origin story of them all. According to Pierce, Maine was one of the largest ship building states in the mid eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She states that captains and their crews imported many different types of animals freely, from seemingly everywhere in Europe, Africa, and South America. Among these imports were many different types of cats from all over the world. These cats would earn their keep in a similar fashion to the original domesticated cats of the Near East, by killing the rodents aboard ships.

Many of these cats were brought back to Maine, where they were basically left to live freely. From this large genetic stock of felines, Mother Nature selected only the most fit to survive and breed. New England’s harsh environment more or less naturally selected a larger than average, long haired cat.


Early Coon-type cat
Pierce states that these cats were once more prevalent within Maine coastal towns, but were soon gifted to relatives further inland. The cats continued to spread and dominate the feline populations of these areas until the coon-type cat became quite common throughout New England.

There are, of course, several other legends attributed to the development of the Maine Coon. One of the more probable states that an early English sea captain by the name of Coon often kept cats aboard his ship. These cats would often mingle with the local short haired cats when the ship was at port. Eventually, so the story goes, these cats came to be called Coon’s cats.

Another of the more improbable stories connects the development of the Maine Coon to the execution of Marie Antoinette. This story states that the former Queen of France, when faced with execution, loaded her most prized possessions aboard a ship captained by a man named Samuel Clough. Sadly, Marie Antoinette was killed before being able to escape. Captain Clough then brought his ship to Wiscasset, Maine, as per the original plan. Aboard this ship were six of Marie Antoinette’s Turkish Angora cats, which mingled with the local short haired Yankee cats, thus creating the Maine Coon.

If this were true, which I doubt, I don’t think six more long haired cats adding their genetics into a population, which already included possibly hundreds of other long haired cats smuggled into Maine by other ships, would make much more of a difference.

Although Maine Coons enjoyed success in the early American cat shows, its popularity began to decline in the later twentieth century. By 1950, it was believed that the Maine Coon had actually become extinct. However, with the creation of the first breed standard by the Central Maine Cat Club, the coon cat began making a come back.

Despite having to apply three times for recognition to the Cat Fancier’s Association, an organization created in 1906 as a registry for pedigreed cats, the Maine Coon was finally accepted in 1975. In addition, in 1985, the state of Maine declared the Maine Coon would become its official State Cat.

The Maine Coon continues to be a popular pedigreed cat. In 2010, it was the second most popular breed of cat behind the Persian. In addition, in 2010 a Maine Coon named Stewie earned the world record for being the longest ever domestic cat, at 48.5 inches from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. The article states that the average cat is only about 18 inches long, which makes Stewie pretty impressive.

Longest cat in the world

Researching the origins of the Maine Coon proved to be pretty fascinating. I must admit I have only seen a Maine Coon a few times in my life, each time I thought they were large, handsome, and impressive cats. Although most of my friends and family have cats (we’re animal people), few people I know actually have a pedigreed cat of any sort. My fiancé and I have three cats (Cosmo, Coors, and Jaime), all of who have no pedigreed background of any note. However, like most Yankees, they seem to share this mixed un-specified, yet wild, background with the original coon type cats of New England, the ancestors of the pedigreed Maine Coons of today.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New England - The Healthiest States in the US

The United Health Foundation has just released their 2011 Report on the state of health in the US. According to the report, health improvement seems to have stagnated over the past year, most likely due to economic conditions. In many states there is an increase in obesity rates, preventable diseases, and children living in poverty.

The study looked at four groups of criteria which can be affected by positive change. Included in these categories are behaviors we adopt as individuals and groups, our community and environment, public health policies in place to help citizens maintain their health, and the quality and cost of our clinical care.

Although the country on a whole is not improving, New England states rank within the top ten healthiest. In order from healthiest to least healthy:

1. Vermont
2. New Hampshire
3. Connecticut
4. Hawaii
5. Massachusetts
6. Minnesota
7. Utah
8. Maine
9. Colorado
10. Rhode Island

Go New England! According to the breakdown by state, among the things the New England states have done to rank in the top ten include: decreasing the incidence of infectious disease, lowering the incidence of violent crime, maintaining a high rate of high school graduation, employing a healthy number of primary care physicians, organizing good immunization programs, and a lowering rates of obesity. There are several things we still need to work on including smoking and binge drinking.

Although New England scored well, many other regions were not so healthy. In fact, the southern states seemed to score the lowest in general. According to the report, the five least healthy states in the country are:

46. Alabama
47. Arkansas
48. Oklahoma
49. Louisiana
50. Mississippi

Among the things these states need to work on are high rates of smoking, binge drinking, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high school drop outs, and obesity. I know people are probably nodding and thinking about all the excellent southern fried food that seemingly has a negative impact on southern health, but I would argue that the recent economic conditions of the country have a lot to do with the general unhealthy status of the south as well.

The overall message of the article was not great news however. Rates of obesity have risen 15% over the last twenty years. According to the report, there are predictions that it will soon climb to reach 40% of American adults. I think we might all need to hit the tready for a few extra miles.

Its interesting to note that New England states are among the healthiest in the nation, but we are also top the charts as far as population loss over the last 10 years. At least Massachusetts has now lost so much population, we will lose a seat in the House of Representatives. This is a trend that needs to reverse.

However, I guess we should just accept the good news and count our blessings. At least for right now, it is very healthy to be a Yankee.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Native American Population Bottleneck

Metacom- Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederation
I have been thinking some about our Native American populations in New England since writing the article on Anawan Rock. In reading Church’s The Entertaining History of King Philip's War, I was fascinated at how diverse the native population of New England was during that time. It made me really wonder how diverse the pre-Columbian native groups must have been. Of course these groups did not leave us with written records, so all we have had are guesses at the population of the North East before the arrival of Europeans.

National Geographic just published an article discussing a DNA study on ancient and modern Native American groups. The study found that native populations might have shrunk by about half after European contact. The article states:
“The finding supports historical accounts that Europeans triggered a wave of disease, warfare, and enslavement in the New World that had devastating effects for indigenous populations across the Americas.”
The article goes on to say that Native American population reached an all time high roughly 5,000 years ago and reached its low point around 500 years ago. Most likely, the beginning of the population decline was triggered by European diseases like small pox. Although Europeans waged war against and enslaved native groups from almost the instant they got on shore, diseases could go places they could not. Diseases killed far more people than Europeans did themselves.

Most historians would not argue that small pox outbreaks among native groups like the Aztecs in Mexico allowed the Spaniards to conquer those areas. Yes, the Europeans had guns and horses, but the Aztecs and groups like them were fully capable of fighting back. Plus they outnumbered the Spaniards severely.

In New England outbreaks of plague and small pox killed off entire villages of natives even before 1620. When the Puritans arrived in Plymouth, after visiting Cape Cod, they believed they had been divinely provided with an empty native village ripe for their own settlement. They were unknowingly settling in the village of Patuxet, which had almost completely been whipped out before they Puritans arrived. One of the only survivors was Tisquantum, who the Europeans called Squanto. If you live in New England, there is probably a road named after him near you.

The author also says that researchers admit the margin of error is quite high and that the population bottleneck may have happened more recently than 500 years ago. If this is the case, it still makes sense. The King Philip’s War of 1675 was only one of the first major efforts to eradicate a native population. From that point on the US (including New Englanders sadly) pushed their way across the country displacing, destroying, or assimilating entire populations along the way. They would of course, spread disease as they went, which would precede them. Therefore, a population bottleneck is not surprising, at least historically. In fact, it should be expected.

It’s interesting to note that the researchers also concluded that native populations rebounded after many developed resistances to Europeans diseases. In addition, it’s not believed that this bottleneck seriously harmed the genetic diversity of native groups.

I don’t know if the DNA analysis included native groups from New England. However, I am certain the information definitely applies to them and their interaction with European settlers. Studies like this often remind me, even when I am doing something like walking my dogs, we are walking in the footsteps of people (and dogs) who lived here thousands of years before me or any Yankee.

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 séances, 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 fiancé 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.