Mercy Brown: The Last New England Vampire

by JoHarrington

In Exeter, Rhode Island, the villagers gathered to exhume the body of a suspected vampire. It happened right on the eve of the 20th century.

The Brown family were dying one by one. The doctors blamed tuberculosis, but the good people of Washington County suspected something even darker.

Edwin Brown had seemed to recover somewhat, when he moved away to Colorado Springs. But now that he was home, he was fading fast. If it was consumption, then surely he'd have suffered in another state too.

His desperate father gave the go-ahead. The bodies of his whole family were exhumed, until they found the vampire which had fed on their life-blood.

It sounds like fiction, but it happened in Exeter, Rhode Island, USA, in 1892.

Mercy: The Last New England Vampire

This isn't a history, but a fiction novel which draws heavily upon the legend. The story of Mercy Brown herself is horrifically true.

Out in the little cemetery, men worked with shovels.  It was cold and the ground was rock hard with the winter's freezing. They were lathered with sweat as they dug deeper down. 

George Brown wasn't present.  It was his wife and daughter they were exhuming here. He'd given permission, but he couldn't see them like this. They'd been dead for nearly a decade.

There's no surviving report about what the Exeter villagers found in those graves.  The usual state of a body after eight years' decomposition has to be assumed, for they filled in the pits again and moved on.

It was the second daughter, Mercy Brown, whose body caused the furor. She wasn't underground, but lying in a municipal storage building on the site.  When she'd died two months previously, winter had covered the graveyard with thick snow.  It wasn't worth the energy and pick-axes to dig six feet under then.  They would wait until the spring, then bury her properly.

This wasn't anything out of the ordinary.  She wasn't the only body in the crypt-like keep.

She was left to last because she couldn't possibly be the one. She'd been the third to die and the culprit was usually the first.  It was more for a sense of completion than anything else that the villagers finally opened her coffin.

What they found there shocked them all.  She'd turned over for a start.  She was no longer lying in the gentle repose of a teenage girl laid out for her funeral.  Some say that she was on her side and others that she was face down.

She hadn't decayed.  The nineteen-year-old looked pale and drawn, but she could have been sleeping.  They had her.  Mercy Brown was the vampire who haunted Exeter; they would destroy her before she dragged her brother into his grave.

Image: The Chestnut Hill Cemetery Crypt
Image: The Chestnut Hill Cemetery Crypt

The Tragedy of Exeter's Brown Family

It was a story being repeated all over New England during those decades. But that didn't make it any easier to bear.

Mary Eliza Brown went first.  The stalwart mother of the family slowly weakened and died in December 1883. 

The burden of cooking, washing, cleaning and caring for her siblings fell to the eldest daughter, Mary Olive. She was only a teenager herself, but quietly got on with what needed to be done. That was what she was like. 

Those in the community remembered her as a modest, shy person. Her compassion was noted, as was her gentle demeanor.

Yet even these attributes couldn't save her.  They were supposed to.  God should have protected people such as her. 

Maybe it had been the fact that her family were not church-goers. She didn't even enter a chapel until a month before she died. But that wasn't too unusual. In the remote agricultural districts of Rhode Island, it could be a long trek to make it to a Sunday service. There was always too much to do around the farm. The majority of those families could be unassumingly Christian at home without the intervention of a preacher.

Mary Olive Brown was already showing signs of wilting before her mother had even passed. As she labored to console her bereft young brother and sisters - and support her father as she could - she grew ever more pale.

The cough came.  It grew gradually from an occasional spasm into an almost constant hacking. Her whole body shook under it.  Handkerchiefs moved from spotted to covered with blood. Her lungs were retching the stuff.

It was more desperation than holy conviction, which saw Mary Olive rise from her bed and take the long journey to the chapel.  She sat in its congregation for less than a month, then she was too ill to make it there and back.  Christian visitors came to her instead. They prayed over her bedside.

Mary Olive Brown passed her twentieth birthday fading under her symptoms, but she wouldn't see another.  She died on June 6th 1884, less than seven months after her mother, and she was buried alongside her.

Everything died down then.  George Brown must have watched over his remaining children with utter anxiety.  But Edwin, Annie, Mercy, Hattie, Jennie and Myra all seemed healthy and well. Devastated by their losses, but physically fine.

Until 1891, when the symptoms reappeared with a vengeance. 

The Consumption of Edwin and Mercy Brown

The Brown family all knew exactly how this story ended. They'd witnessed it first hand, as it took both mother and daughter.

It was Edwin coughing now.  He was twenty-four years old and George Brown's only son.  It had been expected that he'd take over the farm, as his father aged.  Edwin was already doing half of the physically demanding labor around their holding, but he couldn't do it now.  He had grown too weak.

George raised the funds to send his son away. There had been newspaper reports of the health benefits of visiting the spas at Colorado Springs.  It was a long journey from Rhode Island to Colorado, but it would be worth it, if it could save Edwin's life.

The young man went away.  At first it seemed as if the intervention had worked. His letters sounded hopeful.  But then he took a turn for the worse again.  He just wanted to come home. They all knew that it was coming home to die.

Before Edwin could make it to their threshold, another shock hit the beleaguered family.  Mercy, now aged nineteen, began coughing too.  This was the same, but different. It was faster.

From first symptoms to death lasted just two months.  It wasn't the half a year of slowly fading, which had beset her mother, sister and brother.  It was as violent as it was swift.  George didn't have chance to even think about sending her to Colorado, before he was calling the preacher to give her the last rites.

She died, but she did not rest in peace.  Her ailment had seemed to consume her life-force from within. They called it consumption.  The speed of it would later amend that to 'galloping consumption'.  We would call it tuberculosis.

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During the last decades of the 19th century, the future looked bright for Rhode Island.  Its booming economy attracted immigrants by the hundreds, nearly doubling the population between 1880 and 1900.  Yet they all found work in one of the most progressive states in America.

Yet a deep danger lurked amidst the rural idyll and gentile town-houses.  Whole families could be cruelly picked off, one by one, over a matter of years; or quickly, with all dying within a few weeks.

Tuberculosis has been with humanity throughout recorded history.  But it reached epidemic proportions in Rhode Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

As late as 1920, Dr C Winslow, a Professor of Medicine at Yale University, was moved to address the issue.  His report, entitled The Tuberculosis Problem in Rhode Island, urged the public health authorities to take action. If they just copied some of the pioneering work done in Massachusetts and Connecticut, then the fatalities could be much reduced. But never eradicated. It wasn't understood enough for that.

He also bemoaned the fact that most cases weren't reported.  He estimated that for every incidence of tuberculosis known to doctors, another five were being treated in secrecy.  The victims were cared for at home by family members, who knew nothing about the contagion and its danger to themselves.

But that was 1920.  The epidemic had been raging for forty years by then and progress was slow in defeating it. The best medical minds of the time knew what it was.  They could pinpoint the tuberculosis bacteria nestling in lungs, and they were almost certain that it was passed by airborne particles.  But they were hazy on what to do about it.

Back in 1892, even the public health authority knew little.  The farming community of Exeter, Rhode Island, didn't have a clue about tuberculosis.  But they did know all about vampires.

American Vampire Stories from New England

Mercy Brown's tale is just one of many from the New England Vampire Epidemic. Read these collections to discover more about what happened there.

Mercy Brown: The Vampire of Rhode Island

She'd been known as a sweet and vital teenage girl. She was creative and talented, stitching glorious quilts. But now she was most definitely a vampire.

It was freezing inside that little stone building in Chestnut Hill Cemetery.  Outside, the New England winter dragged on into March. The snow had gone but the frost lingered. Even with the walls of the crypt shielding the icy wind, it was still cold.

Those standing over the open coffin of Mercy Lena Brown recoiled in horror. There were no signs of decay.  She could have just died, not lain in the cemetery for two months.  She'd moved.  That much was clear.  Corpses don't turn over in their coffins.

Some of the villagers were recent immigrants - first generation or second - from Eastern Europe. They knew the rituals.  They had heard the stories back in the Old World.  There was yet another test for vampirism.

Mercy's chest was cut into and her heart exposed.  A knife carved deep into its perfect arteries and they found blood.  A doctor was present.  This wasn't merely a rabble of uneducated foreigners. They were all Americans and one had a medical degree.  He pointed to the tubercular bacteria still nestled in her heart.

One of the Exeter villagers removed the whole organ.  They placed it on a nearby rock and burnt it into ashes.  Then they added water and created a paste.  This they took to George Brown.  There was only one way to save Edwin from the vampire.  He had to eat the pasted ashes of his sister's heart.

It's hard to imagine the thoughts going through George Brown's mind at the time. His emotions must have been in tatters.  He didn't believe in vampires.  He didn't hold with anything much of the other-world and the supernatural.  He was just a farmer, with simple tastes and simple needs.  A quick prayer here and there was about enough for him.

But what could he do?   The doctors had been at a loss to save any of his family.  

If determination and will alone could have made them better, then his wife Mary would never have perished. She left him and their children, with Myra just a toddler at the time.  If God and the whole of Christian faith could have fended off the contagion, then Mary Olive would still be sitting there.  If miracle cures in far-away springs could wash the bacteria from their lungs, then Edwin wouldn't be lying at death's door.

George Brown didn't believe in vampires.  But he did believe in medical science, God and the love of his family, none of which had helped at all.  He took the paste and he fed it to his son.

It didn't help him either.  Edwin Brown died on May 2nd 1892, two months after he'd eaten his sister's heart; and purportedly consumed the vampire, who was consuming him.

Vampire Legends from Rhode Island and New England

The Exeter Haunting of Mercy Brown

From vampire to guardian spirit, the afterlife has been busy for this Rhode Island teenager.

It's perhaps inevitable that such a story couldn't end there.  Even today, her grave is visited and offerings left.

It was famous at the time too, with newspaper reporters and tourists descending upon the tiny village of Exeter.  They came from cities all over the American North East and their reports were read throughout the world.  Bram Stoker collected newspaper cuttings about it, as part of his research for Dracula.

Medical practitioners far and wide condemned the practice of eating corpse hearts, as a cure for consumption.  Sophisticated people in urban drawing rooms sneered at the practices of the ignorant country hicks.  Those in Rhode Island sought to quickly distance themselves from all association.  The editor of Providence Journal wrote in outraged terms about how such barbarism had no place in modern America.

But none of this saved Edwin, nor brought Mercy Brown back.  It didn't stem the tide of tuberculosis across New England.  From Connecticut to Minnesota, heart-broken and desperate communities emulated it instead.  Vampire legends sprung up across the region.  The desecrated skeletons occasionally still come to light.

In Exeter itself, the legend mutated.  People crossing a certain bridge, close to the Brown home, would catch a whiff of Mercy's favorite scent.  She was glimpsed.  Her ghost wandered the by-ways between the cemetery and the farm.

But she was no longer threatening.  It became good luck to see her.  She would smile and, if the worst should happen, she'd be there waiting for the latest neighbor and friend to die.  She'd tell them that it wasn't so bad to be dead.  She'd look after them.

People began to leave tokens on her grave.  It began as a warding against consumption, then for general luck.  These days it goes on, but with a later legend attached.  It's said that if you leave something for her, you will smell roses shortly afterwards.  Roses being, of course, her favorite perfume.

Unfortunately, not every visitor has been so nice. Mercy Brown's gravestone has been kicked over many times.  There have also been attempts to steal it.  For this reason, the Washington County officials have since placed a steel band around it to hold it firmly in place.

As for the Brown family, it was all finally over.  No other member of their family died and their descendants still farm in the area.

Fictional Stories Referring to the Mercy Brown Incident

Included in this anthology, Caitlín R. Kiernan's 'So Runs the World Away' is about Mercy Brown.
Into the Dreamlands

Through our dreams, we explore our greatest fears and desires. Some believe that we tap into a vast ocean of human consciousness and experience. Other believe that we live with ...

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H.P. Lovecraft alludes to it in his story 'The Shunned House'.
The Shunned House

From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent. Sometimes it enters directly into the composition of the events, while sometimes it relates only to their fortuitous po...

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Updated: 05/08/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/04/2013

Thank you. I really do feel for the poor people in that situation. Unfortunately, it was one repeated so many times in history.

JoHarrington on 04/01/2013

I really felt for the family. They were in such desperation to even try it, when they didn't even believe in vampires. Poor people.

Ragtimelil on 04/01/2013

My goodness. That is scary. The worst is that it didn't help. Nice ending though that she is sort of a good spirit now.

JoHarrington on 03/25/2013

It always does, doesn't it? It allows us to speculate endlessly about the possibilities. What's your take on it?

WiseFool on 03/25/2013

This is truly fascinating stuff, Jo. Truth really is stranger than fiction. Oh, and I'm with Ymunro, the fact that the truth is still unknown makes it all the more appealing!

JoHarrington on 03/25/2013

I thoroughly enjoyed researching this one. It's not a story which I was familiar with until a few days ago.

ymunro on 03/25/2013

What a fascinating article. Love the mystery of the unknown.

JoHarrington on 03/24/2013

One theory is that the body moves anyway after death. Gases escape and muscles jerk or tendons loosen. It can cause corpses to sit up, so it may well have made her appear to turn over.

Or she was buried alive. Or she was a vampire. We may never know.

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