Strange Days: The legend of Mercy Brown
Gregory Williams, Anchor Staff
Photo by Gregory Williams
Sink your fangs into this: the New England vampire panic engulfed the region throughout the 18th and 19th century, and the most publicized case by far was that of Mercy Lena Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island.
The English word “vampire” comes from the French, vampire, or the German, vampir, in the early 18th century. The word is of Slavic origin, which can be dated as far back as the 10th or 11th century, and is perhaps related to the Turkish word “uber” for witch or the Russian word “upyr” for vampire.
Brown first lost her mother, Mary Eliza Brown, to tuberculosis (TB), which at the time was popularly known as “consumption.” Six months later, it took her twenty-year-old sister, Mary Olive Brown. Sure enough, several years later, the disease came for Brown. TB was the leading cause of mortality throughout the Northeast in the 1800’s and was estimated to be responsible for a quarter of all deaths.
Though the tuberculosis bacterium was identified by Robert Koch in 1882, news of this discovery wouldn’t have reached rural areas in time for prevention. Even if it had, drug treatments wouldn’t become available until the 1940’s. A few years following Brown's death, her brother Edwin fell ill with the disease and since all previous attempts at remedying the sickness had fallen short, George Brown, the children’s father, was approached by his fearful neighbors with an alternative take on what was plaguing their village.
In their minds, the true culprit responsible for these untimely and unsavory deaths was in fact the work of one of the deceased rising from the grave. It is important to note that some newspapers at the time did use the term “vampire” but the locals did not. A “demon” or “the undead” was feasting on the living and so in order to pacify his neighbors, George reluctantly gave his permission for a party of men to exhume the bodies of his wife and two daughters.
Brown’s mother and sister had already been dead for almost a decade, and when exhumed only bones remained. Brown herself was still very well persevered, aided by the fact it was wintertime and she had been dead for only a few months. In addition to the well preserved state of her corpse, blood could be found in her body.
This seemed to only confirm their suspicions, and so the party of men and the family’s doctor went on to remove her heart and liver and burn it on a nearby rock, feeding the ashes to Edwin in the hope of curing his sickness. He died less than two months later. This and other stories caused Rhode Island to become known at the time as the “vampire capital of America.”
I suppose we can add it to the list of other quirks and oddities our strange little state is known for. Just don’t forget to pick up some garlic the next time you’re at the grocery store. I hope you finally found peace, Mercy Brown.