A terrible and unexplainable infectious disease. A rich history of folklore that migrated from overseas. The two combine to create a truly unique series of events.
Mercy Brown is known as New England’s last vampire. Her story is just one of many that make up the Vampire Panic that occurred due to death, disease, and the spread of tuberculosis. The stories that are recounted of unsettled graves and burning corpses are truly astonishing.
An interesting part of history, the beliefs that drove these events are remarkable. From desperation and misunderstanding, an American movement to stop vampirism took place. Many were so panicked that they felt they had no choice but to do the unimaginable to their own family members.
A Deadly Disease
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that ravages the lungs and can spread throughout the body, leading to death. The disease swept through the New England area in the late 19th century as towns grew more densely populated. The way that the infection took over the body and seemed to cause victims to waste away led to it being known as consumption.
Not having a good grasp on how infectious disease spread at the time, many people began to raise suspicions on how tuberculosis cases were occurring. Often, as the disease spread, victims would pass it to other members of their family before succumbing to the disease. This led to some eerie theories.
The spread of the disease was mysterious. It seemed to claim victims of all ages and the coughing up blood and slowly wasting away further added to the unexplained circumstances.
If a family member got sick after a loved one passed away from consumption, or tuberculosis, the explanation was often supernatural.
Many believed that the recently deceased family member would rise from their graves and drain the life from their surviving relatives. This led to a rash of blaming the dead for the spread of cases and subsequent efforts to try to stop them. A widespread belief that vampirism was the cause of the disease known as consumption began to take hold.
The Brown Family
The Brown family lived in the sleepy town of Exeter, Rhode Island during the time that tuberculosis was spreading through the area. The population was quickly dwindling after the effects of the Civil War, but the illness took hold of those that remained. The terrifying disease was misunderstood and terrifying.
When the Brown family was stricken with tuberculosis, they felt a sense of impending doom.
Mary Eliza Brown, the mother, caught the disease first and was the first family member to lose their life in 1882. Then, her oldest daughter Mary Olive caught the disease and also died in 1886 at the young age of twenty.
Years later, when Edwin, the family’s only son, caught the disease, he knew it was time to act. He had seen how the illness had taken his mother and sister and made every effort to survive it.
He traveled all the way to Colorado Springs for the top-notch medical care the city offered. Despite the advanced treatment centers and better weather, Edwin was unable to find a cure for his disease. He returned home, unsettled with his fate, and quickly deteriorating.
Arriving back in Rhode Island in January of 1892, he found out that his other sister Mercy had died rather quickly from the horrible disease. The young girl was buried in the cemetery at The Baptist Church of Exeter. Edwin still continued to battle his infection as his condition worsened.
Edwin’s father George was desperate to not see another one of his family members perish from consumption. He began to believe the folklore that diseased family members can drain their relatives of their life from the grave. On March 17, 1892, George Brown unearthed his family members that had fallen to tuberculosis to investigate.
Along with the town doctor, several neighbors, and the local paper, George had the bodies of his wife and two daughters exhumed from their graves. The physician observed that Mary Eliza’s and Mary Olive’s bodies were decomposing as normal. However, the body of young Mercy looked the same as it did when she died nine weeks earlier due to being kept at a low temperature.
It was also found that Mercy still had blood in her heart and liver, a phenomenon that the doctor assured them was normal. Despite the science, this discovery baffled the two remaining family members. They determined that the only explanation was she was the reason for Edwin’s continual decline in health. Her body was draining the life from his from her freshly dug grave.
Mercy’s heart and liver were removed from her body and burned. Her body was returned to the grave with the hopes that she would stop draining Edwin’s life force. He even ingested the ashes of her organs in a desperate attempt to cure himself. Unfortunately, none of these actions could save Edwin and he died two months later.
The Vampire Panic
This incident was one of many so-called vampire panic incidents that spread across New England. In an area heavily influenced by European culture and history, folklore and superstition also came from across the ocean. Centuries of the beliefs and ideas about vampires inspired traditions that would go on for years.
Vampires were believed to be the deceased that had the ability to prey on their victims, even after death. Many practices were created across Europe to prevent them from reaching their surviving family members and townspeople. Bodies were mangled and destroyed in an attempt to stop the dead vampires from draining the life force of others.
In many countries, post-mortem practices were created to stop vampirism. Corpses were stabbed through the heart or badly burned. They were decapitated after death and even had bricks shoved in their mouths. Versions of these rituals transferred with the immigrants that came to the East Coast of the United States.
The unexplainable spreading of tuberculosis set into motion the widespread vampire panic that took place. Unearthed graves and desecrated corpses were scattered across the New England area. Mercy Brown is just one of many stories where the dead was blamed for the demise of the living.
The Rose Sisters
Another Rhode Island man, William Rose, faced a similar situation years earlier. His daughter Juliet died from a horrible sickness and was buried in 1874. Soon after, his other daughter Mary fell ill. He suspected the cause was Juliet preying on her sister’s energy from the grave.
William went to Juliet’s grave and claimed that he saw her spirit floating above it. After the image vanished, he dug up her grave and found that her corpse was unexplainably covered with blood. He cut out his daughter’s heart and burned it. Soon after, his daughter Mary began to recover from her disease. Coincidental or not, her recovery only affirmed his suspicions.
The Ray Family
Decades before the Rose sisters’ story, the Ray family endured a tragic series of deaths in nearby Griswold, Connecticut. Horace Ray was the first in his family to die from tuberculosis. However, two of his three sons would also die from the disease in the years that followed.
When the only remaining brother fell ill, friends and family grew desperate to save him. Convinced that his brothers were responsible for his demise, they unearthed their corpses. They were burned and reburied in an attempt to stop them from feeding on their brother.
Mercy Brown’s Grave
Today, Mercy Brown’s grave still sits in The Chesnut Hill Cemetery behind the Baptist Church in Exeter. She’s buried alongside her family, including her brother that ate her heart. Her gravestone is anchored to the ground to prevent the repeated theft that has happened over the years.
Mercy’s plot can be visited by heading directly into the graveyard entrance and looking to the left, beneath an evergreen tree. There is even a guest book so you can sign your name to record your visit. Visitors also leave vampire memorabilia for Mercy at the foot of her headstone. A visit to the grave of Mercy Brown can give you a glimpse into the unique history of the New England Vampire Panic.
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