THE NEW ENGLAND VAMPIRE PANIC
Updated: Jun 7
The New England vampire panic was the reaction to an outbreak of tuberculosis in the 19th century throughout Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, southern Massachusetts, Vermont, and other areas of the New England states. Consumption (tuberculosis) was thought to be caused by the deceased consuming the life of their surviving relatives. Bodies were exhumed and internal organs ritually burned to stop the vampire from attacking the local population and to prevent the spread of the disease. Notable cases provoked national attention and comment, such as those of Mercy Brown in Rhode Island and Frederick Ransom in Vermont.
MERCY BROWN'S GRAVE
DATE(S) VISITED: MAY 28, 2023
LOCATION: EXETER, RI
In Exeter, Rhode Island, several members of George and Mary Brown's family suffered a sequence of tuberculosis infections in the final two decades of the 19th century. Tuberculosis was called consumption at the time, and was a devastating and much-feared disease.
The mother, Mary Eliza, was the first to die of the disease, followed in 1884 by their eldest daughter, Mary Olive, according to her grave stone. In 1891, daughter Mercy and son Edwin also contracted the disease. Friends and neighbors of the family believed that one of the dead family members was a vampire, although they did not use that name, and had caused Edwin's illness. This was in accordance with threads of contemporary folklore, which linked multiple deaths in one family to undead activity. Consumption was a poorly understood condition at the time and the subject of much superstition.
George Brown was persuaded to give permission to exhume several bodies of his family members. Villagers, the local doctor, and a newspaper reporter exhumed the bodies on March 17, 1892. The bodies of both Mary and Mary Olive exhibited the expected level of decomposition, so they were thought not to be the cause. However, the corpse of a daughter, Mercy, exhibited almost no decomposition, and still had blood in the heart. This was taken as a sign that the young woman was undead and the agent of young Edwin's condition. Her lack of decomposition was more likely due to her body being stored in freezer-like conditions in an above-ground crypt during the two months following her death.
As superstition dictated, Mercy's heart and liver were burned, and the ashes were mixed with water to create a tonic and was given to the sick Edwin to drink, as an effort to resolve his illness and stop the influence of the undead. The young man died two months later. What remained of Mercy's body was buried in the cemetery of the Baptist Church in Exeter after being desecrated.
In the end, the father, George Brown, was one of very few never to contract Tuberculosis, living until 1922, just long enough to see bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin discover the BCG vaccine which was widely used to treat and cure Tuberculosis.
Goth/Industrial band Batavia released an album back in 2022 which features 8 tracks related to folklore and legends. They wrote a wonderful piece of music about this very one, aptly named "Mercy's Burning Heart".