The Great New England Vampire Panic. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s not quite as famous as the Salem Witch Trials, but the disturbing events that happened in Exeter, Rhode Island helped shape the way we think of vampires today. In fact, it is suggested that Bram Stoker learned about the incident that took place in Exeter, and it may have been one of the influences for his novel, Dracula. The story revolves around Mercy Brown and her family.
In December of 1882 Mary Brown, Mercy’s mother, succumbed to her battle with tuberculosis, or consumption, as they knew it then. Tuberculosis was a very misunderstood disease. It appears to consume the body of those that it afflicts; which to some, made it appear that supernatural forces were at work; draining the life from the victim.
Mary was buried and the following year Mercy’s sister, Mary Olive, died of the same disease. In 1890 Edwin Brown, Mercy’s brother, began to shows signs of tuberculosis as well. He decided to move to Colorado Springs, were it was believed that the dry climate had the ability to cure afflictions such as tuberculosis. He later returned to Exeter, but by then his illness had taken hold and he became exceedingly ill in December of 1891. At this time Mercy had also contracted the sickness, yet hers was unlike the others. She became ill very quickly. Her form of tuberculosis was known as galloping consumption, known for its extensive damage to the body in a short amount of time. In January 1892, Mercy died.
At this point the people of Exeter became uneasy and suspected that something sinister was happening to the Brown family. Perhaps something supernatural.
It’s not clear who it was, but someone put forth the idea that one of the women in Edwin Brown’s family was sucking the life out of him from beyond the grave. They were so convinced of this that they wanted to exhume all three deceased women to see if they noticed an “unnatural state.” No one knew exactly what “unnatural state” meant, but they assumed they would know once the bodies were dug up.
They received permission from Edwin’s father, George, to exhume the women. And on March 17 1892 they dug them up. The first was the mother Mary. Her body had decomposed quite a bit in the 10 years she had been dead. So they were satisfied that she was not the one causing her son’s illness.
The second was the eldest sister, Mary Olive- also dead for 10 years, her body was decomposing splendidly. Finally they examined Mercy Brown’s body, which had not yet been buried since she died in the middle of winter and digging up the frozen ground would have been too difficult. Instead, she was placed inside a stone building in the cemetery to be buried when the spring thaw came.
Upon Mercy’s examination they found a state of preservation, which after only being dead for two months and left in the frigid cold of winter, we might expect this. But at the time, they believed that this proved that Mercy was the reason for the sickness afflicting her brother Edwin.
They proceeded to cut out Mercy’s heart and liver, where red clotted blood was found, another sign of devilry. The organs were burned and then mixed into a tonic for Edwin to drink- to cure him of course. Was Edwin as superstitious as the rest of the folks in Exeter? Maybe, maybe not. But either way he drank the tonic, which didn’t work of course. Edwin died two months later.
So is the tale of Mercy Brown. America’s first “vampire.”