Welcome to part one of my new series, ROADSIDE RHODE ISLAND. For such a small state we certainly have a lot of weirdness going on. This is actually one of the reasons I love living here so much! There are so many great places to visit and travel times to these locations are minimal. I am starting out big with this series covering Mercy Brown, probably the most infamous of vampires.
New England is loaded with all kinds of folklore and superstitions, with vampirism having been a huge part of Rhode Island’s past. There have been many books on the subject with the three best being used for the information in this blog. The first is “Food of the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires” by Michael E. Bell. Next is “Vampires of New England” by Christopher Rondina. Last but not least is “A History of Vampires in New England” by Thomas D’Agostino.
Our story begins in 1883 in the small town of Exeter, Rhode Island, about ten minutes away from where I am writing this. Mary Brown, married to George and the mother of six, became ill late in the year, dying of consumption on December 8th. In the spring of the following year, the eldest daughter Mary Olive also died of the same disease on June 6. Before succumbing, she complained of dreams of a crushing weight on her body. Five years later, the only son of the Brown family, Edwin, started to show signs of the disease as well. At this time he was married and was living in nearby Wickford and he too complained of dreams of suffocation. When he awoke each morning he complained of feeling like the blood had been drained from his body. At the recommendations of his friends, Edwin and his wife moved to Colorado Springs hoping that a spa there would help in his recovery. While away, Edwin learned that another sister, Mercy Lena, had also died from the disease, in January of 1892. He then returned to Rhode Island, healthier than when he had left. This quickly changed.
Superstition abounded with friends and family, suggesting that one of Edwin’s family members was feeding off of his flesh and blood, causing him to deteriorate. They recommended that the bodies of Mary, Mary Olive and Mercy be exhumed from their final resting place at Chestnut Hill Cemetery to see which family member was responsible for Edwin’s condition. The bodies of both the mother and Mary Olive were decomposed as would be expected. When Mercy’s body was checked, which had been stored in an above ground crypt (the ground was too frozen to bury her at this time), her body looked as fresh as it had when she had died and her body was in a different position as well. Though there were good reasons that her body was like this, the neighbors suspected that she was a vampire. It is now thought that since she died in January and was exhumed in March, during the coldest time of the year, her body’s natural tendency to decompose was slowed down. Also, it is very possible that her body shifted within the coffin while it was being opened.
Upon removal of the heart and liver, “fresh” blood was found dripping from both organs, cementing the vampire theory even more with the locals. These were then burned on a nearby rock and a drink was made from the ashes. The belief was that if Edwin drank this, it would cure him and since Mercy’s heart had been removed and burned, she was no longer a vampire. Despite these efforts, Edwin died two months later.
Now keep in mind that even though many residents in this area may have believed in the vampire legend, there was no real proof. Even the doctor that exhumed Mercy stated to them that the condition of her body, including the blood, was perfectly normal. Consumption, also known as tuberculosis, was a crippling disease and would at times wipe out entire families. The story of Mercy Brown is not the only vampire legend in Rhode Island and I will be covering some of the others in future installments of ROADSIDE RHODE ISLAND.
This incident was covered extensively in The Providence Journal, the state’s main newspaper (in fact, on occasion, the paper will cover the subject again even now, usually during the Halloween season). It is believed that Bram Stoker, the author of “Dracula,” actually got ahold of these articles and based the character of Lucy Westenra from the novel on Mercy Brown. The incident is also mentioned in two other short stories, “So Runs The World Away” by Caitlín R. Kiernan and “The Shunned House” by H.P. Lovecraft. More recently Mercy’s story was written about in the book “Mercy: The Last New England Vampire,” a novel for young adults by Sarah L. Thomson.
I often wonder what it was like to live during this time period, where your entire family relied on you as a father to provide for the family, working the land and then having so many family members die of tuberculosis with no known cure. Modern time can be stressful too with long work days, not enough screen time and keeping up with the lives of celebrities, but at least we don’t have vampires to contend with as well.
The cemetery can be found at 467 Ten Rod Road, Exeter, RI 02822. The grave site is about halfway down the main road on the left. The crypt is on the right-hand side of the cemetery along the perimeter of the property. The cemetery is open during daylight hours but please be respectful. Police regularly patrol this cemetery, especially on Halloween.