Welcome to part two of my Roadside Rhode Island series. In part one, seen HERE, I talked about Mercy Brown, Rhode Island’s most famous vampire and possibly the inspiration for Bram Stoker when he wrote the book “Dracula.” As I mentioned before, Rhode Island is full of vampire legends and in this chapter, I explore yet another. Her name? Sarah Tillinghast.
The story takes place in 1799 and concerns a prosperous farm family headed by Stutley Tillinghast. He was married to his wife Honor and they had twelve children. Stutley managed to provide for his family by selling apples and peaches from his orchards across Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
As the growing season of 1799 began, Stutley began to have vivid nightmares, night after night. When asked about the nightmares, many of which he would suddenly awake from in terror, he said that in them he was working in the orchard and at one point would hear his daughter Sarah calling to him. While looking for her he notices that the apple trees have started to turn brown and that exactly half of the orchard dies.
After the growing season, his 19-year old daughter Sarah started to keep to herself in her bedroom, only coming out to eat. It soon became apparent that she was ill and was diagnosed with consumption, of which she died a short time later. By spring, her 9-year old brother James started to complain of chest pains, saying that Sarah had touched his chest. He soon died as well.
Sisters Andris and Ruth were the next to fall ill, each saying that Sarah would visit them during the night, complaining that she was cold. Soon after that, both sisters also died. Stutley visited his pastor multiple times asking for help but nothing could be done, other than praying to God.
Hannah, Stutley’s 26-year old daughter, who was living nearby in West Greenwich, also started to complain about visitations from Sarah after she started to spend more time at her family home to support her parents. Hannah also became ill, succumbing a short time later.
Honor, Stutley’s wife soon started to also see Sarah, who would complain of being cold and lonely. Soon after their 17-year old son Erza fell ill as he also started to see Sarah at night while trying to sleep. By now Stutley Tillinghast was beside himself and one of his farmhands, Jeremiah Dandridge (I wonder if his name is the basis of the lead vampire character Jerry Dandridge played by Chris Sarandon in the 1985 film FRIGHT NIGHT) spoke of a story he heard of the dead coming back to life to torment their family. In desperation, Stutley, Jerry and another farmhand started to dig up the bodies of his children who had perished, starting with the most recent. Each body was showing visible signs of decay until he reached the last…Sarah.
When her coffin was opened, Sarah’s body had not begun to decay and in fact looked very much alive. Her face had a healthy complexion, though pale, and her eyes were wide open. It also appeared that her hair and nails had grown. Suspecting that she was a vampire, her heart was cut out and burned. Erza, who was too far gone at this point, also passed.
Honor, who had been sick, ended up recovering and having two more children. After this ordeal Stutley realized that his dream of half of his orchard dying was actually prophetic as half of his children had died.
Rhode Island Historical Cemetery 14 is easy to find. Though it is small and overgrown, the marker sign is very easy to see. It is on Forest Hills Drive in Exeter, Rhode Island on the right hand side, approximately a quarter mile in when you turn off of Ten Rod Road. Many of the stones are now broken and Sarah’s actual grave is impossible to identify positively though others in the family can be easily found. As with all cemeteries please be respectful.