Rhode Island vampires, also known as the New England vampire panic, were a series of events that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Rhode Island, United States. The panic was fueled by the belief in the existence of vampires and the fear of their alleged ability to spread disease and death.
The origins of the Rhode Island vampire panic can be traced back to the tuberculosis epidemic that swept across New England in the 19th century. At the time, tuberculosis was a highly contagious disease with no known cure. People would often fall ill and die quickly, leading to widespread panic and fear.
In the midst of this epidemic, rumors began to circulate that some of the dead were rising from their graves and attacking the living. These rumors were fueled by the discovery of bodies that had not decomposed as expected. This was likely due to the fact that tuberculosis attacks the lungs, leading to a lack of oxygen in the body, which can slow the decomposition process.
As a result of these rumors, some people began to believe that the dead were not truly dead, but rather had been turned into vampires. The belief was that the vampire would rise from the grave and feed on the blood of the living, spreading the disease further.
To prevent this from happening, families would exhume the bodies of their loved ones and check for signs of vampirism. If the body appeared to be in a good state of preservation, with little sign of decay, it was believed to be a vampire. The heart would then be removed and burned, in the hope that this would prevent the vampire from rising again.
The practice of exhuming bodies and burning hearts was not widespread, but it did occur in some communities in Rhode Island. One of the most famous cases involved a young woman named Mercy Brown, who died of tuberculosis in 1892. After her death, her brother and father also fell ill with the disease. The community believed that Mercy had become a vampire and was responsible for the spread of the disease. Her body was exhumed, and her heart was burned in front of a crowd of onlookers.
While the case of Mercy Brown is the most well-known example of the Rhode Island vampire panic, there were several other instances of exhumations and heart burnings during this time period. Here are a few examples:
In 1883, in the town of Exeter, Rhode Island, a young girl named Nellie Vaughn died of consumption (another name for tuberculosis). Soon after her death, several other members of her family also fell ill. Nellie’s mother, Mary, became convinced that Nellie had become a vampire and was feeding on the rest of the family. Mary had Nellie’s body exhumed, and her heart was burned. However, this did not stop the spread of the disease, and several more family members died. Nellie’s headstone, no longer to be found in the cemetery, had an epitaphs that said, “I am waiting and watching for you.”
In 1895, in the town of Foster, Rhode Island, a man named Edwin F. Harrington died of tuberculosis. After his death, several members of his family also fell ill. Edwin’s father became convinced that Edwin had become a vampire and was responsible for the spread of the disease. Edwin’s body was exhumed, and his heart was burned. However, this did not stop the spread of the disease, and several more family members died.
In 1896, in the town of Exeter (the same town where Nellie Vaughn had died), a woman named Sarah Tillinghast also died of consumption. After her death, several members of her family fell ill. Sarah’s brother became convinced that Sarah had become a vampire and was responsible for the spread of the disease. Sarah’s body was exhumed, and her heart was burned. However, this did not stop the spread of the disease, and several more family members died.
The Rhode Island vampire panic eventually died down, as medical advances led to a better understanding of tuberculosis and the discovery of a cure in the 1940s. However, the legacy of the panic lives on in popular culture, with stories of Rhode Island vampires continuing to capture the imagination.
The belief in vampires has a long history, and the Rhode Island vampire panic is just one example of how this belief can take hold in times of fear and uncertainty. While it may seem strange to us today, it is important to remember that the people of Rhode Island were acting out of a genuine belief in the existence of vampires and a desire to protect themselves and their communities from a deadly disease.
Bram Stoker, the author of the classic vampire novel “Dracula,” may have been influenced by the story of Mercy Brown and the Rhode Island vampire panic. Stoker began writing “Dracula” in 1890, just two years after Mercy’s death and the subsequent exhumation of her body.
Some researchers have suggested that Stoker may have read newspaper accounts of the Rhode Island vampire panic and been inspired to include elements of this story in his novel. For example, both Mercy Brown and the character Lucy Westenra in “Dracula” are young women who die of consumption and are believed to have become vampires after death.
Additionally, the process of exhuming bodies and burning hearts to prevent the spread of disease is similar to the methods used by the vampire hunters in “Dracula.” It is possible that Stoker was influenced by these real-life events and incorporated them into his novel, which went on to become one of the most famous and enduring works of horror fiction.
While there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Stoker was directly inspired by the story of Mercy Brown, the parallels between the Rhode Island vampire panic and “Dracula” are intriguing and suggest that Stoker may have been influenced by the beliefs and fears of his time.
There are two books that I would highly recommend, if you are interested in learning more about the vampires of Rhode Island. The first is “A History of Vampires in New England” by Thomas D’Agostino and Arlene Nicholson. The second is “Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England Vampires” by Michael E. Bell.