History

After the Salem Witch Trials, There Was the New England Vampire Panic

Quick, name all the vampires you can off the top of your head. Let's see, there's Dracula, Nosferatu, Count ... Chocula? Hmm, for such an iconic, personality-driven type of monster, there aren't that many famous examples. But you actually don't have to look very far back in United States history to find a vampire. We're not talking about Lestat; we're talking about a very real woman. Meet Mercy Brown.

Related: Origins of Vampire Myths and Legends

The Last American Vampire

The tragic story of Mercy Lena Brown begins with the death of her mother, Mary Eliza Brown, in 1883. The culprit was tuberculosis, often called "consumption" in those days, which is a wasting disease that can take years to kill its victims. Mary's daughter, 20-year-old Mary Olive, died of the same illness a year later. Edwin was the next Brown sibling to catch the disease, but he did not pass as quickly as his mother and sister. He left his home in Exeter, Rhode Island to recuperate in Colorado Springs. Nearly a decade after the deaths of Mary Eliza and Mary Olive, 19-year-old Mercy (called Lena by her family) was stricken with the illness as well.

Unlike Edwin, who was still hanging onto the hope of recovery in the fresher mountain climate, Mercy was suffering from what's called "galloping" tuberculosis — it took hold of her quickly, likely after lying dormant for years only to rapidly progress after the first sign of symptoms. She died on January 19, 1892. Edwin returned home around the same time, in very poor condition. As tuberculosis reaches its late stages, its symptoms include drastic weight loss, chronic coughing (sometimes with blood), chills, and fever, and this was the condition that Edwin was in as he settled back into his family home.

Desperate for an answer to cure his family's misfortune, patriarch George Brown was convinced by his neighbors that there might be something supernatural leeching their strength. This was two centuries after the Salem Witch Trials, but that didn't stop a new group of New Englanders from searching for monsters in their midst.

On March 17, 1892, a group of local men dug up the three deceased members of the Brown family in search of a sign that one of them was rising from the grave at night to suck the energy from the living. After nearly 10 years, Mary Olive and Mary Eliza were almost entirely decomposed. But Mercy, buried only a few months previous in the cold New England weather, was almost perfectly preserved. The vampire hunters of Exeter had found their target.

Ending the Curse

Once they found what they were looking for, their course of action was clear. The village doctor, Harold Metcalf, explained in vain that the weather conditions would have kept her preserved and that her lungs were clearly showing symptoms of tuberculosis, but the people of Exeter were not going to be dissuaded. Operating on the assumption that Mercy had been preying on her family since she was just a small girl and now continued her reign of terror from beyond the grave, they removed her heart and liver, burned her heart to ashes, and fed those ashes to Edwin. But it was no use. Edwin Brown died on May 2, 1982.

The Last ... But Not the First

Maybe it seems strange that vampires were at the forefront of Exeter's mind. The reason is that Mercy Brown was really only the most recent of many similar vampire hunts during what was known as the New England Vampire Panic — although they had largely died down in the late 19th century. In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch identified the causative agent of tuberculosis. The sad fact was that, until drug treatments became available in the 1940s, a person afflicted with the disease would have to basically just hope for the best. That could explain why people were so eager to find another explanation for their symptoms.

Before Koch's discovery, though, supernatural explanations were even more common. One suspected vampire was "J.B." (from the letters spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin). He was one of several bodies found in a forgotten 1830s cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut in 1990. But unlike the other remains found in that place, J.B. had been decapitated, his skull and thighbones placed atop his vertebrae and ribs. Experts believe his corpse had been desecrated in an attempt to prevent him from returning from the dead.

Since "vampires" treated in this way would often have been left in unmarked graves (often by family members hoping to lift a curse), we don't have an especially precise sense of how frequently this happened. But some are very well documented: the Jewett City vampires, for example, who were known more accurately as the Ray family. But there are more than just physical remains as evidence of this macabre pattern. Newspapers and family records often made reference to such forces as well, although the names of the victims may have been lost to history. If there is one silver lining to this dark tale, it's that the victims of this kind of persecution would have usually been dead by the time the crowds rose up against them.

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There's much more to this tale than you can even imagine. Read all about it in folklorist Michael E. Bell's "Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 26, 2018

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