In the Late 19th century Rhode Island was a state of contradictions. In the north, the factories and mills of Providence stood at the vanguard of the American Industrial Revolution. To the south, at the height of the Gilded Age, Newport became the playground for the richest people in the country. Between the two, in small towns like Exeter, lay the rural folk; still clinging to the superstitions and folklore of old.
1883 begat a dark time for George Brown and his family. Late in the year his wife, Mary, fell gravely ill. She was said to be a strong woman devoted to her family, and, as the wife of a farmer, used to hardship. Despite her fortitude, consumption had taken its toll. She was afflicted with a particular fast moving strain known as galloping consumption; by December she was dead. In Spring the following year, Mary Olive, the eldest daughter, started to show signs of the same consumption, and herself began to waste away. Mary Olive complained of fearful nightmares and a smothering weight that seemed to crush the life out of her as she slept. Growing paler and more gaunt with each passing night, by June she too was gone. The next few years went by with relative peace. Edwin, George and Mary’s only son, had married into relative means and acquired a farm in the nearby town of Wickford. It seemed as if the shadow of 1883 had passed the family by, but the good times wouldn’t last long.
About five years after the death of Mary Olive, Edwin started to show signs of the illness that had felled his sister and mother. Harrowing dreams of drowning and suffocation sapped his sleep, and in the mornings he felt as if his very soul was being wretched from his body. Local doctors had no remedy for this plague which was wasting Edwin away. Friends had advised Edwin to travel to Colorado Springs, hoping the well known spas of the area would help him regain his health and vitality. So Edwin Brown headed west, and in the cold dry air of Colorado he began to show signs of recovery. But this too wouldn’t last long. By January of 1892, after almost a year and a half in Colorado, Edwin learned that his younger sister Mercy Lena had become stricken with the grave malady. Not much is known about the life of Mercy Brown. She was said to be a creative teenager; shortly after the deaths of her mother and sister , she had stitched a quilt. Mercy had appeared quite healthy and in good spirits at the time of Edwin’s departure west, but her health rapidly declined within a few months. On the 17th of January Mercy Lena Brown, wracked by galloping consumption, was dead. As though in response, Edwin own condition began to immediately worsen; the faithful decision was made to return to Rhode Island.
Gossip travels fast in small towns, and the misfortunes of the Brown family was not lost on neighbors. George Brown soon found himself at the center of rumors spreading through the community; people with strong embedded belief in folklore of the restless dead returning from the grave. Pressure began to mount calling for an exhumation of the deceased. A prominent held belief was that living flesh and blood would be found on the corpses, thus proving theories of vampirism. George Brown held no faith in the old beliefs, but also, while watching his family torn asunder, had little confidence in the modern medical field. His son’s health in a critical state, in a state of sheer desperation, George Brown reluctantly agreed to an exhumation of his wife and two daughters. Brown sought out the guidance of Harold Metcalf MD. the chief medical examiner of the district. He was well known to the George Brown; he attended Mercy during the final stages of her illness. Dr. Metcalf, originally from Providence, took no stock in the rural vampire superstitions. Highly intelligent, he refused to believe what couldn’t be proven by scientific method. He discouraged the exhumation, and affirmed the results would be in vain. However he, being the most capable physician in the Exeter area, went along with the exhumations of the bodies for one simple reason; he was paid.
On the morning of March 17, 1892, George Brown, Dr Harold Metcalf with his staff, and a small group of attendants; members of the Exeter community, went to Shrub Hill (now known as Chestnut Hill) Cemetery in order to exhume the bodies of the three Brown women. Their intention was to test the vampirism theory; to prove or, as George Brown and Dr Metcalf hoped, disprove these assumptions of the supernatural that the community held. A vampire, the townsfolk believed, would still have blood in its heart. George Brown and Dr. Metcalf were ultimately, looking for a means, in any could be ascertained, to help the dying Edwin. The group began digging, in the order of first buried to the last. They first exhumed Mary Brown, dead now nine years. Little was left of her body save for dust and bone; natural, explained Dr. Metcalf, for a corpse that had been buried for nearly a decade. Next they dug up the body of Mary Olive; buried almost five years before. Her mummified corpse was still rather intact, George Brown became emotional at the sight of his late daughters hair, though in a state of advanced, natural, decomposition. There was no blood to be found in her heart. After disinterring Mary Olive, Dr. Metcalf considered calling off what he still thought was a futile endeavor. The group of Exeter townsfolk, however, insisted on carrying on. Finally they came the grave of Mercy Brown. Though Mercy had died that January, three months earlier, the early months of 1892 was particularly cold and it was nearly impossible to dig, at the time by hand, graves in a harsh Rhode Island winter. Mercy’s body was originally placed in a storage crypt for the first two months, and had actually only been buried in the ground for a little more than a month. By late afternoon after digging it out of it’s resting place, the group opened the coffin of Mercy Lena Brown. Mercy’s body, in contrast to her mother and sister, was completely unscathed. She looked, almost in spite of the consumption that felled her, healthy; her cheeks were flush, her lips full of color. She was said to look as if she was sleeping, except for the fact that her eyes were wide open; starring off into nothing. Despite Dr. Metcalf’s insistence, that considering the situations of her burial, these facts were completely a natural postmortem instance; this was all the evidence the townies need to a prove malicious supernatural force was preying on their community. They went looking for a vampire, and, in their eyes, found one in Mercy Brown. The group was now firmly resolved. They believed they needed end this scourge by cutting out and burning Mercy’s heart. When the doctor began incising into her chest, Mercy’s body began to bleed. Once again the doctor tried to reaffirm it was a natural occurrence, but the townsfolk felt further justified in their suspicions of vampirism. Dr. Metcalf removed Mercy’s heart, lungs, and liver then putting them on a nearby slab; proceeded to burn the organs. A decision was then made to attempt a bold experiment; mixing the ashes of Mercy’s organs with water and consumption medicines into an elixir to give to Edwin Brown. It was a last ditch attempt at a hair-of-the-dog type remedy in hopes of saving the man’s life. As Dr. Metcalf was burning her organs, before she was re-interred, one of the Exeter townsfolk beheaded Mercy’s corpse.
The incident was quickly leaked to the press, most likely from Dr. Metcalf. Two days later, on March 19th, 1892 the Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s biggest newspaper, ran a front page article about the incident. Entitled: “EXHUMED THE BODIES. Testing A Horrible Superstition In The Town Of Exeter“, the article was a rather quick and matter-of-fact description of the events that had taken place at the cemetery. A few days after that, On March 21st the Journal published another article, entitled: ”THE VAMPIRE THEORY.”, that went into far more details of the Brown women’s disinterment. A simmering debate started to brew about the veracity in beliefs in vampirism in Rhode Island. A letter to the editor, written by a family friend of George Brown, was published in a local paper; the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner about a week later. In the letter it was learned that the condition of Edwin was not improving, the tonic made from his sister’s heart did nothing. Not long after the paper came out, Edwin Brown was dead. Within a year, famed publisher, Joseph Pulitzer learned of what had happened in Exeter and his newspaper; the New York World, infamous for its yellow journalism, published its own version of the event. Entitled: “VAMPIRES IN NEW ENGLAND”, it was a highly sensationalized version of the Brown incident and others in Rhode Island. The simmering vampire debate exploded. Rhode Islanders looked back at its past and pondered as to how many other corpses where defiled on suspicion of vampirism. It was then when Rhode Island, and greater New England, realized the scope of the Panic and how much of it was actually carried out on an official capacity. The debates went all the way to the State House when a short lived Anti-Vampire political party formed in response. Rhode Island, more so than the rest of New England, became a laughing-stock around the country. How could these ignorant farmers and hicks still believe in barbaric superstitions in this modern enlightened age? The world was basically growing up. With advances in the handling of the dead, such as embalming, people were no long fearing death or the dead the way they used to. Machines could now be used for grave digging, forgoing the need for storage crypts. Electricity would lighten the darkness for the people in the rural areas, dispelling many nocturnal fears. Medical advances meant a better understanding of diseases and how they spread. Even the word ‘consumption’ fell quickly out of favor as major discoveries were made on how to diagnose and treat tuberculosis. It now thought that a hereditary disposition to tuberculosis is the culprit behind entire families being afflicted. But all this little consolation to George Brown who’s family was virtually destroyed. Before the 19th century would end, three more daughters, Annie, Jennie, and Myra, would die of consumption; their bodies would not be exhumed. Only one child, his daughter Hattie, would outlive him.
Considered the Last Vampire, Mercy Brown is one the best documented ‘vampire’ cases in the world, and is highly influential both directly and indirectly to all sorts of modern horror fiction. This includes, of course, the most famous vampire story of them all; Dracula. Bram Stoker, while writing his novel, knew of the incident and had a copy of the New York World article and at least one of the Providence Journal articles in his notes. In the book you can see pieces of the story of Mercy Brown in the character of Lucy Westerna. Rhode Island’s most famous horror writer, HP Lovecraft certainly knew of the states’ vampire stories, Mercy Brown is directly referenced in the story “The Shunned House” and you can see the influence of her story, those of other Rhode Island vampires, across his entire oeuvre. The quilt Mercy made is still in the possession of her sister Hattie’s descendants, and is occasionally shown to the public
The Vampire Panic had come to an end… Well, almost
Mercy Brown is in interred at Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Exeter #22 – Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Exeter. It is a smallish, though much bigger than the graveyards of the other ‘vampires’, and still active graveyard. Mercy’s grave is located next to a rather large tree, along with the graves of the rest of her family. Visitors regularly leave offerings on her tombstone. Right next to the graves is the slab upon which Mercy’s organs were burned. Not far away, at the edge of the cemetery, is the crypt in which Mercy’s body was placed before her, original, burial. In the late 80s Mercy’s headstone was broken at its base and stolen; fortunately the thieves didn’t get very far. The headstone was found in the woods nearby and replaced; now with reinforcements. I highly recommend a visit to the graves, but please be respectful.