History Thread: Vampire of Liberty

Historians generally don’t have much nice to say about Andrew Johnson. The 17th President, who succeeded to office after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, had a chance to heal the nation recently divided by civil war and end or at least ameliorate its racial inequities. Instead, his conviction that America’s was a “white man’s government” hobbled Reconstruction before it began, leading to Johnson’s impeachment and an ignominious departure from office. Today one’s hard-pressed to find an historian who doesn’t consider Johnson, with his legacy of division and racism, one of America’s worst presidents.

But it wasn’t just on momentous issues of race that Johnson betrayed his predecessor: he also repudiated his steadfast opposition to vampires. Or, perhaps, those issues weren’t as separate as we’d think. Indeed, the story of Andrew Johnson’s Vampire isn’t as innocently strange as it appears in unsolved mystery books: it’s yet another paranormal myth combining superstition, deceit and racial prejudice.

Andrew Johnson

The bizarre story of the “President’s Vampire” begins in 1866 (or 1867), on a fishing vessel in the Indian Ocean. Several members of the crew (some accounts say two, others raise the number to four) disappeared at sea, leading the Captain to order an investigation. Scouring the hold of the vessel, a sailor made a gruesome discovery: one sailor was dead, completely drained of blood. Another seaman “was found…sucking the blood from [his body],” gazing up from his kill like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee as the interloper watched in horror.

After a scuffle, the vampire – a Portuguese sailor using the alias “James Brown” – was apprehended and taken to the captain. He confessed to the deed, copped to being among the hungry undead, and led the Captain to the exsanguinated corpses of his other victim(s). Upon the vessel’s arrival in Boston, Brown was arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Sometime in 1867, before Brown’s captors discovered the futility of hanging a vampire, Johnson ordered his death sentence commuted. Brown was transferred to the mental hospital at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, where one assumes he dwells to this day.

This, at least, is the story we’ve all heard. A minor classic of the paranormal genre, Brown’s supernatural killing spree was the subject of breathless articles in the late 19th Century and still crops up in books and websites as a bona fide vampire tale. In the 1930s, pioneering paranormalist Charles Fort recapitulated the tale in his Wild Talents, disseminating it to a wider audience. Of course Fort, with his brilliant discernment of scientific credibility, revisits Brown just after he dismisses the “absurd” idea that vampire bats transmit rabies. Clearly, a blood-drinking ghoul is more plausible than bats serving as vectors for disease!

Most modern tellings (including Fort’s) originate from an 1892 article in the Brooklyn Eagle, prompted by Brown’s transfer from a prison in Columbus, Ohio to St. Elizabeth’s. According to the Eagle, Brown’s crimes hadn’t stopped onboard ship: he had “committed two murders since his confinement,” though the writer is silent as to whether he feasted on their blood. Brown was also said to have “fought like a tiger” as he was removed from his cell, believing he was about to be executed. Presumably, he feared that the warden had obtained a stake and some garlic in lieu of a gallows.

It turns out, however, that the Eagle didn’t originate this legend. Nor, comparatively, was their rendition especially embellished. In 1885 the Richmond Dispatch ran a breathless dispatch about the dread vampire. This account describes Brown as a “Portuguese Negro” who, with breathless melodrama, was transferred from Massachusetts to Ohio on a special train by dead of night. Brown, apparently, was the rare vampire inhibited by darkness; or possibly, his jailers just had a flair for drama.

The Dispatch far outdoes the Eagle in its implausible spookiness: Brown’s original crime was drinking the blood of his captain “from a cloven skull.” (Unlikely, as Brown’s crimes were recorded in the ship’s log – but more in a moment.) Further, he was said to have murdered an astonishing twenty-six people while incarcerated, and that “all efforts to tame him have failed.” Rather than executing him, or at least anointing his cell with Holy Water, prison officials kept Brown in solitary confinement, where his “bloodthirsty eyes and…constant pacing back and forth” caused the Dispatch to liken him, again, to a “tiger.” From there he was dispatched to Ohio, to commit more crimes, and eventually to DC.

Historian Robert Damon Schneck, a frequent contributor to the Fortean Times, found the story too good to be true and set about digging. Through his efforts (published in the Times, and later in a book titled The President’s Vampire), Schneck uncovered that James Brown was indeed a real person, although far less ferocious than the legend. Between the research of Schenck and blogger Dale M. Brumfeld, we have a fairly clear picture of the true story. Instead of prefiguring Nosferatu’s rampage aboard a sailing vessel, Brown was an ordinary killer victimized by racism.

Brown’s real name is unknown, but he does appear to have been Black or mixed race. Twenty-five years old at the time of his fateful voyage, Brown was covered in tattoos and known affectionately as Jimmy by his shipmates. He lived in New Bedford, a whaling hub outside Boston which, then as now, contained a large Portuguese population. In early 1866 he signed aboard the Atlantic, a fishing bark outfitted as a whaler, as the ship’s cook; he little imagined that he’d return home in chains.

Tempers inevitably fray on long ocean voyages, and the Atlantic‘s crew was no exception. The primary offender aboard the Atlantic was James Newton, a nineteen year old sailor widely considered a troublemaker. Newton enjoyed picking fights with his mates, sometimes playfully, sometimes in earnest. Unsurprisingly, his squabbles with Brown fell along racial lines: rarely did the two men’s paths cross without Newton issuing some insulting epithet. Brown tried to ignore him, but became sullen and withdrawn, isolating himself from the crew between meals.

James Brown

One day, as Brown chatted with ship’s mate James Gardner in the galley, Newton confronted Brown. Newton apparently greeted Brown by calling him a “n****r.” Brown, pushed beyond endurance by his shipmate’s harassment, responded by drawing a six inch sheath knife and stabbing Newton in the side. Gardner disarmed Brown without violence and went to get help. By the time he returned, Newton had bled to death. Brown, if not a vampire, was certainly a killer.

Captain Benjamin Franklin Wing ordered Brown’s arrest, and he was clapped in irons and conveyed by another ship to Boston – an event Wing recorded in the ship’s log, uncovered a century later by Schneck. Gardner accompanied him, assigned upon arrival to convey Brown to the Portuguese consul for punishment. The consul decided that since Brown had murdered an American sailor while serving onboard on an American ship, he would allow his trial in an American court.

Brown, a poor, foreign-born, mixed race sailor whose homicide was witnessed by a superior, didn’t stand a chance. He was so destitute that he was forced to pay his attorneys with bales of smuggled whale oil in lieu of money. Nor could Brown summon any character witnesses on behalf, his other crewmates conveniently indisposed on the Atlantic. With Gardner the only witness to testify, the prosecution’s case was airtight. After a brief trial in November 1866, Brown was sentenced to death by hanging.

As he awaited execution of sentence, Brown was conveyed to the Charlestown State Prison, a notoriously brutal institution even by standards of the time. Under such treatment, Brown became a “violent and unpredictable inmate.” Not long after his arrival, a fight with another prisoner resulted in Brown stabbing his assailant seven times with a razor. A prison doctor who visited Brown after the incident concluded that he was “hopelessly insane,” though the combination of harassment by prisoners and mistreatment by racist guards undoubtedly contributed to his supposed derangement.

The combination of jailhouse brutality and belief in Brown’s insanity led to a wave of sympathy which extended to the White House. President Johnson held a paternalistic view of Blacks as a subject race who could be afforded kindness from their betters. Johnson notoriously grasped upon his wartime characterization by Tennessee freedmen as their “Moses” to deflect accusations of prejudice, even as he pardoned ex-Confederates, insulted Frederick Douglass and vetoed Congress’s civil rights legislation. Thus the “Black Moses” Andy Johnson decided to extend mercy to the Black Vampire, James Brown.

Brown next resurfaced in 1887, when he petitioned President Grover Cleveland for a pardon. Perhaps aware of the vampire legend sprouting around him, Brown included correspondence from a doctor arguing that he was sane and no threat to others. He further protested that he had acted in self-defense, and that his Atlantic shipmates were still alive and could testify on his behalf. Cleveland did not answer Brown’s request and he remained incarcerated, without hope of appeal. The only accounts we have of Brown’s subsequent fate are increasingly absurd newspaper articles, the man further blurring into legend.

Brown’s pardon petition

Brown’s ties to New England no doubt furthered the myth. Throughout the 19th Century, superstitious locals there blamed outbreaks of tuberculosis on vampires, resorting to Old World superstitions to banish them. In the 1850s, a bemused Henry David Thoreau recounted an incident where a Vermont family, “several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased.” This method, more commonly prescribed in Victorian times than the standard stake through the heart, indicates that vampirism was the plague Thoreau’s acquaintances feared.

In 1892 Rhode Island experienced a particularly notorious incident. An outbreak of tuberculosis in Exeter was attributed to a deceased young woman, Mercy Brown, the plague’s first victim. Her father, George, allowed Mercy to be disinterred, her heart burned and, most ghoulishly of all, her ashes mixed with water as a cure for his afflicted son Edwin. The irony of engaging in vampiric behavior to defeat a vampire apparently escaped George Brown. Nor did this even work, as Edwin died soon after his “treatment.” But Edwin proved the plague’s last victim, allowing George to claim victory over his daughter’s ghost.

The Mercy Brown case received widespread press coverage. Newspapers breathlessly reported this “true tale” of vampirism with all the responsibility expected of tabloids, encouraging readers to believe that the Undead stalked Rhode Island. Undoubtedly, Mercy Brown’s rampage whetted the public appetite’s for blood-sucking ghouls, and with Dracula still five years away, enterprising publishers exhumed old stories to meet the demand. Surely it’s no coincidence that the Brooklyn Eagle revisited James Brown’s story that same year, capitalizing off the surname he coincidentally shared with Rhode Island’s own revenant.

While Brown was undoubtedly guilty of murder (or at least manslaughter), it’s hard not to sympathize with his plight. For 19th Century newspapers and their readers, it wasn’t hard to view a colored killer as something less than human; not as a sailor pushed beyond endurance by a racist shipmate, but a blood-drinking, mass murdering “tiger” who embodied every fear expected from the Black man freed of slavery. That he was foreign as well tied into the old perception in the Anglosphere (which predated Bram Stoker) that vampires symbolized an alien menace polluting our nation. A dual racial threat: clearly, the stuff monsters are made of.

While it’s more exciting to believe that Andrew Johnson was threatened, entranced or otherwise persuaded by supernatural means to benefit a blood-sucking ghoul, James Brown’s real story is much more banal. A Black criminal was handed an extreme sentence, spent his life suffering in America’s prison system and was demonized as a literal monster by generations of mostly-white writers. Sadly, the saga of President’s Vampire has more in common with our age than we’d like to think.

Note: This article draws heavily on articles by bloggers “Toothpicking” (“All the President’s Vampires“) and Dale M. Brumfeld’s “An American Nosferatu.”