A Scary Tale for Halloween and Friday the 13th: the Vampires of New England
New Englanders were famous for their witch trials, but did you know they also hunted down vampires? In fact, Rhode Island was known as the vampire capital of America.
This was during the 1700s to 1800s, shortly after the Salem witch trials. At the time, consumption—known today as tuberculosis—was spreading throughout the nation. Entire families came down with, and perished from, the disease. Because consumption was so poorly understood, people from the region’s more remote farming communities believed those felled by the disease were rising from their graves to prey on family members.
In an effort to stop the undead, the townsfolk exhumed and desecrated the bodies of suspected vampires. One common ritual in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont was to dig up the corpse, remove its heart and burn the organ. The ashes were mixed with water and fed to the deceased’s sick relatives in the belief it would cure them of the disease.
In Maine and Plymouth, Mass., corpses were exhumed and flipped so they faced the bottom of the coffin. In one case in Connecticut, the skeleton of a man who died in the 1830s was found rearranged, with its skull and thighbones resting on its ribs.
Many vampire exhumations occurred in Rhode Island. The most famous case is that of Mercy Lena Brown.
Mercy was a young woman from Exeter, R.I., who died in January 1892 at the age of 19 after languishing for a year from consumption. The same disease took her mother in 1883, as well as her sister, who died six months after their mother.
When their brother Edwin came down with consumption, the residents of Exeter talked Mercy’s father, George Brown, into exhuming his wife and daughters. The disinterments were carried out by George’s relatives and neighbors in March 1892. The bodies of George’s wife and older daughter were in the normal state of decomposition. When they exhumed Mercy, however, they found her corpse well-preserved and lying on its side in the coffin. Mercy’s face had a rosy color, and there was blood in her heart and veins.
Mercy’s lack of decomposition likely was due to the frozen conditions of the cold New England winter. Nonetheless, the Exeter townsfolk were convinced she was one of the undead. Mercy’s heart and lungs were cut out of her body and burned. The ashes were mixed with water and given to Edwin. However, despite drinking the tonic, Edwin died two months later.
Mercy may have been one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, published in 1897. Newspaper reports of her case were found in Stoker’s files after his death.