Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

Bad, Bad Mercy Brown

Let’s face it; it’s Halloween. Every website and every blogger has been talking about creepy things for weeks now, and I’m determined to go with the flow. If you make a quick Google search for the phrase “Halloween Massachusetts,” the number one result will be the website “Salem Halloween City,” supposedly the site of the Salem witch trials and the Halloween capital of the world. Everyone knows the story of Salem’s seventeenth century witch trials (or thinks they do!), its standard New England fare. Today I’m interested in talking about a lesser-known chapter of New England’s spooky past.

In 1892, the town of Exeter, Rhode Island was swept by an hysteria not so different from the Salem Witch Trials that had occurred exactly two hundred years before. In the ancient, settled, and supposedly modern region of New England, an outbreak of tuberculosis (known then as “consumption”) led a furtive group of townspeople to believe that a vampire was loose in Rhode Island. To protect themselves against this supernatural parasite, they exhumed the grave of a recent consumption victim, mutilated it, and reinterred the body in the hope that the corpse would stay dead. The target of their macabre wrath was a girl named Mercy Brown, called “Lena” by her family.

Lena’s family had been ravaged by tuberculosis starting in 1882. Her mother, Mary Eliza, succumbed in December of that year. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, died of the disease in 1883. Within the next few years, brother Edwin would catch a slower-acting form of TB and move to the supposedly more healthful climate of Colorado Springs. Lena probably contracted the disease sometime in late1891 or early 1982; her obituary was printed in January 1892 and her death appears to have come suddenly.

Soon after the poor girl succumbed, a band of skittish townspeople convinced her father to allow the exhumation of his dead family members to make sure that they were all… staying dead. Having most recently passed on, Lena exhibited symptoms of decomposition that the superstitious farmers took as evidence of an unholy life after death. Even examination by the Brown family doctor and the discovery of TB bacterium in the body’s lungs was not enough to change their minds. The party removed Lena’s heart, burned it to ashes, and gave them in a drink to Lena’s sickly brother Edwin in the hope that he would be cured. Edwin himself would be dead in less than two months.

The whole incident is grimly fascinating. Every culture has its stories of vampires and vampire-like undead creatures, but it’s not a piece of folklore that I find generally associated with New England. Thus from a modern perspective, the case of Lena “Mercy” Brown seems to emerge in a region not known for such stories, in a time when many people—certainly most Americans—were beginning to leave these sorts of dark fairy tales behind. Where did these American vampire tales come from? Why did they wait until 1892 to surface?

In re-examining the historical record, however, we find that vampires had been popping up in New England for at least a century before the incident with the Brown family. One case specifically arose in the Brown’s hometown of Exeter, Rhode Island! In the late eighteenth century, the children of Exeter’s Tillinghast family began to die of consumption. Each child in turn complained of being visited by the first of their siblings to die of the disease, sister Sarah Tillinghast. She came “every night and sat upon some portion of their body, causing great pain and misery.” Being a pragmatic sort, Father Tillinghast exhumed the bodies of his six deceased children and cremated their hearts. Upon opening Sarah’s coffin, he supposedly found the body swollen with fresh red blood, the eyes open, and the hair and nails still growing. After dealing with Sarah in the same way as the other children, the family apparently found peace.

Writing in 1896, George R. Stetson refers to the region around Exeter as one in which “agriculture is in a depressed condition and abandoned farms are numerous.” He goes on to state, “naturally in such isolated conditions, the superstitions of a much lower culture have maintained their place […] despite the church, the public school, and the weekly newspaper.”

As pointed out in Smithsonian Magazine’s “The Great New England Vampire Panic,” 19th century New England was a great deal less church-going than popular culture would have us believe. A good portion of the population didn’t even belong to an established church. When disease and catastrophe reared their ugly heads, many people turned to superstition instead of religion; fertile soil for all kinds of long-legged beasties. For more on this, see their excellent article here.

Is it Rhode Island? I’ve been there and I found nothing particularly creepy about the place. Perhaps its Exeter in particular that gives rise to all these stories of the undead. Or maybe the stories are all true. If so, as small as the state is, I’d put money on most of the population being undead by now. Just saying, for those of you thinking about visiting on Halloween night.

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Do you need help in “checking” on your family? If so, count me out; you may have found your way to this site by accident. For all other communications, please use the handy comment box in the space below.


Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-Corpse?” Folklore. 117.3. (December, 2006): pp. 241-260.

Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” The American Anthropologist. 9.1. (January 1896): pp. 1-13.

Tucker, Abigail. “The Great New England Vampire Panic.” Smithsonian Magazine. (October 2012). <>

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