Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Mysterious Mercy Brown

The name Mercy Brown is synonymous in United States folklore with the idea of the American vampire.  But how did a teenager from Exeter, Rhode Island become such a symbol of fear?

It all began when members of the George Brown family fell ill with a terrible, and at the time, misunderstood disease: tuberculosis.  Known as consumption, tuberculosis could either kill a victim quickly, sometimes within days of falling ill...but it could also take months or even years to slowly cause a victim to waste away.  In 1883, Mary Brown fell ill, and died in December of that year.  Her oldest daughter, Mary Olive, also fell ill and died the following June.  Both were buried in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery, located behind the town's Baptist Church.

For several years, all seemed well, and George raised his remaining two children, Mercy Lena and Edwin.  However, another wave of tuberculosis would hit the family.  Mercy and Edwin became ill around the same time, and the disease hit Mercy extremely hard and she was dead rather quickly, dying January 17, 1892.  Being January in New England, the ground was too frozen to bury her immediately, and she was held in a holding crypt until the ground could thaw.

Edwin, while deathly ill, clung to life.  In an effort to save HIS life, he, accompanied by his wife, Hortense, was sent to a tuberculosis treatment center in Colorado.  Unfortunately, the dry, cool air of Colorado wasn't enough to "cure" Edwin, and he was sent home to Rhode Island to die.  However, it wasn't until right after Mercy died that Edwin's condition started to deteriorate more rapidly than ever.

In his feverish state, Edwin began saying that Mercy (who was already deceased at this time) was visiting him  at night, crushing his chest.  An incident that we might simply contribute to the symptoms of TB or even sleep paralysis with accompanying hypnagogia was the cause of a great panic, as even the townspeople started saying that Mercy could be seen wandering the cemetery and surrounding fields at night!

Photo from Find-a-Grave contributor, Haley Cook

George was desperate.  He had lost his wife and two daughters already, and now his only son was dying.  After some soul searching, the townspeople convinced George that there had to have been a vampire at work, making Edwin so sick...

On March 17, 1892, George and several other local men exhumed the bodies of George's family.  Their target was Mercy, but they went ahead and exhumed Mary and Mary Olive as well, just to be safe.  As expected, both their bodies were significantly decomposed.  After all, they had been buried almost 10 years before.  However, Mercy was described as being in too perfect of condition, with very little, if any, decay.  Her cheeks were pink, and it appeared as if her hair and nails had grown.  Her body was also not in the same position as it was when she was interred.  Most damning was the fact that when her heart was cut out, it was found to be filled with blood.

Mercy's heart just wasn't ripped out.  It was ripped out, and then burned on a nearby rock.  Once adequately burned, the ashes were mixed with water and Edwin was forced to drink the concoction in a last ditch effort to save his life.  It didn't work and Edwin was dead within two months.

Today, we know much more about what happens to a body after it dies, especially if that body is NOT embalmed, and in temperatures below freezing.  We also know much more about what causes "consumption," and the symptoms that are so reminiscent of a vampire attack--the paleness, the wasting away, the loss of appetite, and of course, the coughing up of blood, or finding blood upon the pillow or bedclothes after awakening in the morning.  However, because of Mercy's fate, and the fate of several others who were wrongly and unjustly accused during this dark period in US history, to this day, Rhode Island is known as the American Transylvania!

Smithsonian Article on the Great New England Vampire Panic

Vampire Week Countdown
Day One-Renfield's Syndrome

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