Friday, October 31, 2008

A Vampire In Exeter

I didn't know the story of Mercy Brown until about 12 or 13 years ago when Dennis brought me to her grave one night in October. I found it fascinating that people would have thought that she was a vampire. As I stood by her headstone, I stomped the ground and called her name which totally freaked out Dennis. I wasn't scared at all. I'm so glad to read the real story in the Projo this morning and thought it was a great one to share with all of you.

We come to Exeter on this late-October afternoon to remember Mercy Brown, less for what she became in death than for what she was in life. Mercy, whose name would prove cruelly ironic, died on Jan. 17, 1892, at the age of 19. She left no known photographs, drawings or letters –– only a story, still growing, that she could never have imagined.

The story holds that she was a vampire, the most famous of several said to have existed in the United States. Google “American vampires” and Mercy’s name comes up second of more than a half million hits.

She was no vampire, of course.

She was a young woman who died of tuberculosis, a disease that was poorly understood. Victims frequently spit up blood, which in less informed times, some construed as evidence of evil.

Tuberculosis killed Mercy’s mother and sister in the 1880s, and when her brother, Edwin, and then Mercy became sick with the disease, a sort of hysteria descended on rural Exeter. What happened next was unspeakable, transforming someone who would have been anonymous for eternity into something worse.

On this late-October afternoon, we meet Sheila Reynolds, whose passion is Exeter history. Sheila drives us around town, past barns and farmhouses that were built two centuries ago. We pass grist and lumber mills, and orchards and fields defined by stone walls. We look inside a one-room schoolhouse. We hear about churches and inns. We picture Mercy.

“Most girls only went to the eighth grade; there were very few that went off to high school,” Sheila says. “So at that point, she would be taking care of her younger siblings.”

Mercy Lena Brown was born on Aug. 2, 1872, the fourth of the six children of Mary (Arnold) and George Thomas Brown, a farmer who traced his ancestry to Charles Brown, born in Suffolk, England, in 1620. By the time Mercy finished eighth grade, she had two younger sisters.

“She would be helping at the house making dinner for the farmhands, helping out with the other chores around the farm, collecting eggs,” Sheila says. “They would have to do a lot of canning. Once they dug potatoes and squash from the garden, they put them in the root cellar for the winter. They would salt the meat or salt fish, whatever they had to put up.” Families made candles and soap from the fat of pigs. They sewed their own clothes. They pressed cider from apples. When money allowed, they visited the general store for sugar and spices.

As her teenage years ended, Mercy likely shared the ambition of generations of young farm women before her. “Probably being a wife and having children of her own,” Sheila says.
We learn of University of Rhode Island Prof. Linda Welters, who oversaw a cataloguing of almost 1,000 Rhode Island-produced quilts. Mercy Brown made one, according to the scholars.

A call to Welters leads us to the North Kingstown home of Betsey Reynolds, a distant relative of Mercy Brown. Betsey and her sister, June O’Neil, who lives next door, show us the quilt in Betsey’s living room.

“This is actually a coverlet,” Betsey says.

“Like a bedspread,” June says.

It is a pretty patchwork of white, blue, brown and red squares, roughly a foot per side. Betsey, a quilter herself, says it was created from scraps of cotton cloth. The stitches are perfectly placed, the feel of the fabric soft but sturdy. Touching it, as Mercy herself did for hours, we can imagine a modest young woman, dreaming of a good tomorrow.

“As far as you know, this is the only evidence of Mercy Brown that survives?” we ask.

“There may be somebody in the other part of the family that has something,” says Betsey, “but we have never heard of it.”

No record exists of when Mercy contracted TB, but by the autumn of 1891, she was sufficiently sick to require a doctor’s attention.

She was experiencing night sweats, weight loss, fever and fatigue. She was coughing up blood, and may have awakened with crimson froth on her lips, a telltale sign to the superstitious. Until the 1940s, when a cure was found, TB slowly consumed a person –– hence its ancient name, consumption. It remains among the worst ways to die.

Some short while after Mercy was placed in the crypt at the cemetery behind Chestnut Hill Baptist Church, there to await burial when the winter earth thawed, acquaintances of George Brown came to believe that something more than contagion was responsible for his family’s terrible luck.

“During the few weeks past,” The Providence Journal reported on the front page of its March 18, 1892, edition, “Mr. Brown has been besieged on all sides by a number of people who expressed implicit faith in the old theory that by some unexplained and unreasonable way in some part of the deceased relative’s body live flesh and blood might be found, which is supposed to feed upon the living who are in feeble health."

“Mr. Brown, having no confidence in the old-time theory, and also getting no encouragement from the medical fraternity, did not yield to their importunities until yesterday afternoon, when an investigation was held under the direction of Harold Metcalf, M.D., of Wickford.”

On that day, Dr. Metcalf went to the cemetery and found that villagers had unearthed Mercy’s mother and sister. Of Mercy’s mother, the Journal wrote: “Some of the muscles and flesh still existed in a mummified state but there were no signs of blood in the heart.” Mercy’s sister Mary Olive, the paper reported, was also confirmed as being dead. They were reburied.

Mercy was then removed from the crypt and cut open.

“The lungs showed diffuse tuberculosis germs,” the paper reported, a detail quickly (and still today) overlooked.

Dr. Metcalf examined Mercy’s heart and liver.

“These two organs were removed, and a fire being kindled in the cemetery, they were reduced to ashes and the attendants seemed satisfied,” The Journal reported. Whether Edwin Brown later ate his sister’s ashes in hopes of being cured of his own TB, as some advised, cannot be determined. Edwin died that spring.

A leather-bound volume at Town Hall records the deaths of 19 people in Exeter in 1892. The oldest, Nancy Greene, 84, is listed as dying of “old age.” The youngest, Ernest Woodmansee, two months old, died of cholera. Diphtheria claimed three Exeter residents that year, tuberculosis four.

“Female, white, single,” is how the clerk described Mercy, dead at the age of 19 years, five months and 15 days; “tuberculosis” is recorded as the cause. Teacher Georgia Barber, who was one year older than Mercy, also died of the disease –– just three days before Mercy. But it was Mercy, not Georgia, who would be so strangely fated.

The cemetery behind Chestnut Hill Baptist Church is a mile east of Town Hall.

It is deserted of the living on this late-October afternoon, but evidence abounds that Mercy’s grave is regularly frequented. Among the items left at her tombstone are a ring, a piece of candy, a key chain, a beer cap, a set of vampire teeth, a heart-shaped rock, and black plastic roses. The site seems irresistible to the kooky and the curious. It is so popular (and vandalized) that a metal bracket and concrete post have been placed to prevent theft of Mercy’s stone, the only tangible evidence, beyond a quilt and a line in a death register, of her existence.

Mercy died in the year that Jack the Ripper was an international news sensation, and accounts of what happened that March in Exeter, R.I., were said to be among Bram Stoker’s inspirations in writing Dracula, the 1897 horror novel. Today, Mercy is the subject of hundreds of articles, books and movies, some posted to YouTube. “Do not investigate here alone!” one video advises.

“Creepy sounds came from the crypt.”

Not today. The only sounds are birds.

The setting sun bathes the cemetery in golden light. As her 116th winter in the ground approaches, Mercy Brown, a simple woman so wrongly remembered, is, for this moment, at least, at peace.

The Exeter Historical Society can be reached at

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