In a short while I’ll be hopping a plane out to Rhode Island to reunite with the other Dave. We’ll be doing some sight-seeing, covering the Rock & Shock convention, as well as visiting Salem, Massachusetts. Salem, of course, is famous for its witches and the infamous trials that took place there in 1692. However, witches weren’t the only thing troubling the minds of New Englanders back in our country’s earlier days. Two hundred years later, it would become the locale for another supposed creature – the vampire!
Not long ago, I had to have my annual Tuberculosis test for work. Its always a minor annoyance when my boss drops the order sheet on my desk and says, “You’ve got to get this done soon or you can be suspended!” Today we view this two-part screening as an inconvenience but, back in the 1800’s, TB was a devastating disease. Referred to as “consumption,” symptoms would include coughing blood, loss of appetite, weight loss, and fatigue. When one looks at someone suffering the advanced stages of TB, it isn’t hard to understand why people may have believed someone was in the process of becoming a vampire.
Back in 1883, the Brown family in Rhode Island suffered the loss of their mother, Mary, to the disease. Six months later, their eldest daughter, Mary Olive, would also succumb and two years after that, one of their sons. Families in New England brought with them many of the superstitions that existed back in the old country and the vampire legend was one of them. It was widely believed that vampires would often feed on a single family, thus the Brown situation raised even more eyebrows.
A younger daughter named Mercy Lena Brown was 19 years old when she, too, passed away in 1892. While George was not as prone to superstition as his neighbors, they convinced him that he had best investigate the possibility of vampirism before he was to lose his two remaining children. George arranged to have the bodies of his dead family exhumed along with the assistance of a doctor and close friends.
Mercy had died in January and, as the ground was too cold for digging, her body was kept in a crypt until she could have a formal burial. While the bodies of Mary the wife and Mary the daughter had decomposed, they discovered that Mercy was not only still fresh looking, she had apparently changed her position!
And so, for the first time in United States History, an undead ritual was to be performed. The doctor removed her heart and was alarmed when it bled fresh blood – further adding to the myth. The body was drained of fluids and, per the ritual, the heart was burned. While modern science may label this as a case of a ignorance, the fact remains that after Mercy’s death – none of the other Browns were to get sick from TB.
Today the site is often visited by history buffs, occultists, and even a horror host! In the Seventh Season of Penny Dreadful’s Shilling Shockers, our favorite witch paid the grave a visit for one of her shows. Whether Mercy Brown was an actual vampire will never be known. Regardless, her name will always be synonymous with the legend and of interest to New England historians. In that respect, Mercy has indeed achieved immortality.