In search of something eerie to write about in late October, I went to Exeter to seek out the grave of Rhode Island’s most famous accused vampire, Mercy Lena Brown, who died in 1892 at age 19. Given her celebrity, I was hardly surprised to find that I wasn’t the only one who’d come to visit the very accessible gravesite, just steps off Ten Rod Road in Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery. Art, coins, rocks, tarot cards, a slew of geo-tagged Instagram photos, and a bottle of Bacardi leaning against her gravestone – apropos with its little red and black bat logo – were evidence that she’d been repeatedly visited by the living.
I’d first learned about Mercy, called Lena by her family, last year on Aaron Mahnke’s popular podcast Lore, and her gravesite is featured on alternative travel sites like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura. But the widespread public fascination with this small town Rhode Island story is nothing new. Mercy earned eternal life in popular culture almost immediately following her death some 120 years ago, when Irish writer Bram Stoker read about what happened to her in newspapers. He went on to publish Dracula in 1897, and, literary scholars believe, the novel’s character Lucy is a nod to Mercy Lena Brown.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Mercy Brown story, the tragic tale unfolds like this: In the early 1880s, Mercy’s mother Mary died of tuberculosis, or Consumption as the misunderstood disease was then called, as the condition seemed to gradually “consume” or waste the body. In addition to dramatic weight loss and fatigue, tuberculosis symptoms also include a bloody cough, chest pain and fever. The Brown’s eldest daughter Mary Olive was next to fall victim to the contagion, passing away in 1883. Years later, both Mercy and her brother Edwin mysteriously fell ill, and when Mercy finally succumbed in 1892, scared friends and neighbors began to succumb to rural folklore, entertaining the myth that the undead are to blame for multiple deaths within a family.
The villagers, including the family doctor, convinced Mercy’s bereaved father, George Brown, to grant them permission to exhume the bodies of his deceased family members on March 17, 1892. Naturally, when they examined the bodies of Mary and Mary Olive, the corpses had significantly decomposed over the course of nine or so years. But the body of recently deceased Mercy, which was stored in a cold, above-ground crypt in the middle of winter, was still relatively unchanged, and the heart and liver still held blood. This, they surmised, meant she was preying upon her brother Edwin and causing his worsening condition. In accordance with the superstition, Mercy’s heart was removed, burned, and the ashes mixed with water for Edwin to drink. The curative elixir failed, and Edwin died two months later.
Gazing at the 19th century gravestone and all the 21st century tchotchkes surrounding it, there was indeed something very horrifying and uncomfortable about what happened to Mercy Brown, and it had nothing to do with whether or not she drank anyone’s blood. In part, the eeriness lives in the fact that Mercy was far from being the only accused vampire in the state or even the region in the 1800s. According to Rhode Island folklore expert Michael E. Bell, Ph. D, the state has a rich vampire history. Sarah Tillinghast (also in Exeter) and Nancy Young who died in 1827 in the Foster area are two lesser known “vampires” who were both posthumously accused of sucking the life out of the living. Remnants of 19th century exhumations have also been found in Connecticut and Vermont, and Bell believes hundreds more could be awaiting discovery throughout New England, evidence that panic and misinformation, when paired together, spread as thoroughly as any contagion.
The other equally chilling aspect of the exhumation of the body of Mercy Brown, an event which occurred almost exactly two centuries after the Salem Witch Trials, is realizing that tuberculosis had already been scientifically established as a bacterial disease. German scientist Robert Koch’s demonstration of Mycobacterium tuberculosis as the causative organism of Consumption occurred in 1882, while Mercy was still alive. Despite the scientific information available, fear, hysteria and folklore managed to inform public decision-making over better, proven facts.
With these realizations in mind, I couldn’t help but consider the tragic truth about Mercy Brown’s family and many families like hers – that they watched each other suffer slow, painful deaths – and lament that as much as things have changed today, much hasn’t changed. Thanks to the availability of vaccines, tuberculosis is no longer a leading cause of death in the United States, but it remains a top 10 killer the undeveloped world – the WHO estimates 1/3 of the world’s population is infected.
And yet, despite the threatening proliferation of tuberculosis outside of the US and despite the availability of tuberculosis vaccines here at home, it’s estimated that up to 10% of parents in America won’t vaccinate their children against the disease that wiped out entire families like the Browns in the 19th century. It seems almost sardonic, and strangely parallel, that this choice is often made based on fears about a not-well-understood condition: autism. Even though science has debunked the vaccine-autism link time and time again in the past decade, modern folklore about autism continues to persist and influence the decisions of some parents regardless of the proven facts.
And so, pondering vampires and anti-vaxxers on a late October day, I realized that fear, though it serves so many useful, life-saving evolutionary purposes, also comes with profound irony. The great irony of fear is that when allowed to spread unchecked through a population, it oftentimes causes something just as scary or far worse than the thing actually being feared in the first place. And to add yet another layer of dread to an already frightening subject, this great irony can’t seem to ever correct itself, repeatedly and eerily shape-shifting into different ugly and perverse forms time and time again.
American vampire folklore is long dead, but if the currently hysterical climate of America is a testament to anything, it’s that the great irony of fear was and still is all around us.