This is the time of year when traditionally, youngsters contemplate novel ways to be terrifying.

 One suspects few could generate the enthusiasm of Exeter’s Lewis E. Peck Jr., whose Halloween hi-jinks were matchless. Of course, he had lots of experience refining his act, since he kept it going well into his sixties.

Peck had reasons for striking terror into those who dared make Halloween visits to a brooding churchyard cemetery off Ten Rod Road: Some came to make mischief at the grave of one of his forebears, the much-maligned Mercy Brown.

Many Rhode Islanders know the story of this 19-year-old who died of tuberculosis in 1892, but had been buried only weeks when some of her kinfolk suspected she was more undead than dead – a vampire.

Peck told me years ago that Mercy’s relatives whispered about several young family members who had died inexplicably “with a mark on their throats,” and after taking a vote the family dug her up “to see if everything was all right.”

It was not, they decided. Mercy appeared to have shifted in her coffin, and they were able to draw blood from her body.

Peck told me that following an ancient superstition, “They took out Mercy’s heart and started a fire, and burned it on a rock.”

Then they put her back, so Mercy Brown was buried twice. “It’s true, what my people did to Mercy,” Peck said, adding “They just didn’t know any better.”

A lifelong Exeter resident who served several terms on the Town Council, Peck decided long ago that Mercy had been reviled enough, and began spending Halloween nights at the cemetery, chatting with those who came to pay respects and scaring the daylights out of those with baser motives.

His suspicions were realistic. Deputy Town Clerk Patricia Whitford says Mercy’s gravestone was actually stolen once, only to be found by the town sergeant a few weeks later, abandoned beside a nearby back road.

  It was restored and replaced with reinforced supports that should ensure it will never disappear again, Whitford said.

  The other day I caught up with Peck, who at age 92 no longer holds his night-time graveyard vigils, but remembers with a chuckle how he would guard Mercy’s grave from dark to dawn.

“I couldn’t stand what they were doing, messin’ around there. I used to hide my car across the road, and lie down behind the stone,” he said.

When suspected troublemakers approached, “I’d jump up and make noise and groan – scared the s*** out of them.” 

Not everyone had evil intent, Peck remembered, noting that when he once returned to the grave after taking a short break at home, he found four yellow roses there. Once, he even let a trio of spirit-seekers put a tape recorder on the grave, but Mercy provided no response. 

According to Deputy Clerk Whitford, Mercy’s story has become so well known that visits to her grave in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery are not limited to Halloween, but occur throughout the year.

Many visitors, some dressed in appropriate black, leave symbols of respect including flowers and coins – indications that after so long, Mercy Brown may be headed toward resting in peace.

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.

Gerry Goldstein

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net), an occasional contributor to What's Up Newp and What's Up Rhode Island, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years