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Legends and Lore: Mercy Brown, The Vampire of Rhode Island

Mercy Brown

The legend of the vampire has its roots in numerous cultures, stories, and myths. People have blamed vampires for a variety of catastrophes, illnesses, and deaths for centuries and have caused normal everyday individuals to act in strange ways.

One such story is that of Mercy Brown. Mercy Brown was born in 1872 in Rhode Island. She was the second child of George and Mary Brown. In the late 1800s, Tuberculosis had a strangle hold on several New England states and claimed the lives of young and old alike. Mercy’s family was no exception. Mercy’s mother Mary and older sister of the same name died first. Mercy was the next to become ill and died on January 17, 1892, at the young age of nineteen.

Mercy Brown's grave

Mercy Brown's grave

Life Is Stranger Than Fiction

Mercy’s winter death required her to be temporarily put in a crypt until the ground thawed in the springtime. While she was waiting to be put to rest, her brother Edwin contracted Tuberculosis.

As the disease progressed, Edwin began to have horrible fits of delirium in which he stated that Mercy was strangling him or sitting on his chest, taking his breath away. Some of the townsfolk reported seeing Mercy walking through the local cemetery. A superstition of the time said that when multiple people in one family died suddenly or quickly one after the other, it had to be the work of undead spirits or creatures that were jealous of the living. Edwin’s disease addled ramblings and some of the local folk’s claims of seeing Mercy created the idea that she was a vampire and the cause of her brother’s illness.

It was decided that Mercy would be exhumed and examined to see if she had the qualifications of being a vampire. Her body was removed from the crypt by her father, brother, a local doctor and a reporter. Being that is was a harsh New England winter and Mercy had been kept in an above ground crypt for several weeks, her body showed very little signs of decomposition and blood was still present in her heart. This led the town of Exeter, Rhode Island to believe her to be a vampire.

To rid her brother of the Tuberculosis she supposedly caused, her heart and liver were burned and the ashes were mixed with some other local remedies and given to Edwin to drink. Edwin died not long after.

We're Only Human

Mercy’s body was eventually buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Rhode Island. Her grave stands as a monument to those who were exhumed in the 1800’s during the great vampire/Tuberculosis epidemic. Mercy was one of around 200 bodies that were exhumed during this period in New England to check for vampirism. Common "symptoms" of being a vampire were blood still in the body, longer hair and nails, and color to the skin several weeks after death. Many of the "vampires" who were discovered during this time died in winter and thus their bodies were preserved enough to prevent normal decomposition.

While the legend of Mercy Brown the Vampire is frightening, it’s not as frightening as the panic and hysteria that is caused by medical mysteries and outbreaks of disease.

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© 2019 Lindsey Burek