The Bitten Files #2: Mercy Brown and the Vampire Panic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a report on tuberculosis every year. Currently, about one-third of the world’s population is infected with TB. It is also the infectious disease with the highest mortality rate, with 5,000 people dying of the disease every day. Although the term “tuberculosis” didn’t come into use until 1839, TB has been with us since ancient times. Our medical knowledge has, of course, improved exponentially since the Industrial Revolution and treatment in the modern world is often inhibited purely by stigma rather than by lack of resources.

Why all this talk about tuberculosis, you might be wondering. When is she going to get onto the vampire stuff?

Fear not, dear reader. I think we’re there.

In the latter half of the 19th century, rural New England was plagued by tuberculosis. Known at the time as consumption, due to the rapid weight loss experienced by those who contracted it, it struck fear into the hearts of communities. It’s easy to see why: it was so infectious that it wiped out whole households. At the time, tuberculosis hadn’t been identified as a bacterial disease so the source of the infection was unknown. The disease induces symptoms which – especially if unexplained and poorly understood as they were then – are undoubtedly terrifying. A raging fever and night sweats plagued the “consumptive” person as they grew ever paler and weaker, coughing up blood.

800px-MercyBrownGravestone

Mercy Brown’s grave marker, Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter, RI

This tragic epidemic led residents of the northeastern United States to suspect a supernatural culprit. They believed that the dying were having the life drained out of them by none other than their own deceased relatives. In accordance with local superstitions, they started to exhume the bodies of the recently deceased in order to confirm that these wandering spirits were causing havoc from household to household.

The earliest (recorded) case came from Bennington County, Vermont. It was that of Hulda Burton, the wife of Captain Isaac Burton. Hulda was dying of tuberculosis and, in an effort to save her, the captain had his first wife Rachel (c. 1770 – 1790) exhumed. Believing Rachel to be the entity draining his new spouse of her life force, Burton agreed to have his late wife’s liver, heart and lungs burned and obviously hoped that Hulda would be cured; sadly, this was not to be and Hulda died in 1793. Vermont was also the site of one of the most notorious incidents in the so-called “vampire panic”. On 14th February 1817, Frederick Ransom, aged 20, passed away. Fearing his son would return to plague their family, his father had Frederick’s heart cut out and burned on the blacksmith’s forge.

But by far the most infamous case was the story of Mercy Brown. Born in 1873 in Exeter, Rhode Island, she was only 19 when she died in 1892. Her mother and older sister had already passed away, and her younger brother Edwin suffered alongside her but did outlive her. After her death, Edwin’s condition worsened and the family believed his illness to be the foul work of the undead. They persuaded George Brown, Mercy’s father, to exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters. George was justifiably reluctant, but he gave in due to the pressure of those around him The cadavers of Mary Eliza, his wife, and Mary Olive, his eldest daughter, had decomposed at the expected rate. When her body was examined, Mercy’s heart was discovered to be full of blood and she did not appear to have decomposed much at all, despite the exhumation taking place two months after her burial.

We know now that the environment can have a significant impact on what happens to the body post-mortem, and Mercy’s corpse had been stored in a cold crypt above ground, decelerating decomposition. However, to the 19th century New Englander mind, this was proof that Mercy was the fiend who had returned from the grave to harm her brother. Her heart and liver were burned and the ashes were mixed into a tincture for Edwin to drink. Unsurprisingly, Edwin himself succumbed to the disease two months later.

The phrase “vampire panic” is a bit of a misnomer. Although the newspapers of the period made reference to beliefs in “vampirism” – and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between these practices and the vampire found in European folklore – there’s no evidence that the people of New England used that sort of terminology themselves. It’s unlikely that the word “vampire” was in common usage. “Panic” is also perhaps too strong a word. It implies that this was a one-off when a belief that the dead could do harm to the living was prevalent in various cultures and for an extended period of time.

Edvard_Munch_-_Vampire_(1895)_-_Google_Art_Project

“The Vampire”, Edvard Munch (1895)

It also implies that this was a spree of connected traumatic events, whereas the truth is more complex. There is a century between the first and last notable incidents, so it is possibly better described as a “superstition” or an ongoing practice to which the inhabitants of New England resorted when they could not rationalise what was happening to their communities. Ritual is a very important thing across all human cultures and, macabre as it may seem, the ritualistic burning of undead hearts assuaged the community’s fears – and even if it didn’t, they were perhaps comforted by the thought that they were doing something in the face of an unknown, faceless enemy.

Further reading

The Great New England Vampire Panic, Abigail Tucker (Smithsonian Magazine)

New England’s Vampire History, Joe Bills (New England Today)

When Rhode Island Was “The Vampire Capital of America”, Charles T Robinson (New England Today)

Vampire Island, Timeline (documentary) – a bit sensationalist, but is at its core a decent examination of early modern beliefs about vampires

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