On a cold March day in 1892, residents of Exeter Rhode Island gathered in their local cemetery. One by one, they exhumed the bodies of three recently deceased members of George T. Brown's family. The bodies of the family's mother and eldest daughter, both named Mary, had been buried for some time. They exhibited classic signs of decomposition; the villagers did not find what they were looking for and moved on.
The third member of the Brown family, a 19-year old girl named Mercy, had died during the past winter and her body was placed in an above-ground tomb until the spring thaw allowed for her burial. Her body was hardly decomposed at all, and the organ the villagers were interested in - her heart - showed no signs of decomposition and even had liquid blood inside it.
Confronting the demon
To the villagers of Exeter, this was a surefire sign that Mercy Brown was a vampire. She stood accused of draining the life out of her younger brother, Edwin, from beyond the grave. The only way to put a stop to this supernatural activity, in the minds of these rural New Englanders, was to conduct a grim ceremony.
They created a small fire at the cemetery and burned Mercy Brown's heart. They then summoned Edwin, deathly sick with the consumption, the same disease that had killed most of his family. He was forced to consume the ashes of his sister's heart in a last-ditch effort to save his life. It did not work - he died only two months later.
Behind the times?
This bizarre horror story seems like it's a spooky tale or folklore legend, but it is in fact a documented historical event. Even more shocking than its existence is the fact that it happened at such an advanced time in American history - houses had electricity, urban growth was booming and the automobile was just around the corner. But up in Rhode Island, entire villages were exhuming corpses and performing vampire-killing rituals.
Amazingly, this wasn't even an isolated incident. This story is part of a larger cultural happening at the time - the New England vampire panic - and is a fascinating example of how our ancestors dealt with disease and death prior to modern medicine. It also shows us how the belief in the occult and supernatural lasted far longer than many realize in certain parts of America.
The consumption of the Brown family
George T. Brown and his wife Mary had six children as of the 1880 census, all in good health at the time the record was taken. Three years later, however, Mary had died from "consumption", which was the name people used to refer to the disease tuberculosis back then.
Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that attacks the lungs, and accounted for 25% of deaths in eastern America at that time. Those with tuberculosis suffer brutal coughing fits at night, and victim becomes progressively weaker and emaciated, becoming "consumed" in a time period ranging from months to a few weeks.
Although the bacterium that caused tuberculosis was discovered in 1882, the disease's cause was still mysterious to isolated rural communities of New England. Because of the lack of scientific understanding and close confines families lived in, it often ravaged entire households, leaving those alive desperate for answers.
Death and religion in rural New England
This is a puzzling occurrence in an area of the country that has a reputation for a Puritanical rejection of the occult. But the truth is that Puritanism was confined to developed towns and cities, and in fact 85 to 90 percent of New Englanders in Colonial and early-American periods did not belong to a church.
By 1892, many communities had been brought into the fold of mainstream society, but many still practiced a hybrid version of Christianity that included superstitious folklore rituals. This "other New England" included outlying towns in eastern Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island where residents regularly were found to believe in alchemy, astrology and other occult practices.
Another thing that contributed greatly to the belief that a dead relative could haunt a family from beyond the grave was the concept of death at that time in history. At the time, decomposition was viewed as the only surefire sign of death, and the heart was understood as the most important organ in the body, the source of life itself.
Therefore it is understandable that when the villagers found Mercy's body well preserved (likely due to the freezing cold Rhode Island winter) and her heart intact, they assumed she was not fully deceased, and could possibly be to blame for slowly sucking the life out of her younger brother.
How well do we really know our ancestors?
Those who are dedicated to family research have surely come upon ancestors from this historical period, perhaps even this geographical region. Many times, when we see a name and some surface details about our ancestors' lives, we "fill in the blanks" and assume that they lived just like the mainstream population we read about in history books.
The reality is far more complex, yet infinitely more fascinating. American history is wonderfully diverse and complex, and we may be surprised to learn exactly how our ancestors viewed the world. Always explore the historical context of your research -- it will help you color your family history more than you ever thought possible.