Mercy Brown: Rhode Island's VampireBy Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Mercy Lea Brown (1871-1892), a young victim of a tuberculosis epidemic, entered folklore as America's most famous alleged vampire.
News of the European vampire cult that leaked out to the West in the early eighteenth century swept on to infect the American colonies in New England, especially Connecticut and western Rhode Island.
There, deaths due to highly virulent diseases such as tuberculosis, measles and smallpox were blamed on vampirism, and bodies were exhumed and mutilated in the same fashion as had been done for centuries in the rural parts of the Balkans. The nature of infectious disease was not understood. Vampirism was an easy explanation, especially where people died of tuberculosis, a disease which literally wastes away the body.
The Mercy Brown vampire case of Rhode Island, which dates to the late nineteenth century, is the most famous of the vampire episodes. In the late 1800s, the George Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island, was stricken with tuberculosis. Brown's wife, Mary, died, followed by their daughter, Olive. Four daughters and a son remained. Four years later, Edwin, the son, became ill with consumption. He and his bride left for Colorado, where Edwin sought treatment at mineral springs. During his absence, and about two years after Edwin showed the first signs of lung trouble, daughter Mercy became sick and died on January 18, 1892. She was nineteen years old. Edwin then returned to the home of his father-in-law, Willis Himes, where his condition worsened and he became critically ill.
It is possible that Brown was aware of the Sarah Tillinghast vampire case of 1796. According to an article in the Providence Journal on March 19, 1892, he was besieged by people who "expressed implicit faith in the old theory that by some unexplained and unreasonable way in some part of the deceased relative?s body live flesh and blood might be found..." These friends and neighbors told Brown that the only way to save Edwin was to dig up the bodies if his wife and two daughters to determine if any of them still had hearts full of blood, and to burn the heart and feed Edwin the ashes.