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Consumptive Vampires in America

Once Brahm Stoker published Dracula in 1897, notion of vampires was altered forever. Vampire cases prior to 1897, then, represent the tendency of less progressive communities to attribute supernatural causes to unexplained illnesses. In these cases, Consumption, now known as Tuberculosis, is interpreted as a vampiric wasting.



The case of Mercy Brown represents the last of these cases, and possibly the best documented. In fact, Stoker may have been inspired, in part, by Mercy's tale - a newspaper clipping of the events was reportedly found among his possessions after her death.

The Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island suffered the wasting deaths of several family members between 1883 and 1892. Mercy Brown died on January 17, 1892 at age 19 and was buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery. Following her death, it was resolved that Mercy, her mother and sister should be exhumed for examination - in hopes of saving her ailing brother's life. Dead only two months when unearthed on March 17, 1892, Mercy was well preserved by the winter soil (and better preserved than her mother and sister Mary Olive, also taken by Tuberculosis), exhibiting the unnatural preservation often associated with folkloric vampirism. Apparently the term vampire was avoided, but the implication was clear.

As reported by a contemporary newspaper,
And the belief is that, so long as the heart contains blood, so long will any of the immediate family who are suffering from consumption continue to grow worse, but if the heart is burned that the patient will get better. And to make the cure certain the ashes of the heart and liver should be eaten by the person afflicted.

Her heart was removed and burned on a rockpile, the ashes reportedly mixed with water and fed to her ailing brother. He died to months later, on May 2, despite these measures, which are similar to some prevention methods in Europe. This account was well known throughout the Exeter, RI populace, and received some widespread news coverage. The story spread to the Providence Journal on March 19, 1892, two months later. Apparently it was through these articles that the implicit association with vampirism was reinforced, fueling public interest in the story.



Not much is known about Simon Whipple Aldrich, but some fame has come to him on account of his grave. Simon's grave marker is the only known stone in America that includes the word vampire in its inscription:
Altho' consumption's vampire grasp had seized thy mortal frame.




Also from Exeter, RI, was Sarah Tillinghast, who reportedly perished of 'vampiric consumption' around 1799.



Exeter's Ruth Ellen Rose is documented of passing by consumption under vampiric circumstances in 1874.


In considering why Exeter, RI seems to be such a hotbed for vampire episodes, folklorist Dr. Michael E. Bell, author of Food For the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires (2001) cites
You have to have certain conditions for this to happen. An epidemic that medical science can't cure combined with the knowledge of a folk cure. There are other places like central Massachusetts - Boston through the Puritan area where you just don't find it. What you might call a magical world view.
Apparently Rhode Island - especially Exeter - was populated at that time by non-denominational separatists, perhaps banished there from more orthodox communities in the region. Supernatural thinking, therefore, was more natural in Exeter, as it flowed with their tradition of free thinking among the uneducated.



The Mercy Brown incident was widely popularized, and is even referenced in the H.P. Lovecraft story The Shunned House (1924). This should not be too surprising, as Exeter is only 24 miles from Lovecraft's Providence, Rhode Island, and would have been a popular topic in the thirty-odd years that had passed.