Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: New England Vampires

On a cold night in 1892 George Brown pried open tomb doors to see his younger daughter’s dead body.  It had been months since young Mercy died of consumption, which we now call tuberculosis, but her body was perfectly preserved.  She looked just as she had when her father and brother laid her to rest in January.  She should’ve been buried properly, as her mother and sister had, but the ground is hard in New England in January, so she was held in a tomb until the ground was looser.  Mercy’s body was perfect, her skin and clothes still intact, her hair and nails seemingly longer than when she’d died.  Her father and their neighbors believed she had become a vampire, and was praying on her sick brother Edwin.  
In the four years preceding Mercy’s death George Brown had lost his wife Mary, and their other daughter Mary Olive.  Then Mercy died, and Edwin became sick.  George tried to save his son.  He sent Edwin to Colorado to get the Western air, which was considered to be better for the lungs of patients with tuberculosis, but unfortunately when Edwin came home he was even sicker.  Then neighbors suggested that perhaps Edwin wasn’t really sick, perhaps he was being targeted by undead relatives.  
George Brown and his neighbors dug through the tough New England soil to unearth Mary and Mary Olive’s bodies.  They were clearly long since deceased, their bodies decayed and brown.  But Mercy had been kept above ground, in a stone building, in the freezer-like temperatures of early 1892 Rhode Island.  Thus, her body was perfectly preserved, and that was enough for her community to say that she was clearly a vampire, preying on her own big brother.  

Her father and community cut open Mercy’s chest, pulled out her heart, and burned it.  They then mixed the ashes with water, and gave it to Edwin to drink, believing that it would cure him of his disease.  Two months later Edwin joined his mother and sisters in the Rhode Island ground.  George Brown must have been heart crushed, destroyed inside.  First he lost his wife, then his first daughter, and then another daughter.  When his son too became sick, he would have taken on Atlas’ burden if it would’ve saved Edwin.  George Brown underwent the emotional trauma of digging up his wife and daughter, then of removing his other daughter’s heart and burning it.  And all of this still did nothing to save his son.  He had been a father of six children, five daughters and one son.  By June 1892 he was a father of three living daughters, and he bore that burden alone.  
George Brown was not the only one to fall into this tragedy.  Disease was not well understood in the late nineteenth century, tuberculosis especially.  Doctors recommended sending patients out west to drier air to clear out the lungs.  We know now that disease has to be treated with medicine, but at the time if the doctor’s suggestions didn’t work, people thought maybe it wasn’t disease.  Maybe, just maybe, it was a vampire.  
Archaeologists and historians in New England are very familiar with the folklore that surrounded vampires in the Victorian era.  Though the disinterments that mark a vampire search date back to the seventeenth century and stretch to the midwest, they cluster in the 1800s and New England.  Many places have legends about vampires and other undead, but this one was so strong it drove people to dig up their relatives.  
(this is where Mercy Brown's remains were likely stored until the ground thawed)

We know now, with modern science, that the reason dead people’s hair and nails seem to still grow after they die is that the skin recedes.  We know now that people likely passed tuberculosis to members of their families, and that the disease could kill you very slowly.  We know now that once truly dead, you stay dead.  But for most of the nineteenth century there was no germ theory, no pasteurization, no sanitation measures.  People still believed that disease could be caused by an imbalance of the vapours or the ire of a witch or the unholy desires of the undead.  And it is never, ever a surprise that people will go to any lengths to save their family members, especially their children.  
So it’s not really that surprising that people were willing to dig up friends and family, neighbors and community members, to try to protect those still living.  Why such a cluster in New England?  Perhaps there was a higher death rate in New England then, perhaps it was the influence of neighbor whispering to neighbor, perhaps there was a touch of mob mentality about the whole affair.  Perhaps those interred in the cold New England ground woke, and had lost their human instinct of family.  
We’ll never know.

Stay Tuned.

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