Weird Wednesdays: A look into the New England Vampire Panic

Vampires are a nearly worldwide cultural phenomenon and continue to live on in legends, in stories and, occasionally, in a century-old grave. (Creative Commons/outcast104)

Vampires are a nearly worldwide cultural phenomenon. Although their origins, looks and methods of attack vary, they all share one trait: they are undead creatures risen from the grave who came back to feast on the blood of the living.

The Sumerians had Lilitu, who stalked men and newborns for their blood. Ancient Indians feared the Pishachas, which would hang around graveyards and feed off the energies of mortals. The Japanese (which, if you read last week’s column, have a propensity for fascinating folklore) have the gashadokuro, a blood-drinking giant skeleton, and legends from the Phillipines speak of the Aswang, which fed upon the blood of men and unborn fetuses still in the womb. Yuck.

Then you have Mercy Lena Brown.

At the age of 19, she was buried in her family plot, located in the Exeter, Rhode Island, in late January. Her family mourned her. She had passed soon after her mother, Mary Brown, and her sister, Mary Eliza, who had both died of sickness.

Burying her, however, didn’t seem to be the end of it.

Soon after she died, Mercy’s brother, Edwin Brown, began to waste away. His skin was gaunt and pale. His eyes were sunken, and his lips seemed anemic. Some mornings, he would wake up to find blood on his pillow.

While George Brown, Edwin and Mercy’s father, believed his son to be wasting from the same illness which had taken his wife and daughters, the people of Exeter had an alternate theory: a family member of his lived beyond the grave, and was preying on his only son as a vampire.

Reluctantly, George allowed the town to exhume the three bodies. While Mary Brown and Mary Eliza’s bodies were only skeletons, Mercy’s was remarkably preserved, despite having been buried for three months. Her corpse, when autopsied, seemed to be full of life: her liver and entrails still whole, and her heart was dripping blood. It was as though something had kept her alive this whole time-- and that something, the villagers claimed, was Edwin’s life force.

There was only one solution. Mercy’s liver and heart were removed and burned. The ashes were mixed with water, and given to Edwin to drink—yum.

After all that fuss, Edwin died two months later. So much for pre-antibiotics medicine.

This all went down in 1892, by the way. If you were picturing a Puritan colony from the 1600s, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Rural communities such as Exeter (population 961) were often trapped in the past—and the notion of someone simply dying of disease was a bit off the radar.

Disease, of course, was to blame for the Brown family deaths. When tuberculosis (also known as “consumption” or “that one disease that everyone dies of in Victorian novels”) hit the United States in the 1700s, it burned through settlements. This bacterial lung disease is known as a “wasting sickness,” as it robbed the victim of their strength, leaving them pale and weak. A common symptom was bloody spittle—mucus from the lungs that formed as the bacteria attacked the tissue. Waking up to a pool of mucus-y blood, however, often planted other ideas in people’s heads.

Though Mercy died (again) with seemingly little fuss, the presence of a newspaper reporter at her exhumation lit a spark through rural Rhode Island (and, later on, Vermont, eastern Connecticut and other areas).

A string of vampire exhumations occurred throughout New England, known as “The Great Vampire Panic.” Both the publicity of Mercy’s (un)death and a rash of tuberculosis cases in agrarian areas led people to dig up their loved ones and examine them for signs of vampirism.

These signs included pointed teeth, a lack of decay, torn shrouds or clothing, nails or hair that has seemingly grown overnight, fresh blood around the mouth and a bloated stomach.

Of course, these all have scientific explanations. If you read closely, you’ll notice that Mercy was buried in January—the dead of New England winter—and exhumed in March, which is still a chilly month. The cold ground preserved her body and her organs.

Pointed teeth and “longer” nails and hair were due to a corpse’s skin receding as it dried out, making their teeth poke out and their nails seem to grow. “Fresh” blood was another symptom of tuberculosis, as a corpse probably has some swishing around in the lungs after burial. Bloating was a sign of decay, especially in the stomach, which was full of bacteria and gases.

The torn shrouds and clothing have a grimmer meaning. Sometimes, barely-alive or comatose victims would be mistakenly buried. Imagine waking up six feet under, in a coffin barely large enough to fit you. You’d probably struggle, scream and rip at your garments—and vehemently wish that you family had held a wake. Of course, these victims would be dug up later on, often too late, with a telltale torn shroud.

Common “solutions” for vampirism, particularly during the New England scare, included burning the heart, beheading the cadaver and placing the head on its chest or just sticking a brick or stone into the jawline (an Italian tradition).

Archaeologists are still digging up the remains of “cured” vampires throughout Connecticut. In 1993, a group of schoolchildren encountered a patch of skeletons—one of whose head was noticeably separated from its neck, resting lightly on its pelvis.

While the age of vampires (and the “Twilight” phase) for America may be over, these beasties still live on in legends, in stories and, occasionally, in a century-old grave.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.