When you think vampires, you think of Transylvania and its wolf-haunted forests, you think of fog-shrouded Whitby on the English coast, maybe of decadent New Orleans or gaslit London.
You don't typically think of 19th century New England.
Yet that is where vampirism really sank its teeth (I apologize, I'll stop) into the North American psyche for the first time.
In 1892, a young woman named Mercy Lena Brown died in a decaying little farming town called Exeter, Rhode Island. It wasn't much of a surprise to most, as her mother and a sister had already died of consumption, and her brother was ill, too. But some of the townsfolk apparently decided that the deaths were unnatural.
They pestered her father, George, until he relented and allowed them to exhume the bodies of all three women.
Not surprisingly, Mercy's mother and sister, dead for years, were just bones. Mercy herself, buried in the cold ground of a New England winter, looked relatively undecayed. She must be the culprit, decided the townsfolk. They cut out her heart, and burned it to ashes, mixed the ashes with water and fed them to her sickly brother Edwin. This, they felt sure, would cure him.
It was the end of a string of vampire scares and exhumations that lasted more than a century.
It was driven, it would seem by tuberculosis, a disease that had no cure and could cut down entire families, one after another.
Cruelly, it could take years to kill, leaving people with plenty of time to try every possible doctor's prescription, tonic, elixir, snake oil, and magical remedy. None of them worked.
Tuberculosis was identified as the cause of consumption just a few years before Mercy's death, but it wouldn't be until the 20th century that antibiotics would become widespread and powerful enough to cure most cases easily.
Consumption arrived in New England in the 1770s, and the first known case of the vampirism panic came in 1784.
One of the odd things about the case is that we don't know exactly what superstition was at the base of the exhumations. The townsfolk didn't call the evil dead they believed in "vampires." Nearby newspapers applied the
vampire label, usually while deploring the superstition of their rural neighbours. Nor does it seem that they believed the dead actually left their graves. (Although, a lot of Eastern European vampire lore is vague on this point, too. Is the vampire actually getting up and moving around, or is it projecting its malevolence?) What they believed in may not have had a marketable name. It's not a vampire, it's not a zombie, it's not even a dhampir or a revanant or a straight-up ghost.
It might have been based on old folk tales from Europe, but it might have been a completely new North American superstition. That's kind of fascinating, actually. You'd think some enterprising horror director would be working on a 19th century TB ghost movie right now.
Of course, you shouldn't tell any of Mercy Brown's fans that she's not a vampire. And yes, she has fans. Exeter has had to bolt down her headstone after it was stolen, and it's been the target of graffiti more than once. People leave plastic vampire teeth, or flowers, or notes written to her ghost on her grave around Halloween.
Sadly, none of this seems to extend to her brother Edwin. Although the whole messy business was meant to cure him, he died just two months after Mercy was exhumed.
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