The Vampire Panic of New England
In the late 1800’s, New England was experiencing an outbreak of tuberculosis that had triggered a widespread hysteria amongst the people. TB was commonly called “consumption” at that time, due to the weight loss caused as the bacterial disease progressed. By all accounts, it was a gruesome way to die. The most common symptoms included an extremely high fever, a blood-laced cough, sunken eyes, and severe physical deterioration that made sufferers look as though the life was being drained from their bodies. The cause of the disease was still unknown at the time, although people knew that once one family member got the disease, others were soon to follow.
Entire families were wiped out and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who caught the illness. As a result of these growing fears, the populace was desperate for an answer and were willing to try anything. In 1784 a newspaper had published a letter about a foreign doctor who claimed to have an unusual cure for consumption, which relied upon the exhumation of a family member and the burning of their remains to remove the sickness of the entire family.
While many viewed this report as a hoax, those who had lost loved ones and saw the disease continuing to spread were desperate to try anything. These people and other superstitious folk of the time began to believe that the first infected member of a family was somehow draining the life essence of their relatives, preying upon these family members who would subsequently fall sick. Then, those who had perished from consumption were exhumed and examined. If their body seemed unusually fresh, especially if the heart or other organs contained liquid blood, it was assumed they were still feeding on the living through a spiritual connection that continued even after death.
The New Englanders who took part in these rituals didn’t necessarily believe there was a supernatural cause of their family members’ illness, many were simply desperate, and unwilling to leave untried any remedy that might save the lives of those they loved — even if they were outlandish folk-remedies. There were several ways proposed to stop this vampiric feeding, some more gruesome than others. The simplest method was to rearrange the corpse or turn the body in its grave, so it faced toward the earth, and reburying it. Others would burn the vital organs of the body such as the heart and liver. Sometimes, this was combined with decapitating it. Some even believed that inhaling the smoke and ash from the burned organs would cure their tuberculosis. Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive.
While the press dismissed this practice as superstition, the burning of organs was widely accepted as a folk medicine in other communities. It is unlikely that the deceased would have been known as “vampires” by their affected families because the word was not in common use in the community at that time. However, the term was used by newspapers and outsiders at the time due to the similarity with contemporary vampire beliefs in eastern Europe. Vampire stories from all over were printed on the front pages of 19th-century New England papers, describing similar rituals in distant locations. Similar to the New Englanders, people in remote parts of Europe were exhuming bodies when people fell ill and burning or planting stakes in those that seemed too full of life.
Mercy Brown's was perhaps the most infamous case of exhumation. George and Mary Eliza Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island in the 1880’s. Mary Eliza, was the first to die of the disease in 1992, followed shortly after by their eldest daughter, Mary Olive, in 1883. Five years later, Edwin also contracted the disease. He left home, traveling to Colorado Springs which was a popular destination due to its dry climate and specialized disease treatment centers. Yet, his health did not improve. While he was away, his younger sister Mercy fell ill and quickly died.
Edwin’s condition got worse almost as soon as he returned home. One night, he claimed to have woken up to find his dead sister Mercy sitting on his chest and trying to suck the life out of him. George was desperate to save his son’s life and thus he spoke with the town doctor who recommended to exhume the corpses of those who had already passed in the family. George protested at first, but friends and neighbors of the family strongly believed that one of the dead family members was the culprit, causing Edwin's illness. The key to his recovery was to find out which woman was the culprit before destroying the body. Eventually, George was persuaded to give permission to exhume the bodies, only agreeing to satisfy the neighbors.
On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, attended by the family doctor, Harold Metcalf. George was absent, for unstated but understandable reasons. There, they found skeletons in the graves of the mother and sister, having been buried for years. But as Mercy had only been buried for nine months in the cold New England weather, she was almost perfectly preserved. The village doctor, Harold Metcalf, found liquid blood in her heart and liver and although he noted that it was fairly normal to find at this stage. Yet, to appease the fears of the neighbors, it was still recommended to burn her organs before reburial just to be safe.
Mercy’s heart was taken and burned on a nearby rock. They reserved the ashes and mixed them with water. Then, Edwin was made to drink those ashes, hoping it would serve as a strong curative tonic. The exhumation and cremation did not work, however, as Edwin’s health continued to decline, and he died from the disease two months later.