There was some wild shit going down in New England at the turn of the 20th century. Tuberculosis was spreading rapidly and nobody knew what to do about it. A painful, bloody airborne disease, it could strike suddenly and wipe out entire families one by one, leaving the survivors to watch the bodies of their loved ones waste away in front of them. Many of the people affected by the disease were poor an uneducated and in their fear many of them turned to folk medicine. In the search for a scapegoat, they settled on a particular bit of lore that involved the dead rising up and feeding on the living. They wouldn’t have used this word, and it’s not likely we would recognize it in the form they described, but let’s call it what it was: vampires.
It’s easy to look down on these people; hell, it’s the first reaction that I had upon hearing this story. But consider that these people were staring down an epidemic with no obvious cause and little hope of treatment, and in the face of that great, unknowable darkness, they grasped for some narrative that would make sense of their lives. We all do that, in ways both small and large, and it’s not always a bad thing. However, this particular narrative led them down a pretty gruesome road.
In 1892, George Brown lost his daughter, Mercy Lena, to tuberculosis, almost ten years after the disease took his wife and his eldest daughter. George was surely heartbroken, but he had little time to mourn; his son, Edwin, had succumbed to the illness, too, and he was fading fast. That’s when other citizens of Exeter, Rhode Island, came to George and told him a story. They told him that one of the three women he had buried had survived past death, and that they were feeding on the blood of his son. They told him the only way to save his son was to find the body of this undead creature, burn her heart, and feed it to his son.
It’s hard to say if George was driven to it by the social pressure from his neighbors or if, in a haze of grief and panic, he truly believed their explanation. But in the end, George bought in. He permitted the neighbors to exhume the corpses of his wife and two daughters. The men who dug up Mercy’s mother and sister found only a few scant remains — they had been dead for a decade, after all. But Mercy Brown, who had been dead barely two months, and who had been laid to rest in an above-ground crypt during the harshest months of winter, was still intact. When the Brown’s family doctor removed Mercy’s organs, he even found clotted and decomposed blood still resting in her heart. Despite the doctor’s warnings that the very disease that had killed Mercy was still present in her lungs, the townspeople burned Mercy’s heart and liver, mixed the ashes with water and administered the tonic to Edwin. He died two months later.
It’s an ugly story: people acting out of blind fear, succumbing to mob mentality, and clinging to the fantastic in a way that almost borders on hysterical blindness. Removed from the bleak reality these people faced, it seems absurd. But people were dying. The disease was real. And the people in this underdeveloped Rhode Island farming community had neither the resources nor the means to understand what was happening to them. Wouldn’t you believe in vampires if somebody could show you what they had done? If they could yank down the collar of their shirt and show you the bite marks? If you were that desperate for something to blame, wouldn’t it feel like almost a blessing?