In the late 1800s, America was in the midst of a vampire panic. This was directly linked to the outbreak of tuberculous, or consumption as it was called then. The undereducated citizens didn’t understand epidemiology. And people, especially those in rural communities, distrusted medical doctors. It was easier to believe that a person who died from consumption yet seen walking through the cemetery was a vampire than to come up with another, more logical reason, for supposed hauntings. Thus was the case of Mercy Lena Brown, forever known as the “Last New England Vampire.”
Throughout history, civilizations battled outbreaks of horrible and deadly diseases. In the 1800s, it was tuberculosis, also known as TB. At that time, there wasn’t a cure for TB. The survival rate was 20%. Entire families were decimated. And towns attempted to thwart and to explain why people were dying.
In Exeter, Rhode Island, George and Mary Eliza Brown were farmers. They had 7 children, 6 girls and 1 boy. On December 8, 1883, Mary Eliza succumbed to TB. By June 6, 1884, the eldest daughter Mary Olive (2.17.1864-6.6.1884) was dead, as well. Both were properly interred into the family plot, resting in peace in the ground.
When Edwin Atwood, age 24, became ill, he and his young wife, Hortense, headed to a mineral spring in Colorado Springs, Colorado for 18 months. Edwin seemed to improve a bit; however, by the time he returned to Rhode Island, he had already relapsed.
By then, Edwin’s other sister Mercy Lena was ill. Born on August 2, 1872, Lena, as she was called, died on January 17, 1892, in the dead of winter. Her body was stored above ground and in a mausoleum. Edwin’s health was declining so much so that he began to hallucinate. He claimed that Lena was sitting on his chest. Others in the community started telling stories of seeing Lena walking through the cemetery. Within a very short time, vampire panic had taken over Exeter, and the community sought answers.
George Brown was placed in the precarious position of honoring his deceased daughter or allowing her to be exhumed. He was convinced of the latter. On March 17, 1892, Lena’s body was removed from the coffin, and the town folk gasped in horror. Unlike the decomposed bodies of Mary Eliza and Mary Olive, who were also exhumed, Lena’s corpse seemed fresh. It was documented that she lay on one side with blood still within her veins and heart. A mob mentality took hold. And they demanded an offering.
Regional superstition stated that the heart and liver of a corpse must be removed and burned to permanently kill the decedent. Lena was sliced open, her heart and liver removed, and set upon the blazing bonfire. However, that would not calm the folks.
Lena’s cremated remains were mixed with water to make a tonic that was given to Edwin to drink. And drink he did. Yet, it was to no avail. Two months later on May 2, Edwin joined his family in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery.
The surviving heirs retell this horrible violation and desecration by keeping Lena’s memory alive. On Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, when people visit and decorate the gravesites of relatives, specifically military members, relative tell her deeply dark tale.
Mercy Lena Brown’s death is a lesson. Pandemics happen. As we work to survive, we should look to the past. We should trust scientists, medical doctors, and epidemiologists. We should also know statistics. Even though vampires may exist (depending on the definition used), the odds of the recently deceased person actually being one is small. Very small. We should also let victims of these heinous desecrations rest in eternal peace.
Marble is the best surface for making fudge. According to one blog, “Real fudge makers … all use marble slabs.” Apparently one family in Okemos, Michigan began making fudge on a 5-foot marble slab around 1875. The slab was passed down to future generations, who also perfected their fudge-making skills with the same old marble slab. The slab was finally turned over by an estate auction dealer who posted it for sale on the Internet. One inquiring mind reached out to the Friends of Lansing’s Historic Cemeteries (FoLHC) in Lansing, Michigan, where it was identified as the long lost—some 146 years lost—tombstone of Peter J. Weller. On Sunday, September 26th, a celebration was held to celebrate the re-installation of the tombstone. Fudge was served!
Peter J. Weller was a recent transplant to Lansing. He was born in New York in 1801 and relocated to Lansing in 1845. He died from inflammation of the bowels on December 26, 1849, at the age of 48 years, 8 months, and 22 days. He was initially buried in Oak Park Cemetery. His two daughters Christina and Lucretia were also buried there. By 1875, Lansing was growing, and the city was extending boundaries. All of the interred bodies at Oak Park were relocated to Mount Hope Cemetery. Tombstones were to be reinstalled, as well. Both Christina (4.3.1832-5.11.1854) and Lucretia (dates unknown) had individual tombstones that traveled to Mount Hope and marked their new resting place. For some unknow reason, Peter’s went missing.
The City of Lansing and the FoLHC attempted to locate any living descendants. None were found. The historic society paid for Peter’s tombstone to be clean and installed once ground penetrating radar was used to verify there were remains and a coffin buried in an unmarked grave. The daughters’ broken and aged tombstones were also clean and restored. The family are resting in a 10-plot family site. Peter’s first wife Louisa, and the known mother to Christina, is in another unmarked grave in Mount Hope. The second wife is not buried in the cemetery.
This is another one of those stories where tombstones are removed from cemeteries and used for odd purposes. A house in the neighborhood I grew up in had tombstone fragments in the turret in their house. Strange, indeed.
The Angel of Grief, as it is known, is one of the most iconic funerary sculptures that exist. It is also one of the most copied. The original was created by American lawyer, poet, and sculptor William Wetmore Story. The Angel of Grief would be his last major work and lovingly dedicated to his recently deceased wife, Emelyn. It captures the grief he experienced at the prospect of living without his spouse.
William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) saw an opportunity to quit practicing law and become a full-time artist. He was the son of Associate Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) who served on the Supreme Court of the United States, also known as SCOTUS. William graduated from Harvard College and began his career in law. He was successful but unfulfilled. When his father died, William accepted an offer that changed the course of his life.
A committee set up to honor the late Justice Joseph Story wanted to commission a statue in his memory, and they asked William to create it. William was a hobbyist and accepted the commission as long as he and his family moved to Italy for him to study.
By this time, William and Emelyn nee Eldredge had married and started a family. They had two children: Edith “Edie” Marion and Joseph “Joe.” And so, the family moved to Rome, Italy where William embarked on an apprenticeship. Tragedy struck the young family when little Joe died from gastric fever on November 23, 1853. He is buried in Campo Cestio in Rome.
The family grew while William honed his craft. Thomas Waldo, born December 9, 1854, and Julian Russell, born on September 8, 1857, joined older sister Edie. (Note: All four surviving children embarked on careers in the arts: T. Waldo became an acclaimed sculptor; Julian was a famous painter; and Edit, known as the Marchesa Peruzzi di Medici, became a writer.)
Although William returned to the United States to erect the monument for his father, he would make Rome his home. During the forty years he and Emelyn resided in Italy, William created other famous sculptures and gained acclaim as a poet. They enjoyed life and each other.
Emelyn died in 1894, and William’s heart broke. He prepared and created one last sculpture: The Angel of Grief. An angel dressed in Roman attire drapes her body over the altar with her large wings slumped in despair. The sculpture personified the grief that embraced William.
William died in his sleep a year later. He is buried beneath the sculpture with the love of his life. The monument sits in Campo Cestio, also called the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for the Non-Catholic Foreigners. It may be viewed during posted business hours. If you’re unable to see it in person, you can visit some of the copies in America. I cannot state if the cemetery is haunted; however, I can tell you that it has some of the most beautiful funerary monuments that I’ve ever seen in one location. It also has about 40 cats that roam the cemetery listening to classical music when the cemetery closes for the day. Well worth a visit, in our post-COVID world.
While researching this article, I wanted to find a photograph of Emelyn; however, I was unable. There are a few of William and his children who survived into adulthood, but nothing for Emelyn. That is also heartbreaking. I would love to see the woman who supported and encouraged her husband to create so many famous pieces of art, especially the most important piece that is one of his most well-known.
The story goes: Teenage Laura Mitchell fell for town banker Clement Clay Kelly only to die at the young age of 38 years old. Clay, as he was called, was bereft with grief and commissioned an Italian sculptor to craft a 15-foot statue in her likeness to be erected in the family plot of the Kosciusko City Cemetery in Mississippi. Further, he requested—so the story goes—the builder of his beautiful Victorian house at 309 East Jefferson Street to add a third floor so that he could gaze blocks away upon his dead wife’s monument. Only, there are a few plot holes in this version.
Let’s begin with the details we know. Laura Mitchell was born on November 15, 1852. She did, in fact, marry Clay and bore five children. Laura did die at the young age of 38 on November 29, 1890. And, finally, Clay did erect a large statue in her likeness. The height is between 15-20 feet high.
The impressive statue shows Laura dressed in Victorian attire with a cane in her right hand. I could not locate the name of the sculptor or verify that Laura appears in her wedding dress. However, I presume it to be her wedding dress or a dress for a special occasion given the time period.
Sitting in the cemetery, the statue is a local landmark. There are recent articles where local young adults portray various famous townspeople every Halloween for an annual cemetery pilgrimage through the cemetery to hear the stories associated with these people. Although she lived a relatively short life, Laura has lived on in our imaginations for over 130 years. However, some are not as respectful when visiting her.
On at least two occasions, Laura’s stone right hand has been severed and her statue vandalized. In both instances, the community, along with her only remaining relative great granddaughter Laura Ann Hooff Kline, have contributed to a new hand being installed. The only ghost stories I’ve read associated with the statue involve circling around it. Never—and I mean NEVER—deface or vandalize a statue. Removing a hand—or any piece—from a cemetery monument is wrong.
Laura’s statue is called “The Lady in the Cemetery.” I wished it was more descriptive because her statue is truly unique and captures what I believe to be her likeness.
The family plot where Laura is buried had already gained two angels prior to her death: Sons Samuel (1874-1888) and Otho Lamar (1876-1877). Four years after Laura was buried, her daughter Lillian died a new wife on December 5, 1894. She was only 22 years old. Another son, Leland Mitchell, born December 7, 1882, died at the age of 35 on October 10, 1918. All are buried in the plot, surrounded by black wrought iron fencing. The only child to live through adulthood was Alta S. Kelly Clark. It is through this line that the only surviving direct descendent comes from.
I’m fascinated by women who die young, and Laura was one such woman. I was unable to locate a death certificate. Actually, I was unable to locate a lot of government issued documents to prove her existence. For instance, various family trees on Ancestry.com identify her mother as Martha Jones. However, the supporting document showing Martha’s marriage to Samuel Mitchell, Laura’s purported father, was after Laura’s birth. A couple years after. The data listed in the family trees show that Samuel was 12 years older than Martha. Given the time period, I’m inclined to think Martha was a second wife after the first wife, and mother of Laura, had died. Or Laura wasn’t Martha or Samuel’s biological daughter.
The dream home that Laura was in the process of building prior to her death has also yielded conflicting information. One blog stated the address as 310 East Jefferson Street. This house was built by George E. Wilson circa 1840-1845 and sold to John Atkins, who sold it to Laura. It is a lovely 2-story structure. You will the problem in the next paragraph.
The second home associated with Laura sits across the street at 309 East Jefferson Street. This is a stunning 3-story Victorian. Now, if I am reading the online stories correctly, it makes sense that the house at 309 was the home the Kelly family intended to reside in, as some stories suggest that Laura never lived in her dream home. This is further strengthened with the obituary of Alta Semiramis Kelly Clark, where the address is clearly printed.
Having possibly solved this conundrum only yielded a new one. Looking at the map of Kosciusko, the city cemetery is a ways—a long ways—away from Jefferson Street. If Clay was on the third floor, looking south, he would still need binoculars to see the monument. I’m not dismissing the heartbreak he felt and the story. I’m questioning the ability of Clay to see the statue. Maybe that area of Mississippi was clear-cut without any trees. My guess is that this is an embellishment in an already tragic story.
As if this wasn’t enough, I found three additional facts that stood out. When Laura died, Clay remarried, with at least one account claiming he remarried twice. Second wife, Lucy Leake Keirn Kelly (5.3.1861-9.10.1898) died at the age of 37. That seems strange. Quite the coincidence.
Lucy and Clay married in 1891 and had three daughters: Mary, born 1893; Rosa, born 1895; and Lucy, born 1897. Mother Lucy had the three girls and was visiting relatives in Lexington, Mississippi when she fell ill and died. She is not buried in the Kelly family plot in Kosciusko.
A few stories and various family trees list a third wife: Katie Cross Kelly. She’s even linked to Clay’s Find-A-Grave entry. However, I am unmoved that they actually married. I cannot locate a marriage certificate. If they were married, it would have been between 1899, after Lucy’s death, and 1918, before Clay’s death. This is dubious. However, I am always happy to update my blogs when provided with new information.
The final story that stuck out is truly heartbreaking. When Lucy died, she left three little girls aged 5, 3, and 2 months. The middle child was Rosa Hutter Kelly. Rosa was 3 years old when her mother died. In the 1900 Census, Rosa is residing with her widowed father and his children. He is a banker and owns his home. By the 1910 Census, Rosa remained in her father’s home, along with her sisters Mary and Lucy. On Valentine’s Day (according to online blogs but not verified) in 1914, Clay’s bank, the largest privately owned bank in Mississippi, closes and he is bankrupt. By 1918, Clay is dead. So is Rosa’s older sister, Mary. All Rosa has is Lucy.
Neither appear on a 1920 Census. However, in 1930, Rosa appears as a “patient” in Jackson at the Mississippi State Insane Asylum. Her status has changed in the 1940 Census: Now she is an “inmate.” That is the last time Rosa appears in any official document.
The tragedy continues. Thousands of patients at the asylums in Mississippi were buried in unmarked graves. The person who entered Rosa’s information in the Find-A-Grave database surmises, and probably correctly, that Rosa is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Cato, Rankin County, Mississippi. I hope that one day someone will uncover her resting place so that a proper tombstone may be erected.
Walking through an old, overgrown cemetery, I encountered several graves that were decorated in seashells. Growing up in Florida, I’m accustomed to seashells as building materials. Yet these graves intrigued me. The reasons vary as to why people covered burial sites with shells.
Spanning from the late1800s-1910, some graves in the Southeastern United States were covered in seashells. Here are some of the more popular reasons for this:
- The scallop shell, or cockle shell, is an important symbol in Christianity. Today, it is tied to baptism; however, it also signifies the pilgrimage one makes through life. It also represents the resurrection. Graves covered in scallops or any other clam shell may signify the act of crossing over into Heaven.
- African American tradition tells of seashells representing the oceans slaves crossed to America. Placing shells upon the grave signifies the figurative act of going home after death.
- Seashells were a cheap alternative in burying people. They were readily available in coastal communities. However, the practice of covering a grave with shells was not limited to these communities. Shells were used in transporting fish inland. They were also a by-product of eating mollusks.
- Seashells were also used to protect the grave from eroding. The shells weighed down the sand and dirt, thereby keeping the grave from being exposed after heavy rain.
Death in the Digital Age
Cemetery historian, Katie Thornton, launches her podcast, Death in the Digital Age or DitDA, in 2020 where she explores how the dead will be memorialized through digital documentation and eventual land restraints. Thornton produced an episode on 99% Invisible in June highlighting how Singapore shifted from a cemetery/graveyard dominated nation cremating only 10% of the Chinese population to where 80% of corpses are now cremated and housed in elaborate, though condensed, columbariums. As Thornton ponders how nations will deal with corpses, so should we.
Singapore is an island city-state of roughly 5.6 million people. The tiny nation was decimated by the Japanese in World War II. Families lived in overcrowded make-shift structures that lacked modern amenities. The government stepped in and created the Housing and Development Board, or HDB, to create a solution. Within 5 years, the HDB oversaw the relocation of 400,000 people. The solution? Very tall apartment buildings—some 50 stories high. Now, the 3rd richest nation in the world houses 80% of its citizens in these nondescript cement high rise buildings.
Unfortunately, in order to build these buildings, the government had to reclaim the land used for cemeteries. Established in 1870, the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng, or Peck San Theng, became one of the largest cemeteries in Singapore. It housed 100,000 graves on 324 acres of land. The cemetery became a town where merchants in the trades of death lived amongst the dead. Nearly 2,000 people lived within the cemetery on prized land. Land that the government wanted for redevelopment.
By 1974, the Singapore government realized that housing was more important than cemeteries. Cremations were encouraged. In 1978, the residents, living and dead, of Peck San Theng were told they had 4 years to move out. The dead were dug up—yes, raised from the dead, and either claimed by family who relocated the deceased or cremated them or, for those unclaimed, the government cremated and held a mass spreading of the ashes ceremony in their honor. The land was quickly redeveloped.
Of the 324 acres, 8 acres were reserved for a new building, a columbarium, a structure to house cremated remains. And there were a lot of urns to house. Designed by Tay Kheng Soon, the Peck San Theng columbarium opened in 1986. The structure is multi-tiered with urns in bookcases from floor to ceiling. Actually, the building looks like a modern condominium—minimalistic and tranquil.
Interestingly, as the newly branded Bishan Park development opened, ghost stories began to circulate. Stories of a woman waiting for a train who removed her head once seated spread through the development along with other spooky tales. Many who had such sightings or retold these tales were unaware that the land was once a massive cemetery.
Singaporeans realized that in order to remain sustainable, the people needed to change their burial practices. They simply ran out of land. But what about larger countries? How will we alter our burial practices? We have plenty of land (for now); however, we’re increasingly mobile. A lot of us don’t live where we grew up or where our ancestors are buried. How will we memorialize our ancestors in a digital age? I look forward to listening.
In the meantime, visit 99% Invisible’s “Life and Death in Singapore,” https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/singapore/ and view Thornton’s website, http://www.itskatiethornton.com/deathinthedigitalage, Death in the Digital Age.
For Sale: Modernized Converted Chapel
In the market for a converted chapel? Don’t miss out on this modernized 2,245 square foot 2-story detached home in North Lopham, Norfolk, England. Current price of £490,000 has been slashed nearly £100,000 since listed last April. This 3 bedroom/2 bathroom home features a state-of-the-art kitchen and en suite (master bathroom); oak flooring; underfloor heating on the first (ground) floor; and unobstructed light entering through the wrap-around windows on the second floor. This home is a rare find!
The former Methodist Church was built in 1810 and boasts 36 front yard gravesites, with an additional 14 along the side. The graves date back to the 1870s, when the small cemetery reached capacity. The church closed in 2014 and was sold to a developer in 2016. The building has been completely modernized.
Title excludes the graveyard, which is owned and maintained by the Church of England. Translation: The church will mow the front yard. However, the leasehold is for 999 years. Plan accordingly. Although interest is minimal, someone will snatch a piece of British history at a fantastic price.
The Netflix original movie Dumplin’ (2018) is tragically ironic. Read how here: https://www.hauntjaunts.net/the-irony-of-dumplin-2018/
Grave Gardening: Preserving Rural Cemeteries
Starting in 1831, “rural” or “garden” cemeteries emerged as a de facto public green space where families could visit their dead, tend to their graves, and mingle with the community. These cemeteries were popular weekend destinations. During this time, gravesites were more elaborate than today’s simple, flat grave marker. “Cradle graves” dotted the cemetery landscape. Read about them in my latest blog on Haunt Jaunts: https://www.hauntjaunts.net/grave-gardening-conserving-americas-garden-cemeteries/.