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.