by Michael Bell

A horrific remedy.

March madness. Today this phrase means basketball mania, but in the past "mad as a March hare" alluded to the beginnings of spring and the mating season. March, named for the Roman god of war and, until 1752, the first month of the year, has been traditionally a time of both renewal and madness.

One of Rhode Island's own traditional forms of madness occurred for the last time 101 years ago this month. On March 17, 1892, the state's (and probably the country's) last vampire was exhumed. But was Mercy Brown really a vampire? The answer varies according to one's image of a vampire as well as one's yardstick for measuring truth.

To get a sense of the truth from the inside out, imagine the plight of Mercy's father, George T. Brown, a respected farmer in rural Exeter. In December of 1883, his thirty-seven year-old wife, Mary Eliza, died of consumption (or tuberculosis of the lungs). Seven months later, his daughter, Mary Olive, succumbed to the same disease at the age of twenty. Mercifully, Mr. Brown's only son and remaining daughter were spared.

But not for long. Within a few years, Edwin began to show the signs of consumption, gradually losing his strength, color, and appetite. Alarmed, Mr. Brown took his son to the doctor, knowing too well from previous experience that a diagnosis of consumption was the equivalent of a death sentence. By this time his daughter, nineteen year-old Mercy Lena, had contracted the disease, too. Her consumption was of the "galloping" variety, for she quickly passed away and was buried in the family plot on Chestnut Hill in January of 1892. [Note: It's now believed she was placed in the cemetery crypt—the ground in January would have been too hard for burial.]

By mid-March Mr. Brown was at his wit's end. Although it had been ten years to the month since German scientist Robert Koch presented his discovery of the microscopic tuberculosis germ (on March 24, 1882), an effective treatment for the disease would not be found for another fifty years. In the meantime, sufferers and their families had to contend with consumption as best they could. Some turned to traditional last resorts, to folk medical practices whose origins are lost in antiquity.

One remedy that persisted into the twentieth century in Eastern Europe, and was tried a surprising number of times in New England, was to exhume the body and burn the heart of a relative who had died of the disease—and then consume the ashes. The corpse selected for this treatment was usually the one that still contained "fresh" (or liquid) blood in its heart or showed some other attribute deemed "unnatural." Perhaps the face seemed flushed or hair and fingernails had grown. Most frightening was the corpse that had turned over in the grave.

Relatives and neighbors alike might have suggested this folk remedy to the head of an afflicted family. They knew that consumption not only seems to run in families, it is also contagious. It therefore might not stop with the destruction of a single family, but may spread to the community at large. And thus George T. Brown felt pressure to act from both within and outside of himself. In an attempt to save his remaining child and allay the fears of his neighbors, he finally consented to the exhumation of his family.

Under the direction of the medical examiner from Wickford, Dr. Harold Metcalf, the bodies of Mary Eliza, Mary Olive, and Mercy Lena were uncovered. The mother and eldest daughter were nothing but skeletons, but Mercy, who had been buried only two months before, appeared to have liquid blood in her heart. Despite Dr. Metcalf's assurances that the condition of Mercy's corpse was unremarkable, attendants at the scene burned her heart to ashes on a nearby rock. Edwin was said to have drunk the ashes in water shortly thereafter. But he must have been too far gone, for he died two months later. According to a family story, however, since Edwin was the last in the community to die of that epidemic, the exhumation "took care of the problem."

To some of George Brown's neighbors, Mercy Lena was a vampire, in the folkloric sense. She was, as one scholar phrased it, a corpse that captured the attention of a community at a time of crisis and was taken as the cause of that crisis. Over the past century, newspaper, magazine, and television stories have transformed this teenaged farm girl, who died too young of pulmonary tuberculosis, into a fanged fiend still roaming the countryside. With no other vampire models to draw upon, the mass media cast Mercy Brown into the mold of Count Dracula, a role that neither history nor folklore can justify for her.

Did Mr. Brown believe that his daughter was a vampire? For George T. Brown, hope for a renewal of life displaced belief or disbelief during the March madness of 1892.

For more about Mercy Brown, and to learn how to visit the scene of her exhumation, click here.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the March 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author. Dr. Bell's research into historical vampires is ongoing; read about his latest findings at VampiresGrasp.com.

More folklore from Michael Bell...

This article last edited April 21, 2004

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