Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Food for the Dead – Vampires in Rhode Island

The first case of New World vampirism I was ever exposed to was that of Nellie Vaughn, who died of pneumonia in 1889 at age 19. The loose facts of this case were given in the book The New England Ghost Files by Charles Turek Robinson; the entry mostly revolved around Nellie’s ghost supposedly haunting the West Greenwich Cemetery where she is buried.

The account depicts the classic ghost rendering of a woman dressed in fashion from another period, interacting with visitors to the graveyard and generally behaving oddly before evaporating. The proposed impetus for the haunting is that Nellie was at the time of her death believed to be a vampire, and the ghost is trying to clear its name. The engraving on the headstone “I am watching and waiting for you”, adds an extra, sinister element to the atmosphere. But ghosts aside, there is actual history surrounding Nellie Vaughn, and what’s most interesting is not just that the accusation of vampirism is false; it’s also a case of mistaken identity.

Three years after Nellie’s death, in rural Exeter, Rhode Island, Mercy Brown, also age 19, died of Tuberculosis and was buried on the grounds of the Exeter Baptist Church. She was the third member of the Brown family to die of consumption in a handful of years. Both her mother Mary and sister Mary Olive had died in preceding years. At the time of her death, Mercy’s brother Edwin was suffering from the endemic disease. Prior to global acceptance of a vaccine in the 1940s, it was not uncommon for consumption to wipe out large portions of or sometimes entire families.

Though it was understood by the 1880s that TB was a contagious disease, it seems the folklore of Rhode Island won out in the case of Mercy Brown. To these good country folk, consumption was more of a spiritual disease, and when the sickness began working its way through a family, blame was placed on the already dead members of the family as opposed to the germ. Those already taken down were believed to be sapping the life force of those still living, causing their consumption from the grave. It was decided that this was what had killed Mercy, and what was now killing her brother Edwin, a literal vampirism.

There were prescribed measures for defeating this kind of vampirism, but evidence was needed first. George Brown and several other townspeople exhumed the bodies of Mary, Mary Olive and Mercy in March of 1892 (Mercy had been buried in January). Both mother and sister were in advanced stages of decomposition, but Mercy’s body showed little signs of it (hardly surprising since she was buried in winter and exhumed before the spring thaw).

Folklore states that the body had turned over in the grave, and the most telling evidence was that there was still blood in Mercy’s heart. It was concluded that she was a vampire, and responsible for her brother’s illness. To save Edwin, George Brown had Mercy’s heart cut out and burned on a stone. The ashes were then mixed with water and fed to Edwin. This was believed to end the vampiric hold Mercy had on the family. She was again buried in the church yard. Edwin followed her two months later.

In 1967, a Coventry school teacher told his students about the case, possibly without mentioning names or specific places. It’s likely that the students, in trying to locate the vampire’s grave, decided that Nellie Vaughn’s grave fit the bill (due to the sinister interpretation of the headstone engraving). Reports of ghostly activity vary, including no grass growing near the stone. This is hardly surprising considering the amount of traffic the grave receives thanks to the local vampire legend. The cemetery is now a hub for occult activity and vandalism. Because of repeated attempts by visitors to exhume Nellie’s body, her stone was removed. Area historians, caretakers, town officials and law enforcement do what they can to discourage interest (since it so often leads to vandalism) and to correct the inaccuracies in local history.

Mercy Brown’s grave is also frequently chipped and scarred, with objects littering the area around the stone. Her story is well publicized now, reported on by Yankee Magazine, and the subject of an (excellent) book by folklorist Michael Bell of Vampire Grasp (see Food for the Dead: On the Trail of the New England Vampire). Even more fascinating, Mercy isn’t the only Vampire in Rhode Island. There are other cases, even outside the New England area. Given the deeply rooted superstitions of rural America, there may be vampires everywhere in our country.


Sara said...

Your blog is quickly becoming the addiction that brings me back to my childhood. I used to LOVE those shows on Discovery Channel or the History Channel that talking about ghost stories, or even just historic tales. Sadly you don't see many of those programs anymore.

(But that's okay. I'll get my fix here!)

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