When Mercy Brown’s body was exhumed, she was in excellent condition. Her skin tone was normal and soft to the touch. Breath was blowing small bubbles of mucus from her nose. She was napping. They cut out her heart to make sure. When the blood flowed, the good people of Exeter, RI had found the one who was dead, but not, the Undead that had been rising up and feeding on the flesh of George Brown’s son, Edwin, Mercy’s brother.
They burned her heart and made a tea from the ashes. Edwin drank the tea. This would break the curse of his undead sister. It was March, 1893.
The story of George Brown’s cursed family began seven years earlier. George Brown’s wife Mary was taken first, dying horribly, leaving him a widower at age 41 with 5 kids on his small farm in the New England woods. A farm is just wilderness in sheep’s clothing, like the guy who mistakenly raised puppies for two years only to find out they were actually black bears, give it time and the true nature of things will show itself.
Then, six months after losing his wife, George Brown watched the life drain out of his oldest daughter named Mary like her mother. She died before his eyes, like her mother. It stopped there, or so he thought for the next seven years. Then it came back.
George’s only son, Edwin, began wasting away like his mother and sister, but he was a fighter and somehow hung on. When it couldn’t claim Edwin, it came for another daughter, Mercy. It took her quickly and they buried her just as quickly.
On his isolated farm in the New England wilderness, George Brown was now terrified that what had killed his wife and two daughters and was now killing his son, would come for the two daughters he had left.
Mercy Brown’s exhumation wasn’t a just a bizarre singular event by some isolated backwoods and superstitious nut-jobs huffing manure. There was a panic throughout New England at this time that the Undead were rising out of their graves and feeding on the living.
Here’s how it worked: Typically, members of a rural, wilderness family began wasting away and dying. Survivors blamed the earlier victims as Undead, responsible for “feeding on the flesh” of subsequent family members. Exhumations were often called for to perform a ritual that would break the curse of these supernatural predations.
Dr. Michael E. Bell tells us in his book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, “Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830.
In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton.” And then sometimes more in step with European rituals, the corpse would be staked to the ground to prevent it rising.
When word got around about what was happening on the Brown farm, the news simply terrified George’s neighbors. They came to him and told him the truth about what had killed his wife, daughters and was slowly killing his son. One death was tragic, but multiple deaths in the same family were supernatural. They explained that one of his family members was rising from the dead and “feeding on the flesh” of his son. If not stopped, he would lose his son, his surviving daughters, himself, and then on to the neighbors. There was only one way to know which it was and only one thing they could do to save his son and keep his daughters alive.
They exhumed George Brown’s wife Mary and his daughter Mary from the family crypt. Both were in advanced stages of decomposition. They exhumed Mercy who had died two months before in January and found her cheeks rosy and breath coming from her nose. She looked as if still alive, but there was only one way to know for sure. They cut out her heart and blood flowed.
This was final proof that Mercy was the Undead, feeding on her brother’s life. And 80 years before The Lovin’ Spoonful asked, “Do you believe in magic, in a young girl’s heart?” the people of Exeter burned her heart, made tea from the ashes, and made Edwin drink the tea.
At this point I feel I have to tell you there is no such thing as vampires, not literally anyway. You knew that, but the story is true. And for people in 1800’s New England, vampires were very much a reality, and because of that belief they lived in a world where vampires were active. So maybe that kind of makes it true.
Edwin Brown died anyway a couple of months later anyway because consuming the heart of your dead sister’s exhumed corpse can’t cure you of tuberculosis. Cutting out and burning the heart of George Brown’s daughter, Mercy, didn’t cure his other two daughters either, though they were spared anyway. I’m sure that coincidence only strengthened the superstition for a lot of folks as coincidences always do. People will connect dots the way they want them connected.
The good people of Exeter were not stupid by any means, but there were things they just couldn’t know. Word hadn’t reached them yet that “consumption” was caused by Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, something natural and not super-natural. They didn’t know that the “vampire panics of New England” accompanied outbreaks of tuberculosis.
How could they possibly imagine that it would one day be curable and a vaccine would be available in 50 years. And they didn’t know that they didn’t know. And without the knowledge, folklore, myth, and religion become the “science” – a way to reason out and “logically” explain the reality that is happening.
So picture yourself in their place and time. You don’t know about bacteria much less that it causes disease. You helplessly watch the skyrocketing fever, fits of delirium, hacking and bloody cough, visible wasting away of the body, and have no idea why.
“The emaciated figure strikes one with terror,” reads one 18th-century description, “the forehead covered with drops of sweat; the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk … the breath offensive, quick and laborious, and the cough so incessant as to scarce allow the wretched sufferer time to tell his complaints.” A presence has taken over the living. It’s as frightening as it is horrible. Your loved one has turned into a circus clown with a bad smoker’s hack.
You also don’t understand the process of decomposition. You don’t know that a body interred in a family crypt in January would freeze and be preserved until the weather warmed up, say a couple of months later in March. As the body warmed, the decomposition would produce gases that fill out the flesh and give some color to the skin, or that these gases would escape through the nose or nearest available orifice. If you cut the corpse, thawed reddish fluids would drain out. You don’t know any of this, so you do your best to make sense of it.
According to the Providence Journal, George Brown did not, in fact, believe his daughter Mercy was rising from the dead and feeding on his son Edwin. He requested a doctor present at his daughter’s exhumation to perform an autopsy which showed advanced tuberculosis in her lungs.
The people pressed ahead with the ritual anyway just to be safe. You have to at least make a gesture hoping against hope for the much coveted lottery win of supernatural intervention. George Brown was not present for unstated but understandable reasons. He authorized his loved ones’ exhumations, the Journal says, simply to “satisfy the neighbors,” who were, according to another newspaper account, “worrying the life out of him.”
Mercy Brown is buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery between the brother who ate her heart and the father who let it happen. Many people still visit her grave, sometimes leaving little gifts or a note.
For you see, even in light of all our scientific discoveries about how things work and in spite of all our technological advancement to manipulate all that knowledge, we’re still hoping to be touched by the mysterious and unknown.
We don’t want to live in a crypt of this is all there is. We want a Mystery to chase, a Mystery that relentlessly pursues us because when it comes right down to it, the adventure and thrill of life lie not in the internment of the known, but in the infinity of the Unknown.
You can read more of Doug’s writings at intothewilderness.net