December 27, 2007 — Some people get nicknames. Some people even get titles. But some people...some people get far more than that. A lucky few on this planet actually get subtitles. I’m talking about pithy descriptions of the most notable part of their lives tacked onto the end of their names. For instance, Lon Chaney is forever the “Man of a Thousand Faces”; Helen of Troy is the “Face that Launched a Thousand Ships;” Rene Descartes is the “Father of Modern Philosophy”; Jesus Christ is the “Son of God” (who’d of thought that one would’ve ever stuck). The subject of this article, Mercy Brown, well, her name is often followed by the phrase, “New England’s Last Vampire.” This is the part of the article where if it were a face-to-face conversation instead of a face-to-screen article, we’d both just sit there and stare awkwardly at each other. Because it’s not, this is the part where I segue smoothly toward an explanation. I always want to spell segue “s-e-g-u-e-w-a-y” until spell checker curses me out. And so much for smoothly.
Mercy Lena Brown, a 19-year-old resident of Exeter, Rhode Island, received her subtitle posthumously in 1892, the year of Lizzie Borden. The case of Mercy Brown was the last known instance in Rhode Island and probably the rest of the States of a large group of otherwise sensible folk exhuming, mutilating, immolating, and cannibalizing a corpse to cure the dreaded scourge of...vampirism.
Today we know the condition as tuberculosis...because we are on way friendlier terms with it. I’m kind of disappointed that I deflated the vampire angle so early in the article. I suck at dramatic tension. Or whatever the equivalent nonfiction term is for that. I also suck at word choice.
You see, for a few centuries in our history, the U.S. and its previous evolutionary forms wanted to be medieval Europe. We ran ourselves frothy ferreting out witches, staking vampires, bustin’ ghosts, and pretty much setting the stage for the American horror genre. It’s articles like this one that make me wish Halloween was a 12-month celebration.
In this story, George Brown, a farmer in the small town of Exeter, had a problem. His family was dropping like dead people around him. First his wife Mary, then his daughter Mary, and then his other daughter Mercy. Nothing worked to stop this deathly game of human dominos. Granted, I’m not exactly sure what they tried, since this was pre-vaccination, pre-antibiotics, and pre-Flintstone vitamins, but I’m sure they tried it. And as usual, when the landish doesn’t work, you turn to the outlandish.
When his son Edwin verged on death himself with the same symptoms, George and the villagers grabbed their pitchforks and torches and decided to go on a monster hunt. All right, well, nothing that dramatic. Still, there was talk, and with a whole family succumbing to a mysterious illness that could, for all they knew, be contagious and/or transmitted by fangs in the neck, something had to be done.
After exhuming the bodies of the two Marys and finding nothing but bones, they turned to Mercy’s body. Here the accounts diverge a bit. Some say she was dug up from the ground. Others say that since she died in the month of January, corpse planting would’ve been out of season due to the frozen ground, and she’d of been kept in a nearby crypt until the thaw. Either way, the story goes on pretty much the same. Now, I’m not saying that everybody thought Mercy was a vampire, but when they saw her body, it was supposedly undecomposed (not that weird, considering it was winter), her heart supposedly still had liquid blood in it (weird, considering it was winter), and the body had supposedly shifted position (weird, considering she was dead).
You can see why they thought it wouldn’t hurt to treat her like a vampire “just in case.” Nobody ever says no to “just in case.” In this case, “just in case” meant that the villagers cut out Mercy’s heart, burned it, and then had Edwin, the ailing son, drink the ashes. The attempted cure didn’t work...he still died. Actually, drinking human ashes is probably bad enough that I should say it worked, he died. Still, he was the last in the family to do so (not ever, but for those reasons), and the blandly named Brown family didn’t seem to be cursed anymore.
Admittedly, similar events probably happened tons of times in the history of America. Now, maybe it was a bit more rampant in the colonial era than at the turn of the 19th Century, but still, the point stands. The main reason Mercy’s story sticks out in all that, though, is because it happened in Rhode Island. Rhode Island’s history books are slightly anorexic because nothing ever really happens there, so they have to proclaim what does with electric guitar amplifiers and double-barreled megaphones. Just kidding.
Mercy’s story sticks out because it’s really the last event of its kind, it’s pretty well documented, and because her grave still...well, I was going to say “stands” but that word suddenly occurs to me as being wholly inaccurate. Some grave markers do stand atop graves, but your basic headstone and plot like this one don’t do anything like that. So her grave still...lies? Reclines? Lounges? Yes, lounges. Her grave still lounges for anybody so inclined to go see. I was. I did. And I still suck at word choice.
Now you’d think that since this is New England, since it’s a story of vampirism, and since it involves an old cemetery, that we’re headed for a Hammer Studios set. Turns out we’re wrong. That’s okay. I think I’ve been wrong at some point in every single article I’ve written for this site so far. It’s my lifestyle. Mercy and her family are buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, a small, open cemetery behind an unassuming white wood-paneled Baptist church off Ten Rod Road just a couple of miles from I-95. You can see the Brown plot right from the road, in fact. Heck, you can see every headstone in the cemetery right from the road. It looks like your basic, infrequently used country cemetery that you always seem to pass whenever you take back roads home. Had it not been for the unique-to-New England bite in the air when I visited, the whole thing could have been set in North Carolina.
A path goes directly down the center of the cemetery, about halfway down which you’ll see the Brown family plot on your left, right beside the path and directly beneath an evergreen tree. There’s only a handful of headstones in the plot, so it takes two seconds to see “Mercy L.” inscribed in large letters at the top of one. If you can’t read, you can still tell which one’s Mercy’s because it’s been reinforced by a metal band at its base that is connected to a post imbedded in the ground behind the headstone to protect it from being stolen. You don’t need McGruff the Crime Dog to tell you that people will steal vampire headstones. And in case you’re wondering, I’m totally aware that I just tried to inform somebody who can’t read about something by writing it in an article. Sometimes I just don’t care how much sense I don’t make.
Some say Mercy’s heart was burned on a stone near the grave. Some go even further and say the stone still protrudes from the ground near the plot. I took a picture of the likeliest candidate (and of every other stone within easy heart-burning range just in case), but I’m so doubtful about that little tidbit and chagrined that a good chunk of my digital camera memory is taken up by pictures of rocks, I’m not including it in the article.
That’s the grave. Next, if you’re at the Brown plot and are facing the front of the cemetery, then stand in the place where you are, then face left. Think about direction, wonder why you haven’t before, and you’ll see what looks like a small, triangular stone building. The shape of this building troubles me greatly because I could’ve made a gleaming pun if it had of been hexagon-shaped. I’d even take half a hexagon. I’m going to keep typing hexagon until you get it. Hexagon. Everywhere I read calls this little building a crypt. We had something similar looking at my parents’ house, but they called it a tool shed. Regardless, this is where those who don’t say her body was buried right away say her body was stored until the ground stopped being unshovelable tundra.
The building doesn’t look over a hundred years old to me, but then again, nothing in the cemetery really does. The door is bolted shut, so ingress is impossible for the keyless. Those last six words just instantly became my most favorite phrase in the English language. Behind the shed-crypt is the outer edge of the cemetery, which is demarcated by a low stone wall that all those who don’t say Mercy’s heart was burned on a rock near the grave say is the place where the heart was burned. If I was a songwriter, “Mercy’s Heart was Burned” would be the title of my next hit single.
And that is the full Mercy Brown tour. If you ever make it to Salem, Massachusetts, you can see a tourist destination full of people accused of being witches. Exeter, Rhode Island, is one of the few places in the United States, though, with the grave of a person accused of being a vampire. Makes it worth seeing if you’re ever traversing that part of the I-95 corridor. I just realized that this is probably a better introductory paragraph than the one I ended up using. Can’t change the past, though.