Mercy Brown, Vampire

December 27, 2007 — Some people get nicknames. Some people get titles. But some people get far more than that. A lucky few on this planet 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."  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.

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.

Still, 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 oddities 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.

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. 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. 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, 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. 

Mercy’s grave is unique in that cemetery in that it's reinforced by a metal band at its base that is connected to a post imbedded in the ground. It's to protect the headstone from being stolen. You don’t need McGruff the Crime Dog to tell you that people will steal vampire headstones.

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. Everywhere I read calls this little building a crypt. 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. Behind the 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.