The case of Mercy Brown, referred to as the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident, is a tale of tragedy, superstition, and ritual. What’s more, it occurred on Rhode Island which coincidentally or not was itself known at the time as “the vampire capital of America”. Whether this helped fuel the circumstances around the Mercy Brown incident or whether such legends are a consequence of it is open to question.
What’s more, there are several other tragic, grim, but fascinating cases from this region and era. All with extremely similar backstories and consequences. Indeed, almost two centuries following the infamous Salem Witch Trials residents of the upper northeast of the infant United States were in a similar frenzy over the apparent vampires returning from their graves. Rhode Island was perhaps the epicenter of that frenzy. Whether that is anything of significance is perhaps open to investigation. As is whether the accounts of such tragic people as Mercy Brown are simple misdiagnosis by a largely medically ignorant populace that still placed too much credence in superstition and folklore, or a purposeful glossing over of an account of something altogether stranger.
Before we move on, check out the video below. It goes over the basics of the region and the Mercy Brown incident.
The Slow, Unfolding Tragedy Of George And Mary Brown
Husband and wife, George and Mary Brown would arrive in Rhode Island in the 1870s,  buying a farm in the town of Exeter. They were a “middle-of-the-pack” couple. Certainly not poor or destitute, but not overly affluent or influential either. With them, were their young children and for a time all was well in the Brown household.
However, beginning in the early-1880s, tragedy after tragedy would befall the Brown family. In 1883 Mary would become suddenly very ill, dying shortly after. Only six months later, George’s 20-year-old (and seemingly healthy) daughter, Mary Olive Brown would die equally as suddenly and mysteriously. While things settled down for a time, in 1891, George’s remaining daughter, Mercy, and his son Edwin both became seriously ill. While Edwin remained weakened and at death’s door, 19-year-old Mercy would die as her sisters and mother before her.
The local doctor would inform George, and indeed the increasingly talkative locals, that “consumption” was responsible for the deaths of his wife and children, as well as Edwin’s illness. This is better known today as tuberculosis and was at the time sweeping great parts of the United States. In fact, many hospitals and asylums were overrun with patients suffering from the usually fatal disease.
However, the townsfolk, for reasons never fully explained, put forward the notion that someone in the Brown family was “leaving the grave” and infecting the remaining members of the family. And what’s more, it was only a matter of time before these undead entities would turn their attention to others in Exeter and the surrounding Rhode Island area. Essentially, according to the local residents, one of the recently deceased Browns was a vampire. And the next “victim” would be Edwin.
A Cold Afternoon At The Chestnut Hill Cemetery
With this in mind, George Brown would eventually give permission for the dead members of his family – his wife and his two daughters – to be exhumed from their graves. On the 17th March 1892, on a particularly cold afternoon in Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Exeter, in the presence of several residents, the local doctor, and a journalist from the local newspaper, the exhumation began.
Upon investigating the graves of his wife Mary and his daughter of the same name, there was nothing untoward discovered. The doctor would confirm each to be in the state of decomposition that they should have been. However, as they opened the grave of Mercy Brown, a sudden gasp and a collective stepping back from the coffin occurred.
Despite her burial several months previously, she appeared almost merely asleep. Furthermore, her hair was in remarkably good condition and her nails long. When one of the men used his spade to prod at the young girl’s body fresh blood emerged from her mouth. Another gasp rippled through the gathered crowd before a flurry of activity.
The deceased girl’s heart was removed and burnt on a rock at the graveside. Even more bizarre, the ashes of the heart were put into medicine intended for Edwin. However, the young boy also died in May 1892.
As an interesting side-note to the dark and desperate affair, when Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 classic ‘Dracula’, died, there were several notes and newspaper clippings of the Mercy Brown case eventually discovered in his papers. At a time at the end of the nineteenth century, when information traveled much less distance and at a much slower pace, it is a good demonstration of the reach and the depth of belief in the Mercy Brown case.
“I Am Waiting And Watching You!”
To most people, the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident is a case of local superstition running amok in the absence of scientific and medical knowledge. Indeed, we know today, for example, that both hair and fingernails continue to grow for several months following death. However, such legends persist.
A very similar account, for example, is that of Nellie Vaughn, whose death was actually three years prior to Mercy Brown’s, interestingly or not, also at the age of nineteen. Not only is her grave apparently cursed, many people claim to have seen the spirit of the young girl over the decades since. Furthermore, there is an extremely intriguing inscription on Nellie’s tombstone. It reads, “I am waiting and watching you”. Perhaps even more bizarre is the experiments by a local university professor. He would claim, despite several attempts to do so, that “no vegetation or lichen” would grow on or near Nellie’s grave.
By far the strangest claim concerning Nellie Vaughn are those made by Marlene Chatfield. She would claim she and her husband were in the cemetery near Nellie’s grave one evening. Suddenly, out of nowhere, and despite being the only ones there, a female voice said, “I am perfectly pleasant”. Almost immediately afterward invisible hands began clawing at Marlene’s husband, causing several deep scratches to his face.
That wasn’t Chatfield’s only experience, however. On another occasion, she would visit the cemetery with an interested researcher from a local historical society. They were there to take pictures for research. When they reached Nellie’s grave the young woman went into a strange trance. She would repeat the phrase “Nellie is not a vampire” over and over for around a minute. Furthermore, the pictures of Nellie’s grave were “reversed” upon processing.
The Sudden Death And “Killings” Of Sarah Tillinghast
There are several other prominent “vampire” cases on record in the upper north-east area of the United States. And throughout the 1800s, a “vampire panic”, similar to the claims of witches that gripped the area several centuries earlier, was extremely prevalent in the region. Some cases, however, stretch right the way back to the late-1700s.
The case of Sarah Tillinghast, for example, is particularly interesting,  who once again, interestingly or not, was 19-years-old at the time of her strange and tragic death. She would often roam around the graveyards of Rhode Island, particularly those of fallen Revolutionary soldiers. She would read books of poetry for hours in these otherwise morose places.
On one particular evening, after returning home from one of her typical days out, she suddenly became very ill. Her fever was extremely high, and she would deteriorate quickly. Within several weeks she died. This, though, was only the start of the tragedy for the Tillinghast family.
Several weeks following the death of Sarah, her brother James would awaken one morning looking extremely ill and with a strange tale to tell. He claimed he was cold and was physically shivering. And there was a “weight on his chest”. Furthermore, Sarah had visited him during the night, sitting at the end of his bed. Thinking their son was simply grieving for his sister, his parents paid it little attention. Several weeks later, though, he too was dead. When two more of the Tillinghast children claimed to have seen Sarah on their beds in the night, with each also dying suddenly shortly after, the Tillinghast’s themselves began to suspect their daughter was returning from the grave. And what’s more, she was taking the lives of the surviving family members.
The Far-Reach Of The “Vampire Capital Of America!”
It wasn’t long before rumors and half-truths were circulating around the village. These rumors increased even more when more of the Tillinghast children died, all stating that Sarah was visiting them during the night. Then, Honor Tillinghast, the mother of the family lay on her apparent deathbed stating that her children were “calling out to her”. Shortly after, her husband, Snuffy Tillinghast, finally decided to address the bizarre situation head-on. He would go up to Sarah’s grave with a farmhand, Caleb, with him for assistance early one morning. Shortly after arriving, they began to dig and pull up his daughter’s casket.
Then, they opened the lid. Both stared, shocked and aghast at what lay before them. Despite her death being over eighteen months previously, she looked as though she was still alive. There was absolutely no decomposition whatsoever. In a similar manner to the account of Mercy Brown almost a century later, Snuff proceeded to cut out the heart of his daughter. According to the legend, when he did so it “gushed with blood”. He would then set it alight and reduced it to nothing more than ashes. Remarkably, his wife recovered almost instantly from her illness. Furthermore, there were no more sudden deaths, nor sightings of his seemingly cursed daughter.
Tuberculosis is the most likely cause of death for the “vampires” of Rhode Island during the late-1700s and 1800s. Its reach, though, at times deadly, continues today, if indirectly. In September 2011, for example, two teenage girls would die in a car crash. They were journeying from a visit to the grave of Mercy Brown  and ventured down a lonely road. The cause of the crash is unknown, other than the car “swerved” and then “rolled over”.
Check out the short video below.
|↑1||Vampire Mercy Brown: When Rhode Island Was “The Vampire Capital of America”, Charles T. Robinson, New England Today https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/vampire-mercy-brown-rhode-island/|
|↑2||A True Rhode Island Vampire, Vampires https://www.vampires.com/a-true-rhode-island-vampire/|
|↑3||R.I. teens killed after visiting “vampire” grave, CBS News, September 2nd, 2011 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ri-teens-killed-after-visiting-vampire-grave/|
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