When Mercy Brown's family started dying off one by one, they blamed her — even though she'd been dead for months.
In 1892, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States and was thus one of the era’s most feared diseases. Then known as “consumption,” its symptoms were fatigue, night sweats, and the coughing up of white phlegm or even foamy blood.
There was no cure or reliable treatment for it. Physicians often recommended that a patient affected by tuberculosis needed to “rest, eat well, and exercise outdoors.” This treatment was often met with little success as those with active tuberculosis had an 80 percent chance of dying from the disease.
The terror surrounding this deadly disease helps explain the madness that befell the small town of Exeter, Rhode Island at the end of the 19th century after a family was killed in quick succession by tuberculosis. A farmer named George Brown lost his wife, Mary Eliza, to this disease in 1884. Two years after the death of his wife, his oldest daughter died of the same illness.
The rest of the family appeared to be in good health until his son, Edwin, became seriously ill in 1891 and retreated to Colorado Springs in the hopes that he would recover in the better climate. However, he returned to Exeter in 1892 in an even worse state. Within the same year, his sister, Mercy Lena, died from tuberculosis.
With Edwin deteriorating rapidly, his father began to grow increasingly desperate and so George Brown turned to an old folk tale. The superstition claims in “…some unexplained and unreasonable way in some part of the deceased relative’s body live flesh and blood might be found, which is supposed to feed on the living who are in feeble health.”
What this means is when members of the same family waste away from consumption, it could be because one of the deceased is draining the life force of their living relatives.
On the morning of March 17, 1892, a doctor and some locals exhumed the bodies of each family member who had died of the illness. They found skeletons in the graves of Brown’s wife and eldest daughter.
However, the doctor found that the nine-week-old remains of Mercy Brown looked startlingly normal and undecayed. Furthermore, blood was found in Mercy Brown’s heart and liver. This seemed to confirm local fears that Mercy Brown was some kind of vampire who had been sucking the life from her living relatives.
Even though the doctor assured those present that Mercy Brown’s preserved state was not unusual, particularly because she’d been buried in the cold winter months, her heart and liver were removed and ritualistically burned by superstitious locals before she was reburied.
The ashes were then mixed with water and fed to Edwin. Unfortunately, this supernatural concoction did not cure Edwin as people had hoped and he died a mere two months later.
Such practices of digging up and burning the deceased over fears of vampire-like creatures were not uncommon in many Western countries until the early 20th century. But while the Mercy Brown case was far from an isolated incident, her exhumation came at the end of an era for these vampire-inspired rituals.
Even though German scientist Robert Koch had discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis in 1882, germ theory only began to take hold a decade later as the contagion was better understood. Infection rates then began to go down as hygiene and nutrition improved.
Until then, people sometimes resorted to tactics like attacking alleged vampires.
After this look at the Mercy Brown case, read up on Peter Kürten, the serial killer known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf. Then, discover the story of the “Brooklyn Vampire” serial killer, Albert Fish.