Long before author Bram Stoker introduced readers to Dracula in 1897, terrifying reports of real vampires struck fear in the hearts of people around the world.
Of all the ghouls lurking behind dark corners, vampires may be the most terrifying. Quick, fanged, and with an insatiable thirst for blood, they’ve haunted — and delighted — humans for centuries. So, are there examples of real vampires in history?
The answer is complicated — but not an outright no. In Europe and the United States, some people were dubbed vampires after they died, as their fellow townspeople believed that they continued to spread pestilence from the grave. They were dug up, marked as undead, and burned to ashes.
Meanwhile, there have been plenty of bloodthirsty rulers and even more vicious serial killers who could be described as vampiristic. Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler (thought to be the inspiration for Dracula) allegedly dipped his bread in human blood, and German serial killer Fritz Haarmann killed many of his victims with a “love bite” straight through their windpipe.
Today, there are even thousands of people who readily identify as vampires. And, yes, they drink human blood.
Read on to learn about nine real vampires from history, from serial killers and Serbian peasants to cruel leaders with insatiable bloodlust.
Mercy Brown, The ‘Vampire’ Of 19th-Century New England
To residents of the tiny town of Exeter, Rhode Island, George Brown’s family seemed to be suffering from a curse. In the second half of the 19th century, his wife Mary and his daughters Mary Olive and Mercy all died from tuberculosis. By 1892, his son Edwin, who was formerly a “big, husky young man,” also seemed near death. So, the locals decided to take action.
They suspected that it was not tuberculosis — then called consumption — that haunted the Brown family but something much more sinister. Locals began to fear that one of the Brown women was undead and feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin.”
So, they convinced George to let them exhume and examine the bodies of Mary, Mary Olive, and Mercy. On March 17, 1892, a group of men marched into Chestnut Hill Cemetery with shovels and started to dig.
In Mary and Mary Olive’s caskets, the townspeople found only bones. But Mercy — who had died just two months earlier — still looked very human. There was blood in her veins and a flush in her cheeks.
“The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” a correspondent from the Providence Journal later reported, according to Smithsonian Magazine. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.”
Though a local doctor insisted that this was perfectly normal given the short amount of time since Mercy’s death, the townspeople took it as a sure sign that she was a vampire. They burned her heart and liver, mixed the ashes with water, and had Edwin drink the concoction.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t do much. Edwin died a few months later.