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Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Strange Case of Mercy Brown

     An incident involving Mercy Brown occurred in 1892 and is one of the best documented cases of the exhumation of a corpse in order to perform rituals to banish an undead manifestation. 
     Several cases of consumption (tuberculosis) occurred in the family of George and Mary Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island. Tuberculosis was called "consumption" at the time and was a devastating and much-feared disease. 
     In the case of the Brown family, friends and neighbors believed that this was due to the influence of the undead. The mother Mary was the first to die of the disease, followed in 1883 by their eldest daughter Mary Olive. In 1891, their daughter Mercy and son Edwin also contracted the disease. 
     Friends and neighbors of the family believed that one of the dead family members was a vampire and had caused Edwin's illness. This was in accordance with contemporary folklore linking multiple deaths in one family to undead activity. Consumption was a poorly understood condition at the time and the subject of much superstition. 
     George Brown was persuaded to give permission to exhume several bodies of his family members. Villagers, the local doctor, and a newspaper reporter exhumed the bodies on March 17, 1892. The bodies of both Mary and Mary Olive had undergone significant decomposition over the years, but the more recently deceased Mercy was still relatively unchanged.
     Opening Mercy’s coffin, the onlookers were shocked to see that Mercy’s body was in pristine condition. And some sources say her body was not in the position it had been buried and that her fingernails and hair had grown significantly. There was no decay. Upon further examination, liquid blood was found in her heart and other areas of her body. It was quickly concluded that Mercy was a vampire and that she was the culprit of Edwin’s lingering disease. 
     At this point many of the villagers had heard of about Mercy being a vampire. They claimed to have seen Mercy walking through the graveyard and neighboring fields at night. Why they hadn’t mentioned this earlier is unknown. 
     Her lack of decomposition was more likely due to her body being stored in freezer-like conditions in an above-ground crypt during the 2 months following her death.  This wouldn’t explain the movement of the body or the hair and nail growth, but these accounts are likely folklore added to the story later. 
     As superstition dictated, Mercy's heart was cut out, burned, and the remnants mixed with water and given to the sick Edwin to drink. It was thought that giving the victim of consumption ashes of the "vampire's" heart would cure them. In Edwin's case, it didn't work...he died two months later. What remained of Mercy's body was buried in the cemetery of the Baptist Church in Exeter after being desecrated. 
Baptist Church in Exeter

     The incident was the inspiration for Caitlin R. Kiernan's short story "So Runs the World Away", which makes explicit reference to the affair. It has also been suggested by scholars that Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula, knew about the Mercy Brown case through newspaper articles and based the novel's character Lucy Westenra upon her. The Mercy Brown incident has also been the basis of several other books and films. 

For further reading:
Smithsonian article The Great New England Vampire Panic 
History of Vampires in New England 
Tuberculosis and the Vampire Myth

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