By Thomas D’Agostino
I am surprised at number of New Englanders who do not know that our region was once the vampire capital of the world. From 1784 to 1892 as known, countless families exhumed their loved ones in search of a spectral ghoul praying upon the living. Once found, the most common remedy to rid the vampire was to cut out the heart, liver, lungs, and burn them. In most cases it was recorded that their living family members consumed the ashes with some sort of medicine.
The last known and most famous of these exorcisms took place in 1892 in a rural Rhode Island town called Exeter. The Brown family lived near Chestnut Hill in the town. Mary Eliza Brown, wife of George Brown, died of consumption on December 8, 1883 at age 36. Six months later on June 6, 1884, his daughter Mary Olive succumbed to the same malady. Consumption was the term for tuberculosis at the time. A person who had contracted it would become corpselike, pale, gaunt, and of course would cough up blood. Medical science of the times had little remedy for the dreaded disease and those who were removed from any sort of treatment turned to folklore for a cure.
Several years later, Edwin Brown contracted consumption and moved to Colorado Springs for treatment. In the meantime, his sister, Mercy Lena, became ill with running consumption and died on January 17, 1892. Because the ground was frozen, she was placed in the keep of the cemetery until spring thaw would allow a proper burial.
Edwin returned from his respite but became ill again. This is when neighbors of the Browns began fearing a vampire was at large. The belief was that the spirit of the deceased would rise from the grave and feed off the living family members before return to the grave to nourish the corpse. As long as the body remained whole in the grave, the “spectral ghoul” would continue to feed upon the living.
The neighbors demanded an exorcism but George would not be a part of it so on March 17, 1892, he called in Dr. Henry Metcalf of Wickford, Rhode Island, to perform autopsy on the deceased. By the time Dr. Metcalf arrived, a band of locals had already exhumed the remains of Mary Eliza and Mary Olive. They proved to be nothing but skeletons, having been buried for such a long period of time. Their focus then turned to Mercy in the keep.
When they pulled her out of the keep and opened the coffin, the rural folk were astounded. She was not only perfectly preserved but it appeared that her hair and nails had grown. Even more, she had shifted in her coffin. The good Dr. then cut open her heart and a trickle of blood streamed from the wound. This was enough for the throng to convince them they had found their vampire. They cut out the heart, liver and lungs, burned them on a rock nearby and fed the ashes to Edwin. Unfortunately this “cure” did not work as Edwin died on May 2, 1892.
The news of this event spread far and fast. Newspapers all over the country reported of the exorcism that had taken place in the backwoods of Rhode Island. The Journal covered the story on two separate occasions, headlining it as such:
March 19, 1892
EXHUMED THE BODIES – TESTING A HORRIBLE SUPERSTITION IN THE TOWN OF EXETER – BODIES OF DEAD RELATIVES TAKEN FROM THEIR GRAVE
They had all died of consumption, and the belief was that live flesh and blood would be found that fed upon the bodies of the living.
MARCH 21, 1892
THE VAMPIRE THEORY - THAT SEARCH FOR THE SPECTRAL GHOUL IN THE EXETER GRAVES - NOT A RHODE ISLAND TRADITION BUT SETTLED HERE
This statement in the article was in regard to the beliefs and measures taken towards vampirism in Exeter:
And the belief is that so long as the heart contains blood, so long will that of the immediate family who are suffering from consumption; but if the heart is burned, that the patient will get better. And to make the cure certain, the ashes of the heart and liver should be eaten by the person afflicted In this case the doctor does not know if that latter remedy was resorted to or not.
It seemed the event reached further than expected. It was reported that when Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula,” died, clippings of the story were found in his notes. The town mentioned in his book is Exeter. Coincidence?
H.P. Lovecraft leaned heavily on the exorcism in his story “The Shunned House” and many other short films and tales have related the event. In the historical records of cemetery descriptions in Rhode Island, there is a note under her name: “This unfortunate girl, who probably died of tuberculosis, was accused of being a vampire. She was dug up and her heart taken out and burned.”
This would be the last exorcism in New England for vampirism, of which we're aware.