When we imagine vampire hunts, remote Eastern European villages typically come to mind. But late 19th century America was not immune to this phenomenon. The town of Exeter in Rhode Island believed itself to be under attack from a vampire and actually took steps to rid themselves of the menace. Their methods were nothing short of gruesome.
The Brown family of Exeter experienced a series of tragedies that began in 1883. First, Mary Brown, the mother, died of tuberculosis. The oldest Brown daughter, Mary Olive, died from the same illness in 1888. By 1890, two more children were sick: the son, Edwin, and another daughter, Mercy. Edwin lingered on, becoming more frail and sick, but Mercy succumbed to the disease in January of 1892, while Edwin and her father, George, were in Colorado seeking treatment for Edwin’s condition.
Since the ground was too frozen that winter to dig a grave, Mercy was placed in an above-ground crypt until the ground thawed. Before the burial could take place, George and Edwin returned to Exeter.
Edwin’s treatment did nothing to stop the worsening of his tuberculosis. In fact, his condition worsened when they returned home. That’s when things started getting weird. Edwin began telling people that his dead sister, Mercy, was coming to him at night and trying to suck the life out of him. It wasn’t long before other town residents started reporting seeing Mercy walking through the local graveyard at night. Compounding the problem was the fact that tuberculosis was not well-understood at the time. The way it often caused its victims to slowly waste away caused superstitious people to blame the illness on vampires or other evil creatures.
The people of Exeter must have been a rather superstitious lot, because they convinced George Brown to have the bodies of his dead family exhumed to determine exactly which one was the vampire. The bodies of Mary and Mary Olive were found to be in an advanced state of decay, so they were quickly ruled out as being vampires. Mercy, however, did not appear to have decomposed at all. It even appeared that her hair and nails had grown since her death. Just to make sure, her internal organs were removed. Liquid blood was found to still be in her heart, leading the townspeople to conclude that she was a vampire and the cause of the plague that had devastated the Browns.
The residents of Exeter decided to rid themselves of this vampiric presence. Following the superstitions of the time, her heart was removed and burned to ashes, and the rest of her body was buried in the Baptist cemetery. The ashes of her heart were then mixed with water and given to Edwin to drink. It was believed that this would cure him, but he died a few months later.
It is easy to explain why the people of Exeter believed Mercy to be a vampire. When compared to the bodies of her mother and sister, hers looked pristine. We know now that this was because Mary and Mary Olive died several years earlier, and had been buried underground for some time. Mercy’s body, on the other hand, had effectively been placed in a freezer due to the frozen ground. This greatly slowed down her body’s decomposition, causing the townspeople to believe she was undead. We also know that the hair and nails appear to grow on a corpse because the skin starts to shrink away as it dries after death. This is what had happened to poor Mercy.
Visitors to Exeter still go to visit the grave of Mercy Brown in Exeter’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery. And locals still report sightings of her ghost, said to be unable to rest due to her body’s desecration.