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At the gravesite of Mercy Lena Brown, right, sightseers leave offerings such as plastic vampire teeth and jewelry. (Left, Klaus Leidorf; right: Landon Nordeman)

The Great New England Vampire Panic

Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, farmers became convinced that their relatives were returning from the grave to feed on the living

But the tale traveled much farther than they knew.

Even at the time, New England’s vampire panics struck onlookers as a baffling anachronism. The late 1800s were a period of social progress and scientific flowering. Indeed, many of the Rhode Island exhumations occurred within 20 miles of Newport, high society’s summer nucleus, where the scions of the industrial revolution vacationed. At first, only people who’d lived in or had visited the vampire-ridden communities knew about the scandal: “We seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian,” one writer at a small-town Connecticut paper opined in the wake of an 1854 exhumation.

But Lena Brown’s exhumation made news. First, a reporter from the Providence Journal witnessed her unearthing. Then a well-known anthropologist named George Stetson traveled to Rhode Island to probe “the barbaric superstition” in the surrounding area.

Published in the venerable American Anthropologist journal, Stetson’s account of New England’s vampires made waves throughout the world. Before long, even members of the foreign press were offering various explanations for the phenomenon: Perhaps the “neurotic” modern novel was driving the New England madness, or maybe shrewd local farmers had simply been pulling Stetson’s leg. A writer for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition (even though many families in the area could trace their lineage directly back to England). In the Boston Daily Globe, a writer went so far as to suggest that “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.”

One 1896 New York World clipping even found its way into the papers of a London stage manager and aspiring novelist named Bram Stoker, whose theater company was touring the United States that same year. His gothic masterpiece, Dracula, was published in 1897. Some scholars have said that there wasn’t enough time for the news accounts to have influenced the Dracula manuscript. Yet others see Lena in the character of Lucy (her very name a tempting amalgam of “Lena” and “Mercy”), a consumptive-seeming teenage girl turned vampire, who is exhumed in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. Fascinatingly, a medical doctor presides over Lucy’s disinterment, just as one oversaw Lena’s.

Whether or not Lucy’s roots are in Rhode Island, Lena’s historic exhumation is referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House,” a short story about a man being haunted by dead relatives that includes a living character named Mercy.

And, through fiction and fact, Lena’s narrative continues today.

Part of Bell’s research involves going along on “legend trips,” the modern graveside pilgrimages made by those who believe, or want to believe, that the undead stalk Rhode Island. On legend trips, Bell is largely an academic presence. He can even be a bit of a killjoy, declaring that the main reason that “no grass grows on a vampire’s grave” is that vampire graves have so many visitors, who crush all the vegetation.

Two days before Halloween, Bell and I head through forests of swamp maple and swamp oak to Exeter. For almost a century after Lena died, the town, still sparsely settled, remained remarkably unchanged. Electric lights weren’t installed in the western part of Exeter until the 1940s, and the town had two pound keepers, charged with safekeeping stray cattle and pigs, until 1957. In the 1970s, when I-95 was built, Exeter evolved into an affluent bedroom community of Providence. But visitors still occasionally turn a corner to discover the past: a dirt road cluttered with wild turkeys, or deer hopping over stone fences. Some elderly locals square-dance in barns on the weekends, and streets keep their old names: Sodom Trail, Nooseneck Hill. The white wooden Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in front of Lena’s cemetery, built in 1838, has its original blown-glass windows.

An early Nor’easter is brewing as we pull into the church parking lot. The heavy rain will soon turn to snow, and there’s a bullying wind. Our umbrellas bloom inside out, like black flowers. Though it’s a somber place, there’s no immediate clue that an accused vampire was buried here. (Except, perhaps, for an unfortunately timed Red Cross blood drive sign in front of the farmer’s grange next door.) Unlike Salem, Exeter doesn’t promote its dark claim to fame, and remains in some respects an insular community. Old-timers don’t like the hooded figures who turn up this time of year, or the cars idling with the lights off. They say the legend should be left alone, perhaps with good reason: Last summer a couple of teenagers were killed on a pilgrimage to Lena’s grave when they lost control of their car on Purgatory Road.

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