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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

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(Continued from page 2)

Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Bell attributes the openness of the Vermont exhumations to colonial settlement patterns. Rhode Island has about 260 cemeteries per 100 square miles, versus Vermont’s mere 20 per 100 square miles. Rhode Island’s cemeteries were small and scattered among private farms, whereas Vermont’s tended to be much larger, often located in the center of town. In Vermont, it was much harder to keep a vampire hunt hush-hush.

As satisfying as such mini-theories are, Bell is consumed by larger questions. He wants to understand who the vampires and their accusers were, in death and life. During his Middletown lecture, he displays a picture of a man with salt-and-pepper sideburns and weary eyes: an artist’s reconstruction of J.B.’s face, based on his skull. “I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are,” Bell says. “I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something ‘just a superstition’ you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation on African-American voodoo practitioners in the South who cast love spells and curses; it’s hard to imagine a population more different from the flinty, consumptive New Englanders he studies now, but Bell sees strong parallels in how they tried to manipulate the supernatural. “People find themselves in dire situations, where there’s no recourse through regular channels,” he explains. “The folk system offers an alternative, a choice.” Sometimes, superstitions represent the only hope, he says.

The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses and their children. “Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative,” Bell says.

The tale he always returns to is in many ways the quintessential American vampire story, one of the last cases in New England and the first he investigated as a new PhD coming to Rhode Island in 1981 to direct a folklife survey of Washington County funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. History knows the 19-year-old, late-19th-century vampire as Mercy Brown. Her family, though, called her Lena.

***

Mercy Lena Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island—“Deserted Exeter,” it was dubbed, or simply “one of the border towns.” It was largely a subsistence farming community with barely fertile soil: “rocks, rocks and more rocks,” says Sheila Reynolds-Boothroyd, president of the Exeter Historical Association. Farmers heaped stones into tumbledown walls, and rows of corn swerved around the biggest boulders.

In the late 19th century, Exeter, like much of agrarian New England, was even more sparsely populated than usual. Civil War casualties had taken their toll on the community, and the new railroads and the promise of richer land to the west lured young men away. By 1892, the year Lena died, Exeter’s population had dipped to just 961, from a high of more than 2,500 in 1820. Farms were abandoned, many of them later to be seized and burned by the government. “Some sections looked like a ghost town,” Reynolds-Boothroyd says.

And tuberculosis was harrying the remaining families. “Consumption,” as it was called, had started to plague New England in the 1730s, a few decades before the first known vampire scares. By the 1800s, when the scares were at their height, the disease was the leading cause of mortality throughout the Northeast, responsible for almost a quarter of all deaths. It was a terrible end, often drawn out over years: a skyrocketing fever, a hacking, bloody cough and a visible wasting away of the body. “The emaciated figure strikes one with terror,” reads one 18th-century description, “the forehead covered with drops of sweat; the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk...the breath offensive, quick and laborious, and the cough so incessant as to scarce allow the wretched sufferer time to tell his complaints.” Indeed, Bell says, symptoms “progressed in such a way that it seemed like something was draining the life and blood out of somebody.”

People dreaded the disease without understanding it. Though Robert Koch had identified the tuberculosis bac­terium in 1882, news of the discovery did not penetrate rural areas for some time, and even if it had, drug treatments wouldn’t become available until the 1940s. The year Lena died, one physician blamed tuberculosis on “drunkenness, and want among the poor.” Nineteenth-century cures included drinking brown sugar dissolved in water and frequent horseback riding. “If they were being honest,” Bell says, “the medical establishment would have said, ‘There’s nothing we can do, and it’s in the hands of God.’”

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