The Brown family, living on the eastern edge of town, probably on a modest homestead of 30 or 40 stony acres, began to succumb to the disease in December 1882. Lena’s mother, Mary Eliza, was the first. Lena’s sister, Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, died the next year. A tender obituary from a local newspaper hints at what she endured: “The last few hours she lived was of great suffering, yet her faith was firm and she was ready for the change.” The whole town turned out for her funeral, and sang “One Sweetly Solemn Thought,” a hymn that Mary Olive herself had selected.
Within a few years, Lena’s brother Edwin—a store clerk whom one newspaper columnist described as “a big, husky young man”—sickened too, and left for Colorado Springs hoping that the climate would improve his health.
Lena, who was just a child when her mother and sister died, didn’t fall ill until nearly a decade after they were buried. Her tuberculosis was the “galloping” kind, which meant that she might have been infected but remained asymptomatic for years, only to fade fast after showing the first signs of the disease. A doctor attended her in “her last illness,” a newspaper said, and “informed her father that further medical aid was useless.” Her January 1892 obituary was much terser than her sister’s: “Miss Lena Brown, who has been suffering from consumption, died Sunday morning.”
As Lena was on her deathbed, her brother was, after a brief remission, taking a turn for the worse. Edwin had returned to Exeter from the Colorado resorts “in a dying condition,” according to one account. “If the good wishes and prayers of his many friends could be realized, friend Eddie would speedily be restored to perfect health,” another newspaper wrote.
But some neighbors, likely fearful for their own health, weren’t content with prayers. Several approached George Brown, the children’s father, and offered an alternative take on the recent tragedies: Perhaps an unseen diabolical force was preying on his family. It could be that one of the three Brown women wasn’t dead after all, instead secretly feasting “on the living tissue and blood of Edwin,” as the Providence Journal later summarized. If the offending corpse—the Journal uses the term “vampire” in some stories but the locals seemed not to—was discovered and destroyed, then Edwin would recover. The neighbors asked to exhume the bodies, in order to check for fresh blood in their hearts.
George Brown gave permission. On the morning of March 17, 1892, a party of men dug up the bodies, as the family doctor and a Journal correspondent looked on. George was absent, for unstated but understandable reasons.
After nearly a decade, Lena’s sister and mother were barely more than bones. Lena, though, had been dead only a few months, and it was wintertime. “The body was in a fairly well-preserved state,” the correspondent later wrote. “The heart and liver were removed, and in cutting open the heart, clotted and decomposed blood was found.” During this impromptu autopsy, the doctor again emphasized that Lena’s lungs “showed diffuse tuberculous germs.”
Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. He died less than two months later.
So-called vampires do escape the grave in at least one real sense: through stories. Lena Brown’s surviving relatives saved local newspaper clippings in family scrapbooks, alongside carefully copied recipes. They discussed the events on Decoration Day, when Exeter residents adorned the town’s cemeteries.