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

At the gravesite of Mercy Lena Brown, right, sightseers leave offerings such as plastic vampire teeth and jewelry. (Left, Klaus Leidorf; right: Landon Nordeman)
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As Exeter teetered near collapse, maintaining social ties must have taken on new importance. An exhumation represented, first and foremost, a duty to one’s own kin, dead or dying: the ritual “would alleviate the guilt someone might feel for not doing everything they could do to save a family, to leave no stone unturned,” Bell says.

Even more significant, in small communities where disease could spread quickly, an exhumation was “an outward display that you are doing everything you can to fix the problem.” Residents of the already beleaguered town were likely terrified. “They knew that if consumption wiped out the Brown family, it could take out the next family,” Bell says. “George Brown was being entreated by the community.” He had to make a gesture.

The strongest testament to the power of the vampire myth is that George Brown did not, in fact, believe in it, according to the Providence Journal. It was he who asked a doctor to perform an autopsy at the graveyard, and he who elected to be elsewhere during the ritual. He authorized his loved ones’ exhumation, the Journal says, simply to “satisfy the neighbors,” who were, according to another newspaper account, “worrying the life out of him”—a description with its own vampiric overtones.

Perhaps it was wise to let them have their way, since George Brown, apparently not prone to tuberculosis, had to coexist with his neighbors well into the next century. He died in 1922.


Relatives of the Browns still live in Exeter and are laid to rest on Chestnut Hill. Some, planning ahead, have erected their grave markers. It can be disconcerting to drive past somebody’s tombstone on the way to his or her home for a vampire-oriented interview.

On a sunny Halloween morning, when Bell has left for a vampire folklore conference at the University of London, I return to the cemetery to meet several Brown descendants at the farmer’s grange. They bring, swaddled in old sheets, a family treasure: a quilt that Lena sewed.

We spread it out on a scarred wooden table. The cotton bedspread is pink, blue and cream. What look from a distance like large patches of plain brown fabric are really fields of tiny daisies.

It’s the work of a farm girl, without any wasteful appliqué; Lena clearly ran out of material in places and had to scrimp for more. Textile scholars at the University of Rhode Island have traced her snippets of florals, plaid and paisley to the 1870s and 1880s, when Lena was still a child; they wondered if she used her sister’s and mother’s old dresses for the project. Perhaps her mother’s death, too, explains Lena’s quilting abilities, which are considerable for a teenager: She might have had to learn household skills before other girls. The quilt is in immaculate condition and was likely being saved for something—Lena’s hope chest, thinks her distant descendant Dorothy O’Neil, one of the quilt’s recent custodians, and a knowledgeable quilter herself.

“I think the quilt is exquisite, especially in light of what she went through in her life,” O’Neil says. “She ended up leaving something beautiful. She didn’t know she’d have to leave it, but she did.”


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