The October issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article on the nineteenth century vampire scares of New England. These scares tended to happen in remote, rural, agricultural regions in or near southern Rhode Island, beginning in the late 1700s and going on as recently as 1892. Much as in Eastern European vampire scares, a recently deceased person would be blamed for the further illnesses of people in the region, and the body would be exhumed to check for evidence of vampirism.
Once a vampire was “discovered,” the New Englander’s way of dealing with it was a bit different from the usual holy water and staking that we are used to from the movies. Instead, the heart would be removed from the exhumed body and burned. Some communities believed that inhaling the smoke from the burning heart was a cure for the still-living victims of the vampire’s life-sucking. Others believed that feeding the ashes from the burning heart to the vampire’s victims would cure them. Often, the “vampire” would also be beheaded.
The real vampire? Tuberculosis. TB is a wasting, draining, disease, characterized by fever and a hacking cough; the victims visibly become paler and more emaciated as the disease progresses. It’s also very contagious. Early outbreaks of TB hit New England in the 1730s and became the leading cause of death in New England by the 1800s. Not surprisingly, vampire scares coincided with TB outbreaks.
The last, and one of the most famous, New England vampire cases was that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mercy’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1883, followed soon after by the Browns’ oldest daughter. Mercy’s brother Edwin got sick in 1890, and left for Colorado Springs, hoping that the change in climate would improve his health. Lena didn’t get sick until 1891, and died in January of 1892, at the age of nineteen. By that time, her brother had returned to Exeter, extremely ill.
The people of Exeter believed that one of the Brown women must be a vampire who was feeding on the rest of the family (and from them, probably, on to the rest of the community). They forced Lena’s father, George Brown, to have the womens’ bodies exhumed. The evidence seems to be that George didn’t believe in the vampire theory (the bacterium that caused TB had already been discovered, in 1882), but he gave in to his neighbors. The bodies were exhumed. The bodies of Lena’s mother and sister were in advanced states of decomposition — they had been dead for almost a decade — but Lena’s body, which had only been buried for two months, still showed evidence of fresh blood in the heart. She must be the vampire!
The neighbors took out Lena’s heart and liver and burned them. They fed the ashes to Lena’s brother Edwin. It didn’t work; he died two months later.
A reporter from the Providence Journal was present at the exhumation. His story caused an outrage in the more urban parts of New England. It was picked up by an anthropologist named George Stetson, who eventually published his research in the American Anthropologist, and the story spread all the way to Europe.
Image: Project Gutenberg
Some people believe that Mercy Lena was the inspiration for the character of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was published in 1897, the year after Stetson’s article). She is definitely referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House,” which he wrote in 1924. It was published posthumously in 1937, in the magazine Weird Tales.
Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace…
I confess: I’m not a big Lovecraft fan. But I mostly liked “The Shunned House.” He does tend to go on in his usual way about “morbid strangeness” and lingering atmospheres of evil, and things being “eldritch,” whatever that means; but by and large the tone of “The Shunned House” is more matter of fact, less breathlessly “eeeeviillll”, than the majority of his work. It has a more memoir-like, almost journalistic feel, like you might find in an article in The Atlantic, or the New Yorker. The story is also completely free of Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythology; instead, he weaves in more folkloric aspects of vampire mythology and a great deal of plausible-sounding local history.
The story opens with the narrator reminiscing about an old house in his hometown that has been abandoned since before his childhood. The house is shunned because of the sheer number of people who have died there, and the mysterious circumstances of their deaths. The narrator recalls exploring the house as a child, in particular the cellar, with its strange fungi and its sometimes-there-sometimes-not mold stain — the one that almost looks like a human figure.
The educated people of the town (including the narrator) attribute the string of death and illness in the house simply to it being a damp and unhealthy (and moldy) place. Still, as the narrator digs into the history of the house, with the help of his uncle, the two men become convinced that there must be something more going on. Why do so many of the sick people in the house, even the poorly educated ones, rant and rave in French? Eventually, the narrator and his uncle decide to stake out the cellar of the house. As weapons they bring with them some not-very-Lovecraftian weapons: flame-throwers and some kind of radiation device.
The horror is eventually vanquished, though not without cost. The ending doesn’t tie up every loose end, but that’s not a bad thing. M.R. James never fully explained most of his evil creatures, either.
The story is online at Project Gutenberg. It’s worth checking out, even if, like me, you aren’t a big Lovecraft reader.
This post is part of my Peril of the Short Story, for the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event.