In the late 1800s, a sense of panic invaded New England. An alarming number of people were dying of consumption, and residents became convinced that vampire-like creatures were the cause. They believed the vampires were gradually sucking the blood out of innocent victims. To combat the threat, locals sometimes exhumed the bodies of loved ones and ritually burned their organs. They believed this would stop the vampires and prevent the spread of the disease. One of the most famous vampire stories involved Rhode Island resident Mercy Brown.

The Boston Globe 1.27.1896

Consumption (now known as tuberculosis) is spread through bacteria and was one of the leading causes of death at the time. Those infected gradually became sicker and often spread the illness to other family members. Consumption hit the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island, especially hard. George Brown was a respected farmer, who along with his wife Mary Eliza, raised seven children. Mary Eliza contracted consumption and died in 1883. The following year, daughter Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, also died. In January 1892, daughter Mercy, 19, died, and son Edwin, 24, was sick.

Superstitious neighbors approached George and convinced him that he should exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters. It was, they suggested, the only way to save Edwin. The superstition held that vampires slowly drained the blood from the living and put it into the hearts of the dead. Thus, a buried body with blood in the heart evidenced that vampires were at work. The only way to stop the vampires was to find corpses with blood still in their organs, remove the organs, and ritually burn them.

Boston Evening Transcript 1.18.1896

Hesitant but desperate to save his son, George agreed to the plan. On March 17, 1892, several men from the community went to work digging up the remains of the Browns. Mary Eliza had been dead nine years, and her remains were in an advanced state of decomposition. Mary Olive’s body had also decomposed. But when they disinterred Mercy, they found blood in her heart. She had died two months earlier, and the freezing temperatures had preserved her body.

They removed Mercy’s heart and liver and ritualistically burned them on a stone. The ashes were mixed with a tonic and given to Edwin to drink. The ritual proved ineffective, and Edwin died two months later. By 1899, George lost six of his seven children. Over the next few years, the belief in vampires waned. It took another 40 years until scientists carried out the first clinical trials for the treatment of tuberculosis.

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22 thoughts on “The New England Vampire Panic

  1. Thank you for letting us know what consumption really was. I have had many ancestors die of it and i didn’t know what it was. Do you know what dying of gravel was. My guess would be kidney stones. Thanks for answering.

    1. You are correct. Gravel was a term used in the 18th and 19th centuries to refer to kidney stones. It was also called strangulary. I hope this helps!

    2. You can look up the old diseases on the computer and it will tell you what they are. Also, look a single disease and it will give you a really good definition. I do it all the time

  2. Fascinating. During the Covid-19 pandemic some of us dug really deep into our ancestry, I know I did. With that deep down linking of events, review, and analysis I then fill in the blanks with social norms of a typical human being.

    Example: When people do not not want others to know information about a topic then would they lie to family and why? Lie to friends and why? Lie to neighbors and why?

    The answer is what this article demonstrates. They did not know. They did not know what was causing consumption. They probably did not know why there was still blood in the daughters heart too.

    When thinking about social norms I have to remember my ancestors, who existed between 1850 and 1950, had a sliding scale of formal education. That scale starts at No formal education to maybe 6 to 8 years of formal education. And less education, then and now, means vampires are a real fact UNTIL proven again to be not true.

    When an item is proven to be not true then we must ask all others who still believe in the not true item “Are there facts that you have that make their facts not true?” Anyone who hates that question should then be asked “would you like to grab lunch or a cup of coffee, my treat.”

    Those who hate facts and education might be living in a state of fear or terror that their life, and what they have said in life, has been a lie or can be seen as a lie.

    It has not been and it is not a lie when adults receive spare information about a topic and then we fill in the blanks, which is what we all do and should never do. We need to help others with that fear. And if fear is not the reason then do you want grab some lunch or a cup of coffee, my treat.

    1. Hi as they use to say I am now airing the Dirty Laundry. Our childrna npw adults need to know of the History of the family and throujoining Ancestry and also My Heritage have uncovered many hidden family secrets. My mother insisted that Dale and I to bring our cross shredder as she had demanded it and there was no way she could be diswaided, so we did take it over to her.. She proceeded to destroyed my father’s last will, the inheritance my cousin had left for me and my other cousin Louise (Strictly Spite) and also the proof of my paternal grandmother’s third child which apparently went up for adoption, all unbeknownst to the family. With no one left to explain these important family facts, it is so difficult to appreciate how difficult this was and is.

  3. Fascinating, historical parallels to the COVID crisis misinformation… and we think we’re so advanced. What’s old is new.

  4. I had an aunt who passed in 1934 at the age of 14. When I inquired as to the cause, my dad told me it was “blood desease”. I saw a photo of her about one year prior to death. She was white as snow and very fragile looking. Could this be what is now called “Lukemia”?

    1. You may be correct. Leukemia was diagnosed by staining techniques of cells in the 1880s. By 1934 you would think the diagnosis would have been more specific. Perhaps sepsis is another ”blood disease” that may have been the cause. Sorry about your aunt’s death at such a young age. I have similar examples in my family tree.

  5. While researching the cause of death of an ancestor in handwritten coroner’s records from the 1870’s, I noticed several others in the same folder. The official cause of death for some was recorded as “Died by the visitation of God, in a natural way.” This of course was reporting on death by natural causes.

  6. I know this story. My great-aunt Shirley sent me the articles about it because Mercy Brown is our ancestor. Weird what people believed back then for things they could not explain.

  7. The difference between the ignorance about diseases then and now is that then there was a lack of information, and now there is a glut of information—much of it wrong, and people do not know how to judge the validity, or they don’t care to.

    1. If cemetery records are extant, they will at times note cause of death. I have also seen them noted (though never consistently) in church registers.

  8. Death Certificates are best, but didn’t exist much before the 20th Century. Obituaries sometimes have cause of death.

  9. Someday all of us will be getting looked up I suppose. Anybody believe in reincarnation.

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