Rhode Island's favorite vampire.
Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery, 467 Ten Rod Road, Exeter
George T. Brown had a problem—members of his family kept dropping dead.
George and his wife, Mary, and their five children, lived on a small farm in Exeter. As was the case for many families in those days of high mortality rates, George's family seemed to have more than its share of illness. George's wife fell ill first, succumbing to consumption on December 8, 1883, at the age of 36. Mary Olive, 20, his eldest daughter, followed less than six months later on June 6, 1884.
For seven years death seemed to take a holiday, but then George's only son, Edwin, a healthy 24-year-old who worked as a store clerk, contracted the disease. Hoping he might find a cure in the mineral waters of Colorado Springs, Edwin packed up and headed west, his wife joining him there soon after to care for him. While Edwin was gone, his sister Mercy Lena also became sick. On January 18, 1892, she died. She was only 19. Because it was winter and the ground was frozen, her body was placed inside a crypt near the rest of her relations at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery, also known today as Historical Cemetery #22.
After Mercy's death George's neighbors began insisting he do something. Local superstition suggested that perhaps one of the deceased family members was rising from the grave to consume the life of the living. George was a pragmatic man, not given to such flights of fancy, but he did have two more daughters to think about. So, if only to set the minds of his neighbors at ease, he arranged for a doctor from Wickford, named Metcalf, to accompany a small group of friends and neighbors to the cemetery on the 17th of March. They went to exhume the corpses of the Brown women.
Once uncovered, the bodies of both Marys were found to be in a state of advanced decay, which was only to be expected since they had been dead almost ten years. But when the men entered the crypt to examine Mercy, they found that her corpse had shifted from its original position inside her coffin. What's more, her body was still fresh, for when the doctor cut out her heart it dripped blood. The doctor drained her organs of fluid and the men burned her heart on a nearby stone wall. (Some accounts add that either her liver or her lungs were also burned). The balance of Mercy's remains were presumably given a proper burial later in the spring.
Some of the ashes were given to Edwin (who had returned from Colorado feeling better, but who had soon suffered a relapse) to drink as a sort of talismanic potion. Despite such desperate measures, Edwin died less than two months afterwards, on May 2, 1892.
But after that the deaths ceased. George survived well into the twentieth century, finally dying in 1922 at the ripe old age of 80. What happened to the other two unnamed daughters is unknown at this time.
Mercy's was the last of five alleged Rhode Island vampire cases, dating back to 1796. After the Mercy Brown exhumation in 1892, nobody in Rhode Island ever dug up the body of a suspected vampire again, probably because in 1882, it was discovered that tuberculosis (or "consumption") was spread by bacteria. In addition, the practice of embalming had begun to reach rural areas, making it implausible to imagine that thirsty fiends were rising from the grave to search for blood.
One of the cemetery caretakers told us how, as a child, his father used to lock him and his brother inside the crypt where Mercy Brown was briefly interred. You can check it out for yourself -- the crypt is only a few dozen yards from the Brown graves.
Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, the quintessential vampire novel, in 1897, only five years after Mercy's death. When he died in 1912, newspaper accounts of Mercy Brown's exhumation were found in his files. Mercy's tale is also mentioned in the short story "The Shunned House" by H.P. Lovecraft, who lived in Providence.
GEORGE T. & MARY E.
Died Jan. 18, 1892,
Aged 19 years.
Rumors still persist of ghostly goings-on up at Historical Cemetery #22. In 1984, a descendant of the Brown family, 51-year-old Lewis Everett Peck, told a Providence Journal reporter of a strange sight he saw in the early '60s:
"I was about 18 or 19 years old when this thing took place. We had a Model A... and I went up in the back of the Chestnut Hill Church with my brother David. And by God, we looked and we saw a great big ball of light, so bright that it was blue" [hovering near the Brown family plot]. "It was a bright light, it was round. God she was bright, that's the part that stuck in you. I have no idea what it was. And to answer you how it went out, I don't know. We didn't stay."
On the several visits we've made to the cemetery, including two at night in October 1999 and on Halloween 2000, we saw no such lights, much to our disappointment.
The lure of Exeter's vampire lore is so strong that it drove at least one person to steal the very stone from Mercy's grave. While Lewis Peck usually guards Mercy's grave on Halloween, when visitation and vandalism are expected, no one was on guard when the ninety-pound marker was taken sometime between August 8 and August 14, 1996. It was discovered missing that Wednesday afternoon by caretaker Doug Fulford.
A search of the cemetery failed to turn up the stone and there were few clues. Two sets of tire tracks were found at the scene and the grass was trampled around both Mercy and George's graves. Lewis Peck himself walked over the grounds looking without luck for the stone. "It's a stinking shame," he told the Providence Journal. "When you've got to steal someone's gravestone, that's bad."
Town Sergeant Richard S. Brown (no relation) offered a $50 reward for the stone, but it proved to be unneeded. The stone was recovered only a few days later, on August 19, about fifteen feet from Mercy's grave. Although no further details on how the stone returned were offered by Sergeant Brown, he did allow as how "It's under lock and key and it might not be put back until after Halloween."
Mercy's stone is now back where it belongs, with a new reinforced base to prevent future wanderings. We've heard that Lewis Peck still watches over the grave on Halloween nights, and that he is happy enough to talk with friendly visitors about his famous relative. Those who wish to do mischief are, quite obviously, unwelcome.
Sins of the Second Cousin, Twice Removed
In addition to Mercy Brown, another almost-famous personality is buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery. Toward the front of the graveyard you may find the stone of one Benedict Arnold. No, not Benedict Arnold the traitor, but a cousin of the same name who died in 1864. They are related through yet another Benedict, this one the first Governor of Rhode Island under the Charter of 1663.
According to one of the caretakers of the cemetery, Chestnut Hill's Benedict has had to bear the brunt of a great deal of malice directed toward his infamous relation. His stone has been vandalized and knocked over several times.
It's interesting to note how closely the birth (and naming) of the younger Benedict Arnold came after the elder Benedict Arnold's treason became known. By 1781 Arnold was openly serving in the British Army, conducting raids in Virginia.
Mercy's legend continues to grow. In February 2005 a Connecticut resident named Steve posted an unusual item on eBay. Once you've read his story, we think you'll understand why he didn't want us to use his last name:
I had often read about gravestone rubbings and seen some very beautiful ones both in books and on-line, and thought it would be neat to try something like this. Living close to the Rhode Island border, I was familiar with the story of Mercy Brown and thought it would be interesting to do a rubbing of her stone, as it is such a famous site and so well known. I remember thinking what a unique rubbing this would be, with such history and folklore that would be attached to [it] and what a conversation piece it would be.
My intention was to frame it and hang it in my den or my computer room, but I must admit I'm a bit creeped out by it and am anxious to get it out of my home.
The rubbing was made using Pellon, non-fusible interfacing, and black rubbing wax. It wasn't a difficult rubbing, as Mercy's stone isn't elaborate or ornate, [she] being a simple farmer's daughter. Everything seemed quite normal, nothing out of the ordinary. It was a warmer day, nearly fifty-five degrees, which was refreshing coming out of bitterly cold temperatures from the days before. The sun was shining and it was quiet, at times almost too quiet, I remember thinking. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but later that night I remember... there were no bird sounds, no chirping, no squirrels in the trees, no animal noises! Not even wind the whole time I was there.
Later that evening I was preparing the final stages of the rubbing, where you heat the wax up on the material with a flat iron to melt it permanently into the material. I was 3/4 done pressing the rubbing, having only the bottom right corner to complete, when my dog began freaking out in the next room, acting weird as though someone had pulled up to the house. I checked outside and no one had pulled into the driveway, so I walked back into the den to finish working with the rubbing. As I was walking into the room... I was looking at the rubbing draped over the ironing board when my stomach sank. I could see an outline of what looked like a face in the bottom right corner.
This was the last section that I had to heat up, and there in the fabric I could see what looked like a very evil face, almost with horns or pointed ears. It's the type of thing that you don't see when you're too close to it, but if you back away a bit, you can definitely see something there. Everyone I have showed it to says they see some type of face, some say it looks like the devil, some like it's part human part animal. Someone else told me they see what looks like an image of the left [quarter] part of a skull. I decided not to heat this section up, for fear that this image would fade or the wax would distort it when it melted into the fabric. I have re-visited the headstone, and there is nothing there that would leave this impression, nor have I altered the rubbing in any way, shape, or form to make this image. No one else handled the rubbing but me, and I swear as a Christian this was a natural occurrence.
I'm not going to tell you that anything ridiculous has been happening in my house like flying furniture or spinning beds, but I can honestly tell you my dog has been spooked for reasons I can't explain. She barks and growls for no reason and she seems only to return to her old self if the tombstone rubbing is not in the house. I'm not a superstitious person, and I consider myself a logical level-headed guy, but this thing really gives me the creeps. The hair stands up on the back of my neck, and it just gives me a very uncomfortable feeling I can't quite put into words. I get "goose-bumps" when I handle it, and as ridiculous as it sounds, I often feel like someone is watching me when I have this in the house. I have reverted to putting it into a packing tube and storing it in the trunk of my car. The only issue I have now is while driving I sometimes get this awful feeling like someone is sitting in the back seat when I'm driving alone, which causes me to keep checking the rearview mirror. I'm tired of the "creepy-crawlies," and have no interest in the occult or paranormal. This has cured me of my interest in tombstone rubbings...
Now who would be interested in such a thing? Well, we would, actually. So yes, we bid on it, but apparently we didn't want it badly enough, because someone outbid us at the last moment. We were disappointed, but philosophical.
A few days passed and we received an email from Steve. He said that the purchaser never contacted him and wouldn't respond to his messages, so he was going to list the rubbing again. He invited us to submit a new bid.
We thought that seemed odd. There had only been two bidders; one was a deadbeat, the other was us. Hadn't he said he couldn't wait for the cursed thing to leave his hands? Wouldn't it follow that he might offer to sell the rubbing to us outright, thus freeing himself from its awful sway in as short a time as possible? Well, whatever. When we went to place a bid, we found Steve had placed a reserve on the item, increasing our suspicion that the possibility of financial gain was overcoming his fear. We bid what we were willing to pay, but the reserve was not met. For the next ten days we kept an eye on the item's progress. Despite a few other bids, the auction ended without a sale. Our attempts to contact Steve to find out what happened were unsuccessful. We figure he's annoyed with us for not exceeding his reserve.
Too bad, because we had hoped to report back on what phenomena, if any, might attend the hanging of this artifact in Christopher's basement. Now we'll never know if the rubbing would have made his dog nervous, or if his luck would have taken a marked turn for the worse, or if a malignant presence would have touched him in his sleep, causing his hair to turn white and pitching him headlong into the abyss of madness.
A Contemporary Account
Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner
Letter to the Editor
March 25, 1892
Mr. Editor, as considerable notoriety has resulted from the exhuming of three bodies in Exeter cemetery on the 17th inst., I will give the main facts as I have received them for the benefit of such of your readers as "have not taken the papers" containing the same. To begin, we will say that our neighbor, a good and respectable citizen, George T. Brown, has been bereft of his wife and two grown-up daughters by consumption, the wife and mother about eight years ago, and the eldest daughter, Olive, two years or so later, while the other daughter, Mercy Lena, died about two months since, after nearly one year's illness from the same dread disease, and about two years ago Mr. Brown's only son Edwin A., a young married man of good habits, began to give evidence of lung trouble, which increased, until in hopes of checking and curing the same, he was induced to visit the famous Colorado Springs, where his wife followed him later on and though for a time he seemed to improve, it soon became evident that there was no real benefit derived, and this coupled with a strong desire on the part of both husband and wife to see their Rhode Island friends decided them to return east after an absence of about 18 months and are staying with Mrs. Brown's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Willet Himes. We are sorry to say that Eddie's health is not encouraging at this time. And now comes in the queer part, viz: The revival of a pagan or other superstitions regarding the feeling of the dead upon a living relative where consumption was the cause of death and so bringing the living person soon into a similar condition, etc, and to avoid this result, according to the same high authority, the "vampire" in question which is said to inhabit the heart of a dead consumptive while any blood remains in that organ, must be cremated and the ashes carefully preserved and administered in some form to the living victim, when a speedy cure may (un)reasonably be expected. I will here say that the husband and father of the deceased ones has, from the first, disclaimed any faith at all in the vampire theory but being urged, he allowed others if not wiser, counsel to prevail, and on the 17th inst., as before stated the three bodies alluded to were exhumed and then examined by Doctor Metcalf of Wickford, (under protest, as it were being an unbeliever.) The two bodies longest buried were found decayed and bloodless, while the last one who has been only about two months buried showed some blood in the heart as a matter of course, and as the doctor expected but to carry out what was a forgone conclusion the heart and lungs of the last named (M. Lena) were then and there duly cremated, but deponent saith not how the ashes were disposed of. Not many persons were present, Mr. Brown being among the absent ones. While we do not blame any one for there proceedings as they were intended without doubt to relive the anxiety of the living, still, it seems incredible that any one can attach the least importance to the subject, being so entirely incompatible with reason and conflicts also with scripture, which requires us "to give a reason for the hope that is in us," or the why and wherefore which certainly cannot be done as applied to the foregoing.
Note: All errors of spelling, punctuation, and syntax are as they appeared in the Gleaner—ed.
Remember, this is a cemetery. Please be respectful.
Time required: allow 5 minutes, more if you've brought your Ouija board
Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk
Directions: from Route 95 take exit 5 to Victory Highway (Route 102) south to Route 3 south (Nooseneck Hill Road); take a right on Route 3, then an immediate left onto Route 102 (Victory Highway); the cemetery is 5.1 miles on the left (Victory Highway becomes Ten Rod Road after 2.3 miles); enter the cemetery and drive straight back, past a rock wall; the Brown family plot is on the left next to a cedar tree; the crypt where Mercy's body was briefly kept is to your right, at the edge of the cemetery.