An 1890s Vampire Scare Terrified Rhode Island

Dramatization of the exhumation of Mercy Brown. Elemare Design

In the modern era, we know that vampires and other ghouls belong firmly in the pages of fiction, but things were a little different as recently as the 19th century. The infamous New England Vampire Panic of the age was a hysterical reaction to the deadly tuberculosis (TB) outbreak that claimed the lives of thousands of people in various parts of the region including Rhode Island, Vermont, and eastern Connecticut.

Due to a lack of medical knowledge, inhabitants of this region thought the disease was caused by the undead consuming the life force of their relatives. It was normal for bodies to be exhumed with the internal organs burned to prevent the ghastly disease from spreading. The real cause of TB wasn’t known until the end of the 19th century, so people jumped to the conclusion that vampires were at work.

One of the big problems with TB is that it spreads quickly throughout a family so when one person died from it, his or her family members gradually became weaker as the bacterial disease had also infected them. When someone was suspected of being a vampire, their corpse was exhumed for signs of the undead. If the body was unusually fresh, it was said to be feeding on the flesh of the living.

Deaths in the Family

Hopefully, the above background provides you with some insight into the seemingly crazy activities of the Brown family of Rhode Island. In the 1890s, the family would become synonymous with the New England Vampire Panic as their plight came to national attention.

George and Mary Brown lived in Exeter, Rhode Island in the 1880s. Unfortunately, like so many families of the era, the Browns suffered a series of TB infections. The disease, known as consumption at that time, was feared because it was known to be a debilitating and deadly illness.

Mary was the first to die from TB in December 1882 and was closely followed by one of her daughters, Mary Olive, in 1883. Mary Olive was just 20 years of age, and the entire town attended her funeral which was marked by the beautiful singing of a hymn the deceased girl had chosen. In 1890/91, one of George’s sons, Edwin, contracted the disease. He was known as a big strong man, but he began to wither away. He left for Colorado Springs with his father in the hope that an improved climate would help him.

Sure enough, Edwin began to feel better but the Browns received another terrible blow. While George was away with his son, his 19-year old daughter Mercy contracted a severe form of TB and died quickly. As it was an extremely cold winter, she was kept in a crypt above ground until the soil became soft enough for a proper burial. Edwin’s condition got worse almost as soon as he returned. One night, he claimed to have woken up to find his dead sister Mercy sitting on his chest and trying to suck the life out of him.