When we look back at superstitious eras, we should not think our generation too superior. I have visited the graves of supposed witches in Tallahassee, Florida, and Harrison, Rhode Island, the tomb of a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, and the burial sites of vampires in New England, only to find silly superstitious practices at each of them. The most recent was my 2016 visit to the grave of Mercy Lena Brown— whose case supposedly influenced Bram Stoker, author of Dracula (1897).
One of the practices I refer to is the placement on a grave or tomb of certain items such as coins, seashells, small stones, or other things—either as gifts to spirits or with some other intention, often some thought of warding off evil. (See photograph.)
Although I had written about Lena, as she was known, I had not been able to visit her grave until I found myself in Rhode Island in mid-June 2016. I was there to investigate the claims behind the horror movie The Conjuring at the invitation of Norma Sutcliffe who now owns the eighteenth-century property involved.
On the way home, I detoured to Exeter, Rhode Island, where Mercy Lena Brown was buried in 1892, subsequently becoming known as the Exeter Vampire. Her death at age nineteen, which we now know was due to consumption (tuberculosis), was then attributed by some to vampirism—no doubt because of her lethargy, pale appearance, coughing of blood, and, of course, contagiousness, all of which suggested the result of a vampire’s parasitic bite.
Therefore, after three months, her body was exhumed. Although it was said blood dripped from the corpse’s mouth, the Providence Journal (March 19 and 21, 1892) reported that a scientific-minded Dr. Metcalf found the body “in a state of natural decomposition, with nothing exceptional existing.” Moreover, “When the doctor removed the heart and the liver from the body a quantity of blood dripped therefrom, but this he said was just what might be expected from a similar examination of almost any person after the same length of time from disease.” Nevertheless, no doubt to appease ghoulish believers, attendants “cremated” the heart and liver.
Whether the ashes were dissolved and drunk by her ill brother Edwin as a supposed preventative–as has been said–he nevertheless died also. And so ended the case of Mercy Lena Brown, the best-known of all such “vampires” in America.