Kids will go trick-or-treating, television will run horror-o-thon movies, parents will steal candy from their children, dentists everywhere will bank on the harvest of cavities, and readers will revisit their shelves or libraries to reread Gothic tales, or the corpus of Stephen King. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a ghoulish perennial favorite of mine; but I bet that you didn’t know that the inspiration for Lucy Westrena in that 1897 epistolary novel might have been drawn from ghastly events here in New England.
In 1892, one Mercy L. Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island died of consumption, aged nineteen years, on January 17. Predeceasing Mercy was her mother, Mary, and sister, Mary Olive. Edwin, her brother, took ill in 1891, around the same time that Mercy had become wracked with the telltale coughing of tuberculosis. Neighbors, seeing the members of the Brown family fall in rapid succession, suspected that a family member was a vampire. Disease transmission was poorly understood at that time. The Brown women were exhumed. Since Mercy’s body had not significantly decomposed, had blood still in the heart, she was declared undead. The townspeople of Exeter did not take into account that a cold New England winter had delayed decomposition. Mary’s heart was burned. That it in itself was already horrific enough, but what happened next was even worse — the burnt offering was mixed with water and given to her brother to drink. Edwin died two months later.
Henry David Thoreau, upon reading about a similar incident in Vermont, devoted an entry in his journal in 1859 to the barbarous practice of the exhumation and burning of human hearts, a practice that seemed to be more prevalent in rural communities. In 1819, Frederick Ransom, a student at Dartmouth, had died from TB, was subsequently exhumed and, at the request of his father, his heart burned in front of hundreds of witnesses.
Across the Atlantic and shortly before writing Dracula, the Irish writer Bram Stoker was entertaining Hungarian writer Ármin Vámbéry, who regaled him with stories of the supernatural in the Carpathian Mountains. Dracula is likely to have been inspired by a confluence of sources: Stoker’s own research into folklore and mythology, including the tale of Vlad Țepeș; Sheridan Le Fanu’s novelette Carmilla (1872) about lesbian vampires, and visits to Slains Castle in Scotland, Whitby in England, and the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in his hometown of Dublin, as well as newspaper articles from America about Mercy Brown. Newspaper clippings of the Brown case were in Stoker’s files. Stoker had visited America and developed a friendship with Walt Whitman.
It had taken seven years for Stoker to create his revenant Count, and the original manuscript itself had an odd afterlife – it had disappeared and then reappeared in a barn in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. Bram’s original title was “THE UN-DEAD.” Microsoft’s Paul Allen owns the manuscript.
As eerie as the Mercy Brown case sounds, the prescriptive act of destroying the heart in order to prevent an undead state is not uncommon in the twentieth century. My friend Claudio in Italy informed me that in Venetian countryside villages the local doctor, after certifying the death of a person, would pierce the heart of the deceased with a long hatpin. He said that this was done especially with women — by their own request.
A similar scene is described in the movie Dimenticare Venezia, where the protagonist’s grandmother writes in her Will that her doctor and friend must pierce her heart after she dies.
New England has had a rich history of the supernatural, from the Salem Witch Trials to the vampire panic of the Frederick Ransom and Mercy Brown cases. And you thought only salt, garlic, and a crucifix would do.