In researching my books, I come across all sorts of strange trivia, but even I was taken back by this one. It seems that in New England there are real vampire graves from the great “New England Vampire Panic” of the early 19th century. How is it that this is the first I heard about this?
In the early 19th century, an outbreak of tuberculosis swept across New England. At the time, little was known about the disease and it was believed that consumption was caused by the dead rising from the grave to consume the life of their surviving relatives. Of course, the only “logical” explanation for this was vampirism.
To protect the survivors, the bodies of those that died of tuberculosis were dug up and examined. If the corpse was unusually fresh or if the heart and organs were filled with blood, it was thought that it was feeding on the living. Once the vampire was identified, there were numerous way to remedy the problem and rid the family of the vampire including burning organs, flipping the body in the grave, decapitation, and sometimes ever dismemberment.
Newspapers in other parts of the country were skeptical of the belief in vampires. Even Thoreau weighed in on this contemporary superstition saying, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated”.
The most famous instance of this panic is the Mercy Brown burial. In the final two decades of the 19th century, the family of George and Mary Brown suffered a sequence of tuberculosis related illnesses and deaths. First to die was the mother Mary and then the eldest daughter Mary Olive also died. The son, Edwin, became ill in 1890, followed in 1891 by Mercy. Mercy died in 1892 and she was promptly buried at the Baptist Church in Exeter.
Believing the illness and deaths were the cause of the dead returning to consume the lives of the living, George gave permission for the bodies to be exhumed on March 17, 1892. While the mother and first daughter suffered significant decay, Mercy was still unchanged. This was taken as a sign that she was undead and feeding off of Edwin. Her organs were removed, burned, and mixed with water that was given to Edwin to drink. There was hope that this would cure him, but alas he died two months later.
So, in the case of the New England Vampire Panic, the truth really is stranger than fiction.