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Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.


The Salem Witch Trials: A Retelling and Commentary

October 12, 2012 in American History, Massachusetts Travel

Literary Traveler took a trip to Salem, Massachusetts this week, so expect a bunch of interesting posts and photos next week. Before we get rolling, here’s a refresher on the Trials and the profound affect they had on American history, by contributor Wes Newbury.

It was the dead of night and John Louder lay awake, listening to the dead leaves scratch across the cobblestone streets. Moonlight beamed through his frail windowpane, pale and haunting. Upon his chest he felt a suffocating weight and his strength left him altogether. Later he would testify  ‘It was her, the woman from the tavern.’ She sat “upon my stomake and… layd hold of my throat.”[1]

In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery. In the span of ten months, over 150 people, mainly poor, ill-reputed women, were accused of witchcraft. Of the accused, 19 were hanged, five died in prison, and one was slowly crushed by the weight of piled stones.[2] Fourteen of the nineteen hanged were women.

Bridget made her way up the stairs, patting her sleeve to her lip to check for blood. “The old devil,” she whispered under her breath, “The old rogue.” She heard his footsteps pounding up the stairs, and when she turned to face him she met another blow. “You witch,” he accused her, “Trying to curse me on the Sabbath.”*

Bridget wore her bruises to the court where she was convicted of fighting with her husband, Thomas Oliver.[3]  When he died in 1678, Bridget was accused of bewitching him to death.

Salem of the late seventeenth century was a male dominated society that regarded the souls of women as corruptible vessels for the devil’s work. Sexual repression, Puritan law, and old English folklore were all part of a misogynistic tradition that viewed women as an inferior sex to be dominated and controlled. Bridget was not a woman of her time. She was independent and far from being a submissive Puritan wife. She left her first husband in England, quarreled with the other until his death, and transformed the home of her third and final spouse into a tavern where she served apple cider to late night drinkers.

The boys were rowdy tonight. Bridget wasn’t expecting so many sailors and they had nearly cleaned her out of her last batch of cider. They laughed heartily and rammed their mugs together over the shovelboard, already sticky with sweet cider. It was late and her neighbors had doused their lights long ago. Bridget wasn’t expecting any other visitors when the door burst open. It was the woman from across the street, Christine Trask, and she had a crazed look in her eye. The sailors stopped laughing and Christine charged them. She swiped the shovelboard clean and threw their board pieces into the fire.. “You have no right entertaining this riff-raff at such an unseasonable hour!”* she shouted at Bridget.

Christine began having fits a few days after the strange encounter. When she eventually killed herself in a moment of self-destructive rage, Bridget Bishop was again accused of witchcraft. The year was 1686.

Six years later, the Minister Parris’ girls began behaving freakishly. It started with nine-year-old Elizabeth, but spread quickly to her sisters and friends. The girls had convulsions and became entranced at times. They claimed to be cursed and tormented by evil specters. When they started pointing fingers, Bridget Bishop was accused of witchcraft for the third and final time.

A court of Oyer and Terminer had been created to deal swift justice to the overflowing population of accused witches in the Salem Prison. The court was composed of magistrates and a grand jury ripe with fear. Their objective was to rid Salem of devilry and Bridget was the first to stand trial.

When she walked into the courtroom the girls began to twist and scream in agony. They broke into fits. “What witchcraft are you conversant in,” hissed Judge Hathorne, glancing at the contorted figures of the young girls.

Bridgett looked at them in horror. Then she turned to the grand jury and surveyed the sea of suspicious faces. “I take all this people to witness 
that I am clear,” she demanded.

“Why do you seem to act witchcraft before us?”

“I know nothing of it,” Bridget protested. “I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.”

“They say you bewitcht your first husband to death.”

“If it please your worship I know nothing of it.”*

Despite her pleas of innocence, and there being no tangible evidence to prove her guilt, Judge Hathorne sentenced Bridget Bishop to death. Her grave reads, “Hanged June 10, 1692.” Eighteen more people would follow her to the grave, they all claimed to be innocent of witchcraft.

Five years after the executions, people tried to come to terms with what they knew had been a gross miscarriage of justice. The nine girls confessed to their trickery and lies. Salem was ashamed.

A century later, Nathaniel Hathorne, the great grandson of the infamous judge, changed his name to Hawthorne to distance himself from his family’s despicable legacy. It became clear that the only evil spirit the town had encountered was fear.

In 1952, Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory of McCarthyism in his play The Crucible. By suggesting the same phenomenon that occurred in Salem 1692 could reoccur on a national scale in the 1940’s, Miller illustrates how history has always had its witches. They are the enemy, the source of our woes, and the antagonist of our endless hunt.

Bridget Bishop wasn’t a communist, but she challenged societal norms. She was killed by a society possessed by fear and in need of a scapegoat. Her story is one of innocent defiance, not sorcery. Literature that indulges in the satanic and mystical nature of the Trials skewers the real reasons they are so horrifying. Ghosts, ghouls, and witches are inventions of our imagination used to justify the irrational fear we have of each other. The fear that pervaded Salem in the seventeenth century is the same fear that fuels witch hunts today. Our history is scarier than our imagination; for when fear takes hold of us, we can become the monsters we were hunting.

Salem is the capital of Halloween.  If you visit, enjoy the festivities, zany costumes, haunted houses, and ghost tours. But, please remember what really happened in 1692. To better understand the history of the Salem Witch Trials stop by the Salem Witch Museum or sign up for a show with History Alive. Come find out why Salem truly is one of the spookiest places on earth.


*All quotations are taken from the Verbatim Transcripts

[1] Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692.

[2] The Witches Curse. Secrets of the Dead.

[3] Cry Innocent: The People Vs. Bridgett Bishop. History Alive!


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