By Thomas D’Agostino
One of the most eerie chapters in New England’s history concerns the vampire plague that struck the region. Events date back to 1784 when Willington, Connecticut resident Isaac Johnson disinterred his two children and performed a strange exorcism as per request of a foreign doctor whom they labeled as a “quack.” Their graves were exhumed in search of a vine growing from casket to casket. Cutting the vine was believed to stop the night visits of the “vampire” that was taking family members, one by one, to the grave.
For the next 108 years, scores of families dug up their loved ones in search of what they called a “spectral ghoul.” It was believed spirit of the dead rose from the grave at night to feed upon their family members before returning to the grave to nourish the corpse. As long as the decomposing corpse remained in whole, it would feed upon the flesh of the living.
Another early case took place in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1799. Apple farmer Stutley Tillinghast had a foreboding dream of losing half his orchard. His daughter Sarah soon became ill with consumption and died. Within six months, 5 more of his 14 children died of the dreaded disease, each one claiming that Sarah came to them in the night sucking their life away. When another child became ill, it was decided that a vampire was at work. One misty morning, family and friends congregated at the cemetery and in turn, exhumed the bodies. Most of them were already returning to the earth they once trod but Sarah, the first to succumb to consumption had not shown one sign of decay. Her hair was still silky and soft, her blue eyes shone brightly and her fingernails had grown. A new theory was put to the test to end the evil. They cut out her vitals and burned them, then re-interred the children. The other child died anyway. It was concluded that he was too far gone to save. In the end, Stutley’s dream of losing half his orchard had been a foretelling of losing half his children.
The last known case of vampirism took place in 1892, when Mercy Brown of the same town was exorcised as a vampire. Mercy’s mother, Mary Eliza died on December 8, 1883 at the age of 36 followed by her sister, Mary Olive on June 6, 1884 at age 20. When Mercy’s brother Edwin became ill, he left for the curing waters of Colorado Springs. During his absence, Mercy contracted running consumption and died on January 17, 1892. She was placed in the keep at the Chestnut Hill Baptist Cemetery until the spring thaw allowed for a proper burial. Edwin returned but his condition worsened. The townsfolk suspected that one of the deceased family members was feeding upon his lifeblood.
George Brown scoffed at the idea but perpetual insistence by his neighbors and Edwin growing paler by the day made him consider the only cure left; exorcism of a vampire. On March 19, 1892 some of the locals met at the cemetery to find their vampire. Dr. Harold Metcalf of Wakefield presided over the exhumations. They first dug up Mary Eliza and Mary Olive but the earth had long reclaimed their flesh, leaving only bones. They then opened the keep and removed Mercy’s coffin. When they removed the lid, they all stepped back and gasped. Not only had her hair and nails appear to have grown, she was still pale and showed signs of dried blood around her lips. To make matters more peculiar, she had actually stirred in her coffin.
Her heart and lungs were removed and burned on a nearby rock. The ashes were fed to Edwin with some medicine in the hopes that it would cure him of his infliction.
The cure failed and Edwin passed away on May 2, 1892. News of the gruesome event spread like wildfire across the country and even into Europe. Knowledge of the disease soon came to the rural towns and marked the end of the grotesque ritual of exhuming the dead and burning their vitals to rid families of the curse that took them to their graves. In an interesting footnote, a certain author found an article about the Exeter vampire incident and used it as a catalyst for a famous novel. In 1897 Bram Stoker wrote Dracula using the accounts of Mercy Brown along with other people and places. One thing to note is that the town in the book is called…Exeter.