The Vampires of Rhode Island
GEORGE BROWN OF RHODE ISLAND had a problem. Within nine years he had lost his wife, Eliza, and two of his daughters, Mary & Mercy, all to consumption. With his son Edwin at death’s door suffering from the same condition, he had to do something. So against scientific, medical advice he was persuaded to try an old folk ritual.
On May 17th, 1892, the three women’s bodies were exhumed and examined for any … unnatural … signs.
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‘VAMPIRES’ … IN NEW ENGLAND?
So here is a series of historical events, and a title: ‘The Vampires of Rhode Island’.
We should probably start by covering the ‘vampire’ part.
The contemporaries and friends of Mercy Brown, Sarah Tillinghast and the other unfortunate victims never referred to them as vampires: the term has been retroactively applied (perhaps first in 1979 in a local newspaper article) and applied from ‘above’ (by the writer of The Vampire Tradition and George Stetson – see below for both). Not all supernatural draining creatures are called vampires by the communities which experience them, but we moderns like the word and apply it pretty indiscriminately.
But it’s not irrelevant or inappropriate – although many of the contemporary locals find it annoying.
The original vampire of folklore came from central and eastern Europe. It came to the attention of the west at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but The Austrian Empire had expanded that era. This means the multiple reports may be understood as bemused westerners observing and reporting upon a folk practice that was probably already well-established within its own locale.
The two most oft-repeated vampire accounts are of Arnod Paole and Peter Plogojowitz, both from Serbia in vampire heartland.
‘VAMPIRE’ ATTACK PATTERNS
The characteristics of a vampire attack are as pretty much as follows:
1 The ‘vampire’ is a person who has died suddenly, or violently, or of a ‘draining’ disease.
2 They are quite often, but not always, disliked in life
3 A series of epidemic deaths follow the death of the original ‘vampire’
4 When examined, the ‘vampire’ corpse isn’t found to be ‘suitably’ decomposed. There may be liquid blood in the vessels, viscera or around the mouth. The corpse may have moved in the grave, or ‘moaned’ when moved
5 The first victims are often the family of the ‘vampire’
6 The victims die in a pattern of what we would recognise as epidemic death
Eighteenth century New Englanders did not use the term ‘vampire’, but a few of them apparently performed rituals which would not have been out of place in Ottoman Serbia. This means one of three things:
1 Under certain circumstances, groups of people will spontaneously create rituals with similar characteristics: it’s a human constant
2 This was a common Europe-wide way of treating the dead in times of epidemic death and we only don’t know about it now because proper records weren’t kept
3 This bit of folklore was transmitted to New England some time around the eighteenth century, and was employed in desperate times.
The first point hits near the mark. Unnatural Predators do preoccupy people who are in extreme difficulty. But the ‘human constant’ theme that arises is the scapegoat. Digging up the dead is a little too specific a meme. Unfortunately, we sometimes blame the living too. Bookmark this site for Witch-Hunts, planned for the future.
The second thought is clearly wrong: if digging up the dead was common across Europe, why were the Austrians so repelled by it that they took to writing aghast official documents about Arnod Paole and Peter Plojogowitz? We have records of the most bizarre folk rituals, from throwing toad bones for divination, to marching lines of cattle between bonfires.
It is unlikely that this could have passed so completely under the radar for so long.
The third thought is probably the most likely. The anonymous author of The Vampire Tradition (an article in the Arnold Collection of the Providence Public Library) thought that the tradition may have been carried by a group of French Hugenots who arrived in the area of the Rhode Island Vampires at the very end of the seventeenth century (There are more details here p183)
H. P. Lovecraft integrates this idea into his story, The Shunned House:
“The swarthy Etienne Roulet, less apt at agriculture than reading queer books and drawing queer diagrams, was given a clerical post in the warehouse at Pardon Tillinghast’s wharf. It was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object”
The Shunned House
H. P. Lovecraft (1924)
Lovecraft called his character ‘Roulet’ after a man who had been tried and convicted of werewolfism in 1598 in Caude, France.
That would mean there was about a century between the arrival of the Hugenots in Rhode Island, and the first ‘vampire’ – Rachel Harris. It’s feasible that the folkore passed from the immigrant community to the locals in that time.
To be sure that they were the real vectors, it would be nice to know how and why the Hugenots had taken up an eastern European tradition with such gusto, and whether there are other examples of it in Hugenot communities.
If there’s no trace of such a thing, there may be a third, as yet unidentified, community which is responsible: the whole subject could do with more research.
So, moving on from the ‘v’ word, we are left wondering why these occurrences happened where and when they did. If the meme had been transmitted to New England by some means, why didn’t it happen everywhere and at all times?
Let’s look at four things: the first is the history of the area, the use of its land and resources.
This part of New England was very prosperous in the late sixteen and seventeen hundreds. The soil is rocky but fertile, and decades of hard labour by slaves, indentured men, tenant farmers and independent locals, so called ‘Swamp Yankees’, led to the stones being pulled from the earth to create the miles of dry stone walls which are still everywhere. To an English traveller, this makes the region seem quite un-American and frankly more evocative of the stony parts of England like Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Cornwall.
The population of the area peaked in the late 1700s. But after that, the young and vigorous left for better prospects elsewhere, either in the towns and cities, or in the expanding territories to the west.
“The region referred to, where agriculture is in a depressed condition and abandoned farms are numerous. Farm houses deserted and ruinous are frequent, and the once productive lands, neglected and overgrown with scrubby oak, speak forcefully and mournfully of the migration of the youthful farmers from country to town.”
The Animistic Vampire in New England
George Stetson (1896)
So by the 1800s, parts of New England embodied the depressed and darkly haunted environment described by the American Gothic Romantics like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe and H P Lovecraft.
Lovecraft even referred directly to Mercy Brown in one of his stories:
“As lately as 1892, an Exeter Community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace”
The Shunned House
H. P. Lovecraft (1924)
Secondly, there is the specific nature of religiosity in the area. This isn’t Puritan heartland – that’s further north. Rhode Island was characterised by a more frontier, independent religious quality, self-authoring and authorising. Among the sectarians and free-thinkers, the Quakers and the Shakers, there was a spiritual life in which folk-practice coexisted with recognisable, conventional religion.
The independent Rhode Islanders felt free to turn to ancient beliefs, not regarding them as incompatible with either science or religion.
This independent form of living is apparent in the numerous family burial plots, such as that of the Tillinghasts, rather than central town graveyards. That may also mean that there were a great many more exhumations than we know about, as they could have been done free from outside scrutiny.
“By some mysterious survival, occult transmission, or remarkable atavism, this region, including within its radius the towns of Exeter, Foster, Kingstown, East Greenwich, and others, with their scattered hamlets and more pretentious villages, is distinguished by the prevalence of this remarkable superstition”
The Animistic Vampire in New England
George Stetson (1896)
Thirdly, there’s the issue of epidemic death, specifically death from tuberculosis.
The tuberculosis bacillus was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882. It was, and is, a disease that associated with poverty, and the poor, cramped conditions of industrialisation.
There were no significant medical interventions ‘til the widespread use antibiotics in the 1940s, but by then the disease had already started to decline through improving social circumstances and routine pasteurising of milk, one method of transmission. Even now, it’s not a simple disease to cure or eliminate.
Because of the long, slow draining death process, consumption appears as a central theme with many folkloric Unnatural Predators, including fairies and the vampires of Eastern and central Europe.
Just like many other places at this time, New England was becoming industrial and encountering new public health problems such as TB. Even those who lived rural lives were probably living at close quarters with their family and livestock. They may also have been relatively poor and malnourished.
The fourth issue here is that the bodies had not decayed as one would have thought. They appeared to show signs of ‘life-in-afterlife’. However, knowledge about the massive variability of post-mortem changes is a modern luxury. You and I can Google the effects of temperature, soil pH and micro-organisms upon decomposition. But nineteenth century people buried their dead quickly for the very good reason that they were a source of contagion.
As odd as it seems, liquid blood at the mouth and in the viscera are not as exceptional in corpses as you might think. The relationship between the folkore of the undead and post-mortem processes are covered in this excellent book by Paul Barber. In the particular case of Mercy Brown, as we have seen, she could even have been stored semi-frozen in a crypt.
So, the nineteenth century inhabitants of Rhode Island witnessed an epidemic of a disease against which they were powerless, a disease that passed freely among family members. Death is contagious.
Without modern knowledge about decomposition, specific signs like liquid blood in the heart ‘living blood’ as it was called, were taken as an indication that the loved one hadn’t quite passed over to the other side. They remained in shadowy form, draining the life from those who remained.
Ingesting the blood or body of powerful enemy to placate it is an ancient and reasonably common ritual. Charlemagne even took the trouble to make it illegal, as it was a fairly common measure taken against witches. It’s an attempt at communion. Even established religions perform the same ritual today.
So somehow, maybe via French Hugenots, a meme passed from one community to another.
People aren’t daft, but they do get desperate. I think it would be unfair to think of the participants of these rituals as gullible yokels. George Brown was apparently unconvinced that the exhumations would work, but was persuaded to try it by neighbours. See p21 here. He can’t have been the only New Englander to reluctantly submit to the last resort.
Rest in Peace, Mercy Brown.
She bloom’d, though the shroud was around her,
locks o’er her cold bosom wave,
As if the stern monarch has crown’d her,
The Fair speechless queen of the grave,
But what lends the grave such lusture?
O’er her cheeks what such beauty shed?
His life blood, who bent there, had nurs’d her,
The living was food for the dead!
Old Colony Memorial and Plymouth County (Massachusetts) Advertiser
May 4th 1822
Massive ‘thank-you’s to:
Karl Derrick. Makeup effects supervisor, author and screenwriter. Also cameraman and enthusiastic supporter.
Arnie Koch is an awesome New York based techie-bod, logistics guy & pizza homing device. This would have been very hard without him.
John Rael is an LA based actor, director and skeptic. Have a look at some of his hilarious podcasts.
Reversion by Stone Idols is an ambient album by Rob Jenkins, Martin Smith & Neil Cowley. It’s my very favourite music to write to. Please support the music by downloading it here.
For more background on the Rhode Island Vampires, I recommend this by folklorist Michael Bell.
I LOVE this book about the differerent waves of immigration onto north America, and the cultures that accompanied them.
A facsimilie of George Stetson’s classic essay from The American Anthropologist is available on the ‘net here.
It’s always worth reading Montague Summers for the purple prose and utterly confabulated extras. He covers the Rhode Island vampires in this book.