For 100 years, between the late 1700s up to 1900, a vampire epidemic raged through ultra-religious New England, from southern and western Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut. Scholars have linked this vampire legend to misguided diagnoses of diseases like tuberculosis, rabies and porphyria, also called Gunther Disease, which is a rare genetic disorder that can cause skin lesions and extreme sensitivity to sunlight.
These pious, God-fearing 19th-century New Englanders’ beliefs in vampires were centered on those who had recently died, and who were assumed to be leaving their graves at night to feed on the blood of their loved ones, thus infecting them as well. But there was one man during this time who was actually accused, then allegedly convicted and sentenced of being a murderous, blood-drinking vampire — but who was still living.
In May, 1866, a Bark called the Atlantic sailed from Boston to the Indian Ocean hunting whales. The Atlantic was described as a “staunch, well-built craft of two hundred and ninety tons,” with a crew of about 30 men.
Included in the crew was a 25-year-old, heavily tattooed immigrant working as a cook from New Bedford, named James “Jimmy” Brown. Brown claimed that he was born in 1839 in Georgetown, Guyana, and was known for being ill-tempered, a complaint aggravated by two- to three-year voyages which often led to fights and years-long grudges, snits, quarrels and feuds that only exacerbated the irritation between the crew members.
Apparently one day a 19-year-old mate named James Foster entered the Atlantic kitchen and called Brown a racial slur. Enraged, Brown without hesitation drew a six-inch double-edged sheath knife “and with malice aforethought” stabbed Foster in the left side of his chest to a depth of four inches. Foster reportedly fell to the floor and within five minutes was dead.
The altercation was witnessed by another mate, James W. Gardner, and he allegedly immediately informed Capt. Benjamin Franklin Wing of the incident. According to the Atlantic logbook, Wing had Brown manacled in double-irons and placed in the brig. As soon as possible he had Brown and Gardner transferred to another ship back to Boston for trial.
But the newspapers told quite a different story. An anonymous chronicle appearing in several papers including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Alexandria [Virginia] Gazette the week of August 17, 1892 reported that Foster’s body, along with another unnamed mate, had actually disappeared somewhere inside the ship. Brown was then spotted by other sailors deep in the hold with the two bodies, who were said to be found to be bloodless and covered in deep cuts — implying that Brown had consumed the blood out of them.
That account was not without precedent. Years earlier, the June 26, 1885 Boston Globe reported with no documentation that Brown, “…who is about 33 years of age, in 1865 (dates vary widely) killed his captain at sea and drank his blood from the cloven skull.”
Regardless of the highly suspect authenticity of these press accounts, on November 13, 1866, Brown was tried for the murder of Foster and found guilty. He apparently paid his attorneys with nine barrels of oil, which at that time was worth $2.75 per gallon. After 75 minutes the jury sentenced him to death by hanging.
President Andrew Johnson, however, was sympathetic. He signed more pardons than any other president in history, including the Christmas, 1868 “full and unconditional pardon” of over 6,300 Confederate soldiers. His benevolence also extended to James Brown, who had his death sentence commuted to life in prison by the President on January 3, 1867, mainly because he appeared to those who met him to be completely insane.
Rescued from the gallows, Brown was transferred from Suffolk, Massachusetts to the Charlestown State Prison, a bleak and abusive facility located on a five-acre plot between Austin and Washington Streets, near where Bunker Hill Community College is today. Considered a vile and unpredictable inmate, in 1873 he allegedly stabbed another prisoner seven times, relegating him to isolation for 12 years with only the keeper and the physician for human contact.
Brown was formally declared insane in June, 1885 (most likely from 12 years in isolation) and transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington DC. The June 26 Boston Globe reported that while at Charlestown, Brown had committed “no less than twenty-six murderous assaults on his fellow prisoners and officers of the prison,” despite the fact he was supposedly segregated from other prisoners most of that time.
Still, they claimed, “He raged in his cell like a tiger in a cage.”
In 1887, St. Elizabeth’s declared Brown — by then almost 50 years old and suffering from cataracts — not insane, so he was transferred to the Ohio State Penitentiary since Charlestown was under renovations.
Five years later, in 1892, Brown was transferred yet again to St. Elizabeth’s. This move coincides with the most lurid accounts of Brown’s vampirism — and it may have been because his last name became conflated with another famous New England family of Browns who were in the news that year for a very specific but similar reason.
The sad case of the Rhode Island Brown family
George and Mary Brown (no relation to James) were well-respected farmers with no reason for anyone to suspect that they and their three children were anything but a normal Rhode Island family. But disaster struck the family in 1883, when Mary died of consumption, followed by their oldest daughter Mary Olive in 1888. In 1890 their son Edwin became ill, then the youngest, a 19-year-old young lady named Mercy, died in 1892, leaving only George and his dying son.
Terrified from the symptoms (now most likely believed to be tuberculosis), the neighbors started to fear that the Brown’s illness was caused by vampires. In an attempt to verify their suspicions, on the morning of March 17, 1892, the bodies of Mary and Mary Olive were exhumed and it was determined that due to their natural decomposition neither was a vampire. But when they dug up Mercy’s body, they found her not only in excellent condition but in a different position than when she was buried. Most significantly, her heart was perfectly preserved and filled with blood.
“Dug up” is not the proper term — Mercy’s body was actually not buried, but kept above-ground in a crypt due to the ground being frozen, therefore it is speculated that the cold weather kept her body better preserved. Nevertheless, common sense never seemed to sway a nineteenth-century mob, and they believed this “uncorruption” as evidence of vampirism.
They supposedly removed Mercy’s heart and burned it on a nearby rock. The ashes were mixed with water and given to Edwin to drink to ward off his vampire sister Mercy from returning from the grave to further infect him.
The ritual failed, of course, and Edwin died two months later. Still, there was no explanation for why Mercy was in a different position in her casket, unless she wasn’t dead when she was buried or someone just made it up. She was reburied in Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island.
Interestingly, an account published in the Alexandria Gazette on March 21, 1892 reported nothing amiss with Mercy’s body when it was examined. A Dr. Metcalf “reported [Mercy’s] body in a state of natural decomposition, with nothing exceptional existing,” and “when the doctor removed the heart and liver, a quantity of blood was found, but this he said was just what might be expected.”
It does go on to report, however, that Mercy’s heart and liver were cremated, with no explanation why.
Meanwhile, stories about the vampire prisoner James Brown got more and more salacious, most likely due not just to the Rhode Island Brown family’s misfortune but also to his own violent nature, his years-long seclusion in a mental hospital and his ambiguous ethnicity. That 1892 account reported that just prior to being transferred to St. Elizabeth’s, Brown “killed one of his keepers with a chair, and when discovered he was lapping his victim’s blood.”
Whether a sloppy or imaginative reporter commingled the Brown names to concoct the James Brown vampire story is speculative, but both Brown stories got traction in the press and were apparently picked up by author Bram Stoker while performing the meticulous research prior to writing his classic novel Dracula.
There are some startling similarities between the fate of the ship Atlantic and the Schooner Demeter in Stoker’s novel to support this claim. Both are a narrative of sailors aboard a doomed ship disappearing under the hand of a vampire. And like the fictitious Demeter, which was wrecked in a storm at the port of Whitby, England, the Atlantic was also doomed by a storm in 1887 off the coast of San Francisco, killing 27 of the 38 crew members in what the San Francisco Examiner called “one of the most melancholy and disastrous wrecks of the year.”
Of course, the Brigantine Dmitry was also wrecked in a storm near Whitby on October 24, 1885, also providing Stoker with more reliable local research possibilities.
In 1904, Charlestown Prison inquired to St. Elizabeth’s of the condition of their former prisoner, James Brown. The unnamed Superintendent replied tersely that “James Brown (Col.),” who had been admitted Nov. 4, 1892, died Dec. 15, 1895, and was buried in the hospital cemetery.
Stoker’s classic novel Dracula was finally released 18 months after Brown’s death, on May 26, 1897.