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Americans have a longstanding love-hate relationship with the undead. Legends surrounding vampires have made a surprising impact on how we live — and die.
Cremation has become so popular in America that it recently surpassed burial as the funerary rite of choice. Few realize that the practice entered American life, in part, as a deterrent to vampirism.
Once associated with the mists of pagan antiquity, cremation was introduced into America in the mid-1870s by a retired Civil War colonel and occult seeker, Henry Steel Olcott. In public, Olcott touted it as a sanitary social reform. But, if “thoughtful persons” harbored any doubt, he wrote, they need only consider that “there are no vampires save countries where the dead are buried.” Burning the dead had brought such benefits in India, Olcott explained, where “we do not hear of Hindu vampires.”
We may not hear of vampires in India — but Americans were concerned about lots of them, in Connecticut. Throughout much of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, periodic “vampire panics” broke out in New England, often in Connecticut, whose official state slogan is “Full of Surprises.” Indeed.
Tuberculosis, then a misunderstood and physically withering disease, devastated New England farming communities. Panicked locals sometimes drew upon transplanted Central European folklore to explain the deaths as a result of attacks from blood-sucking revenants. In numerous cases, residents dug up recently dead suspects, and beheaded or dismembered their bodies, frequently burning the heart. Archaeologists have exhumed more than eighty such cases, most in New England, and suspect the existence of hundreds more.
The most notorious episode — known as the Mercy Brown case — occurred in 1892, in Exeter, Rhode Island. In the late-nineteenth century, a tuberculosis outbreak decimated the family of farmer George Brown, taking the lives of his wife Mary and eldest daughter, Mary Olive. In the early 1890s, two more Brown children, Mercy and Edwin, contracted the disease. Mercy died on January 17, 1892, while her brother Edwin suffered on his sickbed. Fearing for their own safety, neighbors whispered that a denizen of the undead was preying on the family.
In March, locals persuaded George Brown to permit the exhumation of the bodies to look for signs of vampirism. When they dug up Mary and Mary Olive, they found only skeletal remains. But the two-month-old corpse of Mercy, preserved in the winter chill, was surprisingly lifelike and intact. That marked her as a vampire. The party burned Mercy’s liver and heart, and mixed the ashes in a curative drink for Edwin, who died about two months later.
The Mercy Brown legend assumed an afterlife of its own — one that ensnared an American president and may have influenced the 1897 novel Dracula.
The strange confluence of events began on January 3, 1867, when President Andrew Johnson commuted the death sentence of a sailor convicted of maritime murder. The convict, also named Brown, was later depicted in the press as a bloodsucking vampire who had preyed upon his shipmates.
The actual events, which have been admirably sorted out by historian Robert Damon Schneck, are that sailor James Brown was sentenced to hanging in October 1866 for the shipboard murder of another sailor with whom he had been feuding. The following January, President Johnson, for “divers other good and sufficient reasons,” according to the commutation order, set aside the death sentence for life in prison. Johnson’s motives are unclear.
Flash forward to October 1892 — months after the exhumation of Mercy Brown — when the convicted sailor was being transferred to an insane asylum in Washington, D.C. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, for inscrutable reasons of its own, described the transferee as a vampire, who had murdered and sucked the blood of two men at sea.
“A HUMAN VAMPIRE AND A MURDERER,” blared the Eagle’s headline of November 4, 1892. “Twenty-five years ago he was charged with being a vampire and living on human blood,” the paper reported.
Where did this description come from? “Was the story of James Brown, the murderer, combined with that of Mercy Brown, the vampire?” wondered historian Schneck. The stories had four points in common: the surname, the charges of vampirism, the year 1892, and the New England locale (James Brown had served the first fifteen years of his prison term in Massachusetts). On a slow news day mixed with some lunchtime libation — who knows?
What’s more, the yellowish account may have won a place in literary history. Also in 1892, Irish author Bram Stoker was researching material for his Dracula. It is tantalizingly possible that Stoker, who was known to comb newspapers for story elements, saw the Eagle piece and incorporated the tale of a shipboard bloodsucker into his novel. Count Dracula sails to England aboard the schooner Demeter, feeding on its crew en route.
Some have further speculated that newspaper reports of Mercy Brown inspired Stoker’s character Lucy, a vivacious, teenaged girl who withers, tuberculosis-like, under the count’s nightly feeding, becomes undead, and whose preserved body is exhumed, staked, and dismembered.
Today, all of this dismemberment has given way to a more appealingly sexy variant of the vampire legend, driven by the novels of Anne Rice — but originally traceable to actor Jonathan Frid’s textured, charismatic portrayal of the guilt-ridden vampire Barnabas on TV’s Dark Shadows in the late 1960s.
Before playing Barnabas, Frid, a classically trained stage actor, had grown tired of the financial precariousness of acting and, at age 42, was planning to quit the profession. While he was packing up his New York apartment, his agent called and urged him to audition one last time for the role of a vampire on the ratings-challenged gothic soap opera. Frid thought it sounded ridiculous and refused. Under his agent’s urgings, however, he relented. Frid read for the part, won it, and his tormented, vulnerable performance revolutionized the vampire genre ever after.
In history as in legend, the undead always walk unexpected paths.