It was a scene only Dracula and his blood-spattered ilk could love. In the late 18th and early 19th century, New Englanders were gripped by a vampire panic. In desperation, they began dismembering suspected vampires in hopes of driving off the terror and death that threatened to upend their lives.
But how did vampires come to invade the newly created United States?
It all began in some unfortunate New England villages, as tuberculosis (then called consumption) ravaged entire families and communities. This bacterial lung disease, which spreads easily among family members, has horrid symptoms, giving feverish sufferers an ashen appearance and sunken eyes. In some cases, blood would drop from their mouths.
It was a slow, wretched death – almost as if the life was gradually being drained out of them. It earned the name "consumption" for the way it caused dramatic weight loss. So severe was the epidemic that it claimed around 2 percent of the region's population from 1786 to 1800 and eventually killed perhaps 25 percent of the East Coast's citizens.
"Imagine a communicable disease a great deal slower to manifest than COVID-19, with symptoms even more ambiguous," says folklorist and author Michael Bell in an email interview. "One that did not explode through a population — leaving in its wake the dead and those who survived through good fortune or natural immunity — and then disappear or become latent. A disease that, instead, once it grasped a person, could go in and out of remission over a period of months, or years or even decades."
No one understood how diseases spread back then. All they knew was that as consumption victims perished, their surviving family members would begin to fall ill, one by one. Neighbors would be afflicted, too.
"Adding to its mystery, consumption seemed capricious in choosing its victims," says Bell. "Some families escaped intact while others were thoroughly decimated."
Finding the Vampires
So, frightened villagers began to believe that the first to die were perhaps vampires of sorts. At night, those sharp-toothed bloodsuckers would wriggle out of their graves, stalk their own families, and slowly but surely suck the life out of them, until they too died horrendous deaths.
Terrified, villagers reasoned there was only one way to halt the vampire attacks – but first, they had to dig up the bodies and examine them. If the corpse appeared to be less decayed than expected, they'd slice the bodies open and sift through the internal organs. If the organs contained liquid blood, the person was deemed possessed.
"The theory seems to have been that this corpse was being inhabited by some sort of evil spirit that was sustaining itself by draining the life (or blood) from the living," says Bell. "This spiritual possession had to be destroyed and the evil bond between the living and dead needed to be broken, usually by burning the infected organ and, sometimes, feeding the ashes to those who were ill."
To be extra sure that the vampire wouldn't arise again, sometimes the corpses were beheaded. Some had their bones shattered and rearranged in a skull-and-crossbones symbol.
"The 'vampires' were always corpses," says Bell – they were never living people. "The people who were performing the ritual never referred to the corpses they exhumed as vampires, although some outsiders, including newspaper writers and local historians, sometimes labeled these consumption rituals as vampirism."
According to Bell, desperate gravedigging scenes played out at least 80 times throughout the vampire panic.
Often, the bodies were disinterred at night, the grisly ceremony attended only by close relatives. But some Vermont towns took things a step further, burning organs for hundreds of witnesses to see, perhaps providing them some hope that the plague of vampires was ended.
"The earliest documented consumption/vampire ritual I've found is from Willington, Connecticut, in 1784, says Bell. "The last, authentically documented case occurred in 1892, in Exeter, Rhode Island. These dates coincide with the consumption endemic in New England, which began to rise dramatically in the late 1700s and continued throughout the 1800s. But, in 1882, the year that [German physician] Robert Koch proved that tuberculosis was caused by a bacterium, the vampire rituals slowed to a halt."
But before it all ended, there was a climax of sorts, one that's become known as the Mercy Brown vampire incident.
Mercy Brown and Dracula
In 1892, a Rhode Island farmer named George Brown watched consumption kill his wife, and then two daughters in succession. Then, his son Edwin became deathly ill, too. Although he wanted no part of the ritual, villagers eventually persuaded Brown to let them exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters for examination.
The bodies of his wife and one daughter were just bones. But Mercy – the most recent to die, just two months prior – was surprisingly intact. That she died in midwinter and thus was partially preserved by the frigid temperatures did not stop the examiners from being suspicious. They also noted that her fingernails and hair had grown, a trick of the eyes that we now know is caused by the flesh retracting around them.
Armed with this evidence, the villagers were certain they'd found their vampire. They cut out her heart and burned it. Then, for good measure, they had Edwin drink the ashes in hopes that he'd recover. Not long after, consumption claimed him too.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Rhode Island was reportedly called the "Vampire Capital of America."
Such was the power of the Exeter vampire "slayings" that their stories carried across the Atlantic. According to some accounts, when Irish-born writer Bram Stoker – the author of the novel "Dracula" – died in 1897, witnesses say they found newspaper clippings of the Mercy Brown saga in his files.