Notes on collections and events at the RIHS
Immortalized in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”, rumored to be the inspiration for Lucy Westerna in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, destination for goth kids and ghost seekers around the world, she was the last one exhumed as a suspected vampire in New England.
Mercy Lena Brown was born in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1872 to George Thomas Brown and Mary Elizabeth Arnold. Legend knows her as Mercy Brown, but family & friends called her Lena.
In the late nineteenth century, Exeter, like much of rural New England, was sparsely populated. The recent war casualties and promise of fortunes out west took many men away. In 1820 the population was at a high of more than 2,500, by 1890 it had dipped to just around 960. And tuberculosis was slowly taking those who remained. “Consumption” as it was called, started in New England in the 1730s and by the 1800s it was the leading cause of death. It was a terrible end, often drawn out over years; a blistering fever, a hacking, bloody cough and a visible wasting away of the body. One eighteenth century description claims “the emaciated figure strikes one with terror, the forehead covered with drops of sweat; the cheeks painted with a livid crimson, the eyes sunk…the breath offensive, quick and laborious, and the cough so incessant as to scarce allow the wretched sufferer time to tell his complaints.” Symptoms progressed in such a way that it seemed like something was “draining the life and blood out of somebody.”
In 1882, Lena’s mother, Mary Eliza was the first to succumb to the disease. Mary was a strong woman, she worked the farm with her husband and was used to hardship. Despite her fortitude, consumption ravaged her body and on December 8, 1883, she closed her eyes forever.
By spring of the following year, Lean’s sister, Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, began to fade. She complained of fearful dreams and a crushing weight which drew the life out of her as she slept. She grew paler and more gaunt each night until on June 6, 1884 she joined her mother in eternal rest. It seems the whole town turned out for the funeral.
Several years passed until 1889, when Edwin, George & Mary’s only son, began to show signs of the dreadful condition. Terrible dreams of suffocation and drowning stole his rest, and in the mornings, he felt as though the very blood had been drained from his body. Doctors had no remedy for the mysterious plague that was turning Edwin from a hearty young man into a pale, shaking scarecrow. Friends advised him to travel to Colorado Springs, hoping the well-known spa would help him regain his health and vitality. Edwin took the advice, and headed west with his bride. It seemed to work; as the western climate seemed to arrest the progress of the disease.
Lena, who was just a child when her mother and sister died, didn’t fall ill until nearly a decade after they were buried. Her tuberculosis was the “galloping” kind, which meant that she might have been infected but remained asymptomatic for years, only to fade fast after showing the first signs of the disease. She died on January 17, 1892.
Her obituary was much simpler than her sister’s.
Edwin returned from Colorado after hearing of his sister’s passing. Any progress made while out west quickly disappeared and his health took a turn for the worst. During feverish dreams he would cry out that “she was here”, “she wants me to come with her”, “she haunts me”. Rumors quickly spread through the town and superstitions took over. Scared citizens of Exeter, fearing for their own health, begged George to dig up the women’s bodies, figure out which one was to blame, and rid Edwin of the evil spirit stealing his life. So he did.
The story goes that they fed the ashes of Mercy’s heart & liver to Edwin as a tonic against her. It did not work. Edwin died on May 2, 1892.
Annie Laura Brown, married Charles Edward Taylor in 1886, died August 9, 1895 at the age of 25.
Jennie Adeline Brown, married William Henry Edwards, she died on October 2, 1895 at 18 years old.
Myra Frances Brown, married Arthur Caswell on May 25, 1898, died just about a year later on June 25, 1899, also at 18 years old. Phthisis is a Greek word for consumption, an old term for pulmonary tuberculosis.
Only Hattie May Brown, George & Mary’s fifth child born in 1875, survived to get married twice and have children. She married Alvin Luke Clarke on December 25, 1890. They had three daughters: Hattie in 1894, Myra Susan in 1896 and Janette “Nettie” in 1898; their son, Alvin Jr. was born in 1903. Hattie divorced Alvin in 1910 and married again in 1920 to Frank Everett Pierce. She lived until 1954 to the ripe old age of 79.
Jennifer L. Galpern, Research Associate/Special Collections
Providence Journal (available on microfilm).
Rhode Island Death Records (available on microfilm).