Was she a victim ... or a vampire?

Written By KAREN LEE ZINER

The secret lies buried in Historical Cemetery No. 22, behind Exeter's Chestnut Hill Baptist Church on Route 102, on a hill framed by rustling dark woods that harbor their own uneasy mystery. The death certificate says that Mercy Brown went to her grave at age 19 on Jan. 17, 1892, a victim of tuberculosis. The legend says she was a vampire.

In fact, the story goes, an assemblage of family and townsfolk pulled Mercy Brown out of her final resting place one wintry day because they believed they had a means to cast out the evil spirit that they thought was disturbing her sleep. They performed their own dreadful "cure," but the story of Mercy Brown still haunts the town - especially at Halloween.

There are those from the Brown family who still care to tell the tale, and perhaps they know it best. Reuben Brown lives in the woods of Exeter in a house ancient and creaky and alive with the soft gonging and ticking of an old clock. Brown is 87, hard of hearing and a mite creaky himself. Still, he's full of wit and he loves to tell stories.

One of those is the legend of Mercy Lenna Brown. For this tale, Reuben Brown leans back in his worn brown leather chair, rests his feet on a wooden stool, and clutches his cane for emphatic, here- and-there taps on the floor. In the faded, sunlit living room, white- haired, 92-year-old Marion Brown sits on a couch and interrupts her husband now and then with laughter or correction. The whole fearful matter started with unexplained deaths, says Reuben Brown. Young girls, six or seven on one side of the Brown family, pined away and died. All of them "had a mark on their throats." "People figured they'd been bit by a vampire . . they all had that mark on them and nobody knows who made it," says Brown. Some folks were sure that Mercy - already gone to her grave - was the vampire.

A dozen people got together - members of Mercy's family and others in the town - and decided to open the grave and pull Mercy's body into the sunlight to perform a terrible task. Reuben Brown had a friend who was there. "I used to know a man who saw them when they unearthed her. He said he saw them cut her heart out and burn it on the rock. . . it appeared that Mercy had moved in the grave. She wasn't the way she was put in there . . .

"But he said there were no more deaths after that. That's what he said." Reuben Brown adds this footnote: "My father believed she was a vampire. He said all those girls had the mark on their throat when they died."

Another member of the Brown family, 51-year-old Lewis Peck, also lives in the Exeter woods, and is familiar with the legend. He keeps a collection of yellowed newspaper clippings that tell the story. "It's true, my people did this," says Peck. "They cut her right open, and they cut her heart out, and they burned her heart on the rocks to end what they thought was this vampirish disease. I remember as a kid my mother wouldn't allow us to touch those rocks."

But Peck himself believes that such folklore arose from a general lack of medical knowledge. Mercy Brown most likely died of tuberculosis, and the legend of a wandering predator full of blood lust most likely arose from fear and superstition. "These people came down with this rare sickness. . . of course I imagine the disease was tuberculosis. But they didn't know much about tuberculosis then." Other aspects of the legend are that when they opened the grave, "she had turned partly over."

Town records marking Mercy's death indicate that she certainly was not alone in going to an early death. Diphtheria, cholera, pneumonia, "the grippe," acute tuberculosis and gangrene claimed other young people that same year. But where Mercy was concerned, folks clung to superstition.

In "A Short History of Exeter, Rhode Island" Florence Parker Simister recounted this version of the Mercy Brown story:

" . . .Three members of that family died, probably of consumption, late in the nineteenth century - a mother and two daughters. Then a son became ill, too. The family held a conference and decided that he did not have consumption but was being attacked by a vampire.

"The bodies of the three women were dug up, the hearts were cut out of the bodies and burned on a nearby rock in the cemetery behind the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church. The object of burning the hearts, we are told, 'was to pocure medicine for the ailing Edwin Brown . . . He dissolved the ashes in the medicine his doctor had given him.' "

A newspaper report later said that "only one of the Brown women, Mercy, had blood in her veins when she was dug up and so she was the vampire,". . .Simister writes.

Peck, a hard-bitten Swamp Yankee, dismisses much of this with a sweep of his hand that says: Folderol. "Do you believe in vampires? I don't," he says with a laugh. Over the years, people have visited Peck to hear the story. Yankee magazine, news people from Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, television reporters. "You have no idea," he says with a sigh.

The last time, Peck got a little tired of it all and abandoned a TV crew as it stood in the graveyard wiring up electronic equipment "to listen to her grave or something." ("I didn't like their attitude," he says. "I asked them, 'What are you trying to do, make fun of my family?' ")

Though Peck says he doesn't believe in ghosts or roaming vampires, and though he insists this is all nonsense, he does admit he saw something strange one night, years ago, near Mercy's grave. That was when he was a young man out roaming with his brother and they drove up near that hill framed by restless trees, containing the supposedly restless spirit named Mercy.

"I was about 18 or 19 years old when this thing took place. We had a Model A. . . and I went up in the back of the Chestnut Hill Church with my brother David. "And by God, we looked and we saw a great big ball of light, so bright that it was blue." It hovered in the vicinity of the four or five graves where Brown family members, including Mercy, are buried. "It was a bright light, it was round. God she was bright, that's the part that stuck in you. I have no idea what it was.

"And to answer you how it went out, I don't know. We didn't stay," he says with a nervous grin that indicates he thinks he and his brother barely escaped an unfriendly encounter. The brothers drove down the road to a neighbor, also a member of the Brown family. He said of the glowing orb, 'Sonny, we've seen it before.' " "And then he laughed," says Peck. "Then we talked to someone from the other side of the family, and she'd seen it, too," Peck says, the memory of his boyhood fright driving the glint out of his eye. Does he think he saw a ghost? "Don't know what it was," he says. But he saw something.

And Lewis Peck says he just can't think of any way to explain it.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company

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