The Words on Nelly's Tombstone

Originally printed in Yankee Magazine, January 1994

The villagers of Exeter, Rhode Island, knew that farmer George Brown had a problem. First, in 1883 his wife, Mary, succumbed to a mysterious illness. Six months later, his 20-year-old daughter, Mary Olive, also fell ill and died. Within the next several years, his 19-year-old daughter, Mercy, was also dead, and George's teenage son, Edwin, a healthy lad who worked as a store clerk, became suddenly frail and sick. The village doctor informed George that "consumption" was taking his family. But the country folk of Exeter had another explanation.

On a chilly March afternoon in 1892, a group of men entered Exeter's Chesnuthill Cemetery. There they began to exhume the bodies of George Brown's wife and two daughters. They had concluded that one of the deceased was leaving the grave at night to suck the life out of its relatives. Only by killing the vampire could young Edwin be saved.

First, the men examined the bodies of Mrs. Brown and daughter Mary. Finding them to be properly decomposed, they began to exhume Mercy Brown. Slowly they shoveled into Mercy's grave. When they reached the corpse, the men suddenly stepped back in terror.

Mercy, who had been buried for more than two months, appeared oddly well preserved. It seemed that her hair and nails had grown. And when the men curiously prodded the corpse with their shovel, they found that it was filled with fresh blood. The suspected vampire's heart was removed and burned on a nearby rock. The ashes were added to young Edwin's medicine. Still, the boy died less than two months later.

To the less superstitious, there was perhaps nothing so unusual about the well-preserved condition of Mercy's body. She had been in the ground during the two coldest months of the year. The mysterious wave of illness that swept George Brown's family was probably tuberculosis.

But that did not keep Rhode Island from becoming known as the "Vampire Capital of America". South County, whose isolated villages resembled the lonely hamlets of Transylvania, was a hotbed of vampire rumors between 1870 and 1900. When Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula in 1897, died, newspaper accounts of Mercy Brown were found in his files.

The legend persists to this day. In Rhode Island Historical Cemetery No.2 stands the gravestone of alleged vampire Nelly L. Vaughn of West Greenwich, who died in 1889 at the age of 19. The grave is supposedly cursed. One local university professor who studies vampirism claims that "no vegetation or lichen will grow on Nelly's grave," despite numerous attempts to plant there. And people are still taken aback by the inscription along the bottom of Nelly's tombstone. The curious words read, "I am waiting and watching for you."

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