A Z4 Tour of New England, Part III: The Last of the American Vampires

 

I approached the grave with hesitation, knowing that, within, lay the body of Mercy Lena Brown, buried in 1892 at the tender age of 19. Minus her heart. The people of the town where she lived—and probably even her own, desperate father—believed she was a vampire. You can decide for yourself…

As usual, I’ve started in the middle of my story. It began while I was on vacation in Cape Cod and decided to take the trusty BMW Z4 3.0i to nearby Rhode Island for a day of touring and exploration. I set off on June 14 at 8:00 AM, reveling in the fact that all the commuter traffic was in the opposite direction to my own. The first goal was to find the Cornell-Randall-Bailey Roadhouse, a tavern from 1799. Sure enough, there it was still looking like an old tavern, despite the power lines and the modern traffic flying by.

Except… in a cruel twist of fate, I had completely misidentified the roadhouse. This wasn’t it at all! The real Cornell-Randall-Bailey Roadhouse looks like the following photo (courtesy of the National Park Service). It was a popular stagecoach stop until the railroads came along in the 1860s.

The “Bailey” part of its name stems from Frederick “Shang” Bailey, who was a true character if there ever was one. At 6′ 7″, he had previously worked for P.T. Barnum as “The Shanghai Giant.” (In about 1860, he befriended a young orphan named James A. McGinnis. James adopted the last name “Bailey,” eventually becoming Barnum’s partner in Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth”.) When Shang acquired the roadhouse, it soon became well-known as the place to find wine, women, and song, plus gambling, even on Sundays—a feat that involved considerable bribing of the local constabulary. In 1903, a new trolley line brought record levels of business, and Shang was in his element. After years of shading the law, however, he suddenly Found Religion on February 27, 1905, destroyed his slot machines, kicked out the working girls, poured all his liquor into the ground, paid all his debts, and converted the roadhouse to a church!

In the old town of Smithville (now part of North Scituate, RI), I found the Smithville Seminary (now converted to apartments). It was built in 1839 by the Rhode Island Association of Freewill Baptists but encountered financial problems within 15 years. Over time it served as one sort of school or another, eventually becoming the Watchman Institute for disadvantaged young African Americans in 1908-1938. As such it taught both academic and trade curriculums before failing in the Depression.

Rhode Island appeared to have many Baptist churches in addition to this one, which was once associated with the Smithville Seminary. Eat your heart out, Kim and Cathy! (Oh wait—that’s a really poor choice of expressions, even considering its literary “foreshadowing” value…)

Not to be outdone by those pesky Baptists, the Lutherans built this stout stone church in 1851.

So far, the back roads in Rhode Island were proving to be full of traffic, and the faithful Z4 was getting impatient. Fortunately, the number of other cars diminished as I moved further away from Providence, and I could enjoy some spirited motoring from one historical site to the next. With 215 horsepower pushing me along, and with Rhode Island not being all that large a State, I soon found myself in Massachusetts.   The Old Douglas Center town green was an attractive place, and I especially liked this plain parsonage from 1840.

Plunging southward back into Rhode Island, I soon found myself in another hotbed of Baptist activity. The 1821 Chepachet Freewill Baptist Church was my favorite such edifice of the entire trip to New England. Back in the days, many churches and meeting houses used to have separate doors for men and women. So why does this one have three doors?

And why has the town of Chepachet held an annual 4th of July “Ancients and Horribles Parade” since 1926? Some issues are destined to remain mysteries. (Photo courtesy of the Valley Breeze newspaper.)

Chepachet is also home to the Brown & Hopkins Country Store, dating back to 1799 and representing the oldest, continuously operating general store in the United States. (Historic photo courtesy of the Glocester Historical Society.)

Leaving Chepachet, I stumbled across what I thought was the foundation for an odd, triangular building of some sort. This didn’t surprise me, since, after all, I was near Chepachet and all of its assorted weirdness, but it later turned out to be a stone pen for holding cattle. It was built in 1748 and (naturally) is the oldest such pen still standing in the U.S.

As I drove up to this very large house, with seemingly random placement of doors and windows, I began to suspect that it had been converted from an old mill. What do you think?

This colorfully decorated railroad bridge over the Flat River Reservoir caught my eye. Exactly how do people position themselves to create artistic graffiti, anyway?

The Read School in Coventry, RI began classes in 1831 and didn’t close its doors until 1951. And yes, the two little structures out back are exactly what you think they are.

New England was once the industrial center of the U.S. Many of its manufacturing sites have closed their doors forever—but they often leave a scenic view behind, such as this mill dam in Coventry.

Did I mention that Mercy L. Brown—you do remember poor Mercy, right?—was a Baptist? Although I was driving by Baptist church after Baptist church, I had not yet come to hers. These striking examples are from Pendleton Hill (1743), Hopkinton City (1836), Hopkinton City again (1790 and now the home of the Historical Association), and Westerly (1953).

Along the way, there were also many striking houses (although the best was yet to come). Oh, and the last of these photos isn’t really a house; it’s the Clarks Falls Grist Mill (and it’s for sale, just in case you were wondering):

The rural roads in this area were a delight, even though many were almost within sight of The Dread Interstate 95. They wound along entertainingly and, on occasion, would pass right through historic farms.

By 1:45 that afternoon, I found myself back in the upscale town of Watch Hill, which I’d encountered 3 days earlier on my way to Cape Cod. I randomly tried some different streets and chanced upon a place to park temporarily…

…so that I could run across the street and get a picture of the magnificent Ocean House resort hotel. And what a place it was! I was pleasantly surprised to see such a grand hotel in outstanding condition and packed with visitors. While oceanside resorts were very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, almost all fell victim to the Depression, fires, or competitors with more modern conveniences. The Ocean House was built in 1868, with families coming here from all over New England. The hotel featured prominently in the 1916 silent movie “Aristocracy,” starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Given the history of such places, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I later learned that the original Ocean House was closed in 2003 and declared “beyond feasible repair.” It didn’t look so bad in this 2005 photo at left, but apparently it was pretty far gone structurally. The original hotel from the 1800s is shown on the right and appears to have formed the basis for one end of the larger building.

Given its structural problems, the hotel might have well been razed and forgotten, or abandoned and left to the mercy of the next storm. It was razed, all right—and then lovingly rebuilt in 2005-2006, wall by wall and window by window. The results are stunning, and you would never believe that there is a modern steel frame underlying the Victorian exterior. Yet another entry on my “must-stay-at” list.   :thumsup:

As most of you know, the “F” in “Rick F.” stands for Foster. As long as I was in Watch Hill, I figured I ought to find Foster Cove. Although my family’s ancestors go back to 1636 in this area, as best I could tell I had approximately zero ownership rights to this cove!

Watch Hill Cove was quite a bit more upscale than Foster Cove but nonetheless quite scenic.

As I drove slowly through Watch Hill for the final time, I couldn’t help parking momentarily and poking my head over a gate to get a photo of this stunning pair of mansions, connected by a central enclosed walkway. Although I’ve always been partial to basic log cabins, it was not hard to imagine living here! Back home, a bit of online research identified this extraordinary place as the estate of Helen D. McLanahan, designed by noted architect Clarke Waggaman and built in about 1915. (Sadly, Mr. Waggaman died just 4 years later, at age 42, during the horrific 1919 worldwide flu epidemic.) The lower “Elevation to the Sea” drawing conforms to the view I’d seen. (Drawing courtesy of the Library of Congress.)   I could find out very little about Mrs. McLanahan, other than that she was a prominent philanthropist who lived in Washington, DC.

After the stunningly opulent houses in Watch Hill, this charming little octagonal house in Carolina was quite a treat. It was built in 1857 by Albert S. Potter, who apparently used the cupola for his watch-making and repair business.

By now, you’ve probably given up hope that I would ever reach the part of my trip involving Mercy L. Brown. Well, hang onto your hollyhocks my friends, because we’re here.

I arrived in the small village of Exeter, RI at about 4:00 in the afternoon. (Some people have been known to purposely come here at night, but why take chances?) I first stopped by the town hall to get a sense of this rural town. No one was there, or had even been there for some time.

From the town hall, it was easy to find the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church and its graveyard. No one was there, either. The church was founded in 1750, and by 1838 the congregation had grown sufficiently to need a new building. As a result, this Greek Revival structure was built, and farmer George T. Brown and his family became regular attendees.

Fair warning: the rest of this story is not a happy one; nor is it for the faint of heart. The Brown family’s misfortunes started in 1883, when George’s wife Mary died of consumption at age 36, followed soon after by their 20-year-old daughter Mary Olive. Their son Edwin later fell ill as well and was sent to Colorado Springs in the hopes that the waters and fresh air would heal him.

And then we come to poor Mercy Lena Brown. Her skin turned extremely pale, her eyes became so sensitive that she had to avoid sunlight, and her father would often find her lying in bed in the morning with blood on her lips. In January 1892, she, too, passed away, and her simple coffin was placed in an above-ground crypt until the ground thawed and she could be buried properly. Not long after, Edwin returned home feeling somewhat better, but he was distressed to learn of his sister’s death. And soon his illness worsened.

George Brown’s neighbors—indeed, many in Exeter—became suspicious that one of the deceased members of his family was not, in fact, deceased. The idea of vampires was well known in New England, and the townspeople began agitating that Mary, Mary Olive, and Mercy’s bodies should be exhumed and examined. Period accounts indicate that George was reluctant to do so but that he had his son and two other daughters to protect. He hired a local physician, Dr. Harold Metcalf, to perform the examinations.

On March 17, 1892, all three bodies were disinterred and the coffins opened. The family’s friends and neighbors who were present were shocked to see that Mary and Mary Olive’s bodies were badly decomposed, while Mercy’s had changed position within the box—and appeared completely unchanged from life. She appeared, well, undead. Learned New Englanders, living in that place of progressivism, religious freedom, and open-mindedness, had been examining suspected vampires for more than 100 years. Following the prevailing ritual of the period, Dr. Metcalf removed Mercy’s heart, cut it open, and, to everyone’s horror, found fresh blood within.

It gets worse… For the prior century in New England, the method for killing the undead had involved burning the individual’s heart. Poor Mercy’s heart was placed on a nearby stone and burned.   The ashes of her heart were mixed with water and fed to her ailing brother Edwin. This practice, too, was normal for the time—a time when men and women built railroads, sent telegraph signals across the Atlantic Ocean, and excelled in literature and theatre. But the treatment did not help Edwin, and he died within weeks.

Mercy’s body, minus her heart, was buried in the family’s section of the Chestnut Hill cemetery, next to her sister’s grave and behind her mother’s. Edwin was buried next to her. Father George would eventually follow, but not until 1922 when he passed away at age 80. There appears to be no record of what became of the other two daughters, although at least one, Hannah, was alive at the time of the 1910 Census. The case was closed, with everyone believing that Mercy had, indeed, been a vampire. Everyone but Dr. Metcalf, according to historical accounts.

Well, I warned you.

Despite the large size of the cemetery, I found the Brown Family’s graves easily, almost as if I was drawn to them. George and Mary’s tombstones are in the foreground of this photo, with Edwin, Mercy Lena, and Mary Olive from left to right behind. The infamous stone, upon which poor Mercy’s heart was burned, was visible nearby (but just out of this photo).

On this day, alone among the graves, Mercy’s had fresh flowers. There were also seashells and quite a number of coins. And an iron band around the bottom of the headstone, anchored to the ground, to prevent theft or vandalism. Clearly Mercy had not been forgotten. Were her visitors saddened, as I was, by the horrific treatment that this young woman suffered at the hands of superstitious, frightened people? Or were they here to celebrate the woman they believed to be the last of the American vampires? Yes, Mercy was the last person in the country to undergo the exhumation, examination, and mutilation ritual performed in the name of ending a suspected vampire’s life.

There are no known photographs or paintings of Mercy or any of her family members. To promote a children’s novel(!) based on the story of Mercy L. Brown, author Sarah L. Thomson produced a video trailer, featuring Falmouth actress Emily Lunt in the role of Mercy. This photo is from Ms. Thomson’s website (with a bit of editing), and it suggests what Mercy’s appearance might have been:

I left the cemetery, full of wonder at what life must have been like before antibiotics, which did not gain widespread use until World War II. Consumption, now known as tuberculosis, was considered a spiritual disease in the 1800s, with fears of an evil spirit from one deceased family member rising up to infect others. Its symptoms included paleness, sensitivity to light, and the coughing up of blood from the lungs. Not surprisingly for a bacterial infection, tuberculosis often spread quickly among family members. The longstanding “cure” described above was believed to have worked effectively in a number of the documented cases of suspected vampires in New England.

And as for the undisturbed state of Mercy’s body, versus the decomposition of her sister and mother? Well, sharp-eyed readers will have noted that Mercy had been dead only 2 months when the remains were exhumed, compared to almost 10 years for the others. Moreover, her body was stored in the above-ground crypt, in freezing January and February temperatures. That’s why Dr. Metcalf was not surprised by their differing states or the “fresh blood” in Mercy’s heart. At that time, embalming was not a common practice. All of her vampire-like characteristics are easily explained.

Finally, there is an intriguing footnote regarding poor Mercy’s experience: At the time, all of the newspapers in the area carried her story, making it the most-thoroughly documented of the hundreds of such cases in New England. It was also written about by New York World magazine. An Irish author, theatre manager, and critic was touring in the United States in the mid-1890s and ran across the story, keeping copies of the articles in his journal. The author was Bram Stoker, who in 1896 published Dracula and started a world-wide fascination with vampires that continues to this day. Although researchers disagree over whether Mercy’s story inspired Stoker to write Dracula, many believe that she was the source for the book’s character “Lucy Westenra.” (A nicely balanced account of Mercy Lena Brown’s story is available in a Wicked Yankee Blog posting from December 2011.)

After all the drama of Exeter, RI, it was time to move on and finish my trip. To demonstrate to myself that I had no lingering fear of the dark, I wandered around underneath the Samuel Perry Grist Mill, built in 1703. (Also, it was quite hot on this day, and the shade felt good!)

I next found my way back to the Atlantic coast, which again proved to be both scenic and rocky.

Point Judith is reportedly named after Judith Thatcher, a young woman who was traveling with her father in the late 1600s when their ship ran aground, endangering herself, the crew, and the ship. Thanks in significant part to her heroic efforts, the ship was saved. (At least four other stories provide different reasons for the point’s name, but I liked this one best.) Despite a series of lighthouses here, the waters off of the point are littered with dozens of shipwrecks. One of them, the SS Black Point, was the last Allied vessel to be sunk by a German U-boat during World War II. U-853 is down there, too, having been sunk in turn by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard forces. All this happened within plain sight of the octagonal 1856 lighthouse.

By now I was hopelessly behind schedule, and it was time to press on. But first I had to find another Baptist Church, just for Cathy and Kim, even though by now, thanks to Mercy’s gruesome story, they are probably no longer talking to me! Regardless, I soon located the South Ferry Church, which takes the New England perpendicular style to new heights. It was built in 1850 and served its congregation until they moved to a new church a mile away in 1908. It sat abandoned for 30 years, when a hurricane tore off its roof and toppled its steeple onto the ground. Fortunately, a group of interested Narragansett citizens restored the church and opened it for services once a year thereafter. In 1974 the South Ferry Church was acquired by the University of Rhode Island, and it remains in good condition.

Across the road, however, the church’s cemetery could use some TLC. As it is, it would be the perfect setting for a major motion picture based on the life (and death) of Mercy Lena Brown…

In 1636, Richard Smith was one of the original settlers of Taunton, Massachusetts (along with Walter and John Deane, my great-great-great- uh, let’s just say “distant ancestors”). The following year he migrated to what became Wickford Harbor and built the first English house there. “Smith’s Castle” was heavily fortified but was nonetheless destroyed in 1676 during the Indian uprising known as King Philip’s War (named after the Wampanoag Indian Chief, Metacomet, who was dubbed King Philip by the English colonists.) Two years later, Richard Smith, Jr. built a new house on the foundations and named it Smith’s Castle in honor of his father’s original home. It remains standing today on the banks of the Mill River.

As for Metacomet, he didn’t fare so well. He led the Native American war against the New England colonists in response to the local tribes’ growing frustration with loss of land, epidemics of European diseases, and the suspicious deaths of his father and brother. After having destroyed 12 entire New England towns, including Providence, RI and Springfield, MA, and seriously damaging many more, he was attacked at Assowamsett Swamp near Providence by a raiding party of colonials and Mohican Indians. King Philip was shot and killed, then drawn and quartered (a popular punishment in those days in cheery old New England), and his head was placed on a pike at the entrance to Fort Plymouth—where it stayed for more than 20 years. King Phllip’s War was the worst event in the history of the region, causing more damage and killing more men, women, and children (as a percentage of the population) than any other war, famine, or other catastrophe, before or since. In 1863, however, the United States Navy named the USS Metacomet after him, and it performed valiantly in battle against the Confederate Navy.

Now hopelessly late, I made only one more stop—in the middle of downtown Warwick, RI. I wanted to see the Pontiac Mills industrial complex on the Pawtuxet River. With some difficulty, I found it, and it was worth the effort. The mills were the original site of the Fruit of the Loom clothing company, dating back to the mid-1850s. The Pontiac Mills were built in 1863, with President Abraham Lincoln dedicating the Mill Tower. They produced uniforms for the Union Army during the Civil War before returning to normal production. The textile industry in New England began to decline in the 1920s, and the Pontiac Mills were among the early casualties. The mill closest to my vantage spot was recently demolished and replaced with the new NYLO Hotel, Warwick’s largest.

With mill photos safely in hand, I urged the Z4 back across the Providence River and on to Cape Cod. My day of touring lasted from 8:00 AM until 9:40 PM, with every minute and every mile revealing another interesting, scenic, historic setting. If you’ve stayed with me this far, perhaps you’ll be willing to spare a thought for Mercy Brown and the many others like her, felled by a simple bacterial infection and then desecrated beyond modern belief.

Rick F.

Rick

Written by Rick

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