A couple of years ago I made a trip to Rhode Island to attend a conference near the town of Exeter. While searching for interesting and unique places to visit in the immediate area, I came across a grave which immediately caught may attention. I only had a limited amount of free time, but I managed to find an open hour to sneak away to visit the nearby cemetery and its infamous resident.
Chestnut Hill Cemetery – also known as Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery and Exeter Historical Cemetery #22 – appears to be another “typical” cemetery to the average person, but this piece of sacred ground is linked to a bizarre saga connected with New England’s darker side. Within the boundaries of the cemetery are the remains of one of America’s supposed vampires – a young lady by the name of Mercy Lena Brown.
George and Mary Brown owned a small farm near Exeter where Mary bore five children. Their third child was named Mercy, though she was known by her family and friends by her middle name, Lena. In 1883, sickness descended upon the Brown family. Mary was the first to perish. On December 8, 1883 George lost his wife to consumption, also known as tuberculosis. George’s eldest daughter was the next to die. Mary – who is referred to in some reports by her middle name, Olive – died on June 6, 1884.
For several years, the family seemed to have escaped the black hand of death. However, the disease returned in 1891 when Edwin, George’s only son, took ill. Edwin moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in an attempt to escape the curse stationed at his family’s doorstep. Mercy was not as lucky and death claimed her on January 17, 1892 at the tender age of nineteen. Due to it being winter, Mercy’s body was placed in a crypt – which still exists at the edge of the cemetery – until the ground thawed enough for a proper grave to be dug.
Shortly after Mercy’s death, Edwin returned home. The trip west did not help and his health was quickly faded. Neighbors began whispering that the Brown family was cursed. The story was one of George’s family members was returning from the grave. The paranoid community was convinced something supernatural was feeding on Edwin – if the attacks did not cease, poor Edwin would die.
At some point George began to believe the rumors. Normally a sensible man, he allowed others to convince him his family was being attacked by a daemon.
Note: At the time daemon was the word to describe the creature believed to have been terrorizing the Brown family. The word vampire would not be associated with Mercy Brown until years later. Some retellings of the legend state that Mercy had been spotted by a number of people, but I have not discovered any mention of an actual monster being seen.
George became convinced the daemon was residing in the heart of one of his beloved dead. He contacted doctor Harold Metcalf of Wickford who, according to newspapers, wanted nothing to do with digging up the dead. He reluctantly agreed and on March 17, one month after her death, the doctor and a group of men set out to open the graves of the Brown family in search of the daemon.
No surprise, George stayed at home as the bodies of his family were exhumed and investigated.
All three women were removed from their graves. George’s wife and eldest daughter were both found to be in an advanced state of decay. This revelation should not have been a surprise, because the mother and daughter had been buried for nine and eight years respectively.
After they checked the two Marys, the group opened Mercy’s coffin and found that no decomposition had taken place. The body was still as fresh as the day it had been buried. They removed her heart and liver and finding blood still in her heart, declared she was the one responsible. Mercy was the daemon terrorizing the Brown family.
Note: Early newspapers claim the group dug up all three coffins. However, these same newspapers state firmly that Mercy’s coffin was being kept in the cemetery’s crypt awaiting burial due to the ground being too hard for a grave to be dug. The cold temperatures that prevented her from being buried were most likely responsible for her body showing no signs of decomposition. With the ground being too hard for a grave to be dug to bury Mercy’s body, I do have to question if they actually checked the other graves, or this was a product of the newspaper reporting.
And, as if things were not strange enough, the story takes a stranger turn toward the bizarre.
Noting there was still blood in her heart, someone in the group suggested a cure for the remaining members of the Brown family. Mercy’s heart and liver were burned on a nearby rock to kill the daemon. Then the ashes were given to family members to mix with water and drink as a cure from the daemon attacks. George mixed the ashes with water and the family drank the mixture.
Edwin returned to Colorado feeling better, but died two months later. Mercy’s other two sisters didn’t seem to have suffered from tuberculosis – one died in 1899 and the other in 1954.
I walked back the dirt road that lead through the cemetery, and quickly discovered Mercy’s gravesite on the left side of the path. Mercy is buried next to her brother who drank her ashes and her father who allowed it to happen.
I stood at her grave and was filled with anger. What happened to the remains of this young lady, who is often described as an upright citizen, is disturbing. The mere thought of desecrating a corpse, especially when it was the remains of your own flesh and blood, caused me to shudder. The mass hysteria that arose from the wave of tuberculosis that was washing over New England at the time had caused people to do things they normally would not have done previously.
After paying my respects to her, I turned down a dirt road that led to the crypt where her body was stored during the winter of 1892. It is falling down and in bad condition but here was her resting place until the butchery of her lifeless body.
I had read about ghosts and strange things happening to those who visit, but I had nothing exciting or strange happen while I was there. There is some creepiness about the area, but I figured it was more due to the information I already knew, rather than something unexplainable.
I glanced at my watch and knew I had to get back to my conference. I left the gravesite and was walking back to the vehicle when a police car pulled in next to mine. He was checking to make sure I wasn’t vandalizing the cemetery. He told me they have had lots of complaints about people in the cemetery doing stupid things. After talking to him for a couple minutes, I left the cemetery in the rearview, leaving Mercy Brown to rest in peace.