Rhode Island is a creepy place.
Ask Michael Bell, who has a doctorate in folklore, and he will recite the date and place of more than 80 cases of vampires and spooky folklore in New England.
“Rhode Island is definitely the Transylvania of America,” said Bell, who is working on the second volume of his book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. “That distinction hasn’t been taken by anyone else. Rhode Island has 18 cases of vampires.”
Bell hunts for vampires within the lines of local history, newspapers, medical journals, and stories passed down from generation to generation that indicate a presence of evil. His online searches through newspaper archives start with the words: “superstition, consumption, exhume.”
A query typically produces 800 to 1,000 hits. Most of the time the searches don’t go into the same narrative.
Bell says Rhode Island’s supernatural history had a parallel with the consumption epidemic — known today as tuberculosis — that makes infected patients become weak and pale.
Tuberculosis is a serious infectious bacterial disease that affects the lungs and causes patients to cough blood, lose weight, and suffer from night sweats and fever. Many people infected today don’t have symptoms and it is partly cured with antibiotics. Consumption remains a pandemic, and more than 1.5 million of the 10 million people infected with it died in 2020.
“Physically they started to look like the walking dead,” Bell said. “Something was sucking the life out of them.”
Some townsfolk blamed the illnesses on an evil presence that possessed the dead and allowed them to prey on the living from beyond the grave. However, the term “vampyre” didn’t appear until after 1848, Bell says.
Frightened family members agreed to exhume the bodies of their kin to check for signs of an unnatural presence. The consumption rituals were comprised of a medical examination and if necessary, cremations of bodies or organs, to dispel evil spirits.
In some cases, a cocktail was made using the dead person’s ashes and fed to the sick as a cure. The remedy was very often unsuccessful.
In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed one in seven people and killed more people in New England than any other disease, according to an essay by Constance Manoli-Skocay, a staff assistant at Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Mass.
“I guess the bottom line is that [consumption rituals] were the last resort,” Bell said. “They had cures that didn’t work. In the end, the doctor would say, ‘There’s nothing I can do. Prepare to meet your maker.’ Some families weren’t willing to give up.”
“They’d heard from various sources about this folk medicine remedy: Go to the cemetery and exhume the bodies and see which one looked too fresh — blood in the vital organs. Take the organs out and burn the ashes and sometimes they were told to feed the ashes to those who were sick,” he said.
Bell said the rituals appeared to unrelated to religious beliefs. But “In early New England, there wasn’t a huge separation from science, religions, and magic,” Bell said. “These things seem to run in parallel tracks, if not intersect.”
Bell’s first book focuses on the first 20 cases he found. He has since located 60 more reports of ritualistic events that were intended to rid people of evil spirits, and he believes “that is the tip of the iceberg.” Bell said most of the cases he found were in Providence County in the extreme northeast part of Rhode Island, and Washington County from Westerly to Narragansett.
In 1796, the Cumberland, R.I., town council granted permission for Stephen Staples to exhume the body of his daughter, Abigail, for experimentation in an attempt to save the life of his daughter, Lavinia.
According to New England Today, “Lavinia told of dreams in which a shady figure sat heavily on her chest and drew out her breath.” She reportedly called out Abigail’s name, the magazine said.
Bell also located the case of 19-year-old Nancy Young of Foster, who died in 1827, whose corpse was exhumed and burned. Four more of Anna and Levi Young’s children died of tuberculosis. Other cases were reported in Kent County in 1838, one in Newport in 1875, and in Washington County in 1799, 1858, 1872 (two cases), and the well-known Mercy Brown case in 1892.
Lewis Everett Peck shared the story of his distant cousin Mercy Brown with Bell in 1981. It is perhaps the most notable case of an alleged vampire in Rhode Island. Bell said the story of Mercy Brown appeared in the Boston Globe in 1892, a day after she was exhumed.
George T. Brown’s wife, Mary Eliza, and his eldest daughters, Mary Olive, 20, and Mercy Lena, 19, all died of consumption between 1883 and 1892.
His relative, Edwin Brown, was a recently married young man who had traveled to Colorado Springs, hoping a change in environment would cure him. However, Edwin’s condition did not improve and he returned to Rhode Island to spend his last days with family and friends.
Hoping to save Edwin, neighbors pressured George Brown to hold a superstitious ritual that involved digging up his wife and daughters and performing an autopsy to determine if there was an evil presence afoot. The corpses were all exhumed March 17, 1892, in Exeter, R.I., Dr. Harold Metcalf, a medical examiner, performed the autopsies.
Metcalf found that Mrs. Brown was in a mummified state, and Mary Olive’s body appeared to have a thick growth of hair on her head. Mercy’s corpse, which was kept in an above-ground tomb, was fresh. In spite of Dr. Metcalf’s assurance that the autopsy revealed nothing unnatural, Mercy Brown’s body was burned.
A concoction was made with the ashes but is unknown if Edwin Brown drank it. He died at age 27.
Not every case ended with burning the dead, Bell said. In Maine, a corpse simply had to be turned face down in its coffin before the body was buried. One Connecticut case required sick people to be fumigated by smoke from a burning body.
Bells says vampires are a staple of folklore in general. His family had its own stories of supernatural events, including tales of people coming back from the dead, and premonitions. His father was a newspaper journalist who wrote for news and wire services, and also about strange disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle.
“That interest was given to me very early,” Bell said. “I combined that with my interest in archaeology. To me, it was much more real to look at stories and narratives to get to the belief system of people than it was to look at broken pottery and bone fragments. It’s a more detailed richer form of evidence.”