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The Mercy Brown Vampire Incident, which occurred in 1892, is one of the best documented cases of the exhumation of a corpse in order to perform rituals to banish an undead manifestation. The incident was part of the wider New England vampire panic.
Several cases of consumption (tuberculosis) occurred in the family of George and Mary Brown, in Exeter, Rhode Island. Friends and neighbors believed this was due to the influence of the undead. Several of the bodies were dug up, one of which had almost no decomposition, which was taken as a confirmation that the undead were influencing the family to be sick. The heart of the exhumed body was burnt, mixed with water and given to Edwin, one of the sick relatives, to drink, in order to stop the influence of the undead. The young man died two months later.
In Exeter, Rhode Island, the family of George and Mary Brown suffered a sequence of tuberculosis infections in the final two decades of the 19th century. Tuberculosis was called "consumption" at the time and was a devastating and much-feared disease.
The mother, Mary, was the first to die of the disease, followed in 1888 by their eldest daughter, Mary Olive. Two years later, in 1890, their son Edwin also became sick.
In 1891, another daughter, Mercy, contracted the disease and died in January 1892. She was buried in the cemetery of the Baptist Church in Exeter.
Friends and neighbors of the family believed that one of the dead family members was a vampire (although they did not use that name) and caused Edwin's illness. This was in accordance with threads of contemporary folklore linking multiple deaths in one family to undead activity. Consumption was a poorly understood condition at the time and the subject of much superstition.
George Brown was persuaded to give permission to exhume the bodies. Several villagers, the local doctor and a newspaper reporter exhumed the bodies on March 17, 1892. While the bodies of both Mary and Mary Olive had undergone significant decomposition over the intervening years, the more recently buried body of Mercy was still relatively unchanged and had blood in the heart and liver. This was taken as a sign that the young woman was undead and the agent of young Edwin's condition. The cold New England weather made the soil virtually impenetrable, essentially guaranteeing that Mercy's body was kept in freezer-like conditions in an above-ground crypt during the 2 months following her death.
Mercy's heart was removed from her body, burnt, and the remnants mixed with water and given to the sick Edwin to drink. It was thought that giving the victim of consumption ashes of the "vampire's" heart would cure them, but he died two months later.
The Mercy Brown incident was the inspiration for Caitlín R. Kiernan's short story, "So Runs the World Away," which makes explicit reference to the affair. It has also been suggested by scholars that Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula, knew about the Mercy Brown case through newspaper articles and based the novel's character Lucy upon her. It is also referred to in H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shunned House". Mercy Brown's story was the inspiration for a young adult novel, "Mercy: The Last New England Vampire" by Sarah L. Thomson.