BY DAVID DE COSTA
There are volumes upon volumes of background material on the subject of Vampire Folklore.
Accounts of vampires date far back into Roman, Greek and Mesopotamian traditions. Similar
to negative spirits or demonic entities, many early cultures described vampire-like creatures
as being ethereal in nature; possessing spirits that take over a recently deceased corpse. But
there is one concept that seems to be prevalent in most all traditions: a vampire must feast
on either the blood or life-force of the living to sustain itself. The modern idea of people
becoming vampires really begins in Eastern European traditions. In fact the English "Vampire"
stems indefinitely from the Slavic Languages- the Greek βρυκόλακας (Vrykolakas), the
Serbian вампир (Wampir), and the Romanian Strigoi. These myths and legends would
eventually travel west and eventually take up residence in Western Europe, where an Irish
novelist would change vampire folklore forever.
Bram Stoker is certainly best known for writing Dracula and in fact, in many circles he is
only known for writing Dracula. After some early ambition works centering around British
occupation and the struggles of the Irish working class, he finally struck gold with Dracula.
Stoker shapes the story of Jonathan Harker, a lawyer sent to Transylvania to do business with
the blood-thirsty Count Dracula. At the same time, his fiancé Mina is visiting her friend Lucy.
All three are stalked by the Count in varying manifestations. Eventually, through the aid and
sacrifice of the eccentric Dr. Van Helsing, the fiend is extinguished. Thus, the modern
archetype of the western vampire is born:
Count Dracula as a shape shifting, exsanguinating, boudoir-invading terror.
There are many different opinions about Stoker's influences. Two prominent historical
figures seem to really lend themselves to this character. The first is the infamous Vlad Tepés,
Prince of Wallachia (modern Romania). The nature of Vlad's rule is wholly a matter of
perspective. Many Romanians revere him as a great champion and defender of their people.
However, German and Russian folklore portray him as a terror and a demon. One thing is
clear; all who crossed him often were subject to savage cruelty. He was called Dracula
because his family belonged to the Order of the Dragon, an allegiance between the European
aristocracy and the Holy Roman Empire.
Symbol of The Order of the Dragon
The second figure is the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614). While the
Báthory's were already a prominent European family, she became the most notorious of all
and forever tarnished their good name. "The Blood Countess" was accused of luring young
peasant girls to work in her castle only to murder them and bathe in their blood. This practice
was supposedly engaged in to keep the Countess looking young and beautiful. All it really did
was create a political scandal whic resulted in her imprisonment. While she was never formally
convicted, witness accounts suggest that she and her co-conspirators murdered over 600
women. Many consider her the world's first serial killer though this topic is obviously
THE BLOOD COUNTESS
Many also speculate that the 1888 "Jack the Ripper" murders also played a significant role in
Stokers 1897 publication. People who knew Stoker confirmed the fact that he had been
fascinated with the case as a young man.
Another lesser-known influence came from America. It reloved around an unsubstantiated
rumor that, following his death, a newspaper clipping from The Providence Journal was found
in a safe box in Stoker's quarters. It concerned a debate which was raging in New England
over a folk practice that had been carried out by a family in Exeter, RI. While we now
recognize that tuberculosis is an incredibly contagious disease which attacks and destroys the
lungs, people did not and could not understand airborne pathogens at the end of 19th century.
Therefore, many such contagions were considered the result of a “curse” placed upon upon a
family and therefore infused with supernatural significance. Such was the case for The Brown
The Brown's were a farm family in rural Exeter. They were recognized as upstanding and
vital members of the community. The disease that in that time came to be known as
“consumption” first infected Mary, the wife of George Brown. She passed away in December of
1883. George's eldest daughter Mary Olive would also lose her battle with the disease and she
would die in June of 1884. The "curse" continued until his two remaining children, daughter
Mercy and son Edwin both began to display symptoms. In Edwin’s case, he was sent to
Colorado in hopes that the fresh, mountain air might serve as an elixir and while he was away,
Mercy began to show telltale signs of illness.
Both their conditions would worsen and Mercy eventually succomed in January of 1892 at
the age of 19. As it was still winter and the ground too frozen to commit her to the Earth, her
body was placed in the keep at Chestnut Hill Cemetery (below).
As Tuberculosis-related deaths began to affect entire communities, an hysteria began to
sweep through the region, and a growing number of people in the Exeter community
demanded George exhume the remains of the his family to determine if one of them was the
vampire responsible for leaving their grave to prey on the remaining members. Their irrational
fear was the undead would in time come to feed on their own as well. Mr. Brown initially
refused, but growing more concerned about his son Edwin’s worsening condition and
desperate to end this assault on his family, he finally agreed to it (or buckled under pressure
to do so) and on March 17, 1892 a mob made their way down to Chestnut Hill Cemetery to
exhume the bodies. George, perhaps to appease his conscience, employed a medical doctor
from Wickford, RI named Metcalf to oversee and perform the operation. This perhaps was to
convey an air of “professionalism” to the whole sordid affair.
The bodies of Mary and Mary Olive were brought up first. Both were in a reasonable state of
decay. However, Mercy's body (having been in the holding keep all winter and only in the
ground for 2 months) was in an extraordinarily preserved state. Some claim there was even
fresh blood on the corners of her mouth. They had found their vampire. Metcalf removed her
kidneys and liver to be given to the local medical examiner and then the heart to be employed
in a most grotesque manner. The assumption that any organs were removed and burned to
concoct a cure are purely speculative if not totally legendary, but the concept of creating an
antidote from the cause is certainly a reasonable scientific assertion. As legend follows, some
of the ashes from her burned heart were mixed with water and then administered to Edwin in
an attempt to fend off what became the inevitable: he died of tuberculosis two months later in
May of 1892.
Mercy’s case is the most famous of the North American vampire legends, probably due to the
fact that she was actually the last. The majority of such incidents (at least a dozen) took place
in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and Eastern Connecticut.
Some of reputable sources for information on real American and particularly New England
vampire cases are Vampires, Burial and Death by Paul Barber, Food for the Dead: On the Trail
of New England's Vampires by Dr. Michael Bell and Vampire Legends of Rhode Island by
Christopher Rodina. Of course one can also delve into source literature and decide for
themselves. While subjects like ghosts, spirits, demons, possession and their eventual
evolution into Vampires may seem fantastic to many in this modern age they at least provide
us with some valuable insight into the power of belief and folk superstition even in a post