Nellie Vaughn was never a vampire. Now, you may be saying, “Well, duh!” but the point is that she was never suspected of being a vampire by her family and friends. Her body was never exhumed*; she was never found to be in an insufficient state of decomposition; her internal organs were never removed and burnt. This all may seem very normal. After all, most people are spared the indignity of being dug up and burned as vampires. What makes Nellie unusual is that nearly a hundred years after her death, she acquired an undeserved reputation as a vampire, and her story illustrates how legends can develop.
Between (roughly) 1790 and 1899, at least a dozen bodies were exhumed in New England because family members and neighbors suspected them of being vampires. Actually “vampire” isn’t the right word. The people involved in these rituals apparently didn’t use the word and, according to George R. Stetson, weren’t even familiar with it. Rather, they were trying to halt the relentless depredations of consumption.** As folklorist Michael E. Bell notes in his excellent book on the subject, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, the New Englanders seem to have been practicing a kind of folk medicine by digging up people who had died of consumption and burning their hearts (and sometimes their livers and lungs). Sometimes the ashes were mixed into a solution and given to an afflicted family member as a treatment. The term “vampire” is convenient though, but keep in mind, these were not animated corpses wandering around and sucking people’s blood.
The best known of these New England vampires was the last, Mercy Brown. Her mother Mary died of consumption on December 8, 1883; her sister Mary Olive died six months later on June 16, 1884. Several years later, Mercy’s brother Edwin became ill and left for Colorado, the climate of which was thought to be salubrious for consumptives. For a while, his condition seemed to improve. Meanwhile, Mercy became ill and died at the age of nineteen on January 18, 1892. Around the same time, Edwin’s condition deteriorated, and he returned home to die. Friends and neighbors urged Mercy and Edwin’s father George to have the bodies of his wife and daughters exhumed. George himself did not believe in this superstition, but he acceded to the wishes of his neighbors and, in March, sent a message to Dr. Harold Metcalf, who had treated Mercy, asking him to autopsy the bodies. George did not attend. The two Marys, who had been dead between seven and eight years, were essentially skeletons with some tissue and hair still attached. Mercy, who had been dead for only a couple of months, hadn’t even been buried yet: her body had been stored in a crypt until the ground became soft enough to dig a grave. Dr. Metcalf removed the heart and liver and declared them to be in the condition one would expect. Nonetheless, the neighbors burnt the heart, mixed it with water or medicine and gave it to Edwin. He died shortly thereafter.
The exhumation of Mercy’s body received a great deal of publicity almost immediately. The reporters who wrote about the event were familiar with the word “vampire” and the European vampire tradition and imposed certain sensational elements onto the Mercy Brown story. An article about Mercy Brown was found among Bram Stoker’s papers.
Although Mercy Brown is the best-known of the New England vampires, she was not unique. Similar rituals occurred all over New England, but especially in Rhode Island and the area of Connecticut that borders Rhode Island. Nellie Vaughn was not one of the vampires. According to her death certificate, she died of pneumonia, not consumption; there seem to have been no other deaths in her family that could blamed on her. But somehow, by the 1970s, she had earned a reputation as a vampire. This reputation has attracted visitors and vandals to the cemetery behind the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church in West Greenwich, RI. In 1977, a newspaper article reported that Nellie’s was
the only sunken grave in the cemetery and continues to sink into the earth. “No vegetation or lichen will grown on the grave,” reports a local university professor[,] despite numerous attempts by grave tenders and the curious. Along the bottom of the grave are inscribed the words, “I am waiting and watching for you” (qtd. in Bell 82)
Oooh, spooooky. But a creepy inscription does not a vampire make, especially if the inscription is a perfectly common sentiment looking forward to resurrection and reunion in heaven (and the inscription was probably chosen by Nellie’s parents). There has to be more to it than that, surely. Well, yes, there is. The historic church is remote and only has a semiannual service. Otherwise, it is boarded up (its apparent abandonment may itself attract vandals). According to a 1982 article in the Providence Journal-Bulletin:
“As far as we can tell, it started 15 years ago when a teacher at Coventry High School told his students that there was a vampire buried in a cemetery off [state route] 102,” reports church historian Evelyn Smith (qtd. in Bell 82).
The teacher didn’t name the vampire or the cemetery. Presumably, he meant Mercy Brown, buried in Exeter, RI, but some intrepid students, armed with this lack of information, went on a vampire hunt and found Nellie Vaughn, buried in West Greenwich, RI. Her age was about right, her date of death was about right, and there was that spooky inscription. Mission accomplished: vampire found.
There’s a problem with this explanation, though. Bell went to West Greenwich and interviewed a number of people, including former town clerk Cora Lamoureux and unofficial town historian and genealogist Blanche Albro. They were understandably upset by the vandalism to the church and graveyard and by Nellie’s undeserved reputation as a vampire. As Blanche said:
[W]e never had one [a vampire] ’til this kooky teacher. And the only reason she started it, ’cause it says, ‘watching and waiting for you’ on her stone in the cemetery (Bell 86).
Notice how the teacher from Coventry, who was a “he” in the newspaper article, has become a “she?” Bell was never able to track down the teacher from Coventry. People said they knew who he/she was–Blanche said her nephew was there when the vampire story was told–but Bell was never able to get a name or details. So, while the story seems plausible and may indeed be true, the “teacher from Coventry” seems to have a whiff of legend about him/her (as does the professor at the local university who reported that no vegetation grows on Nellie’s grave). He or she has become part of the story. Bell equates the teacher with the FOAF (friend of a friend) who tends to be at the center of urban (and rural) legends.
But, wait, there’s more! Now Nellie’s become a ghost, and why? because she’s pissed that people think she’s a vampire. Charles T. Robinson, in his book New England Ghost Files, reports on the experiences of Marlene Chatfield, who has had several ghostly encounters with Nellie. On one occasion, a woman’s voice said, “I am perfectly pleasant.” As quahog.org notes, this “must be some kind of ghost code for ‘I am pure evil,’ because red scratches then appeared on [Marlene's] husband’s face, prompting him to leave the cemetery.” On another occasion, Marlene met a young woman in the cemetery who said she was with a local historical society. When they got to Nellie’s grave, Marlene asked the woman what she thought of Nellie’s reputation as a vampire. The woman said it was silly. Then her behavior changed, and she began repeating the phrase “Nellie is not a vampire.” Marlene freaked out and hurried back to her car. When she looked back, the woman was gone! [cue spooky music]. Marlene believes that Nellie’s ghost returns because she is troubled by her reputation as a vampire. This is why she assures people that she is perfectly pleasant. Her assertion would be more compelling if she didn’t then attack people.
For those keeping score:
- Nellie is a vampire
- No she isn’t
- The story was started by a teacher from Coventry
- Maybe it wasn’t
- A college professor said no vegetation grows on the grave
- Maybe he didn’t
- Nellie’s ghost appears because she’s unhappy that people think she is a vampire
- She claims to be perfectly pleasant
- She isn’t
This, gentle reader, is how legends are born and grow. One woman Bell interviewed not only believed that Nellie Vaughn was a vampire but that the semiannual service at the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church was a black mass attended by devil worshipers. Because of vandalism, Nellie’s gravestone has been moved to an undisclosed location (it had been broken up). Now that no one knows where the grave is, grass grows on it.
I keep saying that Nellie Vaughn’s reputation as a vampire is undeserved, but, let’s be fair, Mercy Brown doesn’t really deserve the reputation either. The poor girl lost her mother and her sister, watched her brother get sick and then died herself at nineteen. Then people hauled her out of her temporary crypt, cut out her heart and liver and burnt them. And it didn’t help her brother. Because of Mercy’s fame, her grave has also attracted vandalism (at one point her gravestone was stolen) and stories of hauntings.
But while we know that she was thought to harbor some sort of evil influence, there is something odd about her story as well. I’ve given the chronology above: Mercy’s mother and sister died years before Mercy began showing symptoms of consumption, and, although she predeceased her brother Edwin, he became ill before she did. Therefore, Mercy herself could not conceivably have been responsible for her mother’s and sister’s deaths nor for her brother’s illness. This doesn’t seem entirely logical and doesn’t fit with the pattern of European vampires. None of the contemporary reports explains this discrepancy, but it seems likely that the malevolent force that was held responsible for consumption infected the dead in much the same way that consumption itself infected the living. It may have moved from one corpse to the next. The corpse with the (reasonably) fresh heart was the one that was currently infected by the evil.
*Actually, her body was moved from a family plot to a public cemetery, but the exhumation had nothing to do with vampirism.
**I use the non-medical term “consumption” advisedly. While “consumption” usually refers to primary pulmonary tuberculosis, it could also be applied to other respiratory ailments.
Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. Will be reprinted in Oct. 2011. Currently available as an e-book.
Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” American Anthropologist 9 (1896): 1-13.