Nellie Vaughn: The Vampire who Wasn’t a Vampire

July 21, 2011

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 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.

Things that Went Bump in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

March 14, 2011

A few years ago, I used to frequent the Ghost Hunters discussion forum on Many of the regular members were highly skeptical of TAPS and extremely good at analyzing questionable evidence from the program. As one might expect, however, most of the members believed in ghosts or at least believed that it was plausible that ghosts could exist. One of the reasons given for this belief was the ubiquity of ghost stories. Even noted skeptic Alison Smith at one time thought the commonness of ghost stories was the most compelling evidence for ghosts:

To me, the best evidence for the existence of ghosts was the way they permeated every culture. They crept across the globe. If they didn’t exist, then why would so many vastly different cultures believe in them?

Or, as a believer puts it (warning: website is very colorful):

Ghost stories, whether modern or of old, all seem to tell similar stories about ghosts’ tragedies, unfinished business, unrest, visitations, and hopeless roamings among the living.  Ghost stories also sometimes share common ghostly messages of warning to aid those still alive, or tell of spirits with ill intentions, seeking revenge from those who wronged them in life.  Some ghost stories truly enlighten, while other ghost stories paint a picture of hell to frighten!

I understand this point of view to an extent, but I have always found that the history of ghost stories argues against the reality of ghosts because the ghosts tend to fit the culture from which they come. Ghosts and ghost stories change radically over time and from culture to culture.

To begin with, what is a ghost? If you ask the guys from Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, Ghost Wranglers, Ghost Snatchers, World’s Deadliest Ghost Catches, Martha Stewart’s UnLiving, etc., they would probably say something vague about “energy.” This isn’t entirely surprising, since the culture modern ghost stories come from combines New Age and schmience, which vaguely resembles science, but not that much. Wikipedia offers a more traditional definition: “the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living.” Probably most people would agree that ghosts are insubstantial.

Now, there are already problems with this description. Often ghosts are visible, sometimes as shadows and sometimes as “full-body apparitions.” Sometimes they appear solid; sometimes they are transparent. Ghosts can often be heard speaking, whispering, laughing or breathing with non-existent vocal cords and lungs, although some of them only make themselves heard by imprinting their disembodied voices on recorders. Sometimes ghosts can interact with physical objects: they touch/brush against/push/attack people; they make knocking sounds; they throw things; they play with equipment. They can disappear and walk through walls, but they don’t generally sink through floors or the ground (unless they do so dramatically at a place of burial, for instance). Do they have mass or not? Are they bound by gravity or not? As far as I can tell, ghosts are bound by the laws of physics, sort of, except when they aren’t.

And that’s modern ghosts. What are we to make of medieval ghosts such as this one?

[In Berwick-upon-Tweed] a certain wealthy man who…had been given over to sinful behaviour, died  and was buried. However, with Satan’s help he kept emerging at night from his tomb and wandering here and there to the sound of loudly barking dogs. Every night he was the cause of great terror to townspeople before his return at daybreak to the tomb…. The simpler folk of the town feared that they might accidentally run into the lifeless creature and be physically attacked; the more thoughtful were afraid that, unless something were done quickly, the air circulating around the town would become infected by the corpse and so lead to general sickness and death in the town. It was apparent to all that something had to be done, and so they brought together ten sturdy young men who dug up the offending corpse, dismembered it and burnt the pieces in a fire. Once this had been done, the nightly perturbations ceased… (William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Joynes 98-99).

William tells several similar tales. One dead man “entered the bedchamber of his sleeping wife…[and] attempted to lie upon her in the marital bed” (Joynes 97). After his wife employed watchmen, he attempted to attack his brothers and “took to prancing among the animals in the byre” (Joynes 97).  In another case, “the doors of every house were bolted, and nobody dared go out to attend to any business from sunset to sunrise for fear of being attacked by the wandering monster. But even such a precaution…was useless, since, by the circulation of air poisoned and infected by the corpse, the neighbourhood became filled with the sick and the dying who had inhaled the pestilence” (Joynes 101). In three of the four cases, the haunting stops when the body is dismembered/beheaded and/or burned. In the fourth case, such treatment is suggested, but Bishop Hugh of Lincoln instead has a letter of absolution placed on the corpse’s chest.

Now you may be thinking, “That isn’t a ghost–that’s a vampire or something.” But how do we decide on the taxonomy of the undead? How do we decide who’s a ghost, who’s a vampire, who’s a zombie, who’s a revenant? Most of our ideas about these classifications are fairly modern and to some extent derived from literature and film. In earlier time periods, it’s more difficult to say who’s what among the undead. William of Malmesbury and Walter Map also mention walking corpses, and Old Norse sagas are full of them. Though in Norse there are several words for such creatures, the words are generally translated as “ghost.” These “ghosts” spread illness, but they also attack and kill animals and humans directly. Somewhat oddly, on the blurb on the back cover of Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson’s  translation of Grettir’s Saga, the undead fought by the hero are called “wraiths,” which is an almost perfectly inaccurate description.

A writer known as the “Monk of Byland” lived in the same area as William of Newburgh around 200 years later. He tells a number of tales that resemble William’s. One concerns

James Tankerlay, the one-time Rector of Kereby….His spirit began to wander at night as far as Kereby, and one evening he gouged out the eye of his concubine who still lived there. It is said that the abbot and chapter had his body in its coffin dug out of the grave and that they ordered Roger Wayneman to convey it to Gormyre. When he was about to throw the coffin into the water, the oxen drawing his wagon panicked and were almost drowned with fear (Joynes 123).

Some of the “spirits” shape-shift into animal form, but it is clear that they are corporeal. While they sometimes jump on a living person, they are generally less dangerous than William’s ghosts. Most want to right a wrong and/or to receive absolution. By the time the Monk of Byland was active (end of the fourteenth century), the doctrine of Purgatory was widely known and accepted, and this helps to explain the differences between his tales and those of William, who was writing when the doctrine was still developing.

Indeed, Purgatory was a great boon for the medieval ghost story. According to Jean-Claude Schmitt,

[the Church’s influence] enabled an inculcation of the faithful with a religious morality centered on the notions of sin, penance, and salvation, culminating at the end of the twelfth century in the “birth of Purgatory.”  Henceforth all Christians could hope to be saved, but only under the condition that after death, they would undergo salutary punishments–the duration and the intensity of which depended…[in part] on the suffrages (masses, prayers, and almsgiving) undertaken by relatives and friends….Otherwise the dead person might appear to a relative or close friend to demand the suffrages needed…. Eager to support and organize the unity of the living and the dead, the church gladly repeated tales of ghosts (4).

Jaques Le Goff points out that

Purgatory would become the prison in which ghosts were normally incarcerated, though they might be allowed to escape now and then to briefly haunt those of the living whose zeal in their behalf was insufficient (82).

He further notes that Purgatory was popularized in part by ghost stories (177). The ghosts might warn loved ones to mend their ways or announce an imminent death. They might want their heirs to return stolen property. Increasingly, though, they asked/demanded that relatives pay for masses or prayers to be said for their souls. Coincidentally, many of these ghost stories came out of monasteries that had become, since the introduction of Purgatory, factories that manufactured masses and prayers for the dead. While these ghosts were generally a bit tamer than those described by William and the Byland monk, they sometimes still appeared corporeal, and sometimes they retained pagan aspects, as when they appeared in a Wild Hunt (Schmitt 115).

While modern ghosts may warn loved ones or attempt to right wrongs, they rarely ask for suffrages anymore. Another thing that sets medieval ghosts apart from modern ones is their lack of ambiguity. Whether they were corporeal or incorporeal, whether they wanted to beg forgiveness or kill loved ones, they didn’t seem to have difficulty making themselves known. They were visible; usually they were able to communicate clearly. People saw them, heard them and sometimes felt them. The reporters hardly ever say, “What was that? Did you hear that?” When the only way to record ghostly phenomena was with quill, ink and parchment, the ghosts were bold and clear. Now that plumbers are armed with a dazzling variety of video and audio recorders, as well as other magical ghost hunting devices, the ghosts have gotten much more shy.  Odd that.



Le Goff, Jaques. The Birth of Purgatory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984.

Joynes, Andrew, comp. and ed. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2001.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England.” Folklore 114 (2003): 389-402.