Friday, August 12, 2011

Rhode Island Vampires

By Diane C. Hundertmark Beginning in 1799 and ending in 1892 you can find various accounts of six local vampires. Some of the records are very detailed and with some, there is only a simple short statement to be found. All these stories have one thing in common; the Rhode Island Vampires were all women in the first blush of youth. They are gruesome accounts of family tragedies and brutal mutilations in often failed attempts to stop and kill the vampires.
The first record is a short cryptic request made by a Mr. Stephen Staples to the Cumberland Town Council in 1796 to "try an experiment" in an attempt to save one daughter's life by digging up his other daughter who had recently died. There is no explanation of what the experiment was, but reading the other accounts of how vampires were dealt with we can assume it was similar.
The next vampire case was recorded in 1799. Sarah Tillinghast's fate was revealed in a prophetic dream her father Stuckely "Snuffy" Tillinghast had some months before tragedy struck the family. A dream in which half of his orchard died. The Tillinghast's were well to do farmers in Exeter, and Sarah was the first of the Tillinghast children to die. Soon others fell sick, and all complained that Sarah was returning at night to press on their chests. By one account, six of the 14 Tillinghast children died and a seventh was taken ill before neighbors convinced Mr. Tillinghast to dig up those who had died. When they did so, Sarah was found to have fresh blood in her heart and veins. Unlike European tradition where the vampire was killed with a stake through the heart, in New England the solution was to burn the vampire's heart. When the gruesome task was done the bodies where reburied, but still some accounts state the seventh child died. Other records show only four of the 14 children died, and some researchers speculate the others were added in legends to match the dream.

Bela Lugosi 
The reports of vampires moved to Foster in 1827 when the body of the 19-year-old daughter of Captain Levi Young was exhumed after others in the family became ill. The remains of Nancy Young where burned and the fumes inhaled by the family members as a cure and protection, still four more of the family's eight children died. Peacedale was the next town to be struck. Believing his recently deceased daughter Ruth Ellen to be a vampire, William G. Rose had her body exhumed and her heart cut out and burned in 1874. Onward the vampires and the gruesome solutions marched to West Greenwich. There in RI Historical Cemetery No. 2 you can find the grave of Nelly L. Vaughn who died at the age of 19 in 1889. Legends hold that nothing will grow on her grave and it is cursed. Finally, we come to perhaps RI's most famous vampire, Mercy Brown. Accounts in the Providence Journal at the time documented her story. In the midst of a bitter cold winter in 1892, Mercy died at 19 years of age, following her mother and sister to the grave both of whom had died of a mysterious disease in 1883. Unable to dig through the frozen ground, Mercy was placed in a crypt. Soon people reported seeing her walking about town. When her brother Edwin became ill soon after Mercy's death, Mr. George Brown obtained permission to exhume all three of the women. On March 18, 1892 family and friends gathered at the Cemetery behind the Exeter Chestnut Hill Baptist Church to complete their grisly task. To their horror, of the three women, Mercy was found to look alive and she seemed to have moved in the coffin. Fearing she was indeed a vampire, family members cut out her heart and were horrified to find it full of fresh blood. Here too the solution was to burn her heart on a nearby stone. They then mixed the ashes with some of Edwin's medicine and had him drink it, in the hopes of curing him. Alas it failed; Edwin died two months later. You can visit Mercy Brown's grave at RI Historical Cemetery No 22 in Exeter, RI on Route 102.
Clippings from the Providence Journal about Mercy Brown were discovered among the papers of Bram Stoker after his death, leading many to speculate that he based many items in his novel "Dracula" on the RI vampire stories. He was not the only writer to find ideas in these stories. Even Rhode Island's favorite son of the weird and macabre, H.P. Lovecraft got into the spirit. In his short story "The Shunned House" published in October 1924 he retold the stories of Mercy Brown and Sarah Tillinghest with his own special flair.
So now, you have two gravesites to visit, and now you can read "Dracula" and "The Shunned House" knowing the inspiration came from our own Rhode Island towns and byways. Perhaps standing on the hilltop in Rhode Island Historical Cemetery No 22 on Route 102 in Exeter with the gloomy woods around you looking down at Mercy Brown's grave you'll find the perfect Halloween mood. Of course, all the Rhode Island vampires were dispatched hundreds of years ago, and there is nothing in the graves but dust. Not much to frighten you.
However, there still is that epithet on Nelly Vaughn's gravestone. It is there for all to see in Historical Cemetery No. 2 in West Greenwich. Strange and disturbing words -- "I am waiting and watching for you."

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