If New England is the Transylvania of America, then Mercy Brown is its Dracula. Some writers even have suggested that the story of Mercy Brown’s exhumation in 1892 was an essential influence on Bram Stoker as he was writing his 1897 novel, Dracula. What a deliciously ironic twist that would be if only it were true: a teenaged Rhode Island farm girl helps mold the world’s most dominant fictional vampire, whose image then returns to shape and reshape the legend of Mercy Brown. Stoker’s research to create his unforgettable vampire did lead him to Rhode Island’s vampires. Among Stoker’s collected papers is an article entitled “Vampires in New England,” clipped from the New York World (2 February 1896), that recounts “two typical cases” from among “scores” that anthropologist George Stetson encountered in Rhode Island. Although Stetson discretely omitted names, one of the “typical cases” obviously is that of Mercy Brown.
My favorite Dracula scholar, Elizabeth Miller, addressed this issue in Dracula: Sense and Nonsense (32-33): Responding to Peter Haining’s assertion, in Shades of Dracula (102), that “Vampires in New England” was an “enormously crucial” newspaper article that “directly helped [Stoker] to create . . . Dracula,” Miller wrote, “Let’s get our facts straight: ‘Vampires in New England’ appeared in . . .1896. Obviously read by Stoker during his American tour with the Lyceum that winter, the cutting is included among his working papers. By 1896, however, what Haining refers to as Stoker’s ‘new book’ was in its final stages. Haining’s assertion that this newspaper clipping was the ‘only incontrovertible piece of evidence’ for the inspiration and the origins of Dracula, as well as ‘the life-blood . . . from which the vampire took his genus” is preposterous.” Then she added the coup de grâce: “The facts speak for themselves. By 1896 Stoker would have had assembled almost all the material he needed for the completion of his novel.”
Where the influence of Mercy Brown on the story of Dracula seems weak at best, Dracula’s impact on the legend of Mercy Brown actually is indisputable. Through an ongoing stream of newspaper articles and Internet interactions, Mercy Brown has become the consummate vampire. Undead, she leaves her grave at night to bite the necks of her relatives and neighbors, with her fangs, and suck their the warm blood: “Looking to folklore to explain away the horror surrounding them, the townspeople claimed they saw Mercy Brown exiting her grave at night. They saw her bounding from roofs and saw her feasting on the blood of people."
A more recent aspect of her legend is exemplified by this statement: “I had heard rumors about this graveyard, like if you say a prayer for Mercy, you will be able to distinctly smell roses. . . . I also heard about after coming close to a bridge, Mercy will appear before you in her tattered dress.” Now, of course, Mercy also has become a ghost. But not necessarily an evil one, for in some versions of her legend, she can make consoling appearances to those who are dying, smoothing their journey to the afterworld.