Saturday, March 14, 2009

The President's Vampire Part Two

The men aboard the barque Atlantic were being treated to a fair day on 23 May 1866, with a pleasant breeze from the southeast. The crews job was to bundle up whalebone that was used for everything from making buggy whips to corset stays. Whalebone was not the main prize that the men sought to catch. Whalebone was just a by-product of the hunting for whale oil. This was found in the head an blubber of whales. Whale oil was the best product at the time to use for mechanical lubricant and lighting. The ships that hunted whales were literally factories with sails. They combined the functions of slaughterhouse, processing factory and warehouse. The Atlantic had a crew of at least thirty men. Two of these men were James Brown and 19 year old James M Foster. What really happened in the James Brown case is that according to the actual court papers is that while Mr. Brown was working at scrubbing a pan, James Foster called him a "damned nigger" and Mr Brown stabbed Mr Foster to death. According to the Boston Daily Evening Transript of 12 November 1866, Brown's 'Nativity' was recorded in the Prison Register as "South Amerika" [sic] suggesting that he may have been a Portuguese speaking native of Brazil. There could already have been bad blood between the men and the racial slur may not have been the single motivation for the stabbing. A whaling voyage could last 3 or 4 years, and when the men weren't working there wasn't much to do except carve scrimshaw (designs on ivory or shells) and get on each other's nerves.

After Brown and the other witnesses were transferred to other ships and taken to Boston, Brown was arraigned, pleaded "Not Guilty" and was tried on 13 November 1866. The trial was short and the jury only took seventy-five minutes to find Brown guilty. He was sentenced to death. Brown was transferred from the Suffolk jail to the Charleston State Prison, where he spend the next twenty -two years. On 14 April 1889, he was sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. This transfer could have occurred because the Charleston Prison was being renovated. Two years later on 3 November 1892, Brown was taken the the U.S. Government Insane Asylum in Washington D.C. Most likely he spent the rest of his life there.

The most probable reason that this ordinary crime was made into such a blood-curdling tale was that newspapers in the Gilded Age did not exactly have a reputation for faultless reporting and never embellishing a story. This is sad because so many tales that interest people intrigued by the paranormal and fortean appeared around this time. It also seems that 4 November 1892 was a slow news day. "A Human Vampire" was sandwiched on the front page between the obituary of Wheaton A Welsh, "the well known Local Public School Principal" and a shoot-out in Wyoming. We wonder if someone at the Eagle fell to the temptation to spice up a rather uninteresting news item. It is possible, but unlikely that Brown committed two more murders in prison. If James Brown actually did kill two more men in prison this could have been what 'inspired' the copywriter to retrofit the original account, and could explain why Brown was sent to the insane asylum. The story doesn't say where the murders occurred, but if the were committed in Massachusetts, they should be on Brown's record when he was moved to the Ohio prison, and there is record of just one first degree murder conviction in the Ohio Prison Register. Conceivably, Brown could have killed the two men after coming to Ohio. However, by then he had cataracts in both eyes and was almost 50 years old. There is no evidence so far to prove the newspapers claim. One more theory is the James Brown's story became mixed-up-intentionally or not-with another Brown in the news that year, which may just have been what happened.

A few months before Brown was moved to the asylum there was indeed a 'Brown' vampire case in the news. The family of George T Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island was decimated by consumption. He had lost his wife and two daughters, and by 1892 his son Edwin was seriously ill. Brown was desperate to find a cure and came to the decision to have his dead family members exhumed to look for signs of vampirism! The bodies were exhumed on 17 March 1892. Mr Brown's wife and eldest daughter were in a normal state of decomposition. However, the remains of the youngest daughter, Mercy L Brown looked suspicous. Blood was found in her heart and her liver had not decayed. Mercy Brown had been dead two months and was buried in the middle of a New England winter-so this is really no surprise. Just to ensure Edwin's safety, a fire was lit in the cemetery, and Mercy's heart and liver were burned to ashes. These ashes may have been mixed with water and given to Edwin to drink as a cure. I have two sources on this -one says this as a maybe-and the wiki link says it was a definite. Whatever happened, sadly two months later Edwin also died.

Could the story of James Brown the murderer been combined with that of Mercy Brown the vampire? They both have the surname Brown and New England origins (as far as the story goes anyway) so it is tempting to think this and warrants further research. What we can say for certain-almost 100 percent is that James Brown was not a vampire:-) He definitely didn't commit the two shipboard homicides-19 year old James Foster was the only victim, and evidence for the two other murders attributed to him is almost non-existent. I think it would be interesting to know why President Johnson commuted the sentence. Did our seventeenth president have a commutation fetish like the aforementioned blood fetish? Or did he see the aggravating circumstances in the case and decide to commute to life? If he did this would be both strange yet not so strange. Strange because as he believed in slavery-Johnson appeared to care not a whit for racial equality -and perhaps the epithets that went along with it to boot. Not so strange because being from the south -President Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina -he would have come from a culture where he understood that a man should not ever 'lose face' and stick up for himself when in any sort of conflict, even one where the 'weapon' is an insult. Whatever his reasons for being the only president to save a 'vampire' from the noose hasn't done anything to make his presidency more popular.

Some interesting questions remain. Why was Brown sent to the insane asylum-and could this have anything to do with the two additional murders that there is such scanty evidence for? How did his story become so distorted? If Mr Brown wasn't America's first 'real' vampire -then who was? I decided to do an image of a poster for one of those cheesy films as I couldn't find one I liked-hehe -I bet that movie was a 'winner':-) The Mercy Brown incident was the inspiration for Caitlin R Kiernan's short story, "So Runs the World Away", which mentions the affair, and I wanted to mention this as Caitlin Kiernan is one of my favorite writers of short horror fiction. I may have a bit to add to this as there might be some links worth chasing down, it may take a few days and I am not sure yet if I will find enough. Thanks again as always for everyone's thoughtful and intelligent comments!


Mike and Julie said...

I would love to know the true story. What an interesting twist.
Thanks, Devin.....Julie

foam said...

i read your preceding post and this one ..
very interesting! i just had no idea.
i reckon not understanding the process of decomposition in a variety of soils and seasons has led to all kinds of superstitions involving vampires.

Anadæ Effro said...

As you well Gno, Devin, often the outbreaks of various epidemics were interpreted as the appearance of vampires amidst earlier societies. Compare the story of Mercy Brown with this recent discovery from Venice, Italy. As the old adage goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Happy factoid finding,
Anadæ Effro ( :-)}

wise woman said...

Well Devin that was a 'bloody' strange tale!

Communting his sentence certainly seems very unusual, I was wondering if there could have been some hidden blood relationship between them somewhere down the line?

I'd think the chances of having your sentence commuted would rate alongside todays chances of a winning the lottery - pretty slim.

All the best to you.

Autumnforest said...

This is an interesting story. You've really done your research--congrats! I'm always intrigued by how stories change as they go on. When I was growing up at Aspen Grove, the stories behind the hauntings were different depending on whom you asked. Even a neighboring home on our street adopted the "soldiers searching for his boots" scenario that we had been told when we moved in (about why there are booted footsteps at night going up the stairs and down the hall). The mixing of two stories is a very real possibility. Just remember those old dime novels about the West and all the cowboy adventures that sent young men wanting to head west. It was a part of the times when things were rough to polish it up and make it sound better than it was, kind of like when someone dies and they become an icon instead of ridiculed as they were in life (like Anna Nicole). Still, I like the vampire explanation. I would think folks pent up on a ship for long periods of time would be as much victims of cabin fever as anyone else. More than likely that unglamourous story had to be "sexed" up for reader consumption.

Devin said...

Thanks all of you so very very much for your fantastic (as usual) comments!!! I am having connection probs today so I wanted to do this quick comment for anyone that sees it that i email privately or whose blogs i visit that i am having technical difficulties:-) thanks again so very much and will try to come back and answer in more detail-best to all of you as always!!!

Ricardo said...

This is rather interesting and I have never heard of this story before so thank you for sharing. I too may be sent to an insane asylum at any moment.

Devin said...

You know Ricardo -as I have watched multi-billion dollar CEOs -government people and the like get away with financial murder -at the very least -and I am struggling to get a whopping 637 a month from Soc Security -there are times that I feel some days like I could start screaming and never stop -I can almost see the men with white coats coming to take me to the 'Happy Acres Recovery Center' or something like that:-)best to you as always!!

X. Dell said...

Newspapers today pride themselves on objectivity, a standard that isn't free of bias and innacuracies. 19th century journalists would by-and-large think of objectivity as uter nonsense at best, or self-delusion on the other. Many papers saw their medium as a platform upon which to advocate political ideas, which, during the 19th century, became increasingly party-oriented.

Devin said...

It is amazing to ponder the changes newspapers and all forms of media have gone through-being from Colorado originally I almost thought I would cry when I heard the Rocky Mountain News was closing its doors recently-best as always!!