Even today, tuberculosis remains a fearsome disease with an uncertain outcome. How much more frightening must it have seemed in 1892 after an epidemic of tuberculosis struck the Rhode Island town of Exeter? Despite the fact that the deaths were limited to a single family, the possibility of it spreading seemed very real to the people of the region. Following the deaths of Mary Eliza Brown and her daughter, Mary Olive in 1883, the two surviving children seemed to be spared for a time. When Mercy Lena Brown suddenly died in January, 1892 and her brother Edwin began to sicken as well, the patriarch of the family, George T. Brown, became desperate for any solution to save his only surviving child. True treatment for tuberculosis would not be available for decades and all that he had to rely upon were the folk remedies that his neighbours suggested. History does not record who first proposed exhuming the deceased members of the family and burning the heart of the relative that seemed most likely to be responsible for the deaths. The word "vampire" was never actually used in this case but the rural residents of the area had a longstanding tradition of burning the heart of those deemed to have died an "unnatural" death to cure unexplained illness. Since Mercy Brown was only recently deceased and her body was still well-preserved by the cold weather, she was judged to be the guilty party by virtue of the liquid blood that was still in her heart. Although the medical examiner in attendance, Dr. Harold Metcalf, insisted that there was nothing remarkable about Mercy's condition, her heart was removed and burned on a nearby rock. The ashes were then saved and placed in water for her brother Edwin to drink (his reaction to this "remedy" is not recorded). Sadly, Edwin still died some time later although the epidemic ended with him. Local tradition still holds that Mercy's exhumation and the disposal of her heart still "took care of the problem" and laid her spirit to rest.
Folklore surrounding vampires varies from region to region but there are still some common elements to be found in many cultures. While legends of undead creatures that feed on the living seem fantastic by modern standards, hysteria surrounding supposed vampire attacks can still occur today. The report of a vampire which was said to haunt London's Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970s seemed to be more of a media phenomenon than anything else (there were certainly no actual casualties). Occult circles still milk the legend for everything it is worth, though. A more serious case involving anti-vampire hysteria occurred in 2002 when a number of villagers living in southern Malawi claimed to have been attacked for their blood. The resulting panic led to two men being stoned to death on suspicion of being vampires. Elements of the vampire rumour suggested that foreign aid agencies were aiding the vampires and three Catholic priests were attacked by vigilantes due to the resulting xenophobia. The Malawian government was accused of supplying blood to foreign aid agencies in exchange for food aid and one senior government official was seriously injured after being stoned by an angry mob. Much as in other cases of mass panic, it took an aggressive government media campaign coupled with arrests of "irresponsible parties" caught spreading rumours to quell the mobs and return life to normal.
Will we see other examples of vampire hysteria in future? Well, it was only last year when self-styled "vampire hunters" broke into Slobodan Milosevic's tomb and drove a stake through his heart to stop him from "returning from the dead". While the Serbian police regard the incident as being politically motivated, the legend of the vampire seems unlikely to die an easy death.