On an early spring morning in March of 1892, rural residents of Exeter, Rhode Island exhumed the body of a recently deceased young woman, Lena Brown. They were looking for a vampire.
In outlying hamlets like Exeter, and elsewhere across New England, vampire possession was believed to be a leading cause of death. Victims like Lena’s brother, Edwin Brown, were tormented with a racking, bloody cough as their bodies wasted into nothingness under the voraciousness of the vampire appetite.
In this case, villagers assumed that Edwin’s recently deceased sister was the vampire in question, so they removed the heart and lungs from Lena’s corpse, burnt them on a rock and fed the ashes to the ailing man.[i]
In reality, Edwin Brown was suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and died two days after eating the burnt ashes of his sister’s heart.
Medical Evidence Supersedes Tradition
What seems strange about the case of Lena Brown, is that the industrial revolution was in full swing at the time of her death. Over a decade before, Joseph Lister had introduced sterile practices into the surgical theater, and in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone. It would have taken seconds for news of medical advancements to travel to Rhode Island residents, but in rural Exeter, there were few phones.
Largely dependent upon farming, residents of Exeter lived hand-to-mouth, scraping a living from the rocky landscape that was often too meager to provide for basic needs. Between losses sustained in the civil war and the cry of “Westward Ho” luring younger residents away to seek far-off riches, Exeter’s population had dwindled by more than half from a high of 2500 in 1820. Those few who remained were being pursued to the grave by tuberculosis.
During the early 1800s, tuberculosis, also known as consumption, was the leading cause of death in the Northeast United States. At the time, little was understood about the disease, so few knew that the conditions in which they lived—close quarters coupled with improper hygiene and poor nutrition—facilitated the spread of TB and drove up mortality rates. In 1810 and 1815, 25% of the deaths recorded in New York City were attributed to tuberculosis. Even in rural areas like Exeter, the death toll was high.
Misunderstood and feared, tuberculosis lent itself more easily to superstition and fantasy than scientific explanations when medicine failed to halt its spread or save its victims. From this fear, the New England vampire epidemic was born.
As superstition was eventually superseded by greater access to scientific facts, community-wide measures were taken to reduce the spread of TB. State-run tuberculosis treatment centers, such as Seaside Sanatorium in Waterford, Ct, were instituted to sequester patients suffering from TB and to ensure proper care. As a result, the number of tuberculosis cases continued to fall throughout the nineteenth century.
Historical First in Connecticut
The Seaside Sanatorium holds a significant place in history as the first childhood institution in the nation dedicated to the heliotropic treatment (sunshine and fresh air) of tuberculosis. According to a report by the commission to the General Assembly in 1926, the new facility was needed to house a growing number of applicants applying for treatment and replaced the original Seaside, a 45-bed establishment located on Crescent Beach in Niantic.[i]
The new Seaside was constructed on prime real estate in Waterford overlooking Long Island Sound and opened its doors in 1934 to children under the age of 14 afflicted with tuberculosis. Descendants of some of the original patients report that treatment was administered according to accepted measures for the time, including plenty of fresh sea air, sunshine and proper nutrition, with at least one reminiscence of the Red Cross administering swimming lessons in the frigid sound.
As more effective drug treatments replaced nature, demand for the facility declined. It was opened as a home for the elderly in 1958 and operated for three years. In 1961, it was opened as a regional facility serving patients with mental retardation, only to close its doors permanently in 1996.
Abandoned but Not Forgotten?
The intervening years and the Connecticut state government have not been kind to Seaside. Designed in the Tudor Revival style by Cass Gilbert (Woolworth Skyscraper in New York City), the buildings are a living example of turn-of-the-century American architecture and a piece of human history, highlighting our evolution over superstition and the advancement of medical science. For years, the state toyed with selling the property with stringent restrictions that would preserve its historical significance, but as deals were continuously dropped, Seaside continued to decay.
In 2014, Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy announced that all accompanying 32 acres of the Seaside complex and its associated buildings would become the 108th state-owned park. As of August 2016, environmental impact studies were underway, and a master plan for development of the property was on display at the state’s Department of Energy Environmental Protection (DEEP) website.
Some feel the state’s actions come far too late, as wood rots and ceilings crumble, but on a cool and blustery December day in 2016, crews were busily removing asbestos, readying Seaside for a new life and purpose.