In 1890, Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, came down with consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which had killed both her mother and her older sister. Her brother Edwin followed, falling ill less than a year after Mercy's death.
Certain members of the family and the town they live in decided that a paranormal cause was to blame for Edwin's death. It seemed a perfectly normal presumption to them, as the local superstition held that consumption was often caused by the intervention of dead relatives, mostly those who had themselves died of the same illness, sapping away the vitality of the living. To rural New Englanders of the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries, this seemed the most likely cause of such a string of cases.
George Brown, the father of the three children, didn't believe in such things, but eventually agreed to exhume the bodies of several deceased relatives. When Mercy's corpse was found relatively free of rot, it was concluded that she was responsible for Edwin's illness, and so to keep her from similarly afflicting another member of the family, her heart was cut out of her body and burned. The ashes were also mixed with water and given to Edwin as a folk remedy against his illness. The remedy failed: Edwin Mercy died of tuberculosis in 1892.
Because the Mercy case came so late, as the vampire panic which had begun in the 18th century was waning, the rest of the country found the notion absurd. The case was reported on in the newspapers internationally. But it was far from an isolated incident.
In 1810, an itinerant minister observed the exhumation of Annie Dennett, who had died of consumption in New Hampshire. Her father had also come down with the disease, and her body was dug up in the hope that by destroying it they might save him. Her corpse, however, proved to have rotted away to almost nothing, "proving" (according to the superstition of the day) that she was resting peacefully in her grave and had no responsibility for her father's illness. Seven years later, Frederick Ransom, a student at Dartmouth, died of the same illness. His body was exhumed, his heart burned in the fires of a blacksmith's forge. There are countless other cases, found throughout New England, principally in the early nineteenth century.
The precise remedies prescribed seem to have varied somewhat regionally, but the suspected vampires' bodies were consistently exhumed, examined, and (if apparently "guilty") desecrated. The burning of the heart seems to have been a common feature, attested as early as 1793. In that particular case, many of the townspeople gathered around a forge. The primary source offered by town historians treat the event as almost blasphemous, the forge serving as "the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire" - but it was the start of something that would become utterly normal, a culturally mandated response to the desperation caused by an inexplicable and incurable wasting disease. The desperation was great enough to drive people to desecrate the bodies of their own kin, clinging to their only superstitious hope for any relief for those still living.