The commutation led me to prison registers, trial records, newspaper articles – even the ship’s log, and, as these accumulated, James Brown, the vampire-murderer, dissolved like Max Schreck in a sunbeam. What remained was not a pile of dust but a run-of-the-mill murderer whose story bears little resemblance to published accounts.
The following reconstruction is based on the collected documents.
MURDER ON THE HIGH SEAS
23 May 1866 was a fair day with a breeze from the south-east; pleasant weather for men aboard the barque Atlantic as it cruised for whales in the Indian Ocean. 9 The crew spent the day bundling up the whalebone (baleen) that was used (in the pre-plastic age) for making umbrella ribs, buggy whips and corset stays. Whalebone, though, was little more than a by-product in the search for whale oil. This was found in the head and blubber of whales and provided the best illumination and mechanical lubricant available at the time. In order to collect it, fleets of ships – combining the functions of a slaughterhouse, processing factory and warehouse – combed the seas.
The Atlantic was one of them, “a staunch, well-built craft of two-hundred and ninety tons”, 10 with a crew of 30 or more men. Brightly painted whaleboats hung from davits, ready to drop rowers and harpooners into the sea at a shout of “There she blows!” (or “There she breaches!” or even “There she white waters!”) and an enormous brick stove stood on deck for boiling whale oil out of blubber. Also on deck were James Brown, a “negro cook” from New Bedford, 11 blacksmith James W Gardner, and seaman John Soares (or Suarez). 12
Brown was around 25 years old. He stood 5feet 6.5in tall [1.69m] , had a rounded chin, black hair and “frank” eyes of a light maroon-colour. His skin was decorated sailor-style, with tattooed eagles, anchors, hearts, and stars and, on his right forearm, a woman wearing a skirt. 13
Brown was busy scrubbing a pan when 19-year-old James M Foster came on deck from the forecastle. Foster leaned against a cask by the fore swifter and called Brown a “damned nigger”. 14 Presumably, there was bad blood between them; on whaling voyages lasting three or four years there was often nothing for the men to do but carve scrimshaw (designs in ivory or shells) and get on each other’s nerves. Quarrels were common and sometimes led to violence, as court papers show.
[James Brown] Wilfully, feloniously and of his malice aforethought an assault with a certain knife of the length of six inches and the breadth of one inch did then and there make, and him the said James Foster with the aforesaid knife which he the said James Brown then and there had and held did then and there strike, stab and wound and in and upon the said James Foster in the left side of the breast of him the said James Foster with the aforesaid knife, so as aforesaid had and held by him the said James Brown, one mortal wound of the length of one inch and of the depth of four inches did then and there inflict, of which said mortal wound so as aforesaid inflicted with the knife aforesaid, which the said James Brown so as aforesaid had and held, the said James Foster did then and there languish, and so languishing did then and there for the space of five minutes linger and then and there so languishing, on the day and year aforesaid, did then and there die. 15
Soares thought Brown had hit Foster with his fist. James W Gardner “was within a few feet of Brown when he cut Foster and helped the latter to the wheel; asking him what was the matter but he could not speak, and lived but five or six minutes.” 16 Captain Benjamin Franklin Wing had the cook put into double-irons in the fore-hold where he later admitted to stabbing Foster with a double-edged sheath knife and throwing it overboard. 17 Brown and the witnesses were transferred to other ships and taken to Boston. He was arraigned, pleaded “Not Guilty”, and was tried in US District Court on 13 November 1866, with Judges Lovell and Clifford presiding. District Attorney Hillard and Assistant District Attorney Dabney presented the government’s case and Charles R Train and N St John Green conducted the defence. It was a short trial. The jury deliberated for 75 minutes before finding Brown guilty. He was sentenced to death.
President Johnson signed the commutation on 3 January 1867.
Brown was transferred from the Suffolk Jail to the Charlestown State Prison, a dreary granite pile where he spent the next 22 years. 18 On 14 April, 1889, he was sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, possibly because Charlestown was being renovated, and two years later, on 3 November 1892, Brown was removed to the US Government Insane Asylum in Washington DC. He probably spent the rest of his life there. 19
All of this raises an interesting question; how was this very ordinary crime transformed into a harrowing tale of maritime grand guignol?
THE TRANSMOGRIFICATION OF JAMES BROWN
Newspapers in the Gilded Age did not have a “taste exact for faultless fact”, and many tales that fascinate forteans appeared at this time, including the cattle-rustling airship and the pterodactyl killed by cowboys. Furthermore, 4 November 1892 was a slow news day. “A Human Vampire” appeared on the front page between the obituary of Wheaton A Welsh, “the well known Local Public School Principal” and a shoot-out in Wyoming, suggesting someone at the Eagle might have succumbed to temptation and embellished an otherwise uninteresting news item.
It’s possible (but unlikely) that the article is accurate, and that Brown committed two more murders in prison. If so, they could have inspired the copywriter to retrofit the original account, and might explain why Brown was sent to an insane asylum. “A Human Vampire” does not say where the murders took place, but, if they were committed in Massachusetts, they should appear on Brown’s record when he was moved to Ohio (the Ohio Prison Register mentions one conviction for first-degree murder, death sentence commuted 20 ). Brown might have committed the murders after arriving in Ohio, but by 1889 he was almost 50 years old and suffering from cataracts in both eyes. So far, no evidence has been found to support the newspaper’s claim.
Another explanation is that Brown’s story became confused, commingled or otherwise mixed up with another Brown in the news that year.
THE VAMPIRE BROWN
One of New England’s most famous cases of vampirism took place a few months before Brown was moved to the asylum.
It began when the Brown family in Exeter, Rhode Island, was almost obliterated by consumption. George T Brown lost his wife and two daughters and, by 1892, his son Edwin was seriously ill. With Brown desperate for a cure, a decision was made to examine the dead Brown family members for signs of vampirism, and on 17 March 1892, the bodies were exhumed. Mrs Brown was in a reassuringly complete state of decomposition, as was the older daughter, but the remains of 19-year-old Mercy looked suspicious. Blood was found in her heart and her liver had not decayed (she had been dead two months and was buried in the middle of winter.) To ensure Edwin’s safety, a fire was lit in the cemetery and the two organs reduced to ashes. These ashes may have been mixed with water and given him to drink as a cure. 21 [For a contemporary story of “vampire” exhumation and burning, see FT187:22.]
Was the story of James Brown the murderer, combined with that of Mercy Brown the vampire? There are three points in common: both happened in 1892; 22 they share New England settings; and both feature apparent vampires with the surname Brown. This is hardly a conclusive connection, but it suggests a direction for further research.
Finally, we can safely say that James Brown was probably not a vampire. He definitely did not commit the two shipboard murders attributed to him by Charles Fort and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and reports based on these sources are inaccurate. Later murders are possible, but evidence for them remains elusive.
It would be interesting to know why President Johnson commuted Brown’s death sentence but, whatever the reason, the fact that Johnson remains the only President of the United States to have saved a vampire from hanging has done nothing to add lustre to his legacy (and even if it had, most Americans would still think Andrew Johnson is Andrew Jackson.)
Other questions remain. Why was Brown sent to an insane asylum? How did his story become so distorted? And, finally, if James Brown wasn’t America’s first ‘real-life’ vampire, then who was?