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New England ‘Vampire’ Was Likely a Farmer Named John

In 1990, archaeologists discovered a corpse that had been disturbed during the Great New England Vampire Panic

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smithsonian.com

After 30 years, archaeologists and historians have identified New England’s only known “vampire,” reports Michael E. Ruane at The Washington Post. He wasn’t some dark, cloaked figure out of a gothic novel; instead, he was likely a hard-working farmer whose family had the misfortune of suffering through a tuberculosis epidemic.

In 1990, three boys playing near a sand and gravel pit in Griswold, Connecticut, pulled two human skulls out of the recently excavated ground in what was later identified as the Walton Family Cemetery.

Old farm cemeteries are common in New England, and this one wasn’t very remarkable, except for burial number four. Abigail Tucker, writing in Smithsonian magazine, reported in 2012 that the coffin, marked with tacks that spelled out “JB 55,” contained a body whose skull had been hacked from the spine and placed on the chest, which had been broken open, along with the femurs to create a skull and crossbones. JB 55 had been in the ground around five years when someone exhumed him and tried to remove his heart, part of ritual to stop a suspected vampire from preying on the living.

Back when JB 55 was first unearthed, his DNA was analyzed, but the technique was not advanced enough to yield much data. That’s why researchers took another look using more modern research tools for a report on JB 55 recently presented at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, which holds his bones. “This case has been a mystery since the 1990s," Charla Marshall, a forensic scientist with SNA International who worked on the project, tells Ruane. “Now that we have expanded technological capabilities, we wanted to revisit JB 55 to see whether we could solve the mystery of who he was.”

The new study, which used Y-chromosomal DNA profiling and surname prediction based on genealogical data ties JB 55 to a farmer named John Barber. An obituary from 1826 for 12-year-old Nicholas Barber also mentions his father, John Barber. A coffin with the same tack inscription style reading "NB 13" was found close to JB 55’s grave, evidence that the two were father and son. The level of arthritis found on JB 55’s bones also suggest that he was a farmer or laborer.

So why was a Connecticut farmer suspected of being a vampire half a decade after his death? In the early 1800s, a vampire panic swept New England and other parts of the U.S., two full centuries after the Witch Panic. The scares were caused by outbreaks of tuberculosis, aka consumption, a lung disease that spread through families. Sufferers of the disease wasted away, their skin turning gray and their eyes becoming sunken. Sometimes blood would trickle from the edges of their mouths.

After earlier suffers of the disease died, the contagion would often continue to spread among families and neighbors. Despite the fact that many people received a medical diagnosis of tuberculosis, they still blamed the spread of the disease on previous sufferers, believing they rose from the grave at night to feast on family members, slowly sapping their vitality.

While exhumations were not all carried out in the same manner, the general idea was to dig up the corpse to stop its nefarious activity. If its heart was still present and contained blood, it was a sign that the corpse was a vampire. The family then incinerated the heart and sometimes inhaled the smoke as protection against other vampires.

While many exhumations were private affairs, done at night, in Vermont vampire heart-burnings were public festivities, with entire towns attending. But while Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell, author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires has chronicled 80 exhumations stretching from New England to Minnesota, JB 55’s corpse remains the only physical evidence of the practice discovered by archaeologists. An examination of his remains confirms that he, too, suffered from tuberculosis.

The practice lasted all the way into the late 1800s. In Exeter, Rhode Island, after several members of one family had died of tuberculosis, townspeople exhumed the corpse of a girl who had died of the disease a few months earlier. They burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock and fed the ashes to her brother, who also suffered from the disease. He died two months later. That incident brought the practice to light, leading several anthropologists to study and catalogue the exhumations.

JB 55 was not the only “vampire” to pop up in Griswold, Connecticut. In the 1840s Henry and Lucy Ray and their five children lived in Jewett City, now a part of Griswold. Over the course of two decades, Henry and two of his adult sons, Lemuel and Elisha, died of a wasting disease. When a third son began showing signs of tuberculosis in 1854, the family dug up the corpses of Lemuel and Elisha and burned them in the graveyard, an event that was widely covered by local newspapers and was likely inspired by the same beliefs that led to JB 55's exhumation.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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