In 1990, children playing in Griswold, Connecticut, stumbled upon an unmarked cemetery. When archaeologists started investigating, one grave stood out. Inside, a 19th-century man’s femur bones had been removed and crossed over his chest.
As Smithsonian magazine’s Abigail Tucker reported in 2012, this arrangement indicates that locals may have believed he was a vampire; several years after his death, they exhumed him in order to keep him from harming the living. The man was not a vampire—but in 2019, researchers were finally able to identify him: He was a 55-year-old farmer named John Barber, and he died of tuberculosis.
Now, a team of forensic scientists has revealed an image depicting what Barber could have looked like.
The project is a collaboration between Parabon NanoLabs and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. The researchers revealed their results at last week’s International Symposium on Human Identification, an annual forensics conference.
Based on DNA analysis, the researchers predicted that Barber had fair skin, brown or hazel eyes, and brown or black hair, per a statement from Parabon. Then, using the predictions and a 3-D image of the skull, a forensic artist reconstructed Barber’s face.
Barber was not only a victim of tuberculosis; he was also a victim of the vampire panic that swept through New England in the 1800s. These periods of mass hysteria usually coincided with tuberculosis outbreaks.
“Communities hit with epidemics turned to folklore for explanations,” wrote Parabon in a statement. “They often blamed vampirism for the change in appearance, erratic behavior and deaths of their friends and family who actually suffered from conditions such as porphyria, pellagra, rabies and tuberculosis.”
When Barber died, his community likely believed he was a vampire with the capacity to escape his grave and spread tuberculosis, also known as consumption. During the vampire scares, some believed exhumations stopped vampires from preying on loved ones.
“This was a public health issue,” Nicholas Bellantoni, a Connecticut state archaeologist who was involved in the 1990 excavation, tells Newsweek’s Rebecca Flood. “Consumption was an epidemic in 19th-century New England. They knew nothing about germ theory and didn’t understand how the disease was spread.”
In Barber’s case, the bones were rearranged so he “wouldn’t be able to walk around and attack the living,” Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at Parabon, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki.
For forensic scientists at Parabon, extracting DNA from the bones proved challenging.
“The technology doesn’t work well with bones, especially if those bones are historical,” Greytak tells Live Science. “When bones become old, they break down and fragment over time. Also, when remains have been sitting in the environment for hundreds of years, the DNA from the environment from things like bacteria and fungi also end up in the sample. We wanted to show that we could still extract DNA from difficult historical samples.”
Parabon also extracted DNA from a second individual buried near Barber, who was then identified as Barber’s first cousin.
Editor’s Note, November 29, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Barber’s cousin was Nathan Barber, when, in fact, the cousin was a separate unnamed individual.