Vampire archaeology: How scientists identified a 200-year-old vampire

John Barber Grave

The grave of “JB55” showing the skull and thigh bones in a “skull and cross bones” orientation. Credit: Daniels-Higginbotham et al (2019). CC by 4.0.

The community of Griswold, CT had forgotten about the old burying ground used by the Walton family in the 19thcentury until children playing near a gravel mine in 1990 found a couple of skulls that had become dislodged from some old graves. The discovery made international news when archaeologists unearthed the fourth grave and found that the skull and thigh bones had been arranged into a skull and crossbones design on top of the rest of the remains. After running through theories for this sinister skeletal design, the research team agreed that this grave belonged to a “vampire” who had its bones repositioned post-mortem.

The anthropologists who worked on the Walton family cemetery project were not optimistic that they would ever know who this person was because there was no identifying information in or around the grave. The only clue to this individual’s identity was the “JB55” spelled out in brass tacks on the coffin lid (pictured here), thought to be the man’s initials and age at death. The osteological examination, however, shed light on how the person lived and died, and the reason behind the ominous death’s head arrangement.

Forensic anthropologist Paul Sledzik and archaeologist Dr. Nicholas F. Bellantoni, who both worked on the Walton family cemetery project in the 1990’s, published the results of their osteological examination of JB55’s remains in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. JB55 was a Caucasian male who was between 50 to 55 years old when he died in the early 19th century. The mild osteoarthritis “in most large joints and most lower vertebra” indicated that he was a laborer of some sort, likely a farmer.1

Lesions on his ribs indicated that JB55 suffered from a chronic pulmonary infection like tuberculosis (known as consumption in the 19th century) or a disease with similar osteological indicators, like typhoid or syphilis. The symptoms of this chronic pulmonary condition would have been “coughing exportation of mucous, and aches and pains of the chest.”1 There were also post-mortem injuries to the body that included beheading and rib fractures that forensic anthropologists estimated happened about five years after death.2 The coffin also showed signs of being broken into. The osteological evidence of a lung infection was a critical detail because of its association with vampire or revenant folklore, more on that later.

Next to JB55’s grave were two individuals with the same last initial tacked onto their coffins.  There was IB45, who was a 45-55 year-old female; and NB-13, a 13-14 year old juvenile. NB-13 would be critical in discovering the name of the Griswold vampire.1

At the end of July 2019, in an article written by Michael E. Ruane for the Washington Post, a research team comprised of scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s DNA Laboratory, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and SNA International announced they determined the identity of JB55, 55-year old John Barber from Griswold, CT.3

Scientists took a DNA sample to develop Y-chromosomal DNA profile. The genetic markers from the Y-DNA test were cross-referenced with a genealogy database. Forensic genealogists concluded that the Barber family from Griswold best matched the DNA results.3,4

When researchers checked historical records, they found a death notice for a 12-year-old boy named Nathan Barber who died in 1826. The boy’s father was named in that obituary as John Barber. Nathan Barber closely matches what is known about NB13 buried near JB55.3

Prior to the modern understanding of disease transmission and postmortem decomposition, many European and European immigrants to America believed that a revenant, a sort of proto-vampire, was responsible for widespread sickness. The vampire was thought to prey on surviving family members, either by rising from their graves or through a “spiritual connection,” causing the victim to slowly waste away. When an epidemic of tuberculosis struck the northeastern United States in the 19th century, revenants were blamed for the outbreak and the response was the New England Vampire Panic.2

In order to confirm a case of vampirism, townspeople had to dig up the suspected revenant’s grave to look for signs that their beloved was a vampire. These signs included:1,2,4

  • Copper-colored purge fluid around the mouth and nose or clotted blood in organs were the leftovers of a recent, bloody meal.
  • A bloated abdomen meant that the decedent recently fed.
  • Supposed lengthening of hair and nails was a sign of life after death
  • Inexplicable preservation meant that a corpse was rising from its grave

In order to confirm a case of vampirism, townspeople exhumed the suspected revenant’s grave and looked for some of the above signs. If the corpse had any symptoms of vampirism, the body had to be ritually altered in some way to prevent it from climbing out of the grave. These post-mortem mutilations included beheading, pinning down, or turning the body over. Then the heart and internal organs were removed and cremated. By the time John Barber’s body was dug up in the mid-1800’s his body was mostly skeletonized, so townspeople broke open his ribs and removed his decomposing organs. Then they removed his head and placed it and his femurs on top of his chest. To alleviate symptoms, vampiric victims had to ingest the ashes from the cremated organs.1,2

Other documented New England vampires include Bristoe Congdon’s child (died 1800’s), Frederick Ransom (died 1817), Lemuel (died 1845) and Elisha Ray (died 1853), and Mercy Brown (died in 1892),

The full text of the DNA test and results published in the open access journal Genes can be found here.

Works Cited

  1. Sledzik, P.S., Bellantoni, N. (1994). Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief. The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 94. http://www.yorku.ca/kdenning/+++2150%202007-8/sledzik%20vampire.pdf
  2. Tucker, A. (2012) The Great New England Vampire Panic. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/
  3. Ruane, M.E. (2019). A ‘vampire’s’ remains were found about 30 years ago. Now DNA is giving him new life. Retrived from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/07/31/vampires-remains-were-found-about-years-ago-now-dna-is-giving-him-new-life/
  4. Daniels-Higginbotham, J., Gorden, E.M., Farmer, S.K., Spatola, B., Damann, F., Bellantoni, N., Gagnon, K.S., de la Puente, M., Xavier, C., Walsh, S., Parson, W., McMahon, T.P., and Marshall, C. (2019). DNA Testing Reveals the Putative Identity of JB55, a 19th Century Vampire Buried in Griswold, Connecticut. Genes, 10 (9). Retreived from: https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4425/10/9/636/htm


Categories: Archaeology, News

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7 replies

  1. Dolly, I am so happy to be reading more of your writing. I have missed your blog. I hope you are doing well and keep bringing us amazing content. ❤️

Trackbacks

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