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    Wednesday, May 31, 2023

    History Matters: Did the ‘Living Dead’ once dwell here in New England?

    The coffin lid of “JB 55,” whose remains were uncovered in Griswold. His skull and thighbones were placed in a “skull and crossbones” pattern on top of the ribs and vertebrae, which had also been rearranged possibly due to the family’s belief in vampirism. Photo courtesy of Office of Ct. State Archeology, Museum of Natural History, UConn.

    In 19th century America they were rarely, if ever, referred to as “vampires” in print or in conversation, but the implications were quite clear. Following a tragic death in the family, if other family members soon began dying off, suspicions mounted that the dead might be feeding upon the life blood of the living.

    Now who on earth would ever believe such a preposterous thing? I found the answer more than surprising. The following sentiment is from Connecticut author and poet Michael J. Bielawa.

    “Never strangers true vampires be, the loved ones they once knew,

    Upon whom they would have to feed.

    Demon lust for their family still living, old Yankees did believe.”

    That’s right… WE believed this nonsense, or at least a fair number of our New England ancestors did. Tucked away in small out-of-the-way communities, early New Englanders were often left to contemplate reality in their own way. (No internet?)

    What could be made of a medical condition that saw loved ones coughing and spitting up blood, breathlessly clutching their chests, pale and gaunt, wasting away, increasingly looking more dead than alive? Neither the medical community nor the spiritual community was able to offer an explanation of what (or who) was sucking the life from their bodies.

    Not until the early 20th century was it finally discovered that those families were witnessing a condition brought on by tiny microbes (“mycobacterium tuberculosis humanis”), a medical condition known to us today as tuberculosis.

    But something that was known back then was the concept of the bloodsucking vampire. This would not be the fictitious Count Dracula as author Bram Stoker did not write that book until 1897. The idea of a tuxedoed Transylvanian nobleman with a penchant for nighttime neck biting was therefore relatively unknown before the twentieth century.

    But Stoker did base his fictitious tale on actual medical reports that had earlier been recorded.

    Stoker and many Europeans were familiar with the early 18th century story of Arnod Paole. Paole was a Serbian who had once served in the Austrian army and had safely returned home only to die in a farming accident. In the wake of his death, a number of townspeople soon mysteriously took ill and died.

    Disturbing reports began to circulate that the recently deceased Paole had been seen walking around at night. That required his grave to be reopened 40 days after his burial.

    His body was reported to have not only changed position within the coffin, but there was little decomposition to speak of and blood was found on his face and shirt. A stake was then driven through his heart, his head was cut off and the entire body burned. Because much of this had been witnessed by credible Austrian medical authorities, the event gained considerable traction at the time.

    Now this specific story was most likely unknown to most New Englanders in the 19th century, but the idea of the dead feeding on the living was not. New Englanders’ bizarre behaviors would readily attest to their belief in vampirism.

    Consider a Vermont native by the name of Frederick Ransom, who died in 1817, followed by his mother in 1821, his sister in 1828 and two brothers in 1830 and 1832. According to the memoirs of the last surviving sibling, Daniel Ransom, the father agreed to an “intervention” to halt the process.

    Poor Frederick (although long dead but first to have contracted the disease) was exhumed from his grave; his heart was removed from the body and subsequently burned in the local blacksmith shop with numerous eyewitnesses present. This ritual was thought to end Fredrick’s preying upon family members and allow the young man’s soul to finally rest in peace.

    Daniel Ransom would survive and live into his 80s, so the procedure was considered a success.

    Right here in Connecticut, a family by the name of Ray in nearby Jewett City reportedly suffered in much the same manner. A father and two sons were stricken and died, and when the remaining son began to show similar symptoms, the bodies of his two brothers were dug up and burned to prevent further deaths. The account of the incident was recorded in the Norwich Weekly Courier in 1854.

    When the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island, experienced consumptive deaths in the family in the early 1890s, they looked to the family graveyard for the culprit. Young Mercy Brown was dug up, her heart removed and burnt on a nearby rock. In like manner, Nancy Young’s corpse was exhumed in Foster, Rhode Island, in 1827 and a similar procedure was performed.

    Folklorist, Michael E. Bell has written an engaging book on this subject, “Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England Vampires,” which includes almost two dozen such instances. Many places in New England were identified, including another one in Connecticut.

    This case was truly remarkable as it was the only one where physical evidence of the folklore belief in vampirism could be observed.

    Three boys in Griswold had been sliding down the slopes of a gravel pit which had been undergoing excavation in 1990 when they discovered two human skulls. Local police were called, but the skulls and other remains were too old to be part of a modern crime scene. The state archaeologist at the time, Nicholas Bellantoni, was summoned.

    Six more individuals were soon uncovered as their bodies had also begun to erode from the bank of what was discovered to be a small, unmarked cemetery made increasingly unstable due to ongoing construction. Landowners were hopeful that the bodies could be removed and reburied elsewhere.

    Some 27 whole and partial skeletons were eventually uncovered and, according to author Michael Bell who was also on site… “They were placed in acid-free tissue and bubble wrap to be transported to the archaeological laboratory at the University of Connecticut for storage awaiting their reinternment.”

    Dr. Bell also noted that one skeleton had been separated from the others as Bellantoni had labeled it “weird” and had sent it off to the Museum of Health and Science for examination. It was the best preserved of all the skeletons despite the odd arrangement of the bones…the skull and thighbones were placed in a “skull and crossbones” pattern on top of the ribs and vertebrae, which had also been rearranged.

    Lesions on the rib cage revealed the tell-tale signs of tuberculosis. “JB55” was inscribed on what remained of the wooden coffin lid, printed in brass tacks. According to Dr. Michael Bell, the following possible scenario was surmised by investigators.

    “An adult male, JB, (55 years old) died of pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar infection interpreted as consumption by his family. Several years after the burial, one or more of the family members contracted the disease, including his 45-year-old wife (IB) and his 13-year-old son or daughter (NB). As a last resort - to spare the lives of the remaining family and stop consumption from spreading into the community, JB’s body was exhumed so that his heart could be burned.

    “When the body was unearthed, however, JB was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition. Perhaps his ribs and vertebrae were in disarray as a result of the desperate search for the remains of his heart. Finding no heart, JB’s skull and thighbones were then arranged in a skull and crossbones pattern.” (That was thought to keep the vampire from rising to continue to prey upon the living.)

    “The family needed to stop the dying when nothing else would work,” Dr. Bellantoni offered. “They did this all out of fear and love.”

    Was there any way to determine the identity of this supposed Griswold vampire? Outside of the fact that he was 55 years old, had the initials JB, was about six feet tall and somebody had revisited and desecrated his corpse, little was known.

    Pieces of skeletal remains were sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for DNA testing. Something called ‘haploid markers” revealed his race to be Caucasian and “short tandem repeats” were used to connect the corpse’s DNA to people living today. That information was then entered into a genealogy database and the profile drew a match to two people with the last name “Barber.”

    Because the coffin had screws and copper dowel hinges that were made in the early to mid-1800s, the next step was to look at yet another database, this one containing Connecticut cemetery information and newspaper death notices for that time period. Sure enough, a farmer by the name of John Barber was found to have lived in the area and more than likely had been buried at that unmarked grave site.

    Adding even more evidence was the death notice of his 12-year-old son, Nathan Barber (NB13), who died in 1826. Nothing was revealed about IB45 who was thought to be the mother in the family.

    So much learned. So much still to learn. But when one looks back at stories like these from the not-so-distant past, it’s hard to say the human race has not made progress.

    Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.

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