Myth and science blend together to explain the mysterious Connecticut vampire

Society has always had a penchant for monster stories. People watch films, read books and tell tales of the local ghosts that haunt their homes. Public interest in creatures that go bump in the night has shifted with the times; the wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula have all had their day in the storytelling sun. However, vampire folklore has always captivated the public mind, taking different shapes and forms over the centuries. Whether they have sparkled in “Twilight” or feared the sunlight in “Dracula,” one element that has persisted throughout the years is that vampires subsist on the blood of another. Speaking of local lore, Connecticut has its very own spooky claim to fame with the exhumation and study of JB 55, or more commonly known as the “Connecticut vampire.”

According to Connecticut’s former state archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, the very real “Connecticut vampire” was discovered in Griswold in 1990 when a sand and gravel company inadvertently encountered an old graveyard. Bellantoni said the graveyard didn’t have any gravestones and that the remains were discovered after two 10-year-old boys were sliding down the gravel and two skulls slid down with them.

While removing the remains of 29 individuals from the gravel site for reburial, Bellantoni encountered the puzzling condition of the “Connecticut vampire’s” corpse.

“The remains were in a nice anatomical position, all the bones were connected laying on their back in an extended position — classic Chrisitan burial practice except for one individual,” he said.

The coffin, with brass tacks hammered into the top, marked JB 55, contained remains that were laid in a less traditional manner. “The skeleton had been rearranged,” he said. “The skull had been decapitated and rotated to face the west, the femurs had been uprooted from their anatomical position and crossed over the chest and the chest bones had been broken into.”

While examining JB 55’s remains, Bellantoni said the fractures in the bones indicated that the corpse had been rearranged after the initial burial.

“So this guy, JB, dies at 55 years of age, is given a good Christian burial and four to five years later somebody comes to his grave and rearranges him and closes him back up and was not discovered until we did our work in 1990,” he said. “So that got us on the trail of who JB might be.”

“It was befuddling, I had never run across anything like that before. There was no eeriness or anything about it. From a scientific approach, it was ‘why did this happen?’”

When Bellantoni first saw the bones, he said he originally thought that the remains had been a victim of vandalism. It wasn’t until a colleague put him in touch with Rhode Island’s state folklorist, Michael Bell, that he considered that JB 55 was connected to New England’s vampire folklore. “We came up with a hypothesis that maybe this JB fellow was considered a vampire, they put him back in his grave to put him to rest,” Bellantoni said.

Bell, who specializes in vampire folklore was quick to explain that Bellantoni wasn’t dealing with anything like Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula.

“A vampire is basically a corpse that leaves the grave at night and sucks the blood of the living until they die,” Bell said. This particular vampire didn’t have an aversion to garlic or mirrors.

When asked if he believed in vampires, Bell said he does, but not in the bat flapping manner, people might expect.

“The vampires we’re talking about are really germs with fangs,” Bell said.

When Bell met with Bellantoni, he explained that the Northeastern part of the country, particularly Connecticut and Rhode Island, experienced a “vampire scare” during the 18th and 19th centuries due to the spread of tuberculosis, which was known then as consumption. Tuberculosis was characterized by a persistent cough and fever. He said that late stage tuberculosis victims often appeared emaciated and were coughing up blood and outwardly resembled “walking corpses.”

“The diagnosis of consumption was basically a death sentence,” Bell said. “To watch members of your family die one at a time can make you feel helpless, so they turned to folk ritual — which some of the outsiders called vampirism.”

Bellantoni found lesions on JB 55’s ribs which suggested he had suffered a form of pulmonary distress and given that tuberculosis is a bacterial infection in the lungs, it supported the vampire hypothesis.

In an effort to prevent the vampire from claiming any additional victims, Bell said people would exhume the corpse to test the body for vampirism as part of a folk medical practice. They would check to see if the corpse’s organs contained “liquid” or noncoagulating blood, if it did they would perform a ritual to eliminate the threat posed by the vampire.

“Usually, that entailed burning the vital organs ... and that might be followed by a healing action that would restore those in the family who were dying,” he said. This healing ritual included having those infected with tuberculosis eating the ashes of the burned organs, or the ashes of the corpse if the whole body was burned. He also said some of the methods were simply flipping the corpse face down and reburying it.

In the case of JB 55, Bell said when the rearranged corpse was discovered, the archeologists also found bricks had been placed on top of the coffin, as “they really didn’t want this guy getting out of the grave.”

“When they exhumed JB, they discovered that he really didn’t have enough organs left to burn so they went to plan B and rearranged his head and leg bones so he couldn’t leave the grave,” he said. Bell noted that rearranging corpses believed to be vampires was more commonly practiced in Germany and Eastern Europe than it was in the U.S.

Bell also noted that while the folklore contemporarily referred to vampire, it wasn’t a term those who practiced the rituals used. “These folk vampires in New England weren’t the corpses themselves but an evil spirit that inhabited this person’s corpse,” Bell clarified.

Bellantoni cautioned against judging the previous generations who believed in vampire folklore. “What this was, was about a public health issue. Tuberculosis was epidemic. This was before the concept of germ theory so people didn’t understand the transmission of diseases,” he said. “When the doctors couldn’t help and the churches couldn’t help them and nobody understood the transmission of diseases, people were frightened, their families were dying and when nothing else would help, then maybe this was an answer.”

Recently, with the advancement in DNA technology, scientists discovered the remains of “the Connecticut vampire,” or JB 55, belonged to John Barber. Bellantoni said at the time they couldn’t locate the particular B family that JB 55 belonged to when going through the death records because “at that time period there were a lot of B families -- Bishops and Bennetts, Bissells and Browns, Burtons and Barbers — we had a lot of candidates but we had no real specific information tying it to the property and the cemetery.”

He noted that there was a DNA test done on the remains 15 years ago, but there wasn’t anybody to compare the remains to, but when scientists reanalyzed it over the summer, they were able to connect the remains to a Barber family in New England. With that new information, they were able to examine the historical records and found a John Barber who died at age 56 in the 1850s.

“We’re still trying to find historical data to test that but it’s exciting because for the first time we may have a better understanding of the family that was using the cemetery and the vampire folk activity,” Bellantoni said.

When asked what it has been like to have discovered the “Connecticut vampire,” Bellantoni said: “The whole thing has been fascinating, like vampires, the story never dies, here we are more than 30 years later; we’re still talking about it.”