The likely identity of a man once suspected of being a vampire in rural Connecticut in the 1800s has been unearthed. The breakthrough came from a combination of DNA testing at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s DNA laboratory in Dover, Delaware, and good old-fashioned historical research.
It’s the latest chapter in a macabre mystery that has stretched on for nearly three decades, and represents what is believed to be the only scientific study in the U.S. of the remains of a supposed “vampire.” The modern portion of the saga began in 1990 when a group of Griswold kids playing in a gravel quarry stumbled upon a human skull. At first the area was cordoned off as a crime scene, but it was quickly determined that the skull was from an unmarked graveyard used in the 1700s and 1800s. Nick Bellantoni, then Connecticut’s state archaeologist, began supervising the excavation of the site. He came across one grave from the early 1800s that was unlike anything he’s seen before or since. Inside a wooden coffin marked “JB55,” for the initials and age of the person interred there, were the remains of a man whose head and limbs had been rearranged post-death atop his ribs in a skull-and-crossbones style.
After consulting with folklorist and New England vampire expert Michael E. Bell, Bellantoni learned that vampire exhumations occurred throughout New England, including in Griswold shortly after JB’s death. They generally occurred after someone died of tuberculosis (then known as consumption) and their relatives became sick with the same disease. In hopes of protecting the living from the suspected “vampire,” family members would exhume the dead and burn essential organs, or if that wasn’t possible, rearrange the skeleton, sometimes decapitating the head.
Examination of JB’s remains indicated it was likely he suffered from tuberculosis, and Bellantoni concluded that the strange arrangement of JB’s bones was due to a vampire exhumation. But he still did not know who JB was.
“We could never find any real good records. No death records, no land deed records,” Bellantoni tells me recently. It took cutting-edge, DNA-matching techniques to reveal what the records no longer contained.
Charla Marshall, a forensic scientist with SNA International in Alexandria, Virginia, who worked on the project, says they extracted DNA from JB’s remains and created what’s called a Y-STR profile from the Y (male) chromosome. “Since the Y-chromosome is inherited paternally just as a surname is inherited from father to son, Y-STR profiles can be used to predict a surname,” she says. They ran the profile against FamilyTreeDNA, a database for those who have done DNA testing and shared the results online. “We found two individuals with nearly matching Y-STR profiles, both having the surname Barber,” says Marshall, adding that there wasn’t enough information to find living descendants.
Searching through an index of Connecticut burial sites and death notices compiled in the 1930s, a researcher named Katie Gagnon, of Plainville, found a death notice in the area for a Nathan Barber in 1826. Nathan was only 12 when he died, but his death notice led researchers to his father, John Barber — “JB.” On top of that, in the same burial site as JB, there was a child buried with “NB13” on his coffin. “NB” likely stands for Nathan Barber, and the age of death was just a year off.
Bellantoni says the one-year discrepancy may have been an error by the craftsperson who carved the initials and ages. He adds that the combination of these two deaths, along with the DNA, is “pretty powerful in terms of our reckoning of who they are. The big thing now is that after almost 30 years of searching, we finally have a name for the suspected vampire and that is John Barber.”
Bellantoni, Marshall and Gagnon, along with others, recently published a paper describing this process. However, the mystery hasn’t been entirely solved. Very little other than his name and likely cause of death is known about John Barber or his relatives. Gagnon is still sifting through old records in an effort to learn more. Those involved with the research are hopeful that future DNA testing will conclusively confirm JB had tuberculosis, and lead to descendants.
In the meantime, Bellantoni stresses that when JB’s relatives or friends exhumed his body they did so “out of love and fear,” not any ghoulish inclinations. Keeping human dignity similarly in mind, he’d like this tale to end with JB being placed back in the earth for the third and final time. “The rest of the family has been reburied and we hope that with this closure that we can have him reburied,” Bellantoni says.