For nearly three decades, researchers including archaeologists, historians and DNA experts have been investigating the identity of a Connecticut vampire.
And now they have new information, a name: John Barber.
Barber’s newly-discovered identity helps answer lingering questions about the mysterious case of a man who died of tuberculosis in the early 1800s and was uncovered more than a century-and-a-half later as a mutilated corpse.
History suggests Barber’s family or neighbors suspected he had become a vampire in death. Their efforts to kill John Barber, the vampire, set in motion a mystery that would span generations.
Nick Bellantoni, emeritus Connecticut state archaeologist and anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut, told USA TODAY that he has been on this case since the “vampire” was found in 1990.
“Some kids were playing at a gravel bank in Griswold, Connecticut,” said Bellantoni. “During one of their slides down, two skulls dislodged and rolled down the hill with the boys.”
When one of the boys brought a skull to his mother, she called the police.
That call began an investigation into a colonial-era cemetery that seemed to be the final resting place for generations of two families over the years, according to Bellantoni.
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But there was something different in one of the coffins.
A skeleton was decapitated. His bones were rearranged into a skull and crossbones, Jolly Roger style.
The mutilation likely happened four or five years after the man — known as JB55 for the initials and age found on his coffin — had died, Bellantoni said.
At the time of Barber’s death in the early 1800s, people believed that the dead would rise up and infect family members. He died from tuberculosis, or consumption, according to the lesions on his ribs, Bellantoni said.
“Vampirism was a way to explain the unexplainable in an age before modern medicine existed,” Charla Marshall, lead scientist on the DNA exploration, told USA TODAY in an email. “The vampire scare was real in New England in the 1800s.”
In a moment of fear during the “Great New England Vampire Panic,” families were digging up their deceased relatives to ensure they couldn’t spread diseases, according to the Smithsonian.
Tuberculosis was one of those illnesses.
Tuberculosis victims could remain asymptomatic for years and fall ill much later, strengthening the theory that a dead relative could have come back to infect others posthumously.
Vampires were thought to have a pale complexion and protruding teeth, according to folklore.
Akin to that imagery, the sickness gave its victims a very haggard look. With bulging eyes and sunken cheeks, victims became very pale and coughed up blood. Their gum lines would recede, too.
The practice of digging up bodies wasn’t uncommon across New England, and in other regions such as Europe throughout the world.
Sometimes, it was a family-only event, voted on by town leaders or it was a public affair. In places such as Vermont, it could even be festive, according to Smithsonian.
When JB55 was discovered, information about the corpse was scarce.
Bellantoni said they looked at historical records to learn more. His research team was able to find out a bit about the Waltons, the family that lived in that area before JB55 and his relatives. But information about the B family themselves was lacking.
Decades after he was discovered, scientists at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware were able to use JB55’s DNA to find a name.
Their findings were debuted at a presentation at National Museum of Health and Medicine on July 23. They have submitted a paper on their work to the peer-reviewed journal, Genes.
Marshall said they used a forensic test to look at a DNA profile of the Y chromosome.
Family surnames, like the Y chromosome, are passed down from father to son. So matching Y chromosomes can be used to predict a surname, Marshall said.
When they searched a public database, they found two individuals with the last name “Barber” who were exact matches to JB55’s profile.
Once they had a last name, they used public records from the state to search for J Barber in Griswold.
“We came up a newspaper item from 1826 describing the death of Nathan Barber, son of John Barber,” she said.
Nathan Barber, NB, was also buried in the cemetery.
It wasn’t a too big a task to find Barber’s name, Marshall said. The team treated it as a side project, chipping away when they had time. They started searching in 2018.
They don’t know who the descendants of John Barber are. But, Marshall said, they hope that his relatives will come forward after their full report is published.
“It’s been 30 years almost, so it’s nice to get some closure,” said Bellantoni. “On the other hand, vampires never die so I suspect I’ll be telling this story forever.”
Follow Morgan Hines on Twitter: @MorganEmHines.
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