Project Vampire: In death, we have a name

You might find this hard to believe, but science is on my side: Vampires are real*. And not only are they real, but we can name them. Well, two of them, at least. They lived in America. New England, to be precise: one in Connecticut and one in Rhode Island.

The identity of the Rhode Island vampire had long been established. She was the subject of newspaper articles when her body was dug up and desecrated in 1892. That story reached the English shore, where elements of the tale were woven into that consummate vampire tale, “Dracula.”

The identity of the other was a mystery until very recently. But modern technology and good old fashioned sleuthing have managed to place a name with the remains of a vampire whose body was dug up from its coffin and destroyed around 1826.

Keeping it in the family

So, I feel I have to clarify something here. When I say vampires are real, they certainly are. Or rather, they were — to the people who were so frightened of them that they dug up graves just to desecrate the remains inside on the suspicion that the bodies were reanimated corpses.

Researchers display the remains of John Barber’s body.

As I described in an earlier post, vampires have a long history that stretches back long before the book “Dracula” was published in 1897. For the bulk of that history, vampires were thought to be revenant creatures that came back from the dead chiefly to disturb their own family members. Evidence of this malfeasance usually took the form of some disease that plagued one family after another, picking them off one by one.

So it was in New England in the 1800s. There, the disease was tuberculosis, a lung disease that often felled several people in a household. The disease had been around for thousands of years, but in the 1800s, as cities became more crowded with throngs of poor families, it flourished like never before. What’s more, the disease left the skin of it’s (white) victims pale, while leaving their lips vivid and often tinged with the blood that they coughed up.

How very vampiric. What else was one to think in an age before anyone knew that the disease was caused by a bacteria, spread by coughing and had found a fertile breeding ground in the crowded and unsanitary conditions of rapidly growing cities?

Plan of attack

When several members of a family died of tuberculosis, it became apparent that one of those deceased must be a vampire, and something had to be done.

There was a protocol. The body of the suspected vampire was to be dug up and dissected. The presence of blood in the corpse’s heart (what were the chances?) was confirmation that they were dealing with a bonafide vampire. If that was the case, the both the heart and liver were to be burnt to ashes, and the body re-interred. This was supposed to be enough to halt the vampiric assault on the family.

Sometimes, things went further.

Mercy Brown’s tombstone in Rhode Island.

In the case of Mercy Brown, the Rhode Island vampire, those ashes were then mixed with water and given to her surviving family members to drink. Because, yum, cannibalism. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and her little brother, Edwin, died anyway.

When reporters heard about what happened to the body of Mercy Brown, they wrote about it and sent it out over the wires. It was placed in the London papers, where Bram Stoker read it and is said to have based the character of Lucy Westrena on her.

John Barber’s body lies mouldering in the grave (?)

What happened to the Connecticut vampire is a little different. His remains were dug up for a second time in 1990 when they were discovered in a gravel quarry in Griswold, Conn. But archaeologists soon realized that his body had been previously been dug up once before.

Unlike most corpses, this body was not found in a state of repose. Instead, its thigh bones had been displaced and moved under its head to form a skull-and-crossbones formation. And about that — his head wasn’t where it should be, either. The skull, the thigh bones, all of that was sitting on top of his ribs. Someone had decapitated the guy. As anyone knows, it’s basically what you do to a vampire.

Then something curious happened. Science went to work on these remains. They reviewed his bones to learn what they could about this man. One thing was obvious off the bat: he’d make a poor vampire. He lacked front teeth. He wouldn’t be able to chase down his prey very easily, either, seeing’s how he had a nasty case of arthritis in one knee. At some point, he broke his collarbone and it had never healed properly. And as expected, he had died of tuberculosis, as case so bad it left damage to his rib bones.

But who was he? No one really knew. His coffin had been inscribed with “JB 55,” his initials and his age. Beyond that, it was anyone’s guess.

Until now.

Using DNA testing and genealogy matching, researchers were able to predict a last name to match a sample taken from one of the thigh bones: Barber. Genealogists then searched to see if there were any people with the last name Barber living in the area at the time.

And, in fact, there was. A newspaper obituary told of a 12-year-old Nathan Barber whose father was John Barber. And archaeologists did find a coffin marked “NB 13” close to where they found the vampire grave. Piecing the evidence together, the researchers felt comfortable making the declaration that the vampire in question was, in fact, John Barber, who had likely died five or six years before his body was exhumed, beheaded and reburied.

No word, though, on whether he has been reburied again. May he rest in peace.

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