This is Part 1 of a 3 part series, Smells Like Terror, about spooky science.
In the early 1990’s archaeologists unearthed a vampire’s grave in Connecticut. True story. The grave was found during an excavation of a small family burial ground in Griswold, Connecticut that was threatened by an expanding sand and gravel business. It contained the skeletal remains of a man who had died in the mid-1800′s. Initials on the coffin identified the man as JB. His leg bones and skull had been rearranged to form a skull and crossbones while the other bones were in dissarray. It was the first physical evidence archaeologists have found of a historical belief in vampires in southern New England.
The vampires that terrified people in rural 19th century New England weren’t the same as the Dracula-type vampires that fascinate people today. They certainly didn’t resemble the sparkly vampires from Twilight. New England vampires were usually victims of consumption, now known as tuberculosis, a disease that causes otherwise healthy adults to waste away. Following a family member’s death from consumption, other family members often began to exhibit symptoms of the disease. Keep in mind that people at the time didn’t have a firm understanding of how contagious diseases spread. So they attributed these new symptoms to the vampirism of their recently deceased relative. They thought that their dead family member had come back to life and was feeding on them, slowly draining their life away. In those days the most common way to kill a suspected vampire was to dig up the vampire’s body and burn it’s heart. Or burn the entire body. An 1854 newspaper article from a nearby town describes a vampire panic that resulted in the burning of two exhumed corpses.
But what about JB? Based on lesions or marks on JB’s ribs archaeologists determined that he had suffered and probably died from tuberculosis, which would qualify him as a potential vampire. But he wasn’t burned, he was just rearranged into a skull and crossbones. Archaeologists think that some of JB’s family members may have begun to show signs of tuberculosis several months or even years after his death. His family naturally assumed JB had turned into a vampire and dug him up to burn his heart. But when they opened the coffin all that remained of JB was his skeleton. In a desperate attempt to prevent him from escaping from the grave and feeding on the living they rearranged the bones before reburying him.
While all of this may seem ridiculous to us today, at the time people didn’t understand how disease spread, and they were terrified during disease epidemics. Vampirism, while seemingly outlandish, was a way for people to turn an epidemic into something understandable – something that they could potentially control.
Sledzik, P., & Bellantoni, N. (1994). Bioarcheological and biocultural evidence for the New England vampire folk belief American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 94 (2), 269-274 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330940210