scorecardMystery surrounds 19th century 'vampire' found buried in New England with his thigh bones crossed over his chest
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Mystery surrounds 19th century 'vampire' found buried in New England with his thigh bones crossed over his chest

Marianne Guenot   

Mystery surrounds 19th century 'vampire' found buried in New England with his thigh bones crossed over his chest
LifeScience4 min read
  • A 19th century skeleton buried in an unusual position was uncovered in Connecticut in 1990.
  • The skeleton's skull and limbs were arranged on top of its ribs in a skull-and-crossbones motif.

The story behind a 19th century "vampire" who was found buried in rural Connecticut in 1990 has baffled scientists for decades.

John Barber was about 55 when he was first buried in Griswold, Connecticut in the 1800s. But when his remains were uncovered — more than 150 years later — he had been decapitated, and his skull and thigh bones had been placed across his ribcage.

"It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I'd never seen anything like it," Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, told the Smithsonian magazine in 2012.

The remains have intrigued researchers ever since. But in recent years, DNA analysis has helped scientists uncover the tale behind the "vampire's" remains.

Scientists, however, still can't agree on why he was placed in such an unusual position.

A skull-and-crossbones motif

When a child first ran home saying he'd seen a skull in a hillside gravel mine in the 1990s, police cordoned off the site.

The area had never been known to be a cemetery, and local law enforcement believed the remains could belong to the victim of local serial killer Michael Ross, the Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2012.

But scientists quickly identified the bones were more than a hundred years old. The site contained 29 burials that were typical of the 1700 and 1800s.

One set of remains, however, stood out. The body's feet, ribcage, and spine were in the right position, but the skull and thigh bones had been removed.

Because of its unusual position, archaeologists believe the body was thought to have belonged to a vampire.

The position of the skeleton meant "they wouldn't be able to walk around and attack the living," Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at the Parabon NanoLabs that analyzed the remains' DNA, told Live Science in 2022.

The "Connecticut vampire" likely died of tuberculosis

For decades, the "Connecticut vampire" was known only as "JB55," after the initial "JB" that had been carved into the brass tacks used to close the coffin.

But DNA analysis coupled with genealogy research restored the man's name in 2019: John Baker, a 55-year-old man who died in the area in 1826.

Further analysis found Baker died of tuberculosis, then a poorly understood disease known as consumption that ravaged the area.

Baker was likely a fairly modest farmer in life. It's likely that it was only in his death that he would have gained this status as a potential "vampire."

Tuberculosis is accompanied by dramatic weight loss, graying of the skin, and blood being coughed up, which may have frightened those close to him.

DNA analysis, AI, and 3D scanning revealed his face

To put a face to the name, Virginia-based forensic DNA firm Parabon NanoLabs and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory teamed up to analyze DNA extracted from Barber's remains — or what was left of it.

Ancient DNA can be very difficult to read, and Barber's was no exception.

So scientists ran an AI model to predict Barber's most likely traits based on what they could read from his DNA and thousands of other similar genomes on record, a technique that has been used for law enforcement casework.

They predicted he would have very fair to fair skin, brown or hazel eyes, brown or black hair, and some freckles.

These characteristics were placed onto a 3D scan of Barber's skull to draw his portrait. The results were presented at a conference in 2022.

New England was swept by a "vampire panic"

When archaeologists talk about "vampires" they don't mean the blood-sucking immortal beings seen in movies and shows like Twilight or True Blood, who roam around in full flesh looking for their next victims.

Findings do suggest, however, that many cultures have shared a belief that the dead could come back to haunt the living.

Remains throughout human history have been buried with stones in their mouths, sickles across their throats, or nailed to the ground.

Archaeologists often assign these unusual burial practices to some sort of "revenant" or "vampire" local lore.

That is probably what happened in New England around the early 1800s when a "vampire panic" seems to have swept the area, 200 years after the Witch Panic, the Smithsonian magazine reported in 2012.

Baker's skeleton isn't the only "vampire" remains found in the area. Archaeologists point to the "Jewett City vampires," a family that had died from tuberculosis that local news outlets at the time reported were exhumed and burned.

This isn't as crazy as it sounds: when diseases or crop failures caused widespread deaths, humans didn't have the scientific knowledge to fully understand what was happening.

Grave diggers burying the dead in busy plots would uncover bodies that they mistakenly thought had signs of life, like movement from bloating, fingernails that appear to have grown, or liquids spewing out of the mouth, Insider previously reported.

So it would not have been a huge cognitive leap to think, wrongly, that the dead were rising from the grave.

Not everybody agrees, however, that this burial site qualifies as a bona fide "vampire" burial site.

Matteo Borrini, a forensic anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, told Insider in an email vampire beliefs tend to have peaked between the 14th and 18th centuries, so this would be a very late record of these beliefs.

Moreover, people who fear vampires, he said, would usually only rearrange a body if it were still decomposing. But in this case, the body was likely already skeletonized.

"So it could not be considered a traditional vampire," he said. "I would classify this as a deviant burial driven by superstition and lack of understanding of pathological conditions, rather than belief of vampires."