It’s 19th-century New England, and the region is in the grip of a worrying epidemic that is consuming entire families. Naturally, then, communities are desperate to put a stop to the widespread affliction. But the sinister illness continues to gradually suck the life from the bodies of its victims, leaving them as hollow, hacking shells – or even, in some cases, dead.
And, tragically, in most cases, sufferers of this unpleasant affliction could only find respite in death, as there was simply nothing that doctors of the period could do to alleviate their anguish. Consequently, then, local communities inevitably took matters into their own hands. With medicine providing no solutions, they increasingly looked to the occult for the help that they so desperately sought.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, superstition eventually trumped rationality, and thus the New England vampire panic was born. With no scientific explanation behind the epidemic forthcoming, you see, it appeared to the people that something rather more sinister was at play. And according to folklore, the chief suspects accused of draining the life from the citizens’ loved ones were the undead.
But before we find out how this worrying belief affected New Englanders, we first need to fast-forward through the centuries to the town of Griswold in Connecticut. It was in 1990, you see, that some children were playing on a hillside by a gravel mine. And during the course of their adventure, the group stumbled upon some forgotten graves. When one young boy rushed home to inform his mom as to what they had unearthed, however, she refused to believe her child until he showed her a skull that they’d found.
Given the grisly nature of the children’s discovery, the police were then soon informed. And, initially, officers believed that the infamous murderer Michael Ross, who had been active in the area in the early 1980s, could have been responsible. As a result, they taped off the scene and began to investigate a suspected crime.
The police’s enquiries would come to nothing, though, as it soon became evident that the discolored bones were easily more than 100 years old. So, faced with this strange revelation, Nick Bellantoni, an archaeologist for the state of Connecticut, began to investigate the case. And in a bid to uncover the truth behind the children’s gruesome find, the expert stumbled across an extraordinary mystery.
Ultimately, Bellantoni would conclude that the 29 graves had once formed a colonial-era cemetery. Such burial plots were common throughout New England, in fact, and they typically belonged to families or farms. Moreover, the graves were often left unmarked – just as they had been in Griswold. And according to the archaeologist, the newly discovered burials seemingly adhered to customs dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Upon further investigation, it emerged that a fair number of the Griswold graves belonged to children. They had all been buried in the traditional Yankee style inside unadorned wooden coffins with little in the way of clothing or trinkets. And for the most part, the children’s arms lay by their sides or across their chests.
However, Bellantoni discovered that there was one exception to the otherwise orderly graves. This plot would become known as “Burial Number 4,” and it had piqued Bellantoni’s interest even before he began digging. The stone tomb was one of just two found in the cemetery, and part of it had already been exposed before exhumation began.
So, using a range of tools, Bellantoni and his team of archaeologists painstakingly shoveled, picked and brushed their way through a significant amount of earth to fully uncover the top of the tomb. And after these grueling steps were complete, Bellantoni then removed one of the large rocks that covered the crypt to reveal a rotting red coffin and two skeletal feet.
But although the scene may have been slightly unsettling to those unused to the sight of human remains, all was as it should have been at this point – at least as far as Bellantoni was concerned. When the archaeologist lifted the next stone, though, he was greeted by an unorthodox sight. Apparently, the rest of the bones “had been completely… rearranged,” as Bellantoni explained to Smithsonian magazine in 2012.
Explaining the unnerving remains in greater detail, Bellantoni revealed how the skull of the skeleton had been separated from the torso and – along with crossed thighbones – had been placed on top of the rib cage. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif – a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni admitted to Smithsonian magazine.
And in an even stranger turn of events, later examination determined that the skeleton had been decapitated around five years after death. The remains had sustained other injuries at the same time, too, including fractured ribs, while the coffin – which bore the initials “J.B.” – had also been broken.
Owing to the peculiar arrangement of the bones, then, J.B.’s remains were sent for further analysis to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. And in the meantime, Bellantoni began his own investigation of sorts, reaching out to historians and fellow archaeologists and inviting them to view J.B.’s grave.
It seems, in fact, that the archaeologist was hoping to gain as many expert opinions as he could on what had become of J.B.’s remains. And Bellantoni considered the specialists’ various ideas before ruling out the more improbable theories such as robbery and vandalism. But it was then that someone put forward an explanation that was truly stranger than fiction.
Yes, Smithsonian magazine reported how one of Bellantoni’s colleagues had asked him, “Ever heard of the Jewett City Vampires?” They were referring to a creepy phenomenon that had occurred in Jewett City, CT – a town less than five miles from Griswold – in 1854. In that year, you see, the townsfolk had exhumed a number of bodies to allay fears that vampires were massacring innocents from beyond the grave.
Vampirism proved a line of enquiry far too intriguing for Bellantoni not to pursue. And as part of the archaeologist’s research, he called up Rhode Island folklore expert Michael Bell. Thankfully, the historian was able to shed a little more light on the panic that had gripped New England over a century before.
Indeed, by the time that Bellantoni was introduced to Bell, the folklorist had spent ten years of his career researching the so-called New England vampire panic. And according to Bell, the Griswold grave was likely to have been exhumed in the midst of the hysteria. But such convenient timing wasn’t the only evidence to seemingly give credence to this bizarre explanation.
You see, it transpired that the Griswold cemetery shared other key features with a number of the other “vampire” exhumations that Bell had examined in the past. The burial site was rural, had been agricultural and, crucially, bordered Rhode Island – where many of the suspected vampires had been removed from their graves. And just as had been the case with J.B, the other individuals’ remains had all subsequently been returned to their respective resting places in grotesquely altered states.
Following an enlightening discussion with Bell and the stories of tampered-with corpses, Bellantoni’s thoughts then returned to J.B. If nothing else, the fractures to his ribs now seemingly made some sort of sense. Yes, in line with Bell’s research, it was possible that – if people had believed that J.B. was indeed a vampire – they may have delved inside his ribcage in a bid to destroy his heart.
Back in Washington, examinations at the National Museum of Health and Medicine uncovered one more crucial detail that provided yet more evidence that J.B. was a suspected vampire. It was determined, you see, that he had fallen victim to tuberculosis. At the very least, the New Englander had suffered from a lung disease much like it.
In the case of J.B., his affliction proved particularly important. After all, the New England vampire panic had taken place at a time when the region was being ravaged by a tuberculosis epidemic. And while we now know that bacteria causes the infectious disease, in 19th-century New England a popular superstition dictated that vampires were in fact responsible for spreading the illness.
At that time, tuberculosis was commonly known as consumption owing to its seeming ability to ravage the inflicted person’s body. And according to a widespread belief of the period, it was vampires who were responsible for the devastating effects that the condition had on its victims.
Tuberculosis very often spread through families like wildfire, too. Yes, when one person battled the disease, their relatives would typically fall sick as well, with their health gradually going into decline. And as a result, deceased family members who had succumbed to the affliction were occasionally labeled “vampires” – and held to be attacking the living from beyond the grave.
This superstition surrounding the spread of tuberculosis was prevalent throughout New England as well as across the Atlantic in Europe. And in a bid to stop the disease from tearing through entire families, relatives were known to order the bodies of their dead relatives to be dug up and examined.
Usually, a corpse was held to be vampiric if it was unexpectedly fresh when dug up. If liquid blood was present in its internal organs, this was also often held to be a clear sign of the occult at work. Once a “vampire” had been identified, then, there were a variety of methods believed to foil it. And these options ranged from the relatively benign to the downright disturbing.
At the less creepy end of the scale, it was thought that the occult forces could be warned off by simply turning over the remains of supposed vampires in their graves. In more extreme instances, though, families would apparently burn their dead relatives’ organs and then rebury the body. And it’s even been said that on some occasions the head would be removed from the cadaver – as had happened to J.B.
As an extra precautionary measure, families would sometimes inhale the smoke from their relatives’ burning body parts. And in some particularly strange cases, relatives would reportedly even eat the resulting ashes in the hope of curing themselves of their affliction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, there’s no evidence that such drastic measures ever worked.
Nevertheless, the superstition prevailed, and there are a number of documented victims of the New England vampire panic. In his book The Vampire of Manchester, Vermont, author Thomas D’Agostino notes that one of the earliest recorded exhumations occurred in 1793 – three years after the death of one Rachel Burton. Rachel’s widow, Isaac, dug up her body in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to save his second wife, Hulda, from meeting the same fate.
Another documented exhumation occurred some time around 1810 in New Ipswich, New Hampshire and was later discussed by Doctor John Clough in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Volume XXI of 1840. In this article, Clough wrote of the vampire superstition and how it had brought him to New Ipswich with the purpose of “disinterring a human body.”
Clough revealed that the family of the deceased person were “all strongly predisposed to consumption,” and as such they wanted their relative’s body exhumed “for the purpose of removing the heart.” The organ was subsequently burned, and the ashes were digested in a bid to, as Clough further wrote, “remedy those of the family who were still living and might be afflicted with the same disease.”
It seems that Clough was not convinced by the superstition, though. “This only illustrates the fact that those elements of character, which held such a magic sway over the minds of men in ancient times, have not ceased altogether to influence the community in our comparatively enlightened day,” he said in the journal.
Samuel Salladay, of Scioto County, Ohio, was also suspected of being a vampire and exhumed within two years of his death in 1815. Both Samuel and his father had died of tuberculosis, and the disease had continued to spread throughout their family following their passing. To try and halt the consumption in its tracks, then, the men’s relatives decided that one of them should be exhumed – and Samuel’s remains were subsequently dug up.
The process was subsequently documented in Henry Howe’s 1891 encyclopedia of the state, Historical Collections of Ohio. The reference book reports how Samuel’s entrails were burned on a fire in the presence of his relatives and an onlooking crowd. But despite this sacrifice, tuberculous continued to claim members of the Salladay family.
And while the vampire panic was more often than not confined to more rural communities with less educated populations, this wasn’t always the case. After Dartmouth College student Frederick Ransom, of South Woodstock, Vermont, died of consumption in 1817, for example, his affluent family exhumed his body and burned his heart. According to a 2012 article by Abigail Tucker in Smithsonian magazine, Frederick’s father had been worried that his late son would attack the family from beyond the grave.
Meanwhile, one of the most famous American vampire stories has its roots in Exeter, Rhode Island, and revolves around the family of Mercy Lena Brown. Mercy had died of consumption in 1892 aged just 19, with the disease having already claimed other members of her family – including her mother and sister.
And Smithsonian magazine reports how Mercy’s brother had also taken severely ill with consumption at the time of her death. So, given how the family had been so tormented by the disease, some neighbors convinced Mercy’s father, George, to exhume the bodies of his wife and two daughters and determine if any of them were vampires.
George reluctantly permitted the exhumations of his family members. And when Mercy’s body was uncovered two months after her death, it had undergone very little decomposition. There was “fresh” blood in her heart, too, and she had somehow turned in her grave to boot. The townsfolk were convinced, therefore, that Mercy had been responsible for her family’s illnesses.
To try and put an end to the Brown clan’s torment, Mercy’s heart was burned, with the ashes subsequently mixed with water and given to her ailing brother to drink. Yet while it was hoped that this would put a stop to the family’s curse, their efforts were in vain; Mercy’s brother ultimately died of consumption just a few weeks later.
Today, though, the nearest most of us get to vampires is through a book, film, or TV show, which is something that baffles folklorist Bell. “Vampires have gone from a source of fear to a source of entertainment,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “Maybe I shouldn’t trivialize entertainment, but to me it’s not anywhere as interesting as what really happened.”