The Real Hackstory of the New England Vampires

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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If you’ve read my article on Norse burials, you’ll know that I sure do get a kick out of mysterious, f**ked up burials. I’m also fascinated by New England folklore. That movie, The VVitch, is one of the main reasons I want an evil goat.

Why New England folklore? Because without the lore, historical New England was mostly just butter churning and sin-dodging. The horror stories serve as the antidote to every boring field trip I had to take to a heritage house once owned by a minister who made his own flavorless bread. Also, I’m from there.

Fortunately, New England is gloomy enough eight months out of the year to drive its earlier, more superstitious inhabitants mad with irrational fear. In the late 17th century, a bunch of Puritans engaged in mass hysteria with the infamous Salem witch trials, ultimately executing 20 people.

By 1854, the witch craze was long gone. Culture had progressed to the point where, witches? C’mon. That’s kids’ sh*t from the 1600s. From the late 1700s, through to the late 1800s, New Englanders had real problems: vampires.

What the Hell are You Talking About, Man?

OK, take it easy and I’ll explain.

In 1990, some kid in Griswold, Connecticut, was mucking around in a gravel mine with his buds—back in the ‘90s, it was safer for kids to play in mines and we all did it—when he found some bones. More specifically, he found a human head bone (skull, if you prefer) and showed it to his mom.

“All right, boys. Time to draw straws on who gets to shoot the corpse with his gun this time.”

It was perhaps the most interesting thing to have ever happened in Connecticut at that time, so police took notice. Were these remnants of the dark travails of local serial killer Michael Ross? The find was treated as a crime scene.

Further corpse-bothering revealed that the remains were more than a hundred years old, and were in good company—the remains of another 28 people were discovered in the same area. Michael Ross was a murderous predator of a bastard, but he wasn’t capable of defying space-time.

These were, instead, simple, unmarked family plots left over from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Nothing to see here, just 29 dusty skeletons, many of them children. Historically, life expectancy averages often skewed low because a lot of people died before reaching adulthood, so that’s not too surprising.

Here there had been a colonial farm, where dead Yankees (as in humans from New England, rather than baseball players from New York) were buried in traditional New Englander fashion: without spending a lot of money. Why build a mausoleum when a wood box will do?

But one of these dead bodies was more fascinating: instead of the usual Yankee grave, this one was entombed in a stone crypt. Buried beneath the crypt’s stone-slab roof, archaeologist Nick Bellantoni discovered what was left of a painted, red coffin, and a pair of skeletal feet.

The feet were all good—one next to the other, just as you’d suspect. But the rest of the body was still hidden under more stone. Bellantoni removed the stones until the rest of the skeleton was revealed, and found that some creative liberties had been taken with the remains.1

J.B.

Let’s get down to brass tacks—specifically, the brass tacks pressed into the coffin lid of the rearranged dead man. The tacks spelled out a pair of initials, “J.B.”, so that’s what we’ll call him.

J.B. was around 50 years old when he died during the 1830s. At some point after that, it looks like he was killed again: he was beheaded, his skull and femurs placed on top of his ribs and spine, oriented like a Jolly Roger. The ribs were fractured, and testing showed that it had all been done posthumously, about five years after death, which was fortunate for J.B.

This is the kind of sh*t I’m talking about.

But why? It was pretty mysterious, but some similarities with nearby cases gave researchers a lead: the Jewett City vampires.2

Vampire Burials

Jewett City was the next town over from Griswold, had a history of 19th-century corpse exhumation, and didn’t make any bones (heh) about why: the folks in Jewett had exhumed corpses, in 1854, because the corpses were suspected vampires. We know this because of surviving newspaper accounts of the exhumations.

Both Jewett City and Griswold, Connecticut, sit near the border to Rhode Island, where other exhumations have been discovered. These bodies had been treated a lot like J.B.: dug up, rearranged, and reinterred.

It wasn’t just Connecticut and Rhode Island, either. Exhumations have been discovered across all of New England, though methodology for killing or disabling the vampires varied across the region and among communities.

For example, if you lived in certain parts of Maine, or Plymouth, Massachusetts, stopping a vampire didn’t call for too much fuss: exhume the vamp, flip them over from supine to prone, then re-bury the body. Why? Let me answer your question with another question: have you ever seen a vampire sleep on its belly? They can’t do it. Doesn’t feel right. It’s like how I can’t sleep on my back.

Boston Daily Globe editorial cartoon riffing on their cousins in the hinterlands (1896).

Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont vampires were hardier, however. For those, repeat step number one (dig up body), but instead of flipping them over, uh, you gotta set their heart on fire. And maybe inhale the smoke for good measure.

As far as deciding to exhume a body, that varied across communities, too. A lot of the time, it went by birthday party rules: friends and family would kindly dig you up and burn your dead heart. Sometimes it was more official, involving town fathers, doctors, and priests, along with some voting. It was a simpler time, when the enemies were undead, but democracy was alive.

It appeared J.B.’s posthumous experience lined up nicely with other Connecticut vampire slayings: his ribs were probably fractured while either a family member, neighbor, doctor, or priest fumbled around his chest cavity, looking for his heart.

Further, there was loads of variation in terms of publicity. Sometimes an exhumation felt more like grave robbing—where rituals were conducted in the middle of the night, by lantern light. Now, I’m thinking you want to kill sleeping vampires during the day time, when they’re asleep, but what do I know?

Other times, these vampire executions were very public. Woodstock, Vermont, burned a vampire heart on the town green. In Manchester, Vermont, hundreds gathered to watch a vampire heart burned at a blacksmith’s forge.3

Reasonable vs. Rational

“That’s all well and good,” you might be saying, “but what about this: vampires aren’t real.”

Indeed, that’s correct—believing in vampires is irrational. Even the more urbane authors of newspaper articles at the time decried the “Horrible Superstition” of their more provincial subjects, so belief in vampires was a more rural phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean these northern hillbillies “killed” “vampires” for no reason. Throughout human history, people have engaged in some pretty weird, irrational behavior. Despite this, their reactions are sometimes reasonable, given their gaps in understanding.

Without the benefit of modern science, a lot of historical problems were effectively impossible to solve. But people still needed to do something, or at least feel like they were doing something constructive to remedy the situation. These vampire exhumations were the reaction to a real, tangible problem, most likely.

“Kehd! How ya doin’? Stayin’ outta trouble? ‘Atta boy. Hey, lemme drink some a your blood, dood. That sh*t’s wicked good.”
-New England vampire

We still don’t know exactly what led to this widespread fear of vampiric revenants exsanguinating townsfolk. But there are clues. Nearly without fail, every bit of recorded public vampire hysteria coincided with deadly tuberculosis outbreaks. Rural folks would often contract the disease, then pass it along to their family members. Doctors knew about tuberculosis and diagnosed it as such, but tuberculosis had no cure until the 1940s.

The sick and those at risk of infection, then, needed something to do that made them feel better. Short of discovering streptomycin, which would’ve actually cured the tuberculosis, they blamed the first people in the area known to have contracted the disease. Whoever brought the pestilence to their village must surely be a vampire. So they grabbed their shovels and dug for devils.

Remember J.B.? Museum tests have shown that J.B. suffered from T.B., or some similar lung disease. Among his fellow Griswold corpses, J.B. was the only mangled set of bones. Knowing what we know now, I don’t think J.B. was guilty of any vampirism. But I’ll bet he was tuberculosis patient zero in 1830s Griswold, Connecticut.4

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Tucker, Abigail. (2012, October). The Great New England Vampire Panic. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/
  2. Tucker, Abigail. (2012, October). The Great New England Vampire Panic. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/
  3. Tucker, Abigail. (2012, October). The Great New England Vampire Panic. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/
  4. Tucker, Abigail. (2012, October). The Great New England Vampire Panic. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Bills, Joe. (2018, March 22). New England’s Vampire History. Retrieved from https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/new-england-vampire-history/
  • New England Historical Society. (2017). Did Vampires Really Stalk New England Farm Families? Retrieved from http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/vampires-really-stalk-new-england-farm-families/
  • Tucker, Abigail. (2012, October). The Great New England Vampire Panic. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/

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