JB-55 of Connecticut is one of (if not the) best-studied “vampires” in the US. His body was found in an abandoned cemetery in Griswold, New London County, in 1990, arranged in the shape of a skull and crossbones – a sign that his contemporaries believed he belonged to the living dead. But until now, his identity has remained elusive.
On July 23, researchers presented the results of a DNA analysis identifying the man formerly known as JB-55 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Maryland. This report is the culmination of a thirty-year project starting in 1990 only possible because of the leaps and bounds made in DNA profiling over recent years.
Researchers involved in the project were able to identify the man’s last name (Barber) via a combination of Y-chromosomal DNA profiling and surname prediction based on online genealogy data. With some further digging, they discovered records for a Nathan Barber, a 12-year-old boy who lived in the Griswold area – who just so happened to have a dad named John.
This matched the “JB” initials tacked to the coffin. They had found their man.
What else do we know about John Barber? We know he was 55 when we died and we can guess that he was a hard-working farmer. Archaeologists point to a broken collar bone that never healed fully and an arthritic knee that may have given him a limp.
The positioning of the bones strongly suggests that contemporaries feared he was a vampire and had rearranged the skull and thigh bones into a Jolly Roger style over his chest to prevent it from returning to hurt the living. In reality, he had probably fallen victim to tuberculosis (TB), as evidenced by the lesions on his ribs.
TB was epidemic in 19th-century New England, a situation made worse by close living quarters that provided ripe conditions for such a highly contagious disease. Unfortunately, people were not yet well-acquainted with germ theory and instead attributed the spread of disease to malicious supernatural forces.
According to New England folklore, the recently deceased could come back as vampires to drain their relatives of blood and make them sick. This belief was probably encouraged by the symptoms of TB that can render its victims vampire-like – think: pale skin, gaunt cheeks, weight loss, and receding gums that made the teeth longer (like fangs). Violent coughing can also cause blood to seep from the sufferer’s mouth.
If a person was suspected of being a vampire, their corpse would be unearthed and inspected for “signs of life”. The signs they looked for – bloating, long nails, fluids around the mouth, etcetera – were often normal parts of the decomposition process. Of course, Barber’s contemporaries did not know this.
The preferred method of vampire disposal in 19th-century New England involved burning the heart. But from the layout of Barber’s body, the researchers suspect there was no heart to burn. Instead, his relatives destroyed his power by re-organizing his bones to resemble a skull and crossbones. Other methods throughout history include placing stones in people’s mouths to stop them rising from the dead, and ritually stabbing them after they’ve died to make sure they’re locked in the afterlife.
You can listen to the full presentation here.
[H/T: The Washington Post]
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