By Gregory B. Hladky
3:45 PM EST, November 6, 2012
By now, you've probably heard about the state's lame-ass new "Connecticut – Still Revolutionary" tourism slogan. Maybe what we need is to juice it up with something historically cool and spooky.
How about adding: "And still Land of the Undead!"
That's right, Connecticut's got vampires.
There is legitimate archaeological and documentary evidence of Connecticut folks who died, were buried, dug up by their neighbors and had their skeletons messed with (and maybe their hearts burned) to keep them from eating the flesh of the living.
"We're famous for our vampires here," laughs Mary Rose Deveau, municipal historian for the eastern Connecticut town of Griswold. "You're talking my favorite subject."
Griswold was the home of the "Jewett City Vampires" and an unmarked grave in a section of town called Hopeville, where state Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni in 1990 unearthed the coffin of a man who was almost certainly considered by some a vampire.
The only marking found at that crypt were the initials "JB" and the number 55, most likely indicating the age of the dead man. No one has yet been able to put a name to the skeleton buried in that grave. What is clear is that JB died of a wasting disease once called consumption (most probably tuberculosis), and that he was not allowed to rest in peace.
Bellantoni's best guess, based on the style of coffin hardware, is that JB died in the 1830s. At some point not many years after he was put in the ground, JB's grave was dug up, his red-painted coffin pried open, and some very strange things done to his remains.
While JB's feet and shin bones were laid out in proper anatomical fashion, the rest of his skeleton was very peculiarly disarranged. The thigh bones had been taken and placed in an X across the ribs. "The cranium was deliberately decapitated," Bellantoni recalls. The skull was turned face down and placed on top of the ribs, backbone and crossed femurs — what some described as a "skull and crossbones" motif similar to a pirate flag.
Never, in all the years Bellantoni had been excavating ancient grave sites, had he or anyone else on his team come across anything like that. But inquiries with other researchers, most notably folklorist Michael E. Bell, resulted in the conclusion that JB's remains had been tampered with because his neighbors and possibly his own family feared he was a vampire.
We're not talking Bela Lugosi's Dracula here, or the teen heartthrob vampires of Twilight or "True Blood." Connecticut's vampire history is bound up with a vicious, incurable disease.
Tuberculosis in New England during the 1700s and 1800s was a terrible scourge, particularly in poor, rural areas like Griswold and towns just across the border in Rhode Island. In those days, Deveau says, "Nothing could stop it, and it spread like wildfire."
The disease was often transmitted to other family members living in the same close quarters. It caused horrible suffering. No medical knowledge existed to cure it. Superstitious farm folk sometimes put the deaths down to vampires who rose from their graves to feed on the living tissue and blood of their kin and neighbors.
Anti-vampire measures called for the body to be dug up and the bones disarranged, often turning the skull or skeleton face down in the grave. Sometimes the heart was taken and burned; the smoke could be used as a cure, according to various accounts.
The Jewett City Vampires are buried in a cemetery in Jewett City, an ancient borough contained within the town of Griswold, only a few miles from where JB's skeleton was found in Hopeville.
In 1845, Lemuel Ray died of consumption. A few years later, Horace Ray died of a similar disease. Two more Rays were taken, the last believed to have died in 1852. And in 1854, when another family member fell ill, the people of Jewett City took action. According to a Norwich newspaper's account, the bodies of two of the Ray brothers were dug up and burned.
In one infamous Rhode Island case from the 1890s, the heart and liver of Mercy Lena Brown were removed from her grave, burned on a rock and the ashes fed to her brother. Edwin was ill with the same disease that had killed his sister. The cure failed: Edwin died just a few months later, according to contemporary news reports.
Bellantoni says that while scores of cases of New England vampire exhumations have been documented through contemporary news reports or other records, JB's case remains unique.
"As far as we know, this is the only archaeological evidence," he says. "The odds of ever finding even one [suspected vampire skeleton] were extremely remote."
JB's skeleton isn't in Connecticut any longer. It was sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., for forensic experts to study. Bellantoni says it's still there.
Nor can you visit JB's grave site.
He was originally buried in an unmarked farm cemetery that eventually became a sand-and-gravel pit.
His grave and 29 others in the same plot were discovered when some kids were sliding down the side of the pit and knocked loose a couple of skulls. The cops thought it was a crime scene, but forensic experts recognized the age of the bodies and called in Bellantoni and his archaeological team.
According to Bellantoni, all the skeletons found in that plot were eventually removed and reburied in a nearby Hopeville cemetery.
You could, of course, take a tour of the Jewett City cemetery.
Deveau says she has in the past given tours of the cemetery to show off the graves of the Ray family. "Every Halloween, we normally get two or three calls from students or people who are just curious about vampires," she says.
According to Deveau, local folks don't talk much about their town's vampire history. "It's old stuff to us," she explains, "we don't think anything about it."
For Deveau, who understands the connection between the desperation of poor farmers dealing with a terrible disease and their belief in the undead, the story of Griswold's sad vampires is different from the sagas of glamorous bloodsuckers of movies or TV.
"They were just real people," Deveau says. And she doesn't think Griswold or Connecticut should try to cash in by trying to promote vampire tourism. "I hope not — this is something that's just a curiosity," she insists.
"I never thought about that before," Bellantoni says of trying to use vampires to increase this state's tourism profile. "I may propose that," he adds with a laugh.
Bellantoni also chuckles at the persistent interest in the story of Connecticut's vampires, including a lengthy recent article in Smithsonian Magazine.
"I discovered JB back in 1990," Bellantoni says. "It's like a real vampire — it never dies; the story continues."
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