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Fact Check – 18th Century Connecticut Man Was No ‘Vampire’ but a Victim of TB

Researchers presented facial reconstruction of the body, at the International Symposium on Human Identification

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UNITED STATES: A man was buried in a strange manner that led people to believe that he was a vampire. Now a research adds that he was not a vampire but a victim of Tuberculosis (TB).

In the late 18th century, a man was buried in Griswold, Connecticut, in a strange manner which suggested the superstitions behind deaths similar to his- femur bones arranged in a criss-cross manner, suggesting that locals believed he was a bloodthirsty ‘vampire’. Little was known about him or his medical or physiological reasons for his anatomy or death in those days.

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More than 200 years later, modern technology has widened the scope for medical breakthroughs, and scientists have collected DNA evidence from the unearthed skeleton to curate a facial structure, confirming that he was nothing close to a vampire.

Forensic scientists from a Virginia-based DNA technology company called Parabon NanoLabs were joined by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), a special branch of the US Armed Forces Medical Examiner System in Delaware, to perform the DNA analyses. 

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The experimental research concluded that the inhuman individual was about 55 years old at the time of his death, therefore known as JB55, and was a victim of a ghastly lung disease, which is called Tuberculosis or TB in modern medicine.

The analysis also applied state-of-the-art 3D technology to create a clear facial reconstruction, revealing that JB55 likely had a fair complexion with freckles, brown or hazel eyes, and brown or black locks of hair, according to a statement.

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According to researchers, the placement of the victim’s bones in the grave suggests that at some point, the body was dug up and reburied, a practice which was commonplace in the 18th century and associated with the social stigma and fear that someone was a vampire.

The historical trajectory of tuberculosis indicates that many in the late 18th century possessed superstitions regarding the unknown disease and believed that those who were consumed by TB were indeed the ‘living dead’.

According to Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at Parabon NanoLabs and technical head for the company’s Snapshot Advanced DNA Analysis branch, “the remains were found with the femur bones removed and crossed across the chest. This would prevent them from moving around and attacking the living.”

DNA evidence was extracted from the skeletal remains of JB55, but it proved to be a challenging task as the bones are heavily decomposed and ancient, nearly two centuries old.

“In particular, if the bones are old, the technology doesn’t work well with them,” Greytak said. “As bones age, they deteriorate and fragment over time. Additionally, when remains have been exposed to the environment for hundreds of years, the DNA of nearby fungi and bacteria ends up in the sample. We wanted to demonstrate that it was still possible to recover DNA from challenging old samples,” he continued.

Archaeologists originally unearthed JB55’s remains in 1990 and retrieved a DNA sample in 2019, eventually passing it through an online genealogical database. It revealed that JB55 was actually a poor farmer by the name of John Barber, who suffered a grisly death at the hands of a lung disease, likely to be tuberculosis. The nickname JB55 emerged out of an epitaph engraving, denoting his initials and age at death.

Much like the infamous witch trials in Europe in the late 15th century, which witnessed countless women being burnt at stake over supposed fears of black magic and witchcraft, tuberculosis was a disease believed to consume the victim from within. 

The New England vampire scare, which gripped 19th century Rhode Island, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and other New England states, bears testimony to the widespread superstition that people dying of TB were vampires. 

Bodies were exhumed, and internal organs were burned during a ritual to stop the vampire from attacking the living, with their skeletal remains arranged in a criss-cross manner, much like JB55’s, to prevent the spread of the disease. Tuberculosis was actually called ‘consumption’.

Tuberculosis is a fatal lung disease with symptoms of chronic cough, fever, night sweats and weight loss. The illness is transmitted by air through the spread of bodily fluids via sneezing or coughing. Once one member of the family was infected, it was only a matter of time before the disease spread throughout the household.

Researchers will present their new discoveries at the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISH) conference, which will be held in Washington, D.C., from October 31 to November 3.

Also Read: Fact Check – Rishi Sunak’s ISKCON Temple Visit Is Not a Recent Image


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