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Folklore vampire possibly identified

Dr. Kristen E. Pearlstein, Collections Manager, National Museum of Health and Medicine displays remains of “JB-55” during a Science Café at the museum, Silver Spring, Maryland. “JB-55” remains were that of a suspected “vampire” in the mid-1800s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo) Dr. Kristen E. Pearlstein, Collections Manager, National Museum of Health and Medicine displays remains of “JB-55” during a Science Café at the museum, Silver Spring, Maryland. “JB-55” remains were that of a suspected “vampire” in the mid-1800s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo)

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DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — DNA scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System traveled to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland, recently, to announce the possible identity of a 19th-century vampire.

During a “Science Café” at the museum, AFMES DNA scientists discussed the historical archaeology case “JB-55” part of the famed New England Vampires of the mid-1800s.

“Our team did an extensive search using modern technologies and DNA testing to provide an ancestry estimation, provide a surname and create a potential DNA-assisted identification,” said Jennifer Higginbotham, Senior Research DNA analyst with AFMES. “Our research points to a male named John Barber.” 

The primary source of this research was the well-preserved DNA within the skeletal remains.

“A combination of environmental factors and the way the remains were buried, led to great DNA preservation,” said Dr. Charla Marshall, Chief of Emerging Technologies section at AFMES. “We were able to obtain a complete Y-chromosomal STR profile, which enabled us to predict a surname for JB-55.” 

John Barber or “JB-55” was discovered in the early 1990s when a few boys discovered skeletal remains at sand and gravel mine in Griswold Connecticut. A coffin was found during the subsequent excavation with the brass tacks on the lid spelling “JB-55.” When opened, the remains were found to be dismembered. The skull was pulled from the spine and placed in the chest cavity and the femurs were placed in an “X” below the skull. 

According to legend, residents of Jewett City, a borough of Griswold, Connecticut, were being terrorized by recently deceased vampires. These vampires would supposedly rise from the grave and drain the life of surviving relatives. 

“These deaths and illnesses were likely from disease epidemics,” said Higginbotham. “Commonly, these illnesses would be passed from one family member to another, slowly killing multiple members of the family over a period of several years.”

One such illness was tuberculosis (TB) which at the time was known as the “consumption.” Symptoms would consist of fever, bloody cough, sunken cheeks, bulging eyes, pale appearance, receding gum line and visible “wasting away” of the body. Higginbotham said that these symptoms likely fueled the vampire suspicion.

These suspected deceased vampires that were feeding on the living were exhumed and ritualistic practices were performed to quell the epidemic. “Major organs were removed and burned,” said Higginbotham. “Sometimes skeletal remains were placed in a skull-and-crossbones orientation.” 

Dr. Marshall said that this case provided a great learning experience for her team and an ability to showcase the many advancements in DNA technology. 

“It was a great opportunity to collaborate with other agencies and work on such a fascinating research project,” said Dr. Marshall. “It allowed us to explore new technologies that could be used to support the AFMES mission to identify missing service members.”

With the identity of “JB-55” possibly discovered, hopefully, this historic rural legend can be put to rest.

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