Children playing near a hillside gravel mine found the first graves. One ran home to tell his mother, who was skeptical at first - until the boy produced a skull. Because this was Griswold, Connecticut, in 1990, police initially thought the burials might be the work of a local serial killer named Michael Ross, and they taped off the area as a crime scene. But the brown, decaying bones turned out to be more than a century old. The Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, soon determined that the hillside contained a colonial-era farm cemetery. New England is full of such unmarked family plots, and the 29 burials were typical of the 1700s and early 1800s: The dead, many of them children, were laid to rest in thrifty Yankee style, in simple wood coffins, without jewelry or even much clothing, their arms resting by their sides or crossed over their chests.
Except, that is, for Burial Number 4.
© Klaus Leidorf (left) and Landon Nordeman
At the gravesite of Mercy Lena Brown, right, sightseers leave offerings such as plastic vampire teeth and jewelry.
Bellantoni was interested in the grave even before the excavation began. It was one of only two stone crypts in the cemetery, and it was partially visible from the mine face.
Scraping away soil with flat-edged shovels, and then brushes and bamboo picks, the archaeologist and his team worked through several feet of earth before reaching the top of the crypt. When Bellantoni lifted the first of the large, flat rocks that formed the roof, he uncovered the remains of a red-painted coffin and a pair of skeletal feet. They lay, he remembers, "in perfect anatomical position." But when he raised the next stone, Bellantoni saw that the rest of the individual "had been completely...rearranged." The skeleton had been beheaded; skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. "It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I'd never seen anything like it," Bellantoni recalls.
Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.
The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not "J.B.," as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.
Finally, one colleague asked: "Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?"
In 1854, in neighboring Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. A few newspaper accounts of these events survived. Had the Griswold grave been desecrated for the same reason?
In the course of his far-flung research, Bellantoni placed a serendipitous phone call to Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist, who had devoted much of the previous decade to studying New England vampire exhumations. The Griswold case occurred at roughly the same time as the other incidents Bell had investigated. And the setting was right: Griswold was rural, agrarian and bordering southern Rhode Island, where multiple exhumations had occurred. Many of the other "vampires," like J.B., had been disinterred, grotesquely tampered with and reburied.
In light of the tales Bell told of violated corpses, even the posthumous rib fractures began to make sense. J.B.'s accusers had likely rummaged around in his chest cavity, hoping to remove, and perhaps to burn, his heart.
Headquartered in a charming old schoolhouse, the Middletown Historical Society typically promotes such fortifying topics as Rhode Island gristmill restoration and Stone Wall Appreciation Day. Two nights before Halloween, though, the atmosphere is full of dry ice vapors and high silliness. Fake cobwebs cover the exhibits, warty gourds crowd the shelves and a skeleton with keen red eyes cackles in the corner. "We'll turn him off when you start talking," the society's president assures Michael Bell, who is readying his slide show.
Bell smiles. Although he lectures across the country and has taught at colleges, including Brown University, he is used to people having fun with his scholarship. "Vampires have gone from a source of fear to a source of entertainment," he says, a bit rueful. "Maybe I shouldn't trivialize entertainment, but to me it's not anywhere as interesting as what really happened." Bell's daughter, 37-year-old Gillian, a member of the audience that night, has made futile attempts to tempt her father with the Twilight
series, but "there's Buffy
, and then there's what my dad does," she says. "I try to get him interested in the pop culture stuff, but he wants to keep his mind pure." Indeed, Bell seems only mildly aware that the vampire - appearing everywhere from True Blood
to The Vampire Diaries
- has once again sunk its fangs into the cultural jugular. As far as he's concerned, the undead are always with us.
Bell wears his hair in a sleek silver bob and has a strong Roman nose, but his extremely lean physique is evidence of a long-distance running habit, not some otherworldly hunger. He favors black sweaters and leather jackets, an ensemble he can easily accentuate with dark sunglasses to fit in with the goth crowd, if research requires it. A consulting folklorist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission for most of his career, Bell has been investigating local vampires for 30 years now - long enough to watch lettering on fragile slate gravestones fade before his eyes and prosperous subdivisions arise beside once-lonely graveyards.
He has documented about 80 exhumations, reaching as far back as the late 1700s and as far west as Minnesota. But most are concentrated in backwoods New England, in the 1800s - startlingly later than the obvious local analogue, the Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts of the 1690s.
Hundreds more cases await discovery, he believes. "You read an article that describes an exhumation, and they'll describe a similar thing that happened at a nearby town," says Bell, whose book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires
, is seen as the last word on the subject, though he has lately found so many new cases that there's a second book on the way. "The ones that get recorded, and I actually find them, are just the tip of the iceberg."
Almost two decades after J.B.'s grave was discovered, it remains the only intact archaeological clue to the fear that swept the region. Most of the graves are lost to time (and even in the cases where they aren't, unnecessary exhumations are frowned on by the locals). Bell mostly hunts for handwritten records in town hall basements, consults tombstones and old cemetery maps, traces obscure genealogies and interviews descendants. "As a folklorist, I'm interested in recurring patterns in communication and ritual, as well as the stories that accompany these rituals," he says. "I'm interested in how this stuff is learned and carried on and how its meaning changes from group to group, and over time." In part because the events were relatively recent, evidence of historic vampires isn't as scarce as one might imagine. Incredulous city newspaper reporters dished about the "Horrible Superstition" on front pages. A traveling minister describes an exhumation in his daily log on September 3, 1810. (The "mouldy Specticle," he writes, was a "Solemn Site.") Even Henry David Thoreau mentions an exhumation in his journal on September 29, 1859.
Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. Indeed, the medical museum's tests ultimately revealed that J.B. had suffered from tuberculosis, or a lung disease very like it. Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and - even though they often received the standard medical diagnosis - the survivors blamed early victims as "vampires," responsible for preying upon family members who subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the vampire's predations.
The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person's heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)
Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith's forge: "Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton," an early town history says. "It was the month of February and good sleighing."
Bell attributes the openness of the Vermont exhumations to colonial settlement patterns. Rhode Island has about 260 cemeteries per 100 square miles, versus Vermont's mere 20 per 100 square miles. Rhode Island's cemeteries were small and scattered among private farms, whereas Vermont's tended to be much larger, often located in the center of town. In Vermont, it was much harder to keep a vampire hunt hush-hush.
As satisfying as such mini-theories are, Bell is consumed by larger questions. He wants to understand who the vampires and their accusers were, in death and life. During his Middletown lecture, he displays a picture of a man with salt-and-pepper sideburns and weary eyes: an artist's reconstruction of J.B.'s face, based on his skull. "I start with the assumption that people of past generations were just as intelligent as we are," Bell says. "I look for the logic: Why would they do this? Once you label something 'just a superstition' you lock off all inquiry into something that could have been reasonable. Reasonable is not always rational." He wrote his doctoral dissertation on African-American voodoo practitioners in the South who cast love spells and curses; it's hard to imagine a population more different from the flinty, consumptive New Englanders he studies now, but Bell sees strong parallels in how they tried to manipulate the supernatural. "People find themselves in dire situations, where there's no recourse through regular channels," he explains. "The folk system offers an alternative, a choice." Sometimes, superstitions represent the only hope, he says.
The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses and their children. "Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative," Bell says.
The tale he always returns to is in many ways the quintessential American vampire story, one of the last cases in New England and the first he investigated as a new PhD coming to Rhode Island in 1981 to direct a folklife survey of Washington County funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. History knows the 19-year-old, late-19th-century vampire as Mercy Brown. Her family, though, called her Lena.