Thanks to the efforts of Parabon NanoLabs and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, we now know what the so-called “Connecticut vampire” probably looked like. Using DNA analysis and a 3D scan of the skull, the two labs collaborated to digitally reconstruct the face of the 19th-century man whose remains were discovered more than 30 years ago. The image was revealed earlier this month at the International Symposium on Human Identification conference in Washington, DC. The work also builds on earlier DNA analysis to strengthen the evidence that the man in question was a former resident named John Barber.
As we’ve reported previously, children playing near a gravel pit in Griswold, Connecticut, back in 1990 stumbled across a pair of skulls that had broken free of their graves in a 19th-century unmarked cemetery. Subsequent excavation revealed 27 graves—including that of a middle-age man identified only by the initials “JB55,” spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin. Unlike the other burials, his skull and femurs were neatly arranged in the shape of a skull and crossbones, leading archaeologists to conclude that the man had been a suspected “vampire” by his community.
Analysis of JB55’s bones in the 1990s indicated the man had been a middle-age laborer, around 55 when he died. The remains also showed signs of lesions on the ribs, so JB55 suffered from a chronic lung condition—most likely tuberculosis, known at the time as consumption. It was frequently lethal in the 1800s due to the lack of antibiotics, and symptoms included a bloody cough, jaundice (pale, yellowed skin), red and swollen eyes, and a general appearance of “wasting away.” And the sickness often spread to family members. That could be why local folklore suspected some victims of being vampires, rising from the grave to sicken the community they left behind.
During the so-called New England vampire panic in the 19th century, it was common for families to dig up the bodies of those who died from consumption to look for signs of vampirism, a practice known as “therapeutic exhumation.” If there was liquid blood in the organs (especially the heart), a bloated abdomen, or if the corpse seemed relatively fresh, this was viewed as evidence of vampirism. In such cases, the organs would be removed and burned, the head sometimes decapitated, and the body reburied. Given JB55’s lung condition and the fact that there were signs of decapitation, he was likely a suspected vampire.
Researchers at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) took a sample from one of JB55’s femurs in the early 1990s. The DNA was analyzed, but it wasn’t possible then to glean sufficient information to make any reliable identification. Scientists finally found a likely identification for JB55 in 2019, using Y-chromosomal DNA profiling and by cross-referencing the genetic markers with an online genealogy database.
The closest match had the last name of “Barber.” A newspaper notice from 1826 recorded the death of a 12-year-old boy named Nathan Barber, son of one John Barber of Griswold. It just so happens that a grave near that of JB55 bore the initials “NB13” on the coffin lid. That’s strong evidence that JB55 is probably John Barber, while NB13 was his son. But there was no other historical or genealogical information about either of them.
And now we have a reconstruction of what JB55 might have looked like when alive (or undead), as well as additional confirmation of his likely identity, based on a more targeted approach to genetic analysis. Achieving those goals required nearly 10 times as much data, according to the researchers, because DNA samples from old bones are typically highly degraded. Such samples may also contain a large proportion of non-human DNA from bacteria and other contaminants from the surrounding environment.
The two labs evaluated three different approaches: shotgun sequencing, targeting the whole human genome, and targeting around 850,000 custom SNPs. The latter two performed significantly better than shotgun sequencing, and both targeting methods performed about the same, but the whole human genome approach was more cost-effective. So that was the technique they used for this new analysis. Even so, they could not achieve the industry standard of sequencing each piece of the human genome 30 times (30x coverage). So the teams statistically inferred the most likely genotype at each SNP by gleaning information from thousands of sequenced genomes.
The resulting analysis predicted that JB55 was fair-skinned (92.2 percent confidence), had brown or hazel eyes (99.8 percent confidence), brown or black hair (97.7 percent confidence), and possibly had a few freckles (50 percent confidence). But DNA could only take them so far. To get a sense of JB55’s actual features, the team made a 3D scan of the skull and then asked Paragon forensic artist Thom Shaw to create a reconstruction based on that scan.
The teams also applied their DNA analysis approach to the remains of NB13. That sample was even more degraded (less than 1x coverage), but kinship analysis nonetheless showed that this person had a third-degree relationship to JB55, making them first cousins. Finally, the data files for both remains were uploaded to the GEDmatch database to investigate their genetic genealogy. The resulting family trees from the DNA matches enabled the researchers to identify ancestors with the surname Barber who lived in New England around the same time period. This makes it even more likely that JB55 is indeed John Barber.