Panicked New Englanders, desperate to end attacks from beyond the grave, once unearthed corpses and performed vampire-killing rituals in a war against the undead. It's a century-old tale of Halloween horror, now confirmed by scientists.
Dr. Paul Sledzik of the National Museum of Health and Medicine said Friday that bodies from 18th- and 19th-century graves in several locations in New England show evidence that they had been disinterred within a few months or years of death and then mutilated or disrupted in some way.Journalists' accounts published as recently 1893, he said, support the belief that this ghoulish tampering with corpses was prompted by the idea of "killing" the undead to stop them from sucking the life force from the living.
Sledzik participated in analyzing corpses from a cemetery near Griswold, Conn., and found one that clearly bore the sign of vampire killing.
The corpse, found in a coffin bearing the initials "JB," was found in the Walton family cemetery of Griswold, a burial place that had been accidentally violated by a construction project.
Sledzik said when he examined JB, it was clear the remains had been disturbed sometime after the body had turned to a skeleton.
The long bones of the upper leg had been placed on the chest as an `X' and the skull had been removed and placed on the leg bones.
The effect was to form a skull and cross-bones.
In the laboratory, Sledzik determined that the bones bore lesions from tuberculosis. JB also had a hunched and crooked shoulder, from an improperly healed collar-bone break, a crippled leg and probably what was an open and festering wound on his foot. The man also had missing front teeth.
"In life, JB could have been a frightening figure," said Sledzik. Memory of this scary appearance could have prompted some to dig him up and to make sure he was dead by removing the skull.
Sledzik said his research shows such beliefs were common in New England as late 1892, particular among families that were riddled with tuberculosis, a disease then called "consumption."
"Published vampire accounts places the folklore within the same time frame and location as JB," said Sledzik. He said other researchers have also reported finding bodies from the era that were mutilated.
"When someone died of consumption, it was believed they could come back from the dead and drain the life of their living relative," said Sledzik. "In order to stop this, family members would go into the grave and somehow attempt to kill the person again."