WITH their teeth ripped out and stakes driven through their chests, these brutalised skeletons reveal the gruesome extent of the vampire hysteria that gripped communities as recently as the 1970s.
Remains exhumed from the northeastern United States and across Europe show how mass panic at the spread of disease could lead to the most blood-curdling acts of degradation against the dead.
But modern perceptions of vampires as handsome and brooding Twilight-like goths – or Dracula-style Aristocratic castle-dwelling loners – were not prevalent a few centuries ago.
Instead, during the days of pestilence and plague that predate modern medical knowledge, the vampire played a much different – but arguably more sinister – part in the fearful public consciousness across continental Europe and the US.
Because these vampires didn’t even need to get their hands on you to do their deadly bidding.
They were able to spread disease and suck the life from their communities from beyond the grave.
Like countless other rural spots in the early 1800s, that’s what terrified residents in the infection-ridden town of Griswold, Connecticut, believed.
Long before the discovery of germs and bacteria, outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis – historically known as consumption – were thought to spread through family bloodlines.
This was the tragically ignorant thinking in the case of John Barber – who died of the debilitating disease aged 55 in 1813.
As if his painful death wasn’t enough, the townspeople of Griswold believed he was responsible for others – including his own 13-year-old son Nathan – succumbing to the disease, which causes victims to waste away into pale vampire-like husks, coughing up blood.
John’s body was exhumed and unceremoniously beheaded, with the skull placed on his chest and two ribs crossed underneath in a skull-and-crossbones fashion.
If an exhumed corpse was found to appear fresh or vital, they were believed to be feeding on the living
Having been “killed” for a second time, the alleged vampire was reburied in a coffin with brass nails that spelled “JB55” – standing for John Barber, and his age at death.
His body was only rediscovered by archaeologists in 1990 – and in August this year, DNA research confirmed the “vampire’s” identity.
Kate Gagnon, who has been researching vampires in New England for more than a decade and worked on the report into the John Barber case, explained how panic would spread as a violent disease like consumption enveloped a population.
She told The Sun Online: “When one family member would die, other family members and townspeople would be in declining health and people believed this was due to the deceased draining the life force of the living.
“In an attempt to save family members and neighbours, the deceased would be exhumed and examined.
“This was before our better understanding of human decomposition, so if an exhumed corpse was found to appear fresh or vital, they were believed to be feeding on the living.”
‘FEASTING ON BLOOD’
Signs that would-be vampire hunters searched for would be blood in the corpse’s system – or bites and tears in their burial clothing.
Modern medicine gives simple explanations for these phenomena; decomposing organs would create a dark “purge fluid” that could leak from the nose and mouth.
Such a horrifying sight could give the impression that the corpse had been feeding on blood.
And rather than tearing through their shrouds in vampiric fury, rips in the burial clothing were also likely to have been caused by purge fluid causing them to sag and tear.
But spooked townsfolk – not knowing about the science of composition – would reach for the stake at any such sign of supernatural behaviour.
Mrs Gagnon said: “The exhumed were found in various stages of decomposition, and there were a number of ways of dealing with the remains to stop the attacks.”
One technique popular in Europe involved shoving bricks in corpses’ mouths to prevent alleged vampires from rising to feed on the living.
A skeleton exhibited in Poland in 2016 and dating back to 16th century Poland had a stake driven through it and a small rock in its mouth.
Jennifer Higginbotham, a DNA researcher, said: “This was their desperate attempt to keep the vampire from returning from the grave.”
And a 700-year-old skeleton was exhumed near a church in the Black Sea town of Sozopol, Bulgaria, in June 2012 that had been stabbed in the chest with an iron rod and had his teeth pulled out.
Even dead children were not exempt from the hysteria.
In 2018, the body of a 10-year-old child was unearthed in a 5th century cemetery in the Italian commune of Lugano in Teverina – with a huge stone slab shoved in its mouth.
Locals dubbed the corpse the Vampire of Lugano, with stunned archaeologist David Soren saying: “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird.”
Meanwhile, if the heart of a suspected vampire was found to still have blood in it, the heart would be removed and turned into a stomach-churning “potion”.
In the 1892 case of Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, the 19-year-old’s body was exhumed following her death from tuberculosis – which had already killed her mother and sister.
Her brother Edwin, also in the grips of the disease, had one last hope – to drink the supposed elixir made from his late sister’s burned heart.
He died months later.
The Mercy Brown and John Barber cases were among an estimated 60 vampiric rituals carried out across superstitious New England in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Historian Paul Barber wrote in the Journal of Folklore Research: “Far from being merely fanciful horror stories, the vampire stories prove to be an ingenious and elaborate folk-hypothesis that seeks to explain otherwise puzzling phenomena associated with death and decomposition.”
The fears behind the rituals predated by centuries back to medieval Europe – where vampire-mania had led the frustrated Pope Benedict XIV to declare in the mid-18th century that vampires were “fallacious fictions of human fantasy.”
Around the same time, the Hapsburg ruler Maria Theresa condemned vampire beliefs as “superstition and fraud.”
The Mercy Brown scare may have taken place more than a century later – and more than two centuries since the Salem witch trials – but it certainly wasn’t the last.
While vampires were beginning to be incorporated into popular culture and fictionalised by best-selling books like Dracula (published in 1897), our lingering fascination with their mythical powers continued.
It meant that in the late 1960s, an eager British public was still prepared to be transfixed by one of the last great vampire scares in modern history.
In 1968, a series of reported sightings of a strange, tall figure with burning eyes stalking the graves of London’s Highgate ceremony began appearing in newspapers.
The growing panic lead Seán Manchester, the president of the British Occult Society, to declare the spectre behind the signings was an Eastern European vampire.
It sparked a media frenzy and fevered speculation that the supernatural being was even a “king vampire” who had travelled to England from Romania’s Transylvania – home to Dracula – in a coffin to spread his black magic.
The panic reached fever pitch in 1970 when Manchester revealed that he planned to exercise the vampire from the cemetery on Friday the 13th.
Hundreds of young people turned up at Highgate Cemetery to see him carry out the sacred ritual – but Manchester never performed it, and soon after, the scare died down.
Unlike rural townsfolk of centuries ago, those who gathered at Highgate that night may not have believed in vampires.
But what their presence does show is the public’s enduring – and morbid – obsession with the occult.
And there is no more apt symbol of the supernatural than the bloodsucking, life-draining beast whose power is so strong, it can spread disease and death from beyond the grave.
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