Nov 04, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

An American 'Vampire’s' DNA Used for Facial Reconstruction – Is the Rest of Him Next?

For forensic scientists, DNA samples are the key to solving crimes by positively identifying the murderer. For genetic scientists, DNA samples are the key to cloning and de-extincting extinct creatures. Now, a team of forensic scientists have combined those two quests and used DNA extracted from a man alleged to be a 19th century New England vampire and reconstructed his face. Is the rest of this “vampire’s” body next? Will this bring back his entire family … which was one of the most famous vampire families in America history?

"When bones become old, they break down and fragment over time. Also, when remains have been sitting in the environment for hundreds of years, the DNA from the environment from things like bacteria and fungi also end up in the sample. We wanted to show that we could still extract DNA from difficult historical samples."

Does “difficult historical samples” include vampires? Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at Parabon NanoLabs and the technical lead for the organization’s Snapshot Advanced DNA Analysis division, explained to Live Science how the forensic scientists at her company extract DNA from very old skeletal remains. In this case, the bones were from a man was buried in a family graveyard in Griswold, Connecticut, dating back to the 1700s and early 1800s. The graveyard was discovered in 1990 by children playing near a gravel mine in Jewett City, Connecticut. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Connecticut state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni was brought in to examine the 29 graves – he determined this was an unmarked colonial-era farm cemetery. Most of the dead were children and all were buried in simple coffins in the typical manner with arms by their sides or crossed over their chests. Except one.

“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.”

A Jolly Roger flag showing the way the bones and skull were found

At that point, locals knew what they were dealing with … a vampire who was possibly related to the Jewett City vampires. The who?

Local historians tell the stories of the Ray family of Jewett City. In 1845, 24-year-old son Lemuel Ray died from a mysterious disease. Around 1849, his father Henry B. Ray died from the same mysterious ailment, followed by his other sons Elisha and Henry. As the family graveyard filled, the Rays began to fear their dead relatives were rising from their graves to infect the rest – a practice they attributed to vampires. The website Damned CT says local news accounts tell of family members digging up decomposing bodies and burning them. Modern medicine tells us that the Rays died of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known then – a misunderstood (at the time) disease like the plague that was attributed to vampires. In the case of the Rays, the mysterious disease ended when the last of the family died.

Or did it?

The one odd burial in the graveyard found in 1990 was determined to have been dug up about five years after he died and reburied with his head and cut off and placed on his chest along with leg bones laid in the shape of a cross – a formation similar to the skull-and-crossbones on a pirate flag. However, this was not graveyard of the Ray family. Bellantoni determined that it belonged to the Walton family which lived near the Rays. It turns out the families may have been close – so close that some of the remains in the Walton graveyard were identified as Rays, not Waltons. After all were divided between the families, one was left – the suspected vampire. He was designated as "JB-55" — his age when he died and his initials, which were spelled out on his coffin in embedded brass tacks.

“JB-55” remained his name until 2019 when advances in DNA science allowed forensic researchers to extract DNA from these “difficult historical samples" At a presentation at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, Jennifer Higginbotham, a DNA researcher with the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, revealed they had obtained enough Y-chromosomal DNA to do a profile. Using online genealogy data, they predicted that his surname was Barber. More genealogy research uncovered records for Nathan Barber, a 12-year-old boy who lived in the Griswold area and had a father named John. Drop the mic – the ‘vampire’ was named John Barber.

While they were analyzing the DNA, the researchers also determined that John Barber suffered from a poorly healed broken collarbone and an arthritic knee, but what killed him was … you guessed it … tuberculosis so severe that it left lesions on his ribs. His condition is what must have convinced relatives and friends that John Barber was a vampire – a symptom of tuberculosis is coughing up blood -- although it took them five years to dig up his remains and deal with it. The forensic researchers located two relatives of John barer in the graveyard -- a 45- to 55-year-old female and a 13- to 14-year-old teen – but neither they nor anyone else buried their showed signs of tuberculosis.

The only thing we don't know is what John Barber looked like.

It is now 2022 and we know the identity of the ‘vampire’ John Barber. Advances in DNA analysis and skull formation have given scientists the ability to recreate the face of long-dead persons. So that is what the researchers at Parabon NanoLabs did. Using 3D facial reconstruction software, Live Science reports that a forensic artist determined that John Barber likely had fair skin, brown or hazel eyes, brown or black hair and some freckles. (A photo of John Barber can be seen here.) That doesn’t sound like a typical vampire description – Ellen Greytak admits that the decomposed remains gave less than 10 percent of what they normally require for genome sequencing, and DNA from one of Barber’s relatives in the graveyard yielded even less, although it was enough to determine that they were third-degree relatives, or first cousins.

If you are still worried that John Barber was a real vampire from the Jewett City Vampires, there is not enough DNA for the researchers to clone him – as unethical and creepy as that sounds. The story does have a lesson for today that science eventually kills most folklore if given enough time. It also restored the good name of John Barber.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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