Sunday, November 1, 2015

Connecticut Vampires

The Jewett City Cemetery, Halloween 2015. The grand old sugar maples in the background would have been spectacular a week ago. 
Every autumn, the Last Green Valley organization runs series of "Walktober" events in northeastern Connecticut and the adjacent Sturbridge, Mass. area. I've been on a number of hikes and local history walks during Walktober in past years, but I had never been able to get into the famous reservations-only Vampire Folk Belief tour before. This time, I managed to secure a couple of spots for this Halloween tradition.

The walk takes place in Jewett City, the site of two different 19th century vampirism occurrences. Retired state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni lead the tour, which was organized by the State Museum of Natural History and the Griswold Bicentennial Comittee. Bellantoni was personally involved in unearthing the evidence of the earlier event, which took place around the year 1800, and which apparently went unrecorded at the time and is known only from the archaeological record.

Connecticut State Archaeologist (retired) Nick Bellantoni leads the Vampire Folk Belief walk.
About 25 years ago, some children playing in an active gravel pit on the weekend after a rain discovered a pair of human skulls. The police called in the state archaeologist, and Bellantoni and his students uncovered 29 graves that had been part of a forgotten farm cemetery, which was indicated on the surface only with some fieldstones set upright but without any carvings.

One of the coffins, inside of a crude stone crypt, was marked "JB 55" with brass tacks, probably indicating the age of death and initials of the otherwise unidentifiable occupant. The skeleton inside was in a very strange state, with the skull removed and turned around to face the wrong way, the rib cage forced open and the thigh bones crossed over the chest. The ribs were scarred from tuberculosis. Evidence indicated that the body was rearranged several years after its initial burial. The oddities of this grave were best explained by early 19th century New England anti-vampire practices.

At the time of the vampire panics, the germ theory of disease hadn't been fully developed, let alone filtered down to the heart of Swamp Yankee country in the quiet corner of Connecticut, and effective antibiotic treatments were more than a century off. "Consumption" (tuberculosis) was a mysterious and terrifying affliction, and on isolated farms, desperate families trying to stop its spread latched on to the idea of victims becoming undead and returning to draw the life from their relatives. Otherwise inexplicable disruptions of graves seem to have been attempts to stop corpses who had become "vampires" from creating more victims.

Lemuel Ray's headstone.
 The second Jewett City vampire event occurred relatively late, in 1854, and unlike the gravel pit crypt case was documented by nineteenth century writings and clearly marked graves. The Ray family was plagued by tuberculosis, starting with the death of Lemuel Ray in 1845, with three more victims following over the next decade. The family eventually exhumed the bodies of Lemuel and his brother Elisha, set fires in the graves and burned the corpses, in hopes of stopping what they supposed to be the depredations of the undead. All in vain of course, and there was at least one more TB death among the Rays in 1854.

Elisha Ray's headstone.
 The Jewett City vampire walk is highly recommended, if you can get yourself on the guest list. Nick Bellantoni is a wonderfully informative and entertaining speaker, who draws on decades of stories investigating tombs and cleaning up after grave robbers, as well as the polished manner that comes from his long experience as an educator. He stressed that the Connecticut vampire hunts were really a misguided public health measure born of understandable ignorance and completely rational fear, and that the familiar romantic supernatural and macabre trappings of vampire legends only took hold later in the 1800s. Bellantoni concluded with a saying among archaeologists, along the lines of "Everything that people believe in is real, because beliefs determine human behavior and human behavior creates the archaeological record," relating a more recent story of a man who was frightened of vampires, and slept every night with cloves of garlic in his mouth. One night, the man inhaled a clove and choked to death. "They got him. In the end they got him."

1 comment:

Mike M said...

quite interesting.