Locals in Griswold, Connecticut, believed a man buried there in the late 18th century was a vampire because of the placement of his femur bones. But there wasn’t much else known about him. His DNA profile reveals what he may have looked like after more than 200 years.
The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), a division of the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Examiner System based in Delaware, worked with the forensic scientists from Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based DNA technology company. The team concluded that the deceased male (known as JB55) was about 55 years old at the time of death and died due to tuberculosis.
According to a statement, a forensic artist assessed that JB55 most likely had fair skin, brown or hazel eyes, brown or black hair, and some freckles using 3D facial reconstruction software.
Researchers speculate that the body may have been disinterred and reburied at some time, a technique frequently connected to the idea that someone was a vampire, based on the placement of the legs and skull in the grave. According to the statement, historically, some people believed that persons who passed away from tuberculosis were vampires.
“The remains found with the femur bones removed and crossed over the chest,” Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at Parabon NanoLabs and technical lead for the company’s Snapshot Advanced DNA Analysis department, told Live Science. “This way, they wouldn’t be able to walk around and attack the living.”
Forensic investigators first took DNA samples from the man’s skeletal remains to conduct the analyses. Working with bones that were more than 200 years old, nevertheless, proved difficult.
“The technology doesn’t work well with bones, especially if those bones are historical,” Greytak explained. “When bones become old, they break down and fragment over time. The remains sitting in the environment for hundreds of years have the DNA from the environment like bacteria and fungi that also end up in the sample. We wanted to show that we could still extract DNA from difficult historical samples.”
Traditional genome sequencing aims to sequence each component of the human genome 30 times, a process known as “30X coverage.” In the case of JB55’s deteriorated remains, the sequencing generated just about 2.5X coverage.
To supplement this, researchers collected DNA from a buried deceased believed to be related to JB55. These samples provided significantly less coverage: about 0.68X.
“We did determine that they were third-degree relatives or first cousins,” Greytak added.
Archaeologists discovered the alleged vampire’s remains in 1990. In 2019, forensic experts retrieved his DNA and processed it through an online genealogical database, revealing that JB55 was a poor farmer called John Barber. The nickname JB55 was from the inscription spelled out in brass tacks on his grave, which indicated his initials and age of death.
Researchers will present their discoveries, including facial reconstruction, at the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) conference in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.