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Posted By Michael Bell

After a couple of months, the production team had worked up an itinerary and scheduled locations. Over the course of three days in mid-May and a follow-up day in June, we were to shoot on location at Willington, Connecticut—in the town hall, library and old cemetery—and also in Rhode Island at the graves of Mercy Brown in Exeter and Simon Whipple Aldrich in North Smithfield. It felt great to be back on the vampire trail after a long break!

Our search in the old cemetery for unmarked graves that could be those of Isaac Johnson’s family, using electro-magnetic imaging, was less successful than our research at the town hall. Although I still haven’t located the graves of the Johnson family, I was able to document their actual existence. According to town records, Isaac Johnson married Elizabeth Beal on July 15, 1756. They had eight children, and two of them match the details provided in Moses Holmes’s letter: Amos died on July 15, 1782 (at the age of 21 years and nine months), one year and eleven months before the exhumations; Elizabeth died on May 18, 1783 (at the age of 18 years and eleven months), one year prior to being exhumed. According to the 1790 census, the Isaac Johnson household included two free white males aged sixteen and older, and seventeen “all other free persons.” Besides his immediate family, Isaac had seventeen other people in the household! No one else in the Willington census had even one! Who were all of these people and what were they doing?

On December 23, 1799, “In the raising of heavy timbers of the new church, Mr. Johnson was killed outright and blood was on the underpinning for a third of a century. Deacon Holt was broken down to the space of three inches in his middle, so he said, and never enjoyed good health again, though he lived to ‘a good old age.’” Isaac’s blood being visible for a generation incorporates the motif known to folklorists as “the ineradicable bloodstain after bloody tragedy” (motif E422.1.11.5.1., if you’re taking notes). One wonders if this “bloody tragedy” was seen as divine retribution for what some in the community might have viewed as Isaac’s a sacrilegious act fifteen years earlier.


 
Posted By Michael Bell

In 1784, Moses Holmes, the Town Clerk of Willington, Connecticut wrote a letter to a local newspaper complaining about a foreign “quack doctor” who was telling people in town that he could cure consumption. The procedures that he was advocating were “to have the bodies of such as had died to be dug up, and further . . . that out of the breast or vitals might be found a sprout or vine fresh and growing, which, together with the remains of the vitals, being consumed in the fire, would be an effectual cure to the same family.” The doctor apparently convinced a man named Isaac Johnson to exhume the bodies of two of his children—“one had been buried one year and eleven months, the other one year.” Holmes observed, “a third of the same family then sick.” Holmes, an eyewitness to the event, stated that two doctors—doctors Grant and West presumably were “legitimate” doctors—were on the scene to examine the bodies; upon doing so, “not the least discovery could be made.”  Holmes wrote that “under the coffin was sundry small sprouts about one inch in length, then fresh, but most likely was the produce of sorrel seeds which fell under the coffin when put in the earth.” In other words, he was discounting the possibility that anything weird was going on in the graves. Holmes closed his letter by urging that “the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an impostor.”

I first became aware of this incident in June of 2006 when a genealogist and local historian e-mailed me that he had read and enjoyed Food for the Dead. He wrote that he was a librarian at a university in Texas and that my book had prompted him to use his access to numerous databases of primary sources to look for other vampire incidents. He wrote, “I have done a bit of researching in those sources, and there appears to be material you had not seen when you wrote your book.” Over the next several days, he sent references to about a dozen new cases in addition of a couple of updates for old ones. I was absolutely astonished! And grateful, of course.

I set about researching the new cases. I hadn’t gotten too far with the Willington case, when, in March of 2008, the perfect opportunity for field investigation presented itself. A New York-based television producer contacted me about a History Channel show called MonsterQuest. “I’m looking for real-life cases/investigations (unsolved or otherwise) in which a crime aroused suspicions of vampire-involvement that was substantiated (to some degree) by actual physical evidence,” he wrote. “Historical or recent cases will work (domestic or abroad) as long as some physical evidence (even the tiniest bit) exists to back the claims made.” So it was that Connecticut State Archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni, and I were to be reunited in front of the cameras.


 
Posted By Michael Bell

The methods used to kill the vampire exemplify the variation that is found in all folk traditions. Various combinations of the following measures are found in America’s anti-vampire arsenal: removal and burning of vital organs (particularly the heart), ingesting the ashes (perhaps with other roots or herbs) or wearing them in a box around the neck; burning the entire corpse, sometimes inhaling the smoke; turning the corpse face down and reburying it; searching for and destroying (sometimes by burning), a vine found growing from the corpse or grave; removing the shroud from the mouth of the corpse; and, perhaps (as we shall consider in more detail later), driving a wooden stake through the heart or rearranging the bones of a corpse.

The measure of positioning the legs and head of a corpse into a “skull and crossbones” pattern—which I described in Food for the Dead—needs reexamination. In 1990, I received a phone call from Nick Bellantoni, Connecticut State Archaeologist, who was excavating an unmarked family cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut. Bellantoni said that he was aware of my research on the New England vampire tradition and thought that I might be able to shed some light on one of the burials, which he characterized as “weird.” The complete skeleton of a man, the best preserved of the cemetery, had been buried in a crypt with stone slabs lining the sides and top of the coffin. On the lid of the hexagonal, wooden coffin, an arrangement of brass tacks spelled out “JB-55,” presumably the initials and age at death of this individual. When the grave was opened, J.B.’s skull and thigh bones were found in a “skull and crossbones” pattern on top of his ribs and vertebrae, which were     also rearranged. An examination of J.B.’s skeletal remains by forensic anthropologist Paul Sledzik revealed lesions on J.B.’s ribs, probably the result of tuberculosis.

The best conclusion that Bellantoni, Sledzik, and I could reach was that J.B. had been exhumed to counteract the spread of tuberculosis. At the time, no other interpretation of his unusual postmortem treatment even approached the coherence of the following scenario: An adult male, J.B., died of pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar infection interpreted as consumption by his family. Several years after the burial, one or more of his family members contracted the disease. As a last resort—to spare the lives of the family and stop consumption from spreading into the community—J.B.’s body was exhumed so that his heart could be burned. When his body was unearthed, however, J.B. was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition. Perhaps his ribs and vertebrae were in disarray as a result of the desperate search for the remains of his heart. Finding no heart, J.B.’s skull and thigh bones were arranged in a “skull and crossbones” pattern, a practice that stretches back to ancient times throughout Europe as means to prevent the dead from returning. But after reading or hearing about my account of J.B., several Freemasons have asked if I considered the possibility that J.B. had been a Mason. My subsequent research into this question shows some intriguing similarities between J.B.’s postmortem treatment and certain burial customs of both the Masons and the Knights Templar.