- Podcast Episode 9: Vampire of Griswold (Primary)
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- Type: Sound Created on: 2018 Creator: Neil Asher Silberman and Angela Labrador
- Coherit Associates Publication date: 2018
- Copyright - All Rights Reserved
- folk beliefs
Cross-References to Related Investigations
- Walton Family Cemetery (Site/Landscape, is referred to in / refers to)
Related Historical Events
The mystery began to unravel in 1990 with the antics of two boys playing in the Geer family’s sand and gravel pit. The Geers were an old Yankee family whose roots were buried deep in this part of the rocky eastern Connecticut countryside. Generation after generation of Geer ancestors had farmed the hard soil, felled its trees, and hauled its stones—to wrest a modest living from an otherwise harsh and unforgiving environment. By 1990, David Geer, the current patriarch of the family, carried on a traditional jack-of-all trades survival strategy, earning good seasonal money with his Christmas tree farm, selling decorative stone for suburbanites’ fireplaces and kitchen counters, and gnawing away at a sandy hillock with his heavy duty mechanical digger and backhoe.
The Geer sand and gravel business was a good one, as the steep, deep cut into the sandy hillside revealed. That sandy cliff also provided an irresistible playground for local boys who would leap off the edge and tumble down with laughs and screams to the bottom, shaking the sand out of their pants as they got up and scrambled back up to the top, to jump off again. That is, until the day when two human skulls rolled out of the sand and tumbled down to the bottom of the sandy cliffside with them.
That sight was a moment of horror. Human skulls. The remains of dead bodies. The boys ran off in fright and alerted their parents, who immediately called the resident state trooper—the only law enforcement officer in the small rural town. This was no laughing matter. A local man, known as the “Roadside Strangler” was sitting on Death Row for a string of serial killings he had committed in the vicinity. Just six years before he had murdered four teenage girls in this very village and the boys and their parents feared that they had discovered even more. The Geer sand and gravel pit was cordoned off with police tape and the mobile laboratory van of the State Medical Examiner arrived. But wait. These were not the remains of recent murders. The brittle, discolored skulls were from an old cemetery established centuries ago on the sandy hillside. The Connecticut State Archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, was called in to examine and deal with the remains. Little did he know at the time that what he would discover in that forgotten cemetery were the first physical remains of an American vampire.
Welcome to Places of Legend, a podcast that digs into places with stories. Stories that are shared in schoolyards, on sidewalks, in urban legends, age-old superstitions, and internet memes. It’s far from the history that is usually taught in schoolbooks. Let’s call it Cultural Heritage with a weird and unexpected twist. The legends can be scary. They can be hilarious or grotesque, and the truth behind them is almost always hidden. Places of Legend offers up stories that pull back the curtain at famous historic sites around the country—historic places with very different stories to tell.
I’m Angela Labrador and with my colleague and author Neil Silberman, we hope to turn your ideas about America’s places of legend upside down. In this episode, our Place of Legend is Griswold, Connecticut, a tiny rural town on the Rhode Island border with a current population of about 12,000. Despite its typical New England town green and white Congregationalist church, the town has a dark and violent history. Long a fishing ground for the local Native American peoples, its first European settlers were themselves refugees. First they fled from the strict and intolerant Puritan regime of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the less oppressive atmosphere of Rhode Island, only to escape again from the increasingly restrictive work on the Rhode Island plantations to the backwoods of eastern Connecticut.
Often dismissed as uneducated and uncouth “Swamp Yankees” by the old Connecticut families of the coastal port towns, the independent-minded settlers of Griswold made up in sheer grit and toughness what they may have lacked in book learning and religious orthodoxy. Extensive folk wisdom was the key to their survival: knowing when to plant, where to sow, which phase of the moon was the best for certain activities, and how the shape of a waxing moon’s early crescent could portend the weather in the month to come. But these were not isolated, random superstitions. Though nominally Christian churchgoers, this pioneer population who settled beyond the grasp of organized religion had a mystical, magical worldview woven together from Celtic and British traditions and local Native American lore.
Rhode Island, the place of origin of most of the Griswold settlers, is now known most widely as the smallest state in the Union, but in the colonial period it had a reputation as a haven for heretics and religious dissidents. In fact, so many religious dissenters came from the iron-fisted discipline of the Puritan Fathers in Massachusetts—the Boston cleric Cotton Mather sarcastically quipped that “if a man had lost his religion he would surely find another one in Rhode Island.” But these many unique beliefs were really just local variants of an ancient faith in a living, animated universe—in which plants, animals, rivers, and even the earth itself were living beings, and witches, demons, and wandering spirits roamed among them all.
Church worship was one way to deal with living on the edge of wilderness by cursing and shutting out dark forces. Another was to understand the invisible rhythms and forces of life and death that could lead to misfortune and ruin if not strictly obeyed. That second option was adopted by many farmers in Griswold. For left to their own devices in the wilderness, they faced the catastrophic threats to their own survival including illness, infant mortality, and an early death.
It’s forgotten now, but one of the most widespread and frightening diseases in rural New England was what we now call Tuberculosis and what they called “consumption.” It first appeared in New England in the colonial period, especially in winter when large families were huddled together by the hearths of their small farmhouses. Consumption spread alarmingly in the 1800s when it became the single most common cause of death. Beginning with a tightness in the chest and bouts of persistent coughing, its victims began to cough up blood and found it increasingly hard to breathe. Then weakness and nighttime fevers followed, and a steady loss of appetite and consequent weight loss made it seem that the victim was wasting away. Sunken cheeks and eyes and a deathly pallor made the men, women, and children—often of the same family—seem like they were dying from the inside out.
With the germ theory of contagion still largely unknown, consumption seemed to be the sign of a supernatural force steadily sapping the strength of its victims. But for the farmers of backwoods Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, and other remote places in New England, the curse of consumption was not regarded, as it might have been among more faithful Christians, as divine punishment or the work of the Devil. Rather, it was thought to come from earlier victims whose bodies were buried but whose fearsome spirits were not quite dead.
On being called to the site by the Medical Examiner, Bellantoni recognized immediately what was there. The outline of six dark grave shafts could be seen in the upper section of the sandy cliffside, indicating the presence of a long-lost cemetery. Bellantoni combed the musty colonial archives and land records to discover that the Walton family, who had settled in Griswold in 1690, began to use the sandy hillock as a family cemetery in the late 1750s, when Nathan Walton and his wife Jemima purchased the small plot of land from their neighbor as a family burial ground.
Excavations were quickly organized with the Office of the State Archaeologist, the University of Connecticut, and the State Historic Preservation Officer, but since the site was so sandy and prone to erosion, they decided that all the graves would have to be removed. In cases like this a landowner may become annoyed by the disruption of his business, but in this case, David Geer was fascinated and jumped right into the excavation. He quickly halted his sand mining operations, shored up the crumbling cliff side with his mechanical equipment, and even built a shelter for the winter archaeological work.
First was the mapping. The graves on the edge of the cliffside were easy to spot as they were already partially exposed. Farther back it was tougher to identify the burials, as erosion and tree clearing in preparation for the mining had removed all surface traces of graves. Nonetheless, by scraping the surface in search of changes in soil color, 27 burials were eventually found. They represented a typical pattern of mortality for that place and era: Five adult men, 8 adult women, and 14 infants and children who had died early in life.
The first two rows of burials were regularly spaced but as the archaeologists moved further into the cemetery, they found clusters of what seemed to be hastily dug graves—an apparent sign that some terrible event had occurred. Seven young children were buried closely together, as if they had died from an outbreak of epidemic disease. As the team excavated these graves one by one, they uncovered the rotted sides of the simple pine and cedar coffins, into which they dug further for human remains. Some of the bodies still had hair and bore bits of clothing, and the archaeologists carefully removed and wrapped each one for reburial.
The work had to be done quickly but carefully, as despite the best efforts of David Geer’s shoring, the sandy cliff edge continued to collapse, especially with the weight of the archaeologists above. In fact, the two most elaborate burials were found right at the edge of the steep slope. While most bodies in the small cemetery were buried in plain pine coffins and placed in a simple grave, these two graves were carefully lined with brick and stone, indicating the care and importance granted to these dead. Because they were also covered with stones, the tops of the coffins still bore the initials and age at death of the deceased. The remains of one indicated that they were those of a teenager, whose gender could not be determined, the other was a 55-year old male with the initials JB.
All the other bodies were laid on their backs in an east direction, but when the coffin of JB-55 was opened, the archaeologists uncovered a grotesque surprise. This grave had been opened and vandalized some time after the original burial, when the corpse’s flesh had all rotted away. Someone—or some people had opened this grave and performed a strange and intentionally destructive ritual. JB’s skull was detached from his spinal cord in an act of intentional desecration and placed on the skeleton’s chest. The long leg bones were ripped from their sockets and arranged in an ominously intentional “X” pattern just under the skull. The grave vandals clearly had no intention of stealing the body, but rather in performing a ghoulish and hostile ritual that sought to rob this person’s body of its dignity and forever destroy the peacefulness of its deathly repose.
The vandalism of graves was a ghoulishly common practice in 1800s America, though it was done mostly in cities, with the object of stealing valuable fresh corpses and selling them to laboratories and medical schools. In episode 7, we told the tale of the attempted body snatching of no less a famous corpse than that of Abraham Lincoln, but that plot failed and no ransom was ever demanded. But here in the Walton cemetery of Griswold, Connecticut, was something completely different. It was a ceremony of what we might call black magic, so seemingly unlikely here among the farm families of eastern Connecticut.
Almost incredibly, historical research revealed another startling case of grave desecration that had been performed roughly at the same time, less than three miles away.
As vividly described in Michael Bell’s book Food for the Dead, the incident occurred in the nearby village of Jewett City, where a single family suffered repeated losses over the course of just nine years. It all started with the death of 24-year old Lemuel Ray to consumption. Soon afterwards his father Henry, patriarch of the family and manager of the family farm, also began to show signs of coughing and wasting away. With his death in 1848, the ability of the family to support itself suffered another devastating blow.
Yet the scourge within the family continued. In 1851, another son, Elisha, began to suffer the same symptoms, coughing, weakness, and progressive wasting away—as if some supernatural force were sucking the life out of him. Then, in 1854, the eldest son Henry Jr. began to show the same ominous signs. The surviving members of the family were by then fully convinced that the cause of the illness was the ravenous spirits of the departed family members—not quite dead and still dependent on nourishment from the living. Those spirits would have to be stopped before the entire family was consumed.
A newspaper account published in the nearby city of Norwich, described the family’s course of action as “strange and almost incredible superstition.” Members of the Ray family proceeded to the family cemetery to dig up the bodies of Lemuel and Elisha, and burned them beyond recognition, to prevent the dead from feeding upon the living. For it was believed that so long as the body of someone who has died of the mysterious wasting disease remained in the grave, the surviving members of the family would provide the sustenance on which the dead body fed.
The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington contains perhaps the most bizarre collection of human specimens in America. Visitors to the strikingly modern museum building in Silver Spring, Maryland, can view such grotesque curiosities as mummified conjoined infants; formaldehyde-soaked intestines of Civil War soldiers ravaged by chronic dysentery; the partial skeleton of President Garfield's assassin; human brains that had suffered a horrifying variety of traumatic injuries, and General Pershing’s false teeth.
But the display of anatomical curiosities is not the museum’s main purpose. Established by the Army during the Civil War to collect specimens for research in military medicine and surgery, it eventually became a state-of-the-art pathology research center, with its scientists identifying and investigating human physical abnormalities of almost every kind.
With the completion of the excavation of the Walton family cemetery in Griswold, State Archaeologist Bellantoni shipped the human remains to Silver Spring for study and analysis by the museum’s Curator, Paul Sledzik, who had long experience with the examination of unusual skeletal remains. His interest centered, of course, on the disturbed and vandalized skeleton of JB-55, but he soon identified on all of the adult skeletons and in the clusters of infant burials evidence of hard physical work, poor nutrition and medical care, and high infant mortality on the Connecticut frontier.
But the vandalized skeleton showed some startling evidence that clearly distinguished it from the run of the mill maladies, back problems, and missing teeth that the other burials revealed. Yes, the mysterious J.B. suffered the usual fractures, arthritis, and wear and tear of a hard life that all the other adult bodies in the cemetery shared. But his disabilities seemed more severe than most, with severe dental problems, a poorly healed collarbone that must have caused him recurrent pain, and a badly worn left knee, which may have caused him to walk with a limp.
Most striking of all were the clear pitted areas on his upper left ribs, which Paul Sledzik and his colleagues at the National Museum of Health and Medicine recognized as the unmistakable signs of pulmonary tuberculosis—in other words, consumption or the “wasting disease.”
In the late 1800s, far away in the research hospitals of Europe, modern science made great strides in understanding the medical causes of tuberculosis, but those advances were slow in being widely accepted by the medical community, and even slower by the public at large. In 1868, a doctor in the French military hospital of Val de Grace in Paris, performed a bizarre experiment to show that the disease was contagious, not the hereditary curse of certain families. Noting the disease spread among unrelated soldiers who were housed in crowded barracks, he injected laboratory rabbits with the blood and mucus of deceased human victims only to find that the rabbits developed tubercular symptoms within a matter of months.
Less than 15 years later, Dr. Robert Koch, the father of modern microbiology, identified the precise microbe responsible for tuberculosis in his work at the Imperial Institute of Health in Berlin, this time experimenting with hundreds of guinea pigs. Unfortunately, his attempts to find a drug that could cure the disease ended in failure. And in fact, as late as 1892, a full decade after Koch’s discovery, the folk belief in the link between consumption and life-sucking spirits remained strong in both Europe and America. And it was so firmly established in the rural region of southern New England that it inspired a gruesome graveyard ritual.
The Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island—a town less than 25 miles to the east of Griswold—were the main characters in the grisly tale. Once again, deaths by consumption of close relatives living in the same house followed closely, one after another. Mary Brown, the matriarch of the family, succumbed to consumption in 1883. Just a few months later, her daughter, Mary Olive, wasted away and died. Then another daughter, Mercy Lena, fell victim, and by 1892, when the family’s last surviving brother began to show the telltale symptoms, it became clear to the family’s friends that the source of the disease had to be destroyed as quickly as possible.
The town doctor, accompanied by local residents with shovels, proceeded to the cemetery, where they exhumed the recent family graves, in search of an indication of the life-sucker’s identity. The bodies of both Mary and Mary Olive seemed normal, but Mercy Lena showed some suspicious signs: her body had not decomposed like the other corpses and blood still pooled in her heart. These signs were taken as evidence that she was the source of the evil spirit. She was reburied only after the gooey mass that was all that was left of her heart was burned. But that was not all, the ashes of Mercy’s heart were dissolved in water and given as a potion to her sick brother Edwin. Unfortunately, only two months later, consumption claimed Edwin’s life as well.
That ceremony was the very last act in what has come to be known as the “New England Vampire Panic,” which had lasted for more than 150 years. With the acceptance that tuberculosis is a contagious disease, folklore gave way to the development of the sanatorium movement, in which the TB victims who could afford it were placed on nutritious diets, isolated from close contact with others, and exposed to plenty of fresh air. Later still, medications were developed to treat the Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which was the actual source of the disease.
With the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the image of the undead life sucker shifted to become entirely focused on the long-fanged, tuxedoed Count of Transylvania. The memory of New England’s distinctive idea of vampires was almost totally forgotten, until its archaeological evidence was unearthed in 1990 in David Geer’s sand and gravel pit.
And what was the fate of the surviving members of the Walton Family of Griswold, Connecticut? Records indicate that they occupied a nearby farmhouse and buried their dead in their family burial ground until sometime in the mid-1850s. By that time, the difficult life in the area convinced many of the Walton descendants to pull up stakes and move to the more fertile lands of the Midwest and Great Plains.
In the fall of 1992, just two years after the original discovery, the excavated remains of the Walton family were reinterred in another historic Griswold cemetery, where they could at last rest in peace. Twelve Walton descendants, traced through genealogical records to Arkansas, Nevada, and California—as well as nearby Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland—attended the reburial ceremony, in which the remains were placed in newly dug graves positioned precisely in the arrangement of graves at the original site.
Also in attendance, was David Geer, owner of the sand and gravel pit where the discovery had been made. He had provided support and assistance to the archaeologist throughout the excavation and was clearly fascinated by the bizarre finds. A stocky, hardy figure then in his late 60s, he was still known locally as an indefatigable wood cutter, without the slightest sign of slowing down. But the stories of “wasting disease” and the folk beliefs in the restless, undead spirits that caused it, were part of his own family history for the Geers had been among the original settlers 300 years before.
In the course of the detailed genealogical research that had been undertaken to trace the Walton family, a shocking surprise came to light. Back in the 1700s, a young woman of the Geer family had married a man of the Walton clan, intertwining the histories of the two families. The two families had parted ways in the 1800s, but now the strange and unexpected discovery of the Griswold vampire had brought them together once more.
And who was the mysterious “JB” whose buried remains were disturbed and rearranged in an ominous skull and crossbones pattern? No record of any member of the Walton family from that period bore those initials, and after the Waltons moved west, no family with a surname beginning with “B” is known to have buried their families there. But despite the still enigmatic identity of JB, the physical evidence of his body, his apparent death from consumption, and his post-mortem dismemberment all indicate that his remains were considered to be an undead spirit feasting on the health of the still-living.
Folklorists and biological anthropologists have traced similar desecration practices around the world. For instance, countryfolk of the British Isles were known to dig up graves, cut off the skull, and place it on another part of the body in order to remove the curse of a suspected vampire. Perhaps this folk ritual traveled across the Atlantic with some of America’s early colonial settlers. The wide variety of rituals that took place during the “New England Vampire Panic” demonstrates how European folk traditions coexisted with the Christian faith of the early settlers of Griswold—and perhaps even intermingled with Native American spiritual beliefs as well. Although it seems a gory curiosity today, the tale of the Walton cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut, and the other tales of New England vampires suggest a much richer and more mystical worldview shared by the region’s early English colonists: one in which their fervent Christian beliefs wove together with the strange and demonic forces that roamed their wilderness lands and threatened the health of themselves and their children.
We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Places of Legend, a podcast in which we explore historic sites where the forgotten and unexpected meeting of past and present offers a new kind of heritage experience. Our aim is to share our curiosity about out-of-the-way places and forgotten events. And we invite you to visit our website at placesoflegend.com where you can find maps, photographs, and links to further information about the sites we explore.
In our next episode, we’ll travel to Britt, Iowa, home of the yearly Hobo Convention, which has been the meeting place of hitchhikers, rail riders, ramblers, and roamers from all over the United States since 1900. Britt was born in 1870 because of the railroad; its very first building was a depot of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, and from that time on it was a welcome stop for the men who rode the rails. We’ll tell the story of hobo culture and reveal some of the hidden customs and bizarre happenings that shaped the nation’s Depression-era hobo camps.
Until then, thanks for listening. And we look forward to joining you in discovering more places of legend, available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and on our website at placesoflegend.com.