Undead arises: DNA detectives discover identity, reconstruct face of long-dead ‘vampire’

WASHINGTON — DNA detectives believe they’ve discovered the identity of a long-dead “vampire.” The early 19th-century man was found buried with his arms in an X shape across his chest, a burial practice believed to prevent these horror movie staples from rising out of their graves to feed upon the living.

The remains, discovered in 1990 in Griswold, Connecticut, were determined to be those of a middle-aged man named John Barber who suffered from tuberculosis.

The unpleasant symptoms of the affliction can include sweating, weight loss, swollen neck, and coughing up blood — unexplained signs that may have led paranoid locals to suspect vampirism. Now, cutting-edge laboratory and bioinformatic techniques are revealing what he looked like and confirm who he was.

3D scan of skull with facial reconstruction.
THIS PICTURE: 3D scan of skull with facial reconstruction. (Credit: SWNS / Parabon NanoLabs)

The recent International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) conference in Washington, D.C., saw Parabon NanoLabs and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL, a branch of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System) unveil their results.

“Tales of the undead consuming the blood of living beings have been around for centuries. Before scientific and clinical knowledge were used to explain infectious diseases and medical disorders, communities hit with epidemics turned to folklore for explanations,” a spokesperson from Parabon NanoLabs explains in a statement from SWNS. “They often blamed vampirism for the change in appearance, erratic behavior and deaths of their friends and family who actually suffered from conditions such as porphyria, pellagra, rabies and tuberculosis (TB).

“It is speculated that he (John Barber) was later disinterred and reburied because his limbs had been placed atop his chest in an X in a skull-and-crossbones configuration — a burial practice used to prevent purported vampires from rising from the grave to feed upon the living.”

Researchers employed the latest advanced laboratory and bioinformatic DNA analyses on the early 19th-century unidentified remains of a man, only known as JB55 because of the markings on his grave. In 2019, AFDIL performed a Y-STR chromosome analysis that suggested a possible surname of “Barber.”

Skeletal remains of “JB-55” on display
FILE PICTURE: Skeletal remains of “JB-55” on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Md., July 23, 2019. (Credit: SWNS)

A search of historical records led to an obituary for another individual buried in the same cemetery that mentioned a man named John Barber, but no other records were found for him.

A whole-genome targeting approach, also used in Parabon’s law enforcement casework for highly degraded samples, was the most cost-effective method of identification. Using machine learning models built on published variants, along with additional variants discovered by Parabon, the analysis projects that JB55 had fair skin, brown eyes, brown or black hair, and freckles.

Using the trait predictions and a digital 3D image of the skull, Thom Shaw, an IAI-certified forensic artist at Parabon, reconstructed JB55’s likely appearance.

DNA detectives discover identity of long-dead vampire John Barber
Forensic facial reconstruction of John Barber. (Credit: SWNS / Parabon NanoLabs)

The other individual in the cemetery is believed to be a relative of JB, so researchers analyzed their DNA using whole-genome enrichment, sequencing, and low-coverage imputation. Results revealed a third-degree, first cousin relationship to JB.

Tracing the family trees of the GEDmatch matches led to ancestors with the surname Barber living in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries, supporting the hypothesis that his identity was most likely John Barber. GEDmatch is an online service to compare autosomal DNA data files from different testing companies.

South West News Service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.