Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni does not fit the typical profile of a vampire studies expert. Authorities on paranormal subjects are often at least "partial-believers" themselves and may engage in behaviors and practices that reflect it.
In contrast, Bellantoni is a state forensic archaeologist and UConn professor who is solely guided by reason and science. A frequent consultant to law enforcement on cold case homicides, he squarely dismisses supernatural explanations for events.
Bellantoni thus contextualized his unlikely introduction to regional vampire mythology during a Tuesday lecture at the Cora J. Belden Library. It began in 1990, after a group of boys in Griswold discovered a human skull while playing on a gravel mound, and police subsequently called upon him for assistance, believing the removed cranium may belong to a victim of a years-old murder.
After Bellantoni surveyed the site, however, he determined that it was not a crime scene, but the location of a centuries-old family cemetery. He and his team eventually uncovered a total of 29 graves on the plot, each containing a decayed skeleton inside a rotting, wooden coffin.
However, several of the corpses had been disturbed. Their rib cages were cracked open and their legs broken, bent upward, and crossed over folded arms. A few were also decapitated, which accounted for the kids' initial discovery of the detached skull.
Bellantoni first postulated that the site had been victimized by vandals or grave robbers, but the physical evidence he found on the premises did not support this contention. Puzzled, he consulted peers in other social sciences.
At that point that a "folklorist colleague" introduced him to the tale of the "Jewett City vampires." In pre-Civil War New England, the biggest cause of death was "consumption" or tuberculosis. It ravaged entire families, and the superstitious colonials, having absorbed vampire mythology from European oral tradition, often ascribed the outbreak to a dead relative who was supposedly returning from the grave to prey upon his kin.
Hysterical posses in Jewett City dug up the bodies of suspected "vampires" and cut out their hearts by breaking through their ribs. If the hearts still contained blood, they were burned, while the bodies' bones were broken in the manner of the Griswold corpses (the assumption being that cracked limbs would not allow vampires to escape their coffins.) Sometimes the mob would also decapitate the corpses.
Becoming familiar with the Jewett City legend became Bellantoni's key to understanding what happened at the unearthed Griswold crypt. His mysterious findings at the site suddenly fit an established pattern.
The archaeologist and his associates would proceed to discover many similar cases in Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. In each instance, skeletons were physically manipulated in the same manner as those in Griswold and Jewett City, and every such finding occurred in a rural locale where vampire lore proliferated.