You may have heard the story of the Rays of Griswold, Connecticut. Or maybe you haven’t – maybe this morbid moment in Connecticut’s past has eluded you until now.
Either way, this is a fitting time to hear the tale. And not simply because I’m telling it near Halloween, when all ghastly events of the past seem to come back to life, but because it is strangely relevant today. Or perhaps it has been relevant all along, and we should have been paying more attention.
The Ray family lived in Jewett City, in Griswold, in the 19th century. At the time the story begins, parents Henry and Lucy had five grown children: Lemuel, Elisha, Henry Nelson, James, and Adaline. (Most sources don’t mention Adaline; whether that’s because as the only girl, she was considered less important, or because she had already married out of this unfortunate family at the moment the story begins, I do not know.)
What happened to the Rays was sad, but hardly unique at the time. Over a nine-year period, three members of the family died of what we now know as tuberculosis, and was then called consumption. First was Lemuel, age 24; then Henry, age 52; then Elisha, age 26. When Henry Nelson became ill with the same disease in 1854, the remaining family members must have been devastated – and desperate to save his life. In their panic, they decided to do anything they could. And so, they exhumed the bodies of Lemuel and Elisha and burned them, right there in Jewett City Cemetery.
It didn’t work. Henry Nelson died later that year, at age 34. Consumption killed his wife and children as well.
You may be horrified by this; so were many people at the time. The Norwich Weekly Courier called the family’s actions a “strange and almost incredible tale of superstition,” and deemed the incident “revolting in the extreme.” But the Rays were not alone in their beliefs.
The family was just a small part of a phenomenon that came to be known (somewhat misleadingly, as no one in this world was dashing, or sparkly, or Romanian, or afraid of silver) as the New England Vampire Panic. It began around the 1790s, though as with most New England weirdness, it can be traced back to far older European weirdness.
Tuberculosis, too, had been around since ancient times. It surfaced in New England in the early 18th century, and by the 19th century, it was the cause of almost a quarter of all deaths in the region. It persisted as one of the top killers of Americans into the 20th century. Its victims suffered fevers and sweats, coughed up blood, and seemed to waste away over time as the disease destroyed – or consumed – their bodies. It spread through the air where people clustered together, talking, coughing, sneezing, in close quarters – like family homes. Despite its devastation, the disease did have rather romantic associations. Its physical effects were thought to make beautiful young women even more beautiful, as they became dramatically thinner and their eyes glowed with fever. And the reality of slowly dying made beautiful young men who wrote emo poetry seem even more emo. Decades before a true understanding of the disease or the advent of antibiotics, people went to great lengths to treat the symptoms. Those who could afford it would travel or move to a state or country with fresher air. The poor had home remedies, and gruesome superstitions about the dead.
The tuberculosis outbreak that raged across New England in the 19th century conjured up these ancient folk beliefs about the malady’s origins, and even more alarming notions of how to stop it. Seeing one family member sicken and die, then another sicken and die, then another…you get the idea – made it seem like something, some demon or evil spirit, was somehow inhabiting the corpse and returning to feed on the bodies of the living, depleting their vital force.
To counter this, the corpses had to be examined for certain indications of being not-yet-actually-dead. Relatives who had died of consumption were disinterred and their bodies checked for signs such as liquid blood remaining in the organs. If these signs were found, the corpse might be turned over in the grave, decapitated, burned, or partially burned, sometimes so that living family members could inhale the smoke or eat the ashes. Only this, they believed, would stop the deadly forces from preying on them, too.
These ideas had probably come from Europe around the time of the American Revolution. But there, as here, there were regional varieties.
As with the 17th-century witch trials, Connecticut got in on the action early. The first documented reference to vampire-like folk beliefs in New England comes from a 1784 letter in the Connecticut Courant & Weekly Intelligencer from Councilman Moses Holmes of Willington. He warned, “Whereas of late years there has been advanced for a certainty, by a certain Quack Doctor…that a certain cure may be had for a consumption, where any of the same family had before that time died of the same disease: directing to have the bodies of such had died to be dug up…[and]…the remains of the vitals, being consumed in the fire, would be an effectual cure to the same family.”
Compared to Massachusetts, where “vampire” bodies were simply turned face-down and reburied, it seems the Nutmeg State went in relatively hardcore. Connecticutians were, at least, relatively quiet about the whole thing and tried to keep it within the family. One account claimed that when five of six West Stafford sisters died of “galloping consumption,” it led to a “weird night scene” in the cemetery, involving digging up one or more bodies and burning the heart and lungs. The night part was important, as was the rule that the exhumation be done by a single individual. In Vermont, for contrast, it was a community affair held on the town green.
And the Rays were not Griswold’s only “vampires.” Years before the deaths of the Ray men, another local family came to believe that their deceased relative was slowly robbing them of life. This went briefly viral (or perhaps one should say bacterial?) after two skulls were uncovered by some Griswold boys playing in a gravel mining pit in 1990. (Let’s just pause for a brief moment of nostalgia for 1990. Simpler times. Anyway.) Eventually, the location was found to have been a humble farm cemetery, dating from 1757. Twenty-nine graves were excavated, with bodies belonging to two families: the Waltons, who originally owned the property, and the later owners, a family whose last name started with B. One of the B burials was strange; the corpse, marked with the initials JB and the age of 55, had been beheaded, his bones broken and rearranged in a skull-and-crossbones shape. Analysis found he had died in the 1830s, and his gruesome injuries had been inflicted about five years later. As for why this happened, you probably can guess by now: he had suffered from tuberculosis, and presumably his ailing family members figured he was sucking their life away from beyond.
The rural New Englanders who did these things did not necessarily think their dead were escaping from coffins and drinking the blood of the living. (Though JB’s posthumously broken legs could be interpreted as an effort to stop him from walking around.) And they didn’t use the term vampires, though better educated people, familiar with the word from European folklore, did. These disturbing practices may have been more widespread than we have evidence for today, but they were by no means common. Most people of the day were aware that consumption was a disease, and that its cause and cure, though yet unknown, were not supernatural in nature.
In 1882, science proved that tuberculosis was caused by bacteria, and folk beliefs about departed relatives feasting on those who remained began to decline. But, like vampires, they were hard to truly kill off. The latest documented “vampire” story in the region – in which the dead Mercy Brown was exhumed and her heart burned to incorporate into a tonic for her consumption-afflicted brother (spoiler alert: he died soon after) – took place in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892.
The Rays are still buried in Jewett City Cemetery. If you go there, you will find low stone walls, and a row of leafy trees, and an ornate metal gate. The burial ground is neither large nor small. It would be entirely unremarkable if you didn’t know this story of this one family interred within. Unlike so many historic sites where macabre events unfolded, no supernatural rumors have attached themselves to this place. And while on the surface that might make this less suited for a Halloween tale, I believe its lack of ghoulish embellishment makes it far scarier. There is nothing to jump at in this place, no giggly fears of ghosts and goblins popping out of the woods or handsome undead beings rising from the earth in search of blood. It is simply a place to reflect on the horrific depths we can sink to when we are, in the depressingly resonant words of the Norwich Weekly Courier from 1854, “transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition.”
However, I know you might have clicked on this expecting something a little more mystical. So I’ll tell you another true story. When I visited Jewett City Cemetery to find the graves of the Rays, I noticed something. A little black cat was stalking the perimeter of the property, walking daintily along the stone wall at the back of the graveyard, watching me from behind the trees. I forgot about him as I took my photographs, and when I looked for him again as I left, he was gone. I drove out of the cemetery slowly, carefully, just in case the black cat – or any cat – was crouching unseen, close to the ground. And just as the cemetery was almost out of view, I saw him – a little black shape sitting demurely where the grass met the roadway. He watched me as I rolled by, watched me as my car made its way towards the center of town, and continued to watch me until I was gone.
Jewett City Cemetery is at the end of Anthony Street in Jewett City, a borough of the town of Griswold. (Despite the claims of some accounts of this story online, they are not separate, neighboring towns.) Your GPS may display the town name as Jewett City, or Griswold, or both; as long as the zip code is 06351, you’re going to the right place. The cemetery is on your left as you drive towards the end of Anthony Street, just past the apartment complex.
I’ve read at least three sets of “directions” to the Ray family plot, none of which clearly explains the location. The best guidance I can offer is this: the cemetery is divided by three roads, which run perpendicular to Anthony Street. The Ray graves are near the northernmost of these roads (i.e., the third left turn after you drive past the apartments.) They are in the middle section, and situated closer to the back of the cemetery. Their inscriptions face away from Anthony Street; two are easier to read, and the other two are faded. If these directions aren’t clear either, just wander, take your time, and look for four simple slabs all in a row. Henry, Lucy, Lemuel, and Elisha are buried together here. (Henry Nelson is buried here as well, but not in the same section. His grave marker is much smaller and more modern in appearance, probably due to being moved at a later date as many of the graves in this cemetery have been.)
Please drive carefully, and look out for the cat.