When people think of early New England, one of the many things that come to mind are the infamous witch trials of the late 17th century, of which Connecticut was quite an active participant with lot of people tried as witches and some of them even executed.
During that dark time in state’s history the belief in and fear of supernatural creatures was quite strong: not only were witches a source of concern, so was the Devil himself.
This general sense of apprehension in regard to the supernatural was so deep-rooted that nearly 200 years after the last supposed witch was hanged, people were still paranoid enough to believe that the state could be haunted by vampires.
In the first half of the 19th century, Henry and Lucy Ray of Jewett City had a big family of five children who all grew up and survived the many natural hardships of childhood that were present in colonial America.
Over the course of a period of time that spanned the late 1840s to early 1850s, one member of the Ray family had contracted consumption, which is now known as tuberculosis, and the first fatality came with the death of 24-year-old Lemuel Ray in 1845, who died of a peculiar wasting away disease. Shortly after his father, Henry, died in 1851 and, two years later 26-year-old Elisha Ray died too. Only one year after that, in 1854, a third son, Henry Nelson Ray, was struck by now all-too-familiar symptoms which today would have been identified as tuberculosis, but which back then was clearly the work of a vampire.
Now convinced that they were dealing with something well beyond normal disease, the family though that the untimely demises were being caused by their dead relatives rising from the grave during the night and returning to feast on the blood of the living. Something drastic needed to be done, and done quickly and, as a result, the family exhumed the bodies of Lemuel and Elisha, and burned them right there in the graveyard, to “protect” themselves from the undead.
As Dracula would not be published by Bram Stoker for another 40 years, in 1897, the type of entities that Connecticut residents thought existed were not the bloodsuckers of books, but were thought to be the undead, arisen zombie-like from the grave to find nourishment in the blood of family members.
In any case, the macabre family reunion made the newspapers of the day and, due in large part to the media attention, the Ray family is known today as the Jewett City Vampires.
The Ray family plot can be found toward the northern end of the small graveyard known as Jewett City Cemetery.
A line of headstones all bearing their surname now mark both the final resting places of most of the family, as well as the site of the bonfire.
You can follow the timeline of events by the years incised into the grave stones.
Although Henry Nelson Ray’s stone is not in the family plot, there is a gravestone with his name incised on it at the other side of the cemetery with the death date of 1854, which alludes to the possibility that the vampire hunt might not have worked, after all.
Interestingly, evidence was discovered in the 1990s that there may have been other earlier suspected vampires outside the Ray family.
In neighboring Hopeville, 29 graves were unearthed in an unmarked cemetery of the Walton family, who had lived only two miles from the Rays’ farm about 50 years earlier in the early 18th century. Upon archaeological exhumation, it was determined that one of the bodies, which had been decimated by consumption, apparently had been dug up after it was buried, had its head removed, what was left of the skeleton faced down and its femur bones crossed over the chest. Other Walton family members had also evidently died from the same disease.
It may seem extreme but, in a time of fear and superstition, making extra sure the dead stayed dead made everyone feel better. That doesn’t suck, right?
Author’s notes: Jewett City Cemetery is located at the terminus of Anthony Street in Jewett City, a borough of the town of Griswold, tucked away behind a small housing project and next to a construction company. Like most cemeteries, it’s open from dawn to dusk, and entering there at night is absolutely prohibited. Obviously, I always suggest you obey whatever rules and laws apply, and that you be respectful of those buried there. Wearing a necklace of garlic is probably not necessary.