Friday 18 October 2019

Cholera, Sligo and the shaping of Dracula: Stories of victims being buried alive haunted Bram Stoker's mother

As Ireland's worst-hit town during the 1832 cholera epidemic, the stories of victims being buried alive haunted Sligo native Bram Stoker's mother, and would later inspire one of literature's most-famous creations

The living dead: Christopher Lee as an iconic Dracula in a film from 1958
The living dead: Christopher Lee as an iconic Dracula in a film from 1958
Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker's mother Charlotte

Marion McGarry

It seems bizarre that Sligo would have any connection to one of the most famous characters in literature. The west of Ireland town is more associated with the poet WB Yeats than Bram Stoker. Yeats' mother was from Sligo and the poet is everywhere in the town, which has become a draw for Yeatsian tourists from all over the world. Yet there is not much in Sligo town that obviously marks its associations with Dracula. A small plaque marks the approximate site of Stoker's grandparents' home and there is some Dracula-themed street art in a car park.

Yet recent historical research has revealed that Sligo had a more than significant role in shaping Count Dracula than has previously been thought. The following is known: the mother of the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, was Charlotte Stoker (née Thornley) who grew up in Sligo.

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The daughter of a policeman, she was born in 1818 and lived with her family in Old Market Street. In 1832, Sligo was the worst hit town (in all of Ireland or Britain) by a devastating cholera epidemic. In just six weeks, an estimated 1,500 townspeople died from the disease. Charlotte's family survived - they eventually had to evacuate the town - but she was forever haunted by what she witnessed. She wrote Experiences of the Cholera in Ireland (1873), an important first-hand account of events in Sligo. It is likely that Bram persuaded her to finally put to paper the stories she had told him throughout his childhood.

They were not just 'stories' however. Charlotte's descriptions tally with what the eminent Sligo historians William G Wood-Martin and Terrence O'Rorke later reported on the epidemic. It appears that Bram, an avid library researcher, additionally consulted Wood-Martin's account. By analysing these sources and cross-referencing the text of Dracula, it is apparent that Count Dracula can be partly viewed as the personification of Sligo's cholera epidemic.

Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

Cholera is a disease caused by the cholera bacterium (vibrio cholerae), which infects humans usually by ingestion of contaminated drinking water. Untreated, cholera advances within hours to cause death by painful vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. The disease still exists - it is currently raging in war-torn Yemen - but thanks to scientific understanding, people are less likely to die from cholera.

In 1832, Sligo's Garavogue river was contaminated by human waste and used for drinking water - but people were unaware of the dangers. At the time, not only did cholera offer a certain painful death to victims, it was also a great leveller. Fevers and famines usually affected the poor, but cholera knew no societal boundaries. It killed rich and poor alike, and to middle-class urban Protestants like Stoker's mother's family, it presented a real terror.

The 'Beast from the East'

Hailing from the East, 'Asiatic' cholera had swept through Europe, laying waste to major urban centres. The belief was that cholera affected port towns via ships. That summer, Sligo anxiously watched as the disease struck Belfast, Dublin, Limerick then the smaller towns, travelling up the west coast: Tuam, Ballinrobe, Castlebar. The people of Sligo thought they had escaped but then the terrible news broke: the first victim died on August 11. Wood-Martin wrote that this event was preceded by an unusual storm, with "thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere".

The coming of dreaded cholera from the East, with the promise of an agonising death, is mirrored in Dracula. The Count carrying the contagion of vampirism, makes his journey by ship from the East, and before his landfall "one of the greatest and suddenness storms […] the weather had been somewhat sultry, but not to any degree uncommon in the month of August" (Chapter 7, Dracula). He claims his first victim on English soil on August 11. A chilling coincidence or an acknowledgement of Charlotte Stoker's experiences? On inspection of the novel and historical sources there are further parallels between Count Dracula and cholera.

Role of doctors

An astonishing 50 people a day died during the Sligo outbreak. Doctors were valiant in their attempts to treat the victims, yet many of Sligo's doctors died from the disease. The scientific community lacked understanding of the causes or treatment of cholera in 1832. In Dracula, the heroes of the book are doctors, who have to suspend their medical beliefs in order to understand and vanquish the 'disease' of vampirism.

The priest and the horsewhip

The local fever hospital had to employ untrained staff to replace the deceased doctors and nurses. Charlotte described how they deliberately mistreated - even killed - dying patients to free up beds. Father Gilern, a Roman Catholic priest, was so outraged by this he stayed at the hospital armed with a horsewhip to protect patients. Sligo's Catholic clergy were thought somehow immune to cholera and suffered few casualties. In Dracula, Stoker - a Protestant - casts the symbols of Roman Catholicism, such as holy water and the crucifix, to fight against vampirism.

Bram Stoker's mother Charlotte
Bram Stoker's mother Charlotte

Charlotte wrote that people believed cholera travelled as a mist over land: Count Dracula can shapeshift into mist and travel. When the epidemic eventually ended, there remained a terrible smell in the town for months after. In Dracula, places associated with the Count have a rotting smell.

The Undead

The burial of victims was done within hours of death in mass graves for fear of the spread of the disease. In haste, many people were buried before they had died. Early in the epidemic, one victim awoke while the undertaker was trying to fit him into the coffin. A man pulled his wife's body from a mass grave for a proper burial, only to discover she was still alive. In Dracula, vampires are living while dead, using graves to sleep in. Stoker took care never to divulge his exact inspirations but made a rare slip in an 1897 interview, admitting that Dracula was inspired by the idea of "someone being buried before they were fully dead". His working title of the book had actually been 'The Undead', which the publisher changed to Dracula at the last minute.

The novel is a rich tapestry inspired by various events and people and until now his mother's tales were viewed as merely one small aspect of that. But the storm, the date of August 11, the avenging doctors, Catholic iconography, the undead rising from the dead all bear striking similarities to Sligo's epidemic and Count Dracula himself seems the personification of it.

This serves to underline Sligo's remarkable links to the most enduring literary character created, yet we should also remember the victims of the epidemic. These are events and connections that deserve to be commemorated in Sligo.

The Sligo Dracula Society are hosting the first-ever 'How Sligo Shaped Dracula' conference, which takes place today. It features talks by a panel of experts on Sligo's cholera epidemic, Bram Stoker and Dracula. See: for ticket details

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