Count Cholera 2: Revenge of the Half-Baked Hypothesis

These two get it.
(from https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/20/21227874/what-we-do-in-the-shadows-season-2-hulu-preview)

As I noted in my first post on Marion McGarry’s Dracula=Cholera hypothesis, I’m always wary of criticising ideas that have been filtered through the media (rather than presented first-hand by the author or proponent), because something is almost always missing, lost in translation or even outright misrepresented. So when a kind commenter directed me to this recording of McGarry’s talk on her theory that Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was inspired by Stoker’s mother’s experience of the early 19th century Sligo cholera outbreak, I felt that I had to listen to it (I never did receive a reply to my request for her article). Now that I have listened, I can confirm that McGarry is reaching bigtime. The talk adds very little to the news reports that I referenced last time and covers much the same ground, including spurious stuff like the novel having the working title of ‘The Undead’ (‘undead’ already being a word as I noted previously). There is some new material however.

Early on McGarry references recent scholarship regarding the historical figure of Wallachian ruler Vlad III being the inspiration for the Count and the novel that features him. She is right about this; Stoker did indeed only overlay Vlad’s name and (incorrect) snippets of his biography onto his existing Styrian ‘Count Wampyr’. However, needless to say, just because ‘Dracula’ was not inspired by the historical Vlad III, it does not follow that it/he was inspired by cholera. As I noted before, Stoker did not invent the fictional vampire, and had no need of inspiration to create his own vampire villain. The only argument that might hold weight is that he was inspired to tackle vampirism by his family history. McGarry’s main argument for this hinges on the fact that Stoker did research for his novels in libraries. As noted last time, this actually works against her theory, since we have Stoker’s notes and there is no mention of his having read around cholera in preparation for writing ‘Dracula’. Whereas we do have his notes on his actual sources, which were about eastern European folklore; vampires and werewolves. The aspects that Stoker did use, he transplanted almost wholesale; it’s easy to see, for example, which bits he lifted from Emily Gerard. Stoker did not in fact do ‘a great deal’ of reading; he found a couple of suitable books and stopped there. Which is why the only other new bit of information from this talk is also of limited use. McGarry cites this 1897 interview with Stoker, claiming that ‘…the kernel of Dracula was formed by live burials…’ This is not, in fact, what Stoker was asked. He was asked what the origin of the *the vampire myth* was, not the inspiration for his taking on that source material:

“Is there any historical basis for the legend?”

Stoker, who was no better informed on the true origins of the Slavic vampire than any other novelist, answered:

“It rested, I imagine, on some such case as this. A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. 

Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about.”

Yes, this has parallels with cholera victims being buried prematurely, but it is by no means clear that Stoker was thinking of this when he made this response. Certainly, he does not mention it. There is every chance that this is purely coincidence; plenty of others at this time lazily supposed, like Stoker, that vampire belief stemmed from encounters with still-living victims of premature burial, or (apocryphal) stories of scratches on the inside of coffin lids. Stoker’s family connection with premature burial is likely a coincidence. Had he included a scene involving premature burial, or even a mention of it in the novel, McGarry might be onto something.

McGarry tries to compare Stoker’s victims of vampirism with descriptions of cholera patients; lethargy, sunken eyes, a blue tinge to the eyes and skin. Unfortunately the first two fit lots of other diseases, notably tuberculosis, and the third symptom doesn’t actually feature in ‘Dracula’ at all. I have literally no idea why she references it. She also tries to link the blue flames of the novel with German folklore in which ’blue flames emerge from the mouths of plague victims’. I have never heard of this, nor can I find any reference to it. I do know, however, that Stoker took his blue flames from Transylvanian folklore about hidden treasure; taken again from Emily Gerard (Transylvanian Superstitions), confirmed once again by Stoker’s notes. If there is folklore about blue flames and cholera, no reference appears in his notes, and it is most likely coincidence.

In an extension of her commentary that storms preceded both outbreaks (cholera and vampirism) McGarry asserts that the first victim of cholera presented on 11 August – the same date as Dracula’s first British victim in the novel, the evidence being William Gregory Wood-Martin’s 1882 book ‘The History of Sligo County and Town’. This is not correct. Lucy, Dracula’s first victim, does indeed receive her vampire bite on 11 August. MEanwhile however, back in the real world, the first case of cholera in Sligo was identified on 29 July 1832. Wood-Martin mentions 11 August only because a special board was created on that day, precisely because the first case had happened some time previously. McGarry does admit that 11 August ‘..may have been randomly chosen by Stoker’, yet still lists this piece of ‘evidence’ in her summing up, which is as follows;

‘It cannot be a coincidence that Bram Stoker had Dracula tread a path very similar to cholera; a devastating contagion travelling from the East by ship that people initially do not know how to fight, a great storm preceding its arrival, the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits, avenging doctors and Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead, all culminating in the date of august 11th of the first victim.’

Just to take these in order;

  1. ‘It cannot be a coincidence’ It can absolutely be a coincidence. All of this is literally coincidence without any evidence to support it. This is not how history works. 
  2. ‘…a path very similar…’ Dracula comes from Western Europe. Cholera came from the Far East. Both are east of the British Isles, but the origins of the two contagions are hardly identical. The ship aspect I dealt with last time; this is how people and goods travelled across continents at that time. Not to mention that all of these similarities with cholera are similarities with any disease – and most agree that the idea of the vampire as contagion is a legitimate theme of ‘Dracula’ (indeed, historical belief in vampires has strong ties to disease). There’s nothing special about cholera in this respect. The same goes for idea of people not knowing how to fight these afflictions; all disease outbreaks require learning or relearning of ways to combat them. One could just as easily claim similarity in that cholera had been fought off previously, and that Van Helsing already knows how to defeat vampires; just not necessarily this one… 
  3. ‘…the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits…’ earlier in the talk McGarry claims that Stoker invokes miasma theory in ‘Dracula’. In fact he doesn’t. Bad smells abound, sure, but the only mention of miasma in the novel is metaphorical (‘as of some dry miasma’) and relates to the earthy smell of Dracula’s Transylvanian soil, not to the Count himself. Nowhere is smell cited as a means of transmission, only biting. ‘Dracula’, famously, takes a very modern, pseudoscientific approach to vampirism, even if its counter is good old-fashioned Catholic Christianity. Speaking of which…
  4. ‘…avenging doctors and Catholic imagery…’ as noted, ‘Dracula’ does treat vampirism as a disease, so the doctors follow from that; not bearing any specific relation to cholera in Ireland. As for Catholic imagery, well, Stoker was from that background, and Dracula is very overtly Satanic in the novel. You need religion to defeat evil just as you need medicine to defeat disease. Once again, this is coincidence.
  5. ‘…the undead rising from the dead…’ how else does one get the undead? Seriously though, I’ve dealt with this above and previously. Stoker chose to write about vampires, therefore the undead feature. 
  6. ‘…all culminating in the date of August 11th of the first victim.’ Except it doesn’t, as I’ve shown.

I make that a 0/6. The themes identified by McGarry in Stoker’s book stem from his choice of vampires as the subject matter, and his take is shaped by his knowledge, upbringing, etc etc. Was he in part inspired to choose vampires because of family history with cholera? Maybe; it’s plausible as one of many influences (not, as McGarry implies, the main or sole influence) but there is literally zero evidence for it. 

Was Dracula Inspired by Cholera?

Sometimes a cholera victim is just a cholera victim…
Wellcome Collection (Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))

Note – I requested Marion McGarry’s paper, ‘Dracula = Cholera: how Sligo’s 1832 cholera epidemic influenced the novel by Bram Stoker’ via researchgate.net, but so far have not received a reply. I’m conscious that the below is therefore a response to articles in the media about her research and that I may therefore be missing something – the press are notoriously poor at handling historical research. That said, I’ve been interviewed for an Atlas Obscura article myself, and it was the most professional press interaction I’ve ever had, so I’d be surprised if her findings have been misrepresented. And if she does respond, I will gladly modify my views accordingly. Anyway, disclaimer over…

I recently read this story claiming that Bram Stoker was inspired by the history of cholera in Ireland. This is not the first time that a connection has been drawn between Stoker’s background and his literary works. Notably, Martin Willis’ ‘”The Invisible Giant,” “Dracula,” and Disease’ (available with a free limited account) detail the influence of his mother’s writing on the cholera outbreak on Stoker’s children’s story ‘The Invisible Giant,’ and tries to connect this to ‘Dracula.’ However, Willis’ thesis is very much an ‘intertextual’ reading of the book that, like the current claims, lacks hard evidence and ignores the much simpler explanation for the disease motifs of ‘Dracula’ that a) it’s about a vampire, and b) Stoker lifted his knowledge of vampire lore straight from a handful of sources. Sure, there is a clear Victorian, British/Irish pseudoscientific/Catholic Christian ‘gloss’ in his interpretation of the basic vampire lore (Van Helsing, transfusions, depictions of sickness), and perhaps the Irish cholera epidemic was part of his inspiration to write the book, by way of his previous work, but the actual disease-parallel content of ‘Dracula’ is about vampires, not cholera. You can read Dracula as a piece of art as being about cholera, but there’s just no evidence that’s it’s actually about it. Even the depictions of Dracula’s pale, ailing victims (and the blood on the mouths of his converts) brings to mind tuberculosis more than it does cholera (another popular speculative ‘reading’ of the book). I suggest reading Willis’ article for the actual disease parallels present in ‘Dracula’. At best, there is a connection with cholera through several degrees of separation – ‘Dracula’ is about vampirism as a Victorian idea of disease, one Victorian disease with a personal connection to Stoker was cholera. That’s it. That’s the evidence. It’s like saying that a particular band is influenced by another, because we can hear similar chord progressions in their music – but the band itself never stated any link in interviews, memoirs etc. It’s speculative.

There are some very specific claims in the AO article, most of which I think are way off: I will take them one by one:

‘Bram as an adult asked his mother to write down her memories of the epidemic for him, and he supplemented this using his own historic research of Sligo’s epidemic…’ This is quite true, but this was around 1875, twenty years before he wrote ‘Dracula.’ It’s possible that he was beginning to think along the lines of ‘The Invisible Giant’ (published 1881), but despite the implication here that he got information from his mother in preparation for ‘Dracula,’ there is no evidence that Charlotte Stoker’s letter has anything to do with that novel. She did write

‘Charlotte says cholera enters port towns having traveled by ship, and can travel overland as a mist—just like Dracula, who infects people with his unknown contagion.’

Yes, and William Peter Blatty probably saw a doctor’s bag once when he was young. Should we be lauding this as the inspiration for The Exorcist? Seriously, this is incredibly weak. It’s not as though ‘Dracula’ could have hopped on a 737 or hitchhiked across Europe. Travel by boat was the only practical way to get the Count to the shores of England; even if Stoker had chosen rail travel, as used later in the novel, there is still the matter of the English Channel, and as Stoker was clearly taken with Whitby as an arrival location, he had to get him across the North Sea. Likewise, oddly enough, ships were the only effective means for infectious disease to spread prior to the advent of motor vehicles, air travel and even (in 1832) railways. This is the one of the more transparent cases of a straightforward coincidence in an historical claim that I have ever come across. An RTE article from 2018 gives a variant of this claim that arguably makes it stronger; that Dracula’s arrival and the first death of the 1832 Sligo epidemic were both preceded by unusual storms. This is true, but could simply be a coincidence. Murder at sea, a storm and a shipwreck is rather more dramatic than the Count strolling casually off the Demeter in broad daylight. If this choice was inspired by Charlotte Stoker’s mention of a storm in a letter that she sent her son twenty years before, any influence is likely to be subconscious or non-existent. Her 1873 article on the epidemic ‘Experience of the Cholera in Ireland 1832’ fails to mention a storm – if it appears in her c.1875 letter (which I can’t find), that might be a start. The wording of the two is also entirely unalike. Charlotte apparently wrote of .’..thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere,’ whereas the closest description in ‘Dracula’ is ‘…the glare of the lightning, which now came thick and fast, followed by such sudden peals of thunder…’. Had Bram mentioned a close atmosphere, we might be able to see a connection here. As it is, it’s another coincidence.

‘Dracula’ was ‘…inspired by the idea of someone being buried before they were fully dead.’ This is not a new connection – journalist Barbara Belford implied this as an influence upon Stoker back in 1996 in her ‘Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula,’ painting a colourful picture of Stoker’s mother telling him stories of the Sligo cholera outbreak and its grisly consequences. Richard Walker directly quotes Charlotte Stoker’s account of a woman presumed dead yet still alive in his 2007 book chapter ‘The blood is the life: Bram Stoker’s infected capital’ (p. 256). He calls the idea that the ‘…supposed dead could still be animate’ ‘…intrinsic to this discussion’ and of course is quite correct about that – the state of living death features in both the history of disease and that of folkloric vampirism, and vampires were often scapegoats for disease outbreaks. Neither Belford nor Walker suggested any causal link between Stoker’s knowledge of cholera in Ireland and the text of ‘Dracula’ however. Wallis’ article contains several readings of the novel, but none feature this aspect – he simply uses the coincidence as an introductory framing device before devoting the rest of the article to parallels with drug addiction. ‘Vampirologists’ McNally and Florescu went further in their popular (as in, not academic) history ‘In Search of Dracula’ (1994, p. 137):

‘[Charlotte] told young Bram not only Irish fairy tales but also some true horror stories. An Irish woman from Sligo, she had witnessed the cholera epidemic there in 1832; later Bram recalled her accounts of it, suggesting that the vampire pestilence in his novel owed much to the frightful stories told by his mother.’

Although the media reports don’t actually make clear what aspects of ‘Dracula’ McGarry thinks the cholera stories ‘inspired,’ given that the concept of the animate or living dead is ancient and universal, the only thing that she and McNally/Florescu can possibly mean is that Stoker was influenced to write a horror novel with similar themes. This is plausible enough, but again, we still have nothing written from Stoker, his family, friends, or his contemporaries, to evidence even this modest claim. Once Stoker (for whatever reason) chose vampirism as the theme of his novel, he was bound to include the idea of the living dead along with it. Nor is the Sligo cholera connection evident in Stoker’s take on vampirism – he lifted his understanding of vampire beliefs directly from Gerard’s book and a few other reports, and although many aspects are a product of Stoker’s late Victorian influences, this isn’t one of them. The slavic figure of the vampire had been well-known in western Europe since the early 18th century, and various authors had already tapped it for subject matter (Stoker was certainly influenced by Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ for example). In any case, if this is, as Atlas Obscura states, the ‘strongest link’ that McGarry has found, then I’m afraid she is not onto a winner with her hypothesis. Oh, and the article seems to imply that Stoker coined the term ‘undead.’ He did not.

Not only are these claims dubious, but there’s no other evidence of a direct connection. Stoker’s annotated notes for ‘Dracula’ don’t contain a single word about cholera, and the only reference that he makes to disease is a research note from Emily Gerard’s ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ (1888), which was Stoker’s main source for all of his vampire folklore;

‘Finger pointing to rainbow seized with gnawing disease’

This is a paraphrase of a line from Gerard;

‘The finger which ventures to point at a rainbow will be straightway seized by a gnawing disease…’

Absolutely nothing to do with cholera, and not one of the superstitions borrowed by Stoker for his book. ‘Dracula’ itself does not draw any comparison with cholera, nor even consumption, although Van Helsing does call Lucy’s vampirism ‘the disease’ at one point. The irony here is that there’s no need to make these reaches to connect ‘Dracula’ to the town or county of Sligo, when the author has such strong genuine connections to the area in particular and the country of Ireland in general.

I wouldn’t fash masel’ about the facts

George Malpas as seaman Swales in the excellent 1977 BBC version of Dracula

 

[Edit – I was a little hasty in discounting this entirely. Clarification here.]

Like most readers of ‘Dracula’, I had no idea what the old sailor was talking about when he advised Mina ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’. I later realised it was intended as Yorkshire dialect; a way of saying ‘I wouldn’t fuss myself about them’ i.e. ‘I wouldn’t worry about them’. Yet, according to some, most notably Bram Stoker’s author descendant Dacre, this was a piece of Doric dialect that Bram Stoker picked up whilst staying in Scotland. This despite the fact that the scene is set, and was written, in the coastal town of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I was a little taken aback at first, thinking perhaps that I had it wrong, but sure enough, whereas ‘fash masel’ features in Doric, it’s also well-documented Yorkshire dialect. In fact many words and phrases that are said or implied to be uniquely Scottish are also found across broad swathes of northern England, which is unsurprising to those familiar with the history of the two countries and their shared language. Still other Scots words are also archaic English words, which always gives me pause for thought when the debate over the status of Scots arises. That is, whether Scots is a dialect of English or a distinct language. The whole thing is massively political, and really, it shouldn’t matter. English is just as much a Scottish language as it is an English or British one. Anyway, I digress. Suffice to say that Bram Stoker was not silly enough to put Doric in the mouth of a Yorkshireman. He may have first heard it in Scotland, but he must also have known that it was in wider usage. I don’t blame Dacre Stoker, as a North American, for not realising this, but I think it’s worth correcting this error.

Now, as for the claim in the same Scottish Sun article that Slains Castle ‘matches the floorplan of’ Dracula’s castle, that deserves its own post…