Sligo is a town located on the north west coast of the Republic of Ireland, in the county of the same name, amid a rugged beautiful landscape that famously inspired the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Yet, events in it's history also honed one of literature's most famous fictional characters: Count Dracula.
Sligo had a more than significant role in shaping Count Dracula than has previously been thought. The following is well known: the mother of the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, was Charlotte Stoker (nee Thornley) born in 1818. In 1832, Sligo was the worst hit town (in all of Ireland or Britain) by a devastating cholera epidemic. In just 6 weeks, an estimated 1,500 townspeople died from the disease. Charlotte’s family escaped, but she was forever haunted by what she witnessed. She wrote ‘Experiences of the Cholera in Ireland’ (1873) a 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. I have found that Charlotte’s descriptions tally with what the Sligo historians William G. Wood-Martin and Terrence O’Rorke reported on the epidemic. It also appears that Bram consulted Wood-Martin’s account. By analyzing these sources and cross referencing the text of Dracula, it is apparent that Count Dracula himself can be partly read as the personification of Sligo’s cholera epidemic.
Cholera is a disease caused by the cholera bacterium (vibrio cholerae), which infects humans usually by ingestion of contaminated drinking water. In 1832 Sligo town's Garavogue river was contaminated by human waste yet was used for drinking water. Untreated, cholera advances within hours to cause death by painful vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. The disease still exists – in 2018 Yemen has seen a catastrophic outbreak - but thanks to scientific understanding people are less likely to die from cholera.
Below: A cholera victim drawn in the nineteenth century. Victims died within hours of contracting the disease and typical traits included blue lips and skin, sunken eyes and a deadened appearance. Source: Wellcome Images.
Summer 1832: the ‘Beast from the East’:
‘Asiatic’ cholera, from the East, had swept through Europe, laying waste to major urban centres. The belief was that cholera affected port towns and that it travelled by ships. By the summer, Sligo tensely watched as the disease struck Dublin, Belfast, Limerick then the smaller towns: Tuam, Ballinrobe, Castlebar. The people of Sligo thought they had escaped when the terrible news broke: the first victim died on August 11th. Wood-Martin wrote that this event was preceded by an unusual storm, with ‘thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere’.
August 11th: Dracula and Cholera:
The coming of the dreadful cholera from the East, which people knew offered a horrible death, is mirrored in Dracula. The Count, himself a contagion makes his journey by ship from the East, 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 11th . A chilling coincidence or an acknowledgement of Charlotte Stoker’s experiences? Other similarities to Count Dracula and cholera abound:
1. The heroic doctors:
During the Sligo outbreak approximately 50 a day died. Doctors were heroic in their attempts to treat the victims, yet most 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 vampire.
1. Mist and smells:
Charlotte says it was believed cholera travelled as a mist over land: Count Dracula too can change into a mist. 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.
2. Roman Catholicism as potent adversary:
To replace the deceased doctors and nurses, the Fever Hospital had to employ untrained staff. 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 miraculously immune to cholera: they suffered few casualties although they were in contact with victims. In Dracula the symbols of Roman Catholicism, such as holy water and the crucifix, are used to fight against vampirism.
1. The Undead
Charlotte wrote how 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 was a voracious researcher who undertook library research to give his work a factual basis. He 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 prior to publication.
The novel is a rich tapestry inspired by various events and people and until now his mother’s tales were viewed as merely one aspect of that. But the storm, the date of August 11th, the avenging doctors, Catholic imagery, 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 take time to remember the victims who succumbed to the epidemic.
This article was originally published in the Sligo Weekender newspaper, August 11th 2018. It is an excerpt of Marion McGarry’s paper “Dracula = Cholera” which she will present at the ‘How Sligo Shaped Dracula’ conference on 10th November 2018, open to all. The conference will feature talks by a panel of experts on Sligo’s Cholera epidemic, Bram Stoker and Dracula. Follow for updates: Facebook: SligoBramStokerSociety / Twitter: @SligoStoker
Below: A cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin (Antoine Joseph Wiertz, 1854, Wikipedia Commons).