Secret treats to ingest were sent by Count Dracula to Renfield: “Big moths, in the night, with skull and cross-bones on their backs.” The all-knowing Dr Van Helsing explains: “The Acherontia Atropos of the Sphinges, what you call the ‘Death’s-head Moth’?”
Curious eating habits of various kinds had long been observed in asylums, and were discussed by W. C. McIntosh, superintendent of Perth asylum, in 1866:
The morbid desires, longings, or impulses for various substances generally regarded with loathing and disgust have been grouped under the head of Pica.
Although these alien substances were often chalk, charcoal or earth, there is one mention of an insect-eater:
Remaining during winter in a kind of torpid state in the chimney corner, but in summer hunting all day long for honey-bees, humble-bees, and wasps.
While the unfortunate patients may partly have been trying to improve their wretched diets, these days, eating insects is very trendy, and earth will clearly be next.
Dr Seward, the asylum superintendent in ‘Dracula’, decided to invent a new diagnosis for his pet patient Renfield – ‘zoophagy’ (animal-or life-eating).
However, Renfield wanted to go beyond his usual flies, spiders and birds, and attacked Dr Seward himself, explaining that ‘the blood is the life’ as mentioned in the Bible and in the advertisement shown above. (In fact this Mixture’s chief active ingredient was potassium iodide.)
The real psychiatrist Dr George Savage had in 1888 described a case with similar self-proclaimed motivation:
He visited the city abattoir, obtained and drank blood hot from the slaughtered animals. This was after a few days stopped, but fortunately he was watched, for he was seen to try to decoy children to his rooms, and he owned to me that he wished to have their blood, as blood was his life, and his life was that of a genius.
Dr Savage was considering the psychopathology of Jack the Ripper.
The British Medical Journal reported on a ‘supposed outbreak of beri-beri’ in the Richmond Asylum, Dublin in 1894. This was remarkable, because previously such a disease had mainly been seen in the East.
The first noticeable symptom was oedema of the legs, which tended to spread rapidly. This was followed by weakness of the heart and breathing difficulties. Mentally, the sufferers became dull and sleepy. Sometimes there were symptoms of hyperaesthesia or paralysis. At this point there had been 110 cases under treatment, and 13 deaths.
Dr Conolly Norman, the medical superintendent, called for outside help, and the eminent Dublin surgeon Dr Thornley Stoker (Bram Stoker’s brother) led an investigation and provided a report to the governors. The disease appeared to resemble the beri-beri known in tropical and sub-tropical regions but the cause was unknown, although it seemed as if the cause must lie within the boundaries of the asylum. They concluded:
Bad ventilation and bad blood appear to be promoters, but the bacillary origin does not appear to be yet established.
The BMJ noted later that ‘blood’ had been a misprint for ‘food’.
Elizabeth Siddal was the muse/model/mistress and later, wife, of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). He, and others of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (she also starred as Millais’ Ophelia), were besotted with her long red hair, pale skin, slimness, languorous appearance and it seems her neck, which is somewhat swollen and frequently the central point.
She may have had tuberculosis, and died quite young, perhaps of a laudanum overdose. It has also been suggested that, coming from a poor background, she might have had a smooth neck goitre related to iodine deficiency.
Rossetti added to the morbidly gothic image by getting friends to retrieve his poems (suitably disinfected by a doctor) from her grave seven years after the burial in Highgate Cemetery. It was rumoured that she was little decomposed and that her red-gold hair filled the coffin. And yes, it is very likely Bram Stoker knew of this, as his good friend Hall Caine had been Rossetti’s secretary.
In the Carpathian Mountain area of Transylvania Jonathan Harker noted:
Here and there we passed Cszeks and Slovaks, all in picturesque attire, but I noticed that goitre was painfully prevalent.
This perception of enlargement of the thyroid seems knowledgeable to us, but was a tourist cliché at the time. However, we are led to consider the area of the neck.
In Seymour Taylor’s ‘Index of Medicine’ (1894), ‘goitre’ defined as ‘enlargement of the thyroid gland’ is noted as ‘prevalent endemically…where the potable water is derived from the limestone foundation’, instancing the Swiss mountains and Derbyshire in England where the condition was known as ‘Derbyshire neck’. Iodine was agreed to be a possible remedy, but the cause was usually thought to be intermarriage of close relations and impurity in the drinking water.