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.
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.
Stoker used rats for scary effect not only in ‘Dracula’ but also in his gothic horror tale ‘The Burial of the Rats’, set in Paris.
After a fearsome night-time adventure when he barely escapes with his life, the narrator returns to the rat-ridden dust-heaps and looks for his human tormentors. Two are found, dead, already skeletons. The accompanying commissary remarks:
‘The rats move quickly and they are many. These bones are warm!’
These Eastern European ladies are celebrating Christmas with a wolf’s head (caput lupi) rather than the traditional boar’s head (caput apri) of the carol. I suspect that as Count Dracula is absent, the vampiresses are enjoying themselves in their own way.
The disease ‘lupus’ used to be diagnosed from apparent wolf-bite marks on the face and was often tubercular in origin, but now the term is used to refer to the autoimmune condition ‘systemic lupus erythematosus’. The typical rash on the cheeks is usually likened to the shape of a butterfly, but has also been compared with a bat.
A tale from my neighbour Jan Moore which is well worth listening to:
Not much was left of Mrs Killingworth in 1608. Some ashy small bones and a clump of hair were in a box, and that box was on the desk of the Lord Mayor of London. Mrs Killingworth had been burnt in her own fireplace near Aldgate.
Important men like the Mayor and the Lord Chief Justice agreed that Mrs Killingworth had been made drunk and strangled by an Elizabeth Abbot, suspected pregnant, accent ‘somewhat northernly’. They arrested one innocent Mrs Abbot. And a second. They hanged the third. The news story survives at the British Library, London.