There were possibly varied and many Irish influences on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula including the Great Irish Famine, the mummified bodies in St Michan’s crypt in Dublin and the political leader Charles Stuart Parnell (1846-1891) who the British press labelled the ‘Irish Vampire’. But specific focus has surrounded the influence of Stoker’s mother, and the stories she told to her young son of her upbringing in Sligo and the terrible Cholera outbreak of 1832.
Charlotte Matilda Blake Thornley was born in Sligo in 1818. Charlotte’s mother was Matilda Blake who married Lieutenant Thomas Thornley, from Ballyshannon. The family lived near Old Market Street.
In August 1832, Cholera hit Sligo. The disease had been moving through Europe, Britain and other parts of Ireland, notably Limerick and Tuam. Sligo suffered more than other town in the country. Cholera is a rapid disease and can cause death in a matter of hours. For three months, as the cholera rapidly moved through the town, local doctors tried heroically to contain it, and many succumbed to the disease themselves.
Medical knowledge of cholera at the time was vague, and no-one knew how it was spread or what caused it. Sligo’s workhouse and fever hospital was overcrowded. Deaths were estimated at around an astonishing fifty per day and some estimate the total death toll to be around 1,800 during the epidemic, which lasted from August to September. Panic, terror and confusion spread through the town. There was a curfew on the streets and people began to evacuate the town. Soon, checkpoints occurred on the main roads to stop people entering or leaving the town.
Charlotte later wrote in her journal the tales she told to her young son. She wrote how people in Ireland had heard of the march of the terrible disease from the East through Europe. She heard it was in France, then in Britain ‘and then, with wild affright: it was in Ireland’. She witnessed frightening scenes such as mass graves being dug. She heard stories about people she had known succumbing to the disease, and being buried so quickly that they were still alive. She saw one victim, falling down with the illness, being pushed by others into a makeshift grave using long wooden poles – he was still not dead. Cholera has the distinctive effect of making victims’ skin shrivel and take on a bluish hue.
After 6 weeks, Charlotte’s family evacuated Sligo to Ballyshannon (Donegal) where they had cousins. But on entering Ballyshannon they were surrounded by a mob who refused to allow the ‘diseased from Sligo’ into their town. When the epidemic was over the family resumed their life in Sligo. There is speculation that Charlotte then worked in service in Longford House, Skreen.
In the early 1840s she met and married Abraham Stoker Senior from Coleraine, who was 20 years her senior. They moved to Dublin where he worked as an official in Dublin Castle. They had seven children: William, Mathilda, Abraham (Bram), Thomas, Richard, Margaret, and George. The family lived an existence of middle class comfort at various Dublin addresses including Clontarf.
When Bram was a small child he suffered an undisclosed illness which meant that until seven he was confined to bed. This does not seem to have had a lasting impact on him, as he became a sportsman in his student years at Trinity College Dublin. It seems his mother told the children tales of the Sligo cholera epidemic. In the 1870s, Bram requested she write the tales down, and she wrote an account of her experiences during Sligo's cholera epidemic.
Charlotte Stoker was also a charity worker and was involved with social reform. She encouraged her children to do well in life: William became a respected surgeon, Thomas worked in the Indian Civil Service, Richard was a Colonel in the Indian Medical Service, George worked in medicine in South Africa, while Mathilda and Margaret married wealthy professional men.
Charlotte died in Dublin in 1901. There has been some suggestion she was buried in the family plot in the cemetery of St John's Cathedral in Sligo, but records are inconclusive. Other sources say she was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin.
Pictured below: Sligo courthouse was built in 1878 is close to where Thornley's family home once was.