Let’s start with tuberculosis. Tuberculosis a bacterial disease that’s deadly if untreated, but these days it can be cured by antibiotics. It’s spread by microscopic droplets when people speak, sneeze, cough, etc. People with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable.
Of course once upon a time people didn’t know about bacteria or why people in the same household or nearby might pick up the illness.
Tuberculosis used to be called “consumption” – maybe because the body seemed to consume itself. People suffering from consumption got thin and were often pale. The main symptom was coughing – often coughing up blood. The cheeks might get rosy and the lips red. Sufferers might be restless and exhibit strange behavior. There could be periods of remission. Death might come quickly, or dying might take a long time.
There was a kind of romanticism about the disease. Beautiful young people seemed to get more beautiful as they wasted away. Two famous opera heroines die of the disease. Most opera heroines die of something – but usually they kill themselves or get killed by jealous or jilted lovers. However, the two consumption deaths are so famous that they’ve become opera tropes. The dead sopranos are Mimi in La Boheme and Violetta in La Traviata. Violetta is based on none other than the notorious Marie Duplessis, who died of the disease at age 23.
The actress Vivien Leigh, best known for her portrayals of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois lived with TB for years. She might have been bi-polar as well, but some of her “temperament” was chalked up to tuberculosis.
Looking at the symptoms and imagining life at a time when no one understood contagion or bacteria, it’s easy to see how consumption got mixed up with vampirism. One person would take sick and eventually die, and then others in the same household would begin to suffer the same symptoms. Perhaps the dead were coming back and taking their blood, slowly draining them. So every so often they’d dig up the body of someone who died of the disease. If the body looked fresh, this was taken as a sign it was vampire.
Marie Duplessis was exhumed, as was Marguerite Gautier, the character based on her in the novel The Lady of the Camellias. This happened because her sort-of-kind-of husband (long story) wanted to put her in a better grave. Her body was rotting quite nicely so she probably wasn’t a vampire – unless maybe it wasn’t really her body.
In the 1800′s in New England there were cases of people being dug up and declared vampires. Thus, was born “the New England Vampire Panic,” which would be an awesome name for a band.
(Well boys and girls, that’s our ghoulish lesson for today. Please take a look around the blog, and feel free to read the excerpt of Blood Diva. The novel will be published soon. There will be E-ARCs available to “professional” readers through NetGalley even sooner. You can come here to check updates and we should have that RSS button up soon.)