Category Archives: history

Past present.

Bathed in Blood

Hematolagnic Ablutophilia. Noun. A macaronic neologism that combines Latin and Greek roots to mean a sexual fetish which evokes arousal when the subject or object is bathed in blood. First usage? This article.

True Blood's Lilith
True Blood’s Lilith

The fifth season of HBO’s True Blood featured a character inspired by Jewish folklore named Lilith. Silent and sinister, she is believed to be the first vampire ever to walk the earth. And she walks completely nude, covered in blood as vampire men and women fall under her intoxicating spell. Her blood is the source of immense power. And she is dripping wet with it.

THE BLOOD COUNTESS

Bathed in blood, the Lilith of True Blood is —more so than the winged demon of Hebrew mythology — evocative of a tradition in vampire lore that finds its origins in the historical figure of Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory. A late 16th / early 17th century Hungarian Countess infamous for having allegedly killed hundreds of young girls, she reputedly bathed in their blood in order to retain her youth.

Countess Dracula (1971)
Ingrid Pitt in Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971)

Depicted in many films — most notably 1971’s Countess Dracula, starring Ingrid Pitt, and two more recent offerings, one with Anna Friel and the other, Julie Delpy) — Bathory’s story of bloodlust in the pursuit of youth is legendary.

While testimonies following her arrest — extracted under torture, and often supplied by “witnesses” with connections to those who owed money  to her husband —described how Bathory tortured and murdered young girls (as many as 650 by some estimates), no references to the bloodbaths appeared in the transcripts from her “trial” that surfaced in 1765 (later published in 1817).

So why does legend overshadow the facts of her arrest and subsequent life sentence to confinement in a tower of her castle?

Elizabeth Bathory, c. 1585
Bathory at age 25 in the only surviving contemporary portrait of the Countess

The first written account of the Bathory case — Jesuit scholar László Turóczi’s Tragica Historia — was published in 1729 at the height of the alleged vampire attacks in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734. A fantastical account of a blood-craving Countess, appearing at a time when “enlightened” Europeans were exhuming and staking corpses, sealed her fate.

THE PRIEST WHO WROTE THE BOOK ON VAMPIRES

As Bathory’s reputation grew (in works like historian Matthias Bel’s The Castle and Town of Csejte [1742]), so did that of the vampire (Father Abbot Dom Antoine Augustin Calmet’s seminal Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Bohême, de Moravie, et de Silésie, for example, appeared in 1746).  By the middle of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Bathory’s name would become synonymous with bloodlust, vampirism and blood itself.

Not only blood, but the blood of virgin girls. It called into question not only her mental state, but her sexuality as well.

THE WRITERS WHO TOOK IT FROM THERE

From Coleridge’s Christabel at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1797, 1800)  to Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and, ultimately, Stoker’s Dracula by century’s end (1897), the influence of Bathory’s legend on the development of the vampire in literature — however veiled — was still clear. Gratuitous bloodletting with undercurrents of lesbianism had become so much a part of vampire lore, in fact, that Bathory, the historical figure, was lost to scholars for almost a century.

Contemporary historians Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, however, helped to resurrect Elizabeth and her reputation. McNally, in particular, in his Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania (1983) suggests that the Bathory legend has roots in antiquated ideas about gender. Lust and sadism were thought to be masculine vices. Bloodletting for a woman, then, must be attributed to her vanity, her pride.

THE LEGACY OF LILITH
The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo
The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo

Curiously, it is exactly the sin of pride (which included vainglory or vanity as far as the Church was concerned) that condemned the Lilith of mythology. In Hebrew Apocrypha, she is Adam’s first wife.  Desiring equality with him — including the option of having sex in anything other than the missionary position — Lilith was rejected by both Adam and God for such independent thinking. Upon a self-imposed exile, she becomes a temptress, seen as a winged demon from Babylonia and Sumerian traditions, and forever associated and intertwined with the serpent of the Garden of Eden. Demonized for her sexuality, Lilith becomes / is a symbol of man’s fear of strong-willed women. Sexual beings with their own desires. Creatures that shed blood, yet are renewed.

Something deep in our reptilian brains, it would seem, is repulsed by yet attracted to this potent image of a beautiful woman embracing the serpent or covered in blood. No coincidence, then, that when Adam’s second wife, Eve, is tempted by the serpent and, in turn, tempts her husband to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, her punishment is not only their banishment from the garden, but the curse of pain in childbirth for all women to come.

If blood is the life (Deuteronomy 12:23) and life is power, a powerful woman may have been judged by early man to be too bloodthirsty. Depraved. A demon. A vampire. Craving blood. Shedding blood.

Perhaps even pictured as bathing in it.

 


 

Lest you think that accusations of bathing in blood are reserved for a late 16th / early 17th century noblewoman, see what a housekeeper at a London hotel said about Lady Gaga earlier this year.

For more information about Countess Elizabeth Bathory, visit www.infamouslady.com.

For more about Ingrid Pitt, read this blog entry about the Women of Hammer Horror.

 

Genius, Gin and Glucose: The Death of E.A. Poe

A fictionalized account of the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, James McTeigue’s 2012 thriller The Raven finds Poe (John Cusack)  in pursuit of a killer who is inspired by the author’s own tales of terror. Certainly, McTeigue takes liberties with the facts of the poet’s life (and death), but as fantastical as the film’s premise may be, the real circumstances surrounding his final few days are even more intriguing and — as would be expected from him — bizarre. Exactly how did Edgar Allan Poe die?

“Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, 1848

Heartbroken following the death of his wife, Virginia, Poe was physically transformed after 1847. His health was clearly in marked decline following her passing; one need only compare Poe’s life portraits to see the dramatic change in countenance. When the six daguerreotypes taken during the last eighteen months of his life are viewed in sequence following all other known life portraits of Poe, the rapid decline is startling. The almost unrecognizable robust man in his early thirties becomes haggard and wan by age forty.

Could the physical characteristics apparent in just these eleven known life portraits shed some light on the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe?

The most famous image, the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of November 1848 (taken four days after a suicide attempt), shows a man beleaguered and beaten. We are familiar with the haunting eyes and solemn expression. But a closer examination of the face reveals three distinct features not seen in earlier images of Poe: 1) baggy eyelids; 2) a drooping of the left side of the face; and 3) possible temporal arteritis, a condition in some men over 40 that can lead to headache, malaise, fever, weight loss and visual disturbances. The basis of the disorder is an inflammation of the lining of the temporal artery (in the scalp over the temple).

Its causes are many, but among them are two of the more plausible causes of Poe’s death put forward over the last couple of decades: diabetes (argued by David Sinclair, a Poe biographer, in 1977) and brain tumor (most recently put forth by Matthew Pearl, conducting research for his novel The Poe Shadow); this theory of a  tumor / possible brain cancer is based upon 1) a contemporary physician who concluded that he had “lesions on the brain”; and 2) eye-witness evidence of calcification of the brain following an exhumation of the body 26 years after his death).

Despite popular opinion — now and at the time of his death — Poe almost certainly didn’t die directly from alcohol poisoning; re-enforced by continued character assassination by both his own publishers and the many detractors who found Poe, the critic, less than kind with his reviews, that image has stuck. His contemporaries, however, while admitting that the man drank, did not find Poe to be someone who drank to excess. Yet consumption of even the smallest amount of alcohol resulted in apparent stupor and confusion. And in the weeks preceding his death, Poe had  joined a temperance movement.

This is not to say that Poe did not have his problems with alcohol.

In a letter to George Evelth, a medical student who wrote a fan letter to the poet in 1845, initiating a correspondence, Poe writes

“…I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” (January 4, 1848)

Later, the next month, on the wagon, Poe tells Evelth that

“I rise early, eat moderately, drink nothing but water, and take regular and abundant exercise in the open air.” (February 19, 1848)

This period of health was not to last, however; a year and a half later, writing to Maria Clemm, his mother-in-law, Poe says

“For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval, I imagined the most horrible calamities. All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced — an attack of mania-a-potu.” (July 19, 1849)

A violent alcohol intoxication without having had a drop? Poe was no doctor; he used the language he could to express his condition.  But clearly, barely three months before his death, some other malady was at play.

Earlier that year, in writing to Annie Richmond, a close friend, Poe writes that he

“…had a most distressing headache for the last two weeks.” (January 21, 1849)

Could the headaches and hallucinations have a common cause?

Certainly, a brain tumor could be responsible for these, and other symptoms. And while I won’t dispute the possibility of such a thing, a brain tumor would not explain years of sensitivity to alcohol nor would it normally result in the weight loss in his thirties then sudden weight gain evident in the daguerreotypes taken in Poe’s latter years. Excess cortisol in the blood, a result of stress (of which Poe had more than his share) can occur in both situations, but diabetes can certainly explain the sensitivity to alcohol throughout his life.

At the University of Virginia, for example, as early as 1826, Poe (as most young people do when away at college) may have overindulged. But curiously, one contemporary classmate, Thomas Goode Tucker, recalled that Poe

“. . . would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; but if not, he rarely returned to the charge” (Letter from Tucker to Douglas Sherly, April 5, 1880)

A lightweight, so to speak, Poe’s intolerance for alcohol may have been rooted in his blood sugar. Untreated, diabetes could, over time, progress to nephrotic syndrome and damage to the kidneys, resulting in acute confusion from hypoglycemia — or even contribute to and/or trigger severe depression. In the November 22, 2010 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, one study showed that psychiatric disorders can be a risk factor for, as well as a complication of, type 2 diabetes. Perhaps his melancholy contributed to developing the disease.

Few who read the man’s poems, fiction and letters would be surprised to find Poe suffered from depression. The death of his young bride Virginia two years before his own could definitely bring on stress that would lead any man to drink; but in Poe’s case, the stress may have aggravated by pre-existing medical conditions that ultimately lead to his mysterious last few days: missing in the streets of Baltimore, disoriented, and found in clothes not his known (mostly likely due to the practice of “cooping”, whereby unwilling participants, some mentally ill, some drunk and most vagrants, were forced to repeatedly vote, often after a change of clothes).

So many factors may have contributed to Poe’s death that an accurate differential diagnosis — based purely on letters, a few (questionable) eyewitness testimonies, and some physical evidence that may or may not be apparent in a few photographs — may forever be impossible. Comorbidity of a number of health problems is more likely than any single smoking gun (metaphorically speaking, as there are many a theory as to Poe being murdered!).

In the end, whatever his afflictions, the popular image of Poe as little more than tortured soul, hopeless romantic, and terminal drunk  is ever more confounding. He deserves more than caricature. His life was hard. His enemies were many.

One such detractor, writing in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1846, took a jab in a mock poem that questioned whether Poe’s so-called talent —a talent finally being recognized widely with the publication of “The Raven” the year before — was “excessive genius or excessive gin!”

I would argue it was all that and more. Excessive genius? To be sure. Excessive gin? Possibly. A touch. One drink would clearly intoxicate him. And to this, I add glucose. “Constitutionally sensitive,” Poe suffered from some medical condition — arguably type 2 diabetes — that, to the medical profession of his time, all but meant a death sentence.

Sad, then, that all that Poe may have needed in the hours before his death may have been a simple glass of fruit juice.

LIFE PORTRAITS OF POE (IN ORDER): 1842-1849

Look for yourself at the images of Poe made during his lifetime. See the dramatic changes in his appearance (and his apparent health) in the photographs linked below; they are presented in chronological order.

Note that where necessary, daguerreotypes have been “corrected” laterally. Daguerreotypes show laterally-reversed (or “flopped”) images. Everything in a daguerreotype was flipped: left was right and right was left. I have horizontally flipped images where necessary to show Poe’s face properly so that signs of age, stress and possible diabetes are oriented correctly — as if you were looking at the man.

For a complete visual study of the author in art and photography, see Michael Deas’ Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe (1989), presented online by the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore.

For the Letters of Edgar Allen Poe, courtesy of the Internet Archive, click here » »

UPDATE: as of March 25, 2015 (a little shy of three years since posted) “Genius, Gin and Glucose” has received 425 Facebook likes and logged 5,000 unique pageviews. By far, it’s the most read piece of anything I’ve ever written. Thanks to all of the Edgar Allan Poe enthusiasts out there!