The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum reveals what may have fueled the supernatural folklore around vampires.
During the 19th century, the presence of infectious diseases in New Orleans fueled fear, superstitions and folklore — including the existence of vampires, according to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.
Curator and docent Owen Ever said the supernatural folklore around vampires was linked to syphilis and tuberculous, referred to as consumption during that time period. Both diseases were prominent during the 19th century in the South and New England area.
“For many people struggling with all of this bizarre, terrifying sickness, it became a supernatural experience,” Ever said.
Ever said cases of tuberculous also influenced one of the most famous books on vampires, Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel, “Dracula,” written near the end of the 19th century.
“His descriptions of what the vampire looked like and its effects on the body were taken from direct accounts of how consumption was affecting people,” Ever said.
Ever said a diagnosis of consumption, or tuberculous, was a diagnosis of vampirism back then. In the case of tuberculous, folkloric methods were used to “keep the vampire at bay” like the use of garlic, since the medical community had no reliable course of action.
The erotic, nocturnal nature of vampires is also linked to the spread of syphilis. Some of the physical features were derived from congenital syphilis, when the disease is transferred during pregnancy.
“A lot of the way we imagine a vampire has to to with the effects of hereditary syphilis: the elongated fingers, the narrow face, the pointy teeth,” Ever said.
In the case of syphilis, the primary treatment at the pharmacy was daily mercury injections, prior to the discovery of penicillin.
Ever said the lack of knowledge of these diseases led the medical community to often rely on superstitions.
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum opened in 1950 as a museum, but the historic building opened in 1823 as America’s first official licensed pharmacy. The pharmacy was owned and operated by Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., America’s first licensed pharmacist.
For more information about the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, visit the website.