Inside the Collection

Transylvanian blood-suckers

The objects discussed in this post are currently on display in the exhibition Design for Life, 26 September 2020–31 January 2021.


Porecelin medical jar with the text "Leeches" written in gold
Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Last week I started work on a collection of objects relating the period of the Australian Gold Rush and one of the objects was a porcelain medical jar made by S. Maws and Sons between 1860 and 1870. It had been used for holding leeches and I thought there may be an interesting connection between these blood-sucking animals and the diggers who often spent long hours panning or ‘wet-digging’ in streams and rivers.

Sure enough it soon emerged from newspaper articles that leeches were a well-known and mostly unwanted nuisance for diggers sometimes working up to their waists in water almost all day. But it was an 1868 article from The Queenslander which really attracted my attention. This article focussed on a group of people who were advocates for the poor misunderstood leech as they collected them for medical purposes and then exported them overseas to places like South America. One man, a Hungarian, complained about how before … the diggers had destroyed them by converting the creeks into mud channels, it was a lucrative employment.

But, the thing that really piqued my interest was the following statement:

up to this day the science of leech craft is little understood, important as are the services those little animals render to suffering humanity:—To begin, then, the demand is much greater than the supply. Holland and Belgium—the principal leech countries—are thoroughly exhausted, and the largest number now comes from the Russo-Turkish Provinces of Moldavia, Wallachia, Romania, and Transylvania.

Transylvania? Does this mean these two blood-suckers, the vampire and leech, share a common ancestry? A quick search on reveals Bram Stoker wrote his famous gothic tale Dracula in 1897, nearly 30 years after this article. Yet I can’t help wondering if as these wooden gin cases stamped ‘THIS SIDE UP’ and ‘TRANSYLVANIA’ were shipped across Europe, filled with soil, moss, and up to 500 leeches, they might have cultivated a strong link between blood-sucking and this remote region of Romania. Perhaps some of the popularity of Bram Stoker’s novel could be explained by this already existing link.

The literary connections go back to Les Mille et un Fantomes (1849) by Alexandre Dumas, and The Castle of the Carpathians (1892) by Jules Verne. But there is no doubt that Stoker’s Dracula was the novel that firmly established Transylvania as a land of superstition, horror and blood-suckers. There’s even a reference to the humble leech in this excerpt from his book:

so I raised the lid, and laid it back against the wall. And then I saw something which filled my very soul with horror. There lay the Count, but looking as if his youth had been half restored. For the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey. The cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath. The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.

Transylvania, the leech industry, vampires, Dracula, goldmining, and a medical jar.

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