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The Source:

Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) was a French geographer who wrote a great number of books and articles about all the places where he had travelled. Apart from that, he appears to have been a militant anarchist. I once bought some copies of an old French magazine called "Le Tour du Monde". In one of the magazines, dated 1873, I found a long article by Elisée Reclus, titled: "Voyage aux régions miničres de la Transylvanie Occidentale". I have translated the most interesting parts of the article for you.

The Case

"Koloszvár, the second town of Transylvania by its number of inhabitants, is the most important one from a political point of view. It also distinguishes itself from the other towns by the beauty of its buildings and by the elegance of its social life. Still, if I had not known about these things in advance, I would never have guessed that I entered a capital town. There were no more than two horse-drawn coaches waiting outside the station and I was the only one among the travellers who made use of their service. The streets were almost empty; there were no people walking in the town square, and when I passed the main café, the handful of clients stared at me with surprise, as if the mere arrival of a stranger was a rare event. The few people that I saw in the street all seemed to be in a remarkable sort of hurry. It seemed strange. Certainly, Koloszvár had the looks of a small province town; nevertheless I was puzzled by the manners of its inhabitants. But it did not take long before I discovered the explanation to this mystery. In the general silence of the town all the church bells suddenly started ringing. And from my hotel room, again and again, I could hear the muffled sound of marching feet. I looked out of my window. They were funeral processions. One had not disappeared around the corner or the next one was coming along. There seemed to be no end to it. Evidently the innkeeper in Csucsa had not been exaggerating. The cholera was ravaging Koloszvár. Perhaps it would be wise if I would not stay here for too long. The churches were all surrounded by people in mourning. Besides, the architecture of these particular buildings was so ugly that I did not feel tempted to take a look inside. I preferred to stroll around through the town and its immediate surroundings. The first thing that I noticed was the manner in which the authorities had been trying to clean up the city. At regular distances there were small piles of garbage, stinking in the sun. This reminded me of a story I had read in a recent newspaper about the magistrates of a town in the Banat. They had received an official telegram from Pesth: "Take care. The cholera is coming your way. Take all necessary precautions." The next morning the answer came back: "We are ready for it. The cholera can come." Next, the authorities in Pesth wanted to know which preventive measures had been taken. It turned out that the only thing that they had done was dig a number of new graves in the churchyard."

"We left Offenbanya. The countries and its inhabitants all seemed quite idyllic; even the cemeteries had a festive sort of look. Colourful flags and ribbons were waving in the air, tied to poles that had been planted in great numbers around the churches. One of my fellow travellers explained to me the symbolism of those merry flags and all at once my surroundings seemed less cheerful. When a young man dies, a long pole with flags is planted on his grave. The waving of the flags bears witness to the fact that the dead man lives on in some other form, and that his spirit has gone to some other place beyond the grave. Thus it should be according to the old Dacian custom that still lives on. The other dead are less honoured; they get no more than a simple wooden cross. But how many of those crosses were new, and what an incredible number of ribbons and flags, and how many graves that looked recent! Even the small village of Lupsa where we made a short stop, had lost more than one fifth of its population in a few months time. And yet, those Romanians, who were ravaged by such a plague, did not seem worried by it at all. They talked about it in an indifferent way, telling with a calm voice how many of their friends and relatives had died. Life to them seems without too much joy, and almost always they are unafraid of death. But there were also tales that seemed to contradict this. Somewhere, in a small village near Koloszvár, a young girl had a dream: her sister, recently deceased, had come to her, put her arms around her neck, and pulled her against her body. When the girl woke up she told her mother about this dream. The mother went and told her neighbour, who had some sort of a reputation as a "wise woman". This neighbour said that the dead girl had turned into a vampire. And so the mother, the sister, and some friends quickly went to the village cemetery to dig up the corpse and put a stake through its heart. Then they turned the corpse on its belly and reburied it."

The Date:

At least we have been given the date when this was published: 1873. And I suppose that it should not be particularly hard to find out in which particular year or years Koloszvár was ravaged by the cholera.

The Place:

"A small village near Koloszvár". We do not know which village, but at least we know where to find the town itself. Koloszvár is the Hungarian name for the Romanian town Cluj, which in its turn was named after the Dacian-Roman colony Cluj Napoca. The town also has a German name: Klausenburg. If you have read Bram Stoker's "Dracula" you may remember that Jonathan Harker spent a night in Klausenburg, in the Hotel Royale.

Personal Comments:

I know that in itself this does not appear to be much of a case. And yet, I am always excited whenever I find a rare forgotten fragment like this. Apart from the story, I think that Elisée Recluse gives us some fascinating first hand information about the way people coped with the cholera and with death. And there is the interesting description of the cemetery.

Possible Follow-Up:

I don't think this case gives us very much to follow up on. Which makes it a bit of a challenge. It would definitely be interesting to find out what happened to the papers of Elisée Recluse. He probably kept diaries or notebooks and there may be manuscripts somewhere. In fact he may have written much more about vampires. There is only one way to find out...

© 2009 by Rob Brautigam - NL - Last changed 19 November 2009
photo: "Cluj" - © 1980 by Rob Brautigam

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