Friday 18 May 2018

The true cause of death of Martha Taylor

After about two weeks of illness Martha Taylor, the beloved friend of the Brontë sisters, died on 12 October 1842 in Koekelberg. It has become a fact in Brontë studies that it was cholera that killed her, but can this really be true? We do not know of any evidence. It is not that difficult to research this, and to find out what the alternative options are. It will show that Martha certainly did not die of cholera, it can already be revealed.

Cholera and other contagious diseases

The history of cholera as the cause
We need not be surprised that this history begins with Winifred Gérin. And by now we know she was a serial liar. In her 1967 biography of Charlotte she states without any doubt that it was cholera, but also without giving any evidence. In her biography of Emily she added that it was "a very prevalent infection in Brussels." It doesn’t help that at about the same time William Weightman died in Haworth, possibly indeed because of cholera, and after a similar fortnight of suffering from illness.

What we know from Charlotte and Mary
Although Charlotte didn’t witness either in their last two weeks, she thus compared them, based of course on real witnesses. “Mr. Weightman’s illness was exactly what Martha’s was – he was ill the same length of time and died in the same manner. Aunt [Branwell]’s disease was internal obstruction: she also was ill a fortnight.” (Letter of Charlotte to Ellen Nussey, 10 November 1842)

Mary only sheds a little bit of light on what had happened. In a letter of 1 November to Ellen she says she will give her the history of Martha’s illness in a few months. “A thousand times I have reviewed the minutest circumstances of it but I cannot without great difficulty give a regular account of them … But when I recall the sufferings that have purified her my heart aches.”

Cholera strikes quickly, it has an incubation time of 1 to 5 days. It is spread via water and food infected by cholera patients. The disease doesn’t come in isolated cases.
While it is true that Brussels was hit by a cholera epidemic in 1832-3 (said to have killed M. Heger’s first wife), there are no signs at all of it hitting Brussels in 1842. The newspapers occasionally report of some cases somewhere in the country, but only on a small scale and far away from Brussels.
At this time only one small outbreak, of “cholera-morbus,” was reported, in early September in Veurne (near the coast and near the border with France, some 130 km away from Brussels. The newspapers reported that a few people had died, but that others were saved by giving them the ‘usual medication.’
Cholera apparently was not recognized in Haworth. Veurne shows Belgium could do that, contain it and even cure people. According to the newspapers.

Charlotte's comments appear to show she and those around her had little or no idea about what the cause of death may have been. They were not even guessing. Both she and Mary don't give a name to the disease. Mary though as we saw did carefully analyze the disease. Later on, in a letter to Ellen of 25 June 1843 she wrote: "Martha's death though not from a contagious disease has exceedingly affected Mde Gaussaert's [sic] school, which I am very sorry for and would gladly repair if I could". (Stevens, Letters from New Zealand, p.46)
The death figures for Brussels give further evidence. In October 1842 only 290 people died, compared to 310 in July, 335 in August and 312 in September.

If it was cholera we would of course also expect more cases at the Koekelberg pensionnat. And easily more victims, but there weren’t. The Koekelberg registers don’t show any other girl dying there that year. Martha would have eaten and drank the same as her sister and the others.
It is also very unlikely she got infected somewhere outside the pensionnat. It’s very difficult to see how. She would probably have been accompanied by her sister, and possibly by the Brontës too when she would go out for a walk in the city, and consumed the same things.

Cholera thus is an extremely unlikely candidate. The cholera accusation is also a slur on the Koekelberg pensionnat. It was quite an expensive school, so one might expect proper hygiene and trustworthy drinks and food. There is no reason to doubt this wasn’t the case.
Attributing Martha’s death to cholera is just another one of Winifred Gérin’s inventions, another falsehood.

Influenza and other contagious diseases
There are no signs of any other contagious diseases, like typhus or influenza, in Brussels in October 1842 in Brussels. Influenza had hit the city in February especially, The number of deaths was 452, markedly higher than the previously mentioned figures for July to October. Influenza could and can still be quite fatal, but here it can be ruled out as the cause of death of Martha.

Gérin said that in general cholera could at that time at first be misdiagnosed as dysentery. Rebecca Fraser, in her Charlotte biography, later made of this that Martha was at first diagnosed with dysentery, only to find out later it was cholera, when it was too late. This is wrong from beginning to end.
Dysentery is highly contagious, although not easily fatal for a woman of Martha’s age.

Alternative diseases
If it was not a contagious disease, which clearly it wasn’t, what then could it have been?

Martha’s last days
Martha Taylor was born in 1819, and thus probably 23 years old – her exact date of birth can’t be found. She appears to have been a lively and healthy young woman, until the end of September 1842. She was not in a really vulnerable state of life anymore, in a time when younger children still died in large numbers.

Some sort of poisoning, followed by shock
Quite a lot of people died from consuming contaminated drinks or food. While at least it is more probable than a contagious disease it still isn’t really likely. As said above, Mary Taylor will have eaten and drunk the same things, and she didn’t become ill.

Sepsis, or blood poisoning, could be a possibility. But it’s not likely to affect a young woman of her age.
Margot Peters, in An unquiet soul, her biography of Charlotte, suggested it was a pregnancy poisoning. It is caused by a mother’s too high blood pressure, and occurs at about 24 weeks after of the pregnancy. That is nearly 6 months, by which time someone might have noted she was pregnant. As we have also no idea who her lover might have been, this again seems a really unlikely candidate disease.

The probable cause: appendicitis
We will of course never know it with certainty, but it appears to be very plausible that Martha died of appendicitis. Martha then would already have had some symptoms by the end of September, and a few days before her death she would have reached the stage of acute appendicitis.
Although this disease was known by medical scholars it may easily have been overlooked as a cause, as it was difficult to diagnose. And either way, there was nothing that could be done against it. Appendicitis was and is not an uncommon disease, and left untreated easily fatal.
The exact cause of appendicitis is still not known, but doctors believe it is caused by food or faecal matter getting lodged in the appendix. It is a medical emergency that almost always requires prompt surgery to remove the appendix. If not it will eventually burst, or perforate, spilling infectious materials into the abdominal cavity. At that point only strong antibiotics can save a person. Back in 1842 this surgery wasn’t known, nor had antibiotics been discovered.

The fortnight’s problem
The problem with appendicitis though is that it’s not really a two week disease, from seriously beginning to death. It lasts about a week or even less. Apart from Charlotte’s words, quoted above, we have no other evidence to support the fortnight theory.
It is difficult to see Charlotte wouldn’t have heard earlier from Mary Taylor that Martha was really ill, had she indeed suffered a fortnight. Only shortly before her death Mary got worried so much that she informed Charlotte. It seems likely or at any rate well possible therefore that it was not a fortnight’s disease, but considerably shorter. It’s also still possible though that Martha by the end of September (if not earlier) became somewhat ill, because of the first symptoms of appendicitis.

Appendicitis can thus plausibly explain the death of poor Martha. It is not a contagious disease, which as we saw can be ruled out. It matches with what little we know about her sickbed. Some sort of poisoning, by contaminated food or drinks probably then, can’t be excluded, but can at least also be regarded as rather unlikely.

In a later article we will have a look at the death of Julia Wheelwright, in November 1842, also falsely attributed to cholera by Gérin.

Eric Ruijssenaars

(With thanks to René van Oers)

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