One of the main characters in Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is the real-life writer Bram Stoker. The action is set in (an alternative) 1890, when in reality Stoker was holidaying in Whitby and gained inspiration for his novel Dracula. In Gideon Smith, Stoker fears that an ancient, undead being is loose on the Yorkshire coast… so I was intrigued when what purported to be a genuine Victorian vampire-slaying kit turned up for auction locally a couple of months ago.
Lot 451, which appeared for sale at Tennant’s auction house in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, England, at the end of June, certainly had the right provenance, according to the catalogue description.
“The item was willed to the vendor approximately eight years ago by an eccentric elderly uncle, together with two other examples. These items were discovered in a leather trunk which was located in the cellar of the deceased uncle’s house, together with similar strange items, and which seemed to have been stored there for a long time.”
Just the sort of back-story you’d want for what was billed as “a rare and unusual vampire slaying kit.”
The guide price for the item was between £1,500 and £2,000, but at close of bidding the mahogany casket had fetched £7,500, the buyer being the Royal Armouries Museum in nearby Leeds.
It was initially thought the kit dated back to the late Victorian era when vampire-fever was at its height thanks to Bram Stoker. The writer had holidayed in Whitby in 1890 and there gained the inspiration for Dracula, which was published in 1897.
The kit contains a percussion cap pistol, a steel bullet mould, a mallet and four oak stakes, a set of Rosary beads, bottles of Holy Water and Holy Earth, a Book of Common Prayer from 1857 and a crucifix.
But after purchasing the kit, the Royal Armouries revealed that although the individual parts were most likely Victorian era, the kit “was probably compiled in the late 20th Century following the success of the Hammer Horror Movies and inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula”.
The Royal Armouries’ Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson, told me, “The contents are 19th Century – although one antique box expert says the box may be c1920. Research shows that kits of this nature were assembled in the second half of the 20th century. We will carrying out tests to confirm the facts.
“So, it’s Victorian in the sense that it’s made of Victorian components and intended to represent something from the mid-C19th. It’s 20th century in terms of when it was actually put together, inspired by post-Dracula vampire fiction. This was well known by us, and others, well before the auction came up and we were open with the auctioneers.”
Vampire slaying kits are sporadically popular at auction – the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has one which was initially thought to be the work of one Professor Ernst Blomberg, an apparently prodigious vampire slayer of the Victorian age. A note attached to the Mercer kit apparently read: “This box contains the items considered necessary, for the protection of persons who travel into certain little-known countries of Eastern Europe, where the population is plagued with a particular manifestation of evil known as Vampires. Professor Ernst Blomberg respectfully requests that the purchaser of this kit, carefully studies his book in order, should evil manifestations become apparent, he is equipped to deal with them efficiently. Professor Blomberg wishes to announce his grateful thanks to that well known gunmaker of Liege, Nicholas Plombeur, whose help in compiling of the special items, the silver bullets, etc., has been most efficient.”
However, the Mercer sadly reports: “The kit was examined by Dr. Jeffrey A. Baylor while he was working on his PhD dissertation on Vampirism in Literature (Lehigh University). Dr. Baylor said that both the contents of the case and the label include elements of vampiric lore that existed at many different times in the 19th and 20th centuries, and he considered it unlikely that these elements would have been combined this way in the mid-19th century. Based on a literary analysis, he did not believe the kit was authentic.”
A few years ago, Ernst Blomberg was apparently outed as a mere fiction. In 2005 the now-defunct website survivalarts.com published what it said was an email from one Michael de Winter of Torquay, in response to a piece they had run on Victorian vampire slaying kits and Ernst Blomberg.
De Winter had a hobby of buying and selling antique guns and the email printed in his name said that in 1970 he had obtained a Belgian percussion pocket pistol which he didn’t know what to do with.
The email says: “Having an extremely fertile imagination and being an avid reader, I was inspired. It occurred to me that I could produce something unique that would be a great advertising gimmick and would attract people to my stall. The Vampire Killing Kit was on its way. I had recently been reading a nineteenth century book on the manufacturing of various types of guns, specifically percussion and the language of the book helped me in my setting up of the label for the kit. I was very careful to produce an item, which as it was unique was also as perfect as I could make it. The type used for the heading of the label was very old and whilst not Victorian, nevertheless was acceptable to that period. I hand set the label myself and the copy I used was printed on a hand operated press using the fly leaf of a book printed in 1850. Regarding Professor Ernst Blomberg and the Gunmaker of Liege, Nicholas Plomdeur, both these gentlemen were figments of my imagination and I was amazed to find mention on a Website of Nicholas Plomdeur’s early career in Paris.”
As Tennants auctioneers notes of the latest kit to go on sale “the pistol is probably Belgian” it is possible that this, too, could be ascribed to the fictional vampire killer Professor Ernst Blomberg.
Disappointing, perhaps, but maybe not when you think that although the kits might have been assembled in the 20th century, their contents – including mallets, stakes and Holy Water vials – certainly hint at a belief in vampires around the time of Bram Stoker.
Besides, it all seems a much classier way of despatching the undead then merely having at them with an axe, as we’re led to believe Abraham Lincoln was fond of doing.
The vampire slaying kit is to go on public display at the Royal Armouries in time for Halloween.