Dracula 1902 Doubleday edition

Cover of the 1902 Doubleday edition.

When the Irish author Bram Stoker penned his popular novel Dracula in the mid-1890s, he drew on many sources of inspiration — from Transylvanian folklore and the real-life figures of Vlad the Impaler and Countess Elizabeth Báthory to English Gothic novels and probably even Irish mythology about the sídhe (fairies), who, contrary to their Lucky Charms image in pop culture, had some unexpected vampiric traits.

One man whom literary critics consider as a sort of “proto”-Dracula was Stoker’s own boss, the famous English actor Sir Henry Irving.  After writing a laudatory review of one of Irving’s Hamlet performances at a Dublin theater in 1876, the young Stoker and the great Shakespearean man-of-the-stage became close friends.  Two years later, Stoker and his wife Florence moved from Ireland to London, where he took on the job of business manager at the Lyceum Theater.  From 1878 to 1905, Stoker was second-in-command at the Lyceum only to Irving himself, who effectively owned the place.

Thus it was that during the run-up to the 1897 publication of Dracula, Irving’s genteel Victorian manners and preference for villainous stage roles are thought to have woven their way into Stoker’s fiction, influencing his portrayal of the castle-dwelling, bloodthirsty count.  For years, in fact, a photograph of Irving in stage get-up — dressed as Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust — appeared on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of the great horror novel.

Sir Henry Irving around 1879

Shakespearean actor Henry Irving around 1879, five years before his first visit to Indianapolis.

Though the haunted Indianapolis neighborhood known as Irvington got its name from an entirely different Irving — Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame — Henry Irving performed in Indiana’s capitol city four different times, in 1884, 1896, 1902 and 1904.  It is a little-known fact that on all of these occasions, Bram Stoker traveled with him.

The English actor’s 1884 visit to the Hoosier State caused some red-blooded controversy in the columns of the Indianapolis News.  Like a number of other European visitors — including Troy’s discoverer Heinrich Schliemann, who came to Indiana to get a divorce from his Russian wife in 1869 — Irving wasn’t exactly bowled over by the culture he found here.  Stoker, then aged 36, and Irving, aged 46, expressed their views on the city to a reporter for the New York Herald once they got back East.

On March 28, the editor of the News reprinted the offending clip from their New York interview about Irving’s American tour:

Indianapolis News March 28, 1884 (2)

Clip from the New York Herald, reprinted in the Indianapolis News, March 28, 1884

In one of those perennial fights over whether the city has “culture,” the editor of the Indianapolis News responded in the defensive.  At first, he seemed less rankled by Irving’s milder comments and lashed out at Bram Stoker.  “Mr. Irving seems to weigh Indianapolis in the balance of art and find it wanting.  Mr. Stoker, by the use of the phrase ‘one-horsey town,’ we should judge, weighed it in the balance of money. . . We shall assume, however, that Mr. Stoker. . . had box office memories rankling within him.”

Then proceeding to attack both actor and manager, the News editor thoroughly trashed their choice of plays and Stoker’s strange salesmanship tactics as a hawker: “The main performance of this evening was a serious indictment of Mr. Irving’s artistic honesty. He gave the second, fourth and fifth acts of Boucicault’s version of Louis XI.  It was a fragment, or a series of fragments.  To the audience, it was like taking a picture, cutting the canvas into strips, and showing some of them. . .  Before this was perpetrated, Mr. Bram Stokers’s [sic] agents passed among the audience hawking a complete three-act adaptation of Louis XI by W.R. Markwell.  This was simply the common swindle of the confidence game.”

Bram Stoker 1884

Bram Stoker in 1884.

As a final defense of the city’s appreciation for art, the editorial in the News played the numbers game against Stoker’s allegedly calculating mind.  When you figure the ratio of Indianapolis’ population — perhaps 90,000 at the time — to attendance at Irving’s show, the editor argued, the theatrical troupe must have done better at drawing a crowd than during their stay in Chicago, where they enjoyed their biggest box-office turn out.  The editor also boasted that while the local reaction to Irving’s own performance had been lukewarm, “in the Merchant of Venice, the cheers and applause for and recalls of that gifted creature, Miss Ellen Terry, literally broke up the conclusion of the trial scene.”  Terry, England’s greatest Shakespearean actress, had been Irving’s leading lady since 1878.

As for the “fat ladies” and “dog shows,” this was a jab at the plethora of dime museums and vaudeville theaters that were truly a major feature of downtown Indy in those days.  After criticizing Irving and Stoker for apparently thinking Hoosier “provincials” couldn’t appreciate a more generous dose of Shakespeare — and thus putting more low-brow plays on the bill to rake in money from the rabble — the News editor let loose on Irving:

He could as fairly measure New York’s culture by the patronage of a Bowery museum. . .  It is pertinent to ask Mr. Irving, who in a few sentences has characterized Indianapolis’s art culture as that which finds surcease in gazing on fat women, living skeletons, snakes and sword swallowers, what he knows about the culture of this city?  What gentleman’s threshold did he cross while here?  What social or literary club made him his guest?  Whom did he meet for even casual conversation?  Verily the egotistical brutality that renders such a verdict on Indianapolis is its own refutation.

Ellen Terry

Actress Ellen Terry, photographed here by pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron at age 16 in 1864, came to Indiana with Bram Stoker and Henry Irving in 1884, 1896, and 1902.

Notwithstanding their rather hairy 1884 scrape with an Indiana newspaperman and their own accusations about “provincial” Hoosier audiences, twelve years later Irving and Stoker came back to the Midwest — accompanied once again by the wonderful and fun-loving Ellen Terry.  In March 1896, while Stoker was wrapping up work on his vampire novel, he booked shows for his boss at English’s Opera House. Modeled after New York’s Grand Opera House, until 1949 this fashionable venue stood on the northwest quadrant of Monument Circle.  Irving’s theatrical team stayed at the Denison Hotel, 135 North Pennsylvania Street.  Stoker arrived early on a train from Chicago with several carloads of scenery.  The highlight of Irving and Terry’s visit was their performances as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in a play by J. Comyns Carr, then as Shylock and Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

On the eve of Dracula‘s 1897 publication, the Indianapolis Journal was already wowed by Stoker’s commanding presence.  “With Sir Henry” — Irving was knighted in 1895 — “is Bram Stoker, his famous business manager, and who has been termed his ‘right arm,'” the Journal reported on March 23 in an article that was really more about Stoker than Irving.  “If he had not drifted into theatricals he must have gone into diplomacy, been sent on delicate missions and negotiated difficult treaties.”  Perhaps, between shows, in his room at the English Hotel, he penned or perfected a few lines about the Transylvanian Count, the Dutch vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, or the novel’s co-narrator, Jonathan Harker.  Harker’s surname was borrowed from Joseph Cunningham Harker, one of Irving’s set designers from the Lyceum, who almost certainly walked the streets of Indianapolis during those American tours.

English's Opera House

English’s Hotel and Opera House in the 1880s. Until 1949, the grand building sat directly across from Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral on Monument Circle.

Two more visits to Indy awaited Sir Henry and his entourage.  Audiences saw them downtown in January 1902 — when Stoker had lunch with Charles Major, the mayor of Shelbyville, at the University Club — then again in March 1904.  On that last occasion, Dracula’s author insisted to a reporter for the Journal that even though he spoke with an upper-class English accent, he was Irish — a strong statement during the heyday of Irish nationalism.  “He is one Irishman, at least, who can scarcely be classed as an Anglophobe,” the reporter concluded.  Stoker supported Home Rule for Ireland but was against Irish independence.  Incidentally, he wasn’t the first Anglo-Irish literary star to visit Indy.  Oscar Wilde lectured at English’s Opera House back in February 1882.

Stoker Letter January 1902

This letter from Henry Irving to the American reformer, suffragette, and Indianapolis resident May Wright Sewall was actually written by Bram Stoker at English’s Hotel and signed by his boss. (Courtesy Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.)

By the turn of the century, Stoker was becoming an internationally-famous author.  An article from the Indianapolis Journal — “Hotel Lobby Gleanings” (January 13, 1902) — features one of the earliest mentions of the novel (and the word!) Dracula in the annals of Hoosier journalism.  Earlier, in 1901, a reviewer for that paper had called the new book “mystic and sometimes blood-curdling.”

Though pieced together from a few of Sir Henry’s own characteristics, Dracula appeared on stage only once during its author’s lifetime, after Stoker wrote a theatrical adaptation performed in London.  But before the novel ever went to the movies, where actors from Bela Lugosi to the great Christopher Lee — who died last summer — interpreted the vampire on film, Indianapolis residents saw the inspiration for the depraved bloodsucker in the flesh and on their very streets!

Perhaps some passerby on Monument Circle was spooked by his form, silhouetted like The Un-Dead through a candle-lit window up above at English’s Hotel. . .

Sir Henry Irving

Sir Henry Irving in the 1890s.


English’s Hotel and Opera House sat on the northwest quadrant of Monument Circle. In the early 1950’s, J.C. Penney and F.W. Woolworth department stores shared a building on the site, praised by architect Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the best in the city. That structure was refaced some years later and now houses Anthem Insurance, H&R Block, and Forum Credit Union. Photo Stephen J. Taylor

5 responses to “When the Man Who Inspired Dracula Caused Blood to Boil in Gilded Age Indy”

  1. Tom Davis says:

    According to J. P. Dunn in his history of Indianapolis, Irving hosted a London dinner for James Whitcomb Riley at which another actor gave the following tribute to Riley: “When Riley went to England in 1891, Sir Henry Irving gave a dinner for him, at which he induced Mr. Riley to recite. Among those present was Coquelin, the great French actor, who stood at the farther end of the room, with his hand resting on Irving’s should, and listened intently. As Riley concluded he turned and said: ‘Irving, Nature has done for that man what you and I have been striving all these years to attain.’

  2. Dana Hubbard says:

    Again, awesome, awesome storytelling by one of the best expository writers in Hoosierdom.

  3. Richard Conner Johnson says:

    “Though the haunted Indianapolis neighborhood known as Irvington got its name from an entirely different Irving — Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame…” Excuse me? But if there’s a connection between the Irvington neighborhood and Washington Irving, I’d love to hear it. A visit to Wiki reveals nothing of value. There are links to “related articles” about the author and his work on the Irvington page, but no explanation as to why they are there. And nothing at those linked pages to reveal any connection to the neighborhood. With this being the season of all things spooky, perhaps this connection would make for a good article?

  4. Stephen J. Taylor says:

    I’m actually at work on an article about the naming of Irvington. But for now, here’s Vita Tibbot Cottman, “Historical Sketch of Irvington” (1912):

    “The name of our town, Irvington, was bestowed upon it by Jacob Julian, who, along with the rest of his household, was an ardent admirer of Washington Irving. It is to Messrs. Sylvester Johnson, Jacob Julian and Levi Ritter that Irvington people are indebted for the unique character of their town. The name itself bespoke culture, and the plans were laid to attract people of means and refinement.”

  5. Stephen J. Taylor says:

    Irvington streets were named Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier, Audubon, and Lowell — after great writers like Irving.

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