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.”