Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vlad the Impaler

Man More Than Myth

"Apa trece, pietrele ramin."
"The water flows, the rocks remain."
— Old Romanian Proverb

Bram Stoker (CORBIS)
Bram Stoker (CORBIS)

Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897, continues to send shivers down the spine of anyone who reads it. It is dark Gothic at its best, a brilliant, imaginative and can't-put-down work of art. The atmosphere it creates is, in this writer's opinion, spookier than any Stephen King novel.

But...many people who have read the book are not aware that the character Dracula the vampire is based on was a highborn member of a Romanian court, prominent in European history — and much more terrifying than his fictional descendant. While not the black-cloaked, centuries-old, fanged bloodsucker of literary fame, the infamy of the historical figure outperforms that of Stoker's creation.

Prince Vlad, or as he was called even in his own time, Dracula (which means "Son of the Dragon") tops the list of Romania's many, many Christian crusaders who, in the transition years between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, fought to keep the Muslim-faithed Ottoman Turks out of their country.

Odd that a name known for stirring nightmares actually belonged to a crusader of a religious cause!

Still, Dracula was not a saint. He ruled his military kingdom of Wallachia — southern Romania — with a heavy and blood-soaked fist. To not only the Turks but also to many of his own countrymen he was Vlad The Impaler, Vlad Die Tepes (pronounced Tee-pish). Determined not to be overtaken by the intrigue of an intriguing political underhandedness, in a world in which princes fell daily to smiling, hypocritical "allies," paranoia among the aristocracy was, and probably needed to be, utmost in a sovereign's disposition. Dracula built a defense around him that dared not open kindness nor trust to anyone. During his tenure, he killed by the droves, impaling on a forest of spikes around his castle thousands of subjects who he saw as either traitors, would-be traitors or enemies to the security of Romania and the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes, he slew merely to show other possible insurgents and criminals just what their fate would be if they became troublesome.

Vlad Dracula
Vlad Dracula

A pamphlet published in Nuremburg, Germany, immediately following his death in 1476, tells of his burning beggars after allowing them free food at his court. "He felt they were eating the people's food for nothing, and could not repay it," the broadside explains. And there are countless of other tales of Dracula's wickedness written down ages ago, many of which will be related in this article.

But, Vlad Dracula was more than just a medieval despot. Biographers Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally call him "a man of many faces". He was a politician; a voivode (warrior); an erudite and well-learned gentleman when the occasion-to-be fit; and, as has been indicated, he was a mass murderer. He spoke several languages — Romanian, Turkish, Latin and German — and steeped himself in the use of broadsword and crossbow. He was an equestrian, riding at the head of his attacking army like a Berskerker. At three separate times, Dracula governed Wallachia, one of three Hungarian principalities that later merged with the others — Transylvania (to the north) and Moldavia (to the east) — to become the country of Romania. Because Wallachia, his province, sat directly above the open Danube River Plain, which separated the Ottoman Empire from free Romania, his was the frontal defense against the non- Christian Turks. Despite his cruelties and severe punishments, and because of his seething hatred for anything Turkish, he is considered today a national hero by the populace. Because he died in warfare against the foe, even fought against a brother whom he considered a sell-out to the enemy, he is often upheld as a martyr. Statues stand in his honor, and his birthplace at Sighisoara and resting-place at Snagov are considered almost canonical.

"Though many Westerners are baffled that a man whose political and military career was as steeped in blood as was that of Vlad Dracula," writes Elizabeth Miller for Journal of the Dark magazine, "the fact remains that for many Romanians he is an icon of heroism...It is this duality that is part of his appeal."

The adventurous life led by Dracula put him in contact with the era's most fascinating people, among them "White Knight" Jonas Hunyadi, Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus and the ambitious Sultan Mehmed of Turkey. In his lifetime, Dracula witnessed the rising use of gunpowder as a means of destruction, the Holy Crusades, the fall of Constantinople and the nouveau philosophy of art, alchemy and culture that became known as the Renaissance.

It was no idle choice that the red-bearded Irish novelist Bram Stoker in 1896 chose the factual Impaler as the model for his nosferatu, his "undead" vampire. Although admittedly never having set foot on Romanian soil, having done most of his research at the London Library, it is obvious that the infamous Count Dracula emulates his historical counterpart. Poring over texts such as An Extraordinary and Shocking History of a Great Berserker Called Prince Dracula, The Historie and Superstitions of Romantic Romania and Wilkinson's Account of Wallachia and Moldavia, Stoker chanced upon the tales of Dracula. (It has been suggested by scholars that such histories would be incomplete without generous space attributed to the man.) In the tomes he studied, Stoker assuredly read of the voivode Dracula, whose atrocities trembled the Christian Western World and whose audacity saved it from Allah.

A few 20th Century authors have denied any connection between the Romanian prince of fact and the bloodthirsty count of fiction, opining that Stoker merely used the rhythmical name he discovered in the pages of old histories. They base their interpretation primarily on two premises. The first is that Stoker's ghoul resides in a castle in the Transylvanian Alps and not in Wallachia's foothills, the better part of some 150 miles. The other is that the vampire is described by Stoker as being of Szekely blood, from a race of people in the "northern country," and not of an older Wallachian stock.

Other writers, however, recognizing the liberties afforded by literary license, point to the striking similarities that speak very strongly beyond coincidence. Most notable are the references to Count Dracula's past as uttered by the fictional nobleman himself. They paint a history parallel to Vlad Dracula's.

In the novel, when Jonathan Harker, a British solicitor, visits Dracula's castle in Transylvania for the purpose of closing a real estate deal (the vampire is relocating to London to pursue fresh blood), the count describes the land over which Harker has just journeyed as "ground fought over for centuries by the Wallachian, the Saxon and the Turk...enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders."

In a subsequent chapter, Count Dracula relates to Harker a virtual history of his own royal heritage. "Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race," he asks, "that we were proud; that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers we drove them back?...To us, for centuries, was trusted the guarding of the frontier of Turkeyland; aye, and more than that, endless duty of the frontier guard."

At one point, Count Dracula alludes to an "ancestor" who "sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them!" Vlad Dracula had such a brother.

There are other tens of references, actually, throughout the novel that not-too-subtly point to Vlad Dracula as the accurate source — references to particular military campaigns in which he took part, contemporaries with whom he acquainted, and places he visited.

In summary, had Stoker not taken his character from the crimson cloth of Vlad the Impaler, he then certainly adorned his creation with a cloak colored amazingly close to the same hue.

Following is the story of the real Dracula, a man who, whether he would have preferred or not, became, in another incarnation, a figure whom the World Index has called, "one of the top ten most recognizable names in the English-speaking world."


I thank Messrs. Bogdan Banu and Nemecsek Einar, both Romanian-born and both quite knowledgeable of the Vlad Tepes days, for their input and clarifications in this story.


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