A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Dracula really exist?

February 21, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Everybody knows about Frankenstein and the creature from the black lagoon and all sorts of other fictional fiends. But there is one rather infamous dude who unquestionably did exist even though I'm having a hard time convincing people of it, namely Dracula. Everyone this side of Transylvania knows about Bram Stoker's book and all the movies spawned down through the decades since about vampires. I personally know the whole story about the real-life guy and how Stoker based his fictional Dracula on him. There's even a real Castle Dracula that still stands. But since I can't convince any of these lazy people to simply go to the library and read (a forgotten art) for themselves, tell them the story and some of the stomach-wrenching things that he did.

Cecil replies:

I haven't heard from you guys in Baltimore for many a moon, Dana. Nice to see your preoccupations are as wholesome as ever.

The real-life fellow you're referring to is Vlad the Impaler (c. 1431-1476), also known as Prince Dracula. Vlad briefly ruled Wallachia, next door to Transylvania, in what is now Romania. Vlad was not a vampire, but that's about the only nice thing you can say about him. He was a vicious tyrant who butchered between 40,000 and 100,000 people during the six years of his principal reign, 1456-1462.  His preferred method of execution was to impale people on wooden stakes. Typically this was accomplished by inserting the stake where the sun don't shine, tying the victim's legs to a couple horses, and hollering "giddyup" whilst holding the stake in place. The corpse would then be put on display for the edification of the public. The number of rotting bodies hanging outside the Wallachian capital was said to exceed 20,000.

Much of what is known about the Impaler is hearsay. But there appears to be general agreement on several incidents:

  • Early in his reign he invited 500 Wallachian nobles, or boyars, to a banquet at his castle. Upon asking how many princes had ruled them over the past few decades, he was told there had been several dozen. He then said something to the effect of, "This is due entirely to your shameful intrigues!" Whereupon he ordered his attendants to seize many of the boyars, impale them, and hang the bodies outside the city walls. Others were dragged off to rebuild Castle Dracula, the remains of which may still be seen near the border between Transylvania and Wallachia.
  • On another occasion Vlad invited the local beggars as well as the old, the sick, and the lame to a feast. Having gotten everybody drunk, he inquired, "Do you want to be without cares, lacking nothing in this world?" Sure, said the assembled multitudes. Vlad then ordered the building boarded up and set afire, killing all inside. "I did this so that no one will be poor in my realm," he supposedly said.
  • He raided neighboring Transylvania, slaughtering tens of thousands of people. The most notorious atrocity occurred on April 2, 1459, when he looted the church of St. Bartholomew in the town of Brasov, impaled numerous victims on the nearby hills, and then sat down for a meal amid the bodies. This event was commemorated in several widely circulated woodcuts printed in Germany that are largely responsible for Dracula's enduring infamy.

There are also tales claiming that Dracula had a woman impaled for letting her husband go out in a shirt that was too short; that when some Turkish envoys refused to take their hats off to him he had the hats nailed to their heads; that he forced mothers to eat their children and husbands to eat their wives; that he had various people boiled in cauldrons, fried, or cut up like kraut; and so on ad nauseam. How much of this stuff really happened is not known. But the sheer accumulation of stories suggests that Vlad either had the worst case of bad PR in the history of the universe or else was one brutal SOB.

Debate on this point continues down to the present day. In the West, Dracula is generally regarded as a monster who killed for the sake of killing. In his native Romania, however, Vlad to this day is considered a national hero, a cruel but just ruler who mightily smote his enemies, notably the Turks, and enforced strict morality at home. Some historians point out that this was the era of Machiavelli, when princes were brutally attempting to consolidate their power all over Europe. They say that Dracula was merely a product of his times. Cecil, needless to say, regards this as craven bootlicking.

In the end Dracula proved to be too much even for the Romanians. After an inconclusive war in 1462, the Turks set up his brother, Radu the Handsome, as an alternative ruler backed by Turkish troops. Even though it meant losing their independence, the Wallachian boyars abandoned Dracula, who was later arrested and imprisoned by the king of Hungary. Some historians believe the boyars simply feared the superior power of the Turks. I prefer to believe they'd gotten tired of life under a psycho. In 1476 Vlad was restored briefly to the throne, only to be killed under murky circumstances after a few months.

Bram Stoker, who wrote the 1897 horror novel Dracula, apparently read about Vlad while doing research in the British Museum. He cheerfully conflated the historical Dracula with the legends about vampirism that had circulated in Eastern Europe for centuries. The courtly blood-sucker now familiar to all was the result.

But if Stoker had wanted evidence of real vampires, he wouldn't have had to look too far afield. Nearby Hungary boasted Elisabeth Bathory (1560-1614), AKA Erzsebet Bathory, a deranged countess who tortured and killed as many as 610 young women for the purpose, tradition has it, of bathing in their blood. The product of a powerful Hungarian family that produced an inordinate number of epileptics and psychotics, Elisabeth allegedly believed that dousing herself regularly in virgin blood would prolong her beauty.

Lizzie Bathory apparently was a wild one from her earliest years. There is some evidence to suggest that she had a child out of wedlock, and she may have engaged in trysts with a lesbian aunt. What is certain is that she was a sadist. According to sworn testimony, she took pleasure in having her serving maids stripped and beaten for minor infractions. She was married, but her husband was a general who was frequently away on military campaigns, and in any case when he was home he used to encourage her brutalities.

Aided by several trusted servants, most of them old crones, Elizabeth amused herself by torturing girls with pincers, needles, razors, knives, red-hot irons and pokers, and the like. Sometimes she would simply look on while her servants did the dirty work. By and by, it is thought, she took up bloodsucking (although see below) and after the death of her husband in 1604 graduated to murder and midnight bloodbaths. Peasant girls who had been hired to work as servants were sometimes killed their first night on the job. Some were forced to eat the flesh of others; some were forced to eat their own. Some were doused with water in mid-winter or plunged into icy streams and frozen to death. Others were starved in the dungeons and torture chambers the mad countess had installed in her various castles. Elisabeth ordered the construction of an iron cage fitted with blades so that her victims could be locked in, hauled to the ceiling, and tormented. She also installed an "Iron Virgin," a lifesize clockwork doll shaped like a naked woman that "embraced" its victims and stabbed them to death.

This went on for a number of years, with the death toll running to five girls or more a week. To keep up the supply, Elisabeth developed a network of procuresses, some of whom delivered up their own daughters. None of this, however, prevented her from aging. In desperation, it is said, she sought out girls of noble birth, whose blood she had been told was of higher quality. After several dozen local debutantes met their end this way, people began to get suspicious. Local ministers had previously been intimidated into burying the bodies, but they finally refused to co-operate any further. Elisabeth's associates thereafter began secretly burying corpses in grain silos and churchyards. Finally in late 1610 the killers made the mistake of tossing four naked bodies off the ramparts of Csejthe castle to the wolves. This grossed everybody out of existence and convinced them the time had come to call the authorities.  One Count Thurzo came down and arrested the servants, who quickly confessed. Elisabeth held out, but after some dithering Thurzo entered the castle and searched it. In the dungeons he found the mutilated body of a torture victim, a couple girls near death, and several other prisoners.

Three servants were tried and executed. But Elisabeth herself was never put in the dock owing to her family's influence. The testimony of her servants left no doubt that she was a mass murderer (610 victims were found listed in a notebook in her room). But no evidence was taken regarding her alleged bloodbaths and vampirism. Contemporary accounts, however, indicate that she was universally believed to be guilty on the first score. More recent historians think she was guilty on the second as well. She is known to have enjoyed biting her victims, and according to one translator a passage in the sentence of her servants refers to her as "a blood-thirsty, blood-sucking Godless woman [who was] caught in the act at Csejthe Castle."

Count Thurzo ordered Elisabeth imprisoned in her castle for life. Workmen walled up the doors and windows of her room, with only a food hatch connecting her to the outside world. She died three and a half years later. In a final effort to keep her family's name from being sullied, Count Thurzo left the trial records in the attic of his castle instead of sending them to the court archives. But to no avail — a Jesuit priest discovered the papers by accident in the 1720s.

Then there's the case of Gilles de Rais, a French nobleman who was executed in 1440 for killing 800 young boys over the course of … but I think we've had enough for now.

Late-breaking bulletin: Their genes made them do it!

No kidding. A Canadian chemist thinks a rare genetic disorder may account for the behavior of vampires, werewolves, and others with an unnatural lust for blood.

In a 1985 paper David Dolphin of the University of British Columbia advances the proposition that vampires suffer from a form of porphyria, a hereditary disease affecting the blood.

Porphyria causes the body to fail to produce one of the enzymes necessary to make heme, the red pigment in hemoglobin, a vital component of blood.

A common symptom of porphyria is extreme sensitivity to light, the supposed nemesis of all vampires. The lips and gums may be drawn taut, making the teeth look like fangs.

Finally--and here we get to the good part — just about the only way you could treat porphyria in the Middle Ages was to drink large amounts of blood.

Some porphyria victims are so sensitive to light that their skin becomes damaged and they lose their noses and fingers. Hair may also grow on exposed skin. Dolphin speculates that such people, with their animal-like appearance and an inability to go out except at night, would have been considered werewolves.

Dolphin also thinks he knows why vampires feared garlic. Eating garlic stimulates heme production, which can turn a mild case of porphyria into a very painful one. A porphyria victim would therefore learn to shun garlic at all costs.

Extreme forms of porphyria are rare, occurring only once per 200,000 people. But Dolphin thinks local in-breeding might have produced pockets of the disease during medieval times. Heck, it produced the Chicago city council, didn't it?

Another update!

Did vampires suffer from the disease porphyria--or not? The Straight Dope, May 7, 1999.

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