Tuesday, December 24, 2013

J.T.: An Urban Christmas Carol

by G. Jack Urso 

Yearling edition paperback
J.T., which first premiered on CBS on December 13, 1969, is the story of a young African-American child, J.T., living in an urban slum. Just before Christmas, J.T. finds a stray cat and immediately identifies with the unwanted animal, picked on by humans and lacking shelter. Unable to take the cat home, J.T. goes to great lengths to keep his new friend alive, learning lessons in love and responsibility while doing so. When tragedy strikes, J.T. learns an important lesson about Christmas and taking responsibility for your actions.

The film shows the grinding poverty of the late 1960s. Many of the same problems that still plague urban youth today are portrayed: single-parent families, sons without fathers, bullying, and crime, to name but a few. The cat is stand-in for the Christ child, and really for all us born into this world and dependent upon the kindness of others for our survival. J.T. captures a moment in time and serves as a historical snapshot of mid-century inner-city poverty in the United States. Author Jane Wagner, also a lyricist, originally wrote J.T. as a ballad before writing the story. Recognized for its excellence in writing, the book won a Peabody Award in 1970. It is presented below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel:

J.T. aired for a few years and then disappeared from the airwaves. Despite the serious material, I identified with J.T. The second year the show aired I made my father sit down and watch it on the small back and white television in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I even had the photo book of the film which I wore out reading all year round. As time went on, though I did not forget the story, I did forget the title and thought it might be a piece of my childhood forever lost. Persistent search engine inquiries eventually helped me track down the show, and the sheer delight upon finding a lost part of one’s youth is a Christmas gift in and of itself.

Baby Boomers will notice some familiar names and faces from classic 1970s TV shows and film. J.T. himself is played by Kevin Hooks, a prominent cast member on The White Shadow; Ja'net DuBois, the outspoken next-door neighbor on Good Times, is J.T’s mother; and Gordon Parks Jr., who later directed Super Fly (1972), was the on-set photographer and his photos, which can be seen in the book, help create a realistic portrayal of inner-city life. Additionally, Holland Taylor, from Two and a Half Men, turns up as J.T.'s teacher.  On a side note, comic actress Lily Tomlin, impressed by J.T.’s author Jane Wagner’s writing, invited Wagner to work with her on a project. The two fell in love and have been together for over forty years.

J.T. has also inspired in me a life-long love of animals and a calling for rescuing stray cats. As I write this, a black and white domestic short hair cat, not unlike the one in J.T., rescued from the outside just this past week, sits in my home snug and warm on this cold Northeastern Christmas Eve. As it has been said before, the lessons we learn as children are the ones we remember for the rest of our lives and the lessons J.T. taught are still worth learning.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Adolf Hitler: A Rhetorical Analysis

by G. Jack Urso

 Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Sportpalast Speech, February 10, 1933.
Adolf Hitler is well-known as a master rhetorician; however, most clips of Hitler’s speeches usually feature just a few seconds of him frothing at the mouth. Compelling enough, but they do not allow the viewer the grasp the broader aspects of his ability as a public speaker. Hitler’s success as a public speaker was not due to his ability shout louder than everyone else, but rather that he scientifically broke down his performance, analyzing gestures and postures, modulating tempo, learning to read the audience and respond accordingly.

The following video clip is from Hitler: The Whole Story (1989 Cine-Art/Munich), which aired on the Discovery Channel in 1990. Here, this segment provides an analysis of the techniques Hitler used to improve his performance and maximize his hold on the audience, as well as the psychological motivations behind his extraordinary public speaking ability.

For fuller context, the next clip, from The Fatal Attraction of Adolf Hitler (1989), features an interview with a 1930's-era Berlin social worker who discusses the poverty that contributed to Hitler's appeal as a secular "messiah." Additionally, Egon Hanfstaengl, son of Hitler's foreign press officer Ernst Hanfstaengl (who defected in 1937), provides insight into Hitler’s psychology as it regards his approach to connecting with the German masses. The clip also notes Hitler's then-innovative use of airplanes in campaigning and ends with an extended excerpt from his infamous speech at the Berlin Sportpalast on February 10, 1933, not long after his appointment as Chancellor.     

Seventeen days after this speech, on February 27, 1933, the German Reichstag building was burned down. Hitler blamed the communists and used the opportunity to centralize power in his hands, eliminate his political opponents, and clear the way to war.

 Note: The above video clips are hosted on an Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013


by G. Jack Urso 

Gif by G. Jack Urso.

a fiery green universe

crisscrossed by parallel lines

as spiders with a thousand legs


the past diabolical image of time

etch fragrant fragments

of minute happenings

i chance to forget

what makes up my mind

afterimages of time

hang in mid-air

walls writhe in static rhythm

reality is fragile


sprung from a hidden fear

that feeds on my mortality

and trips across

an abandoned morality

●             ●             ● 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Vlad Dracula: The Dragon’s Shadow, 1460-1476

by G. Jack Urso

This Land is My Land

You have to reflect . . . when a prince is powerful and brave, he can make peace as he wishes. If, however, he is powerless, some more powerful than he will conquer him and dictate as he pleases.
             Dracula, in a letter to the elders of Brasov, 
             September 10, 1456 (McNally and Florescu 46)

Dracula had paid tribute to the Ottoman Empire for the first three years of his second reign, 1456-1459; however, beginning in 1459 he was consumed with the campaign against the Transylvanian Saxons and the flow of tribute stopped. Mandatory visits to the sultan’s court by Dracula also ceased, and the Turks, already uneasy about Dracula due to his support from the Hungarian crown, were at a breaking point in their relations with Wallachia (McNally and Florescu 46).

Dracula attempted to balance his competing oaths of fealty to both Hungarian and Ottoman rulers, yet he was no more successful than Vlad III Danesti, nor any other Wallachian ruler. Their position, politically, militarily, and geographically was simply untenable; however, whereas Vlad III ended up fighting for his Turkish overlords, Dracula fought against them.

The breaking point in Ottoman-Wallachian relations occurred when the Turks began demanding an annual tribute of five hundred boys for their elite Janissary corps. These children would be indoctrinated into Islam and then sent to fight against Christians. Tensions further increased when Turkish army recruiters sent to Wallachia for the purpose of identifying candidates were summarily impaled (McNally and Florescu 46).

Still, negotiations between the two sides continued and Sultan Mehmed II, with whom Dracula and his brother Radu knew from their youth as hostages in the Ottoman court, made a final demand. In order to keep the peace, Mehmed II demanded Dracula present himself in court and make his tribute, including the youthful recruits for the Janissaries, in person. Knowing that the Sultan would likely seize him and put his brother Radu, a member of the sultan’s court, on the throne, Dracula refused (McNally and Florescu 47).

Mehmed II, in one final attempt to end Dracula’s reign, hatched a plan to send two envoys to meet with Dracula under the pretense of negotiations, but instead were to capture him and drag him to the Turkish court. The wily Wallachian, however, was too clever and the envoys soon found themselves on the short end of the stake (McNally and Florescu 47).
Fig 1: “Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys,” by Theodore Aman.
In that one stroke, the war was on and a tiny principality would dare defy an entire empire.

Against the Wind

I have killed men and women, old and young . . . [we killed] 23,884 Turks and Bulgars without counting those whom we burned in homes or whose heads were not cut by our soldiers . . . thus Your Highness must know that I have broken the peace with the sultan.
             Dracula, in a letter to Hungarian King Matthias
             Corvinus, February 11, 1462 (McNally and Florescu 48)
Radu, who was rumored to have been the sultan’s lover in his youth, now served the Ottomans as a willing as a convert to both Islam and the Ottoman agenda of sovereignty over the Balkans in general, and specifically Wallachia. Dracula not only learned how the Turks fought from his long years as a hostage in the court of the sultan, but under John Hunyadi he learned effective tactics to battle the Turks, including amphibious warfare and the use of mobile battle wagons. The combination of both gave Dracula a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Ottomans, which he exploited to his full advantage (McNally and Florescu 48).
Dracula kicked off his campaign with a thunderous blow against the Turks, as noted in the above passage where he details his initial successes to King Matthias Corvinus in a letter dated February 1, 1462. To prove his body count to the king, Dracula sent along two bags of severed heads, noses, and ears (McNally and Florescu 49).

Fig. 2: Sultan Mehmed II
("Mehmed II).
Sultan Mehmed II responded to Dracula’s winter campaign against the Turks along the Danube River in 1462 that spring by invading Wallachia with approximately 60,000 troops (Florescu and McNally 139). Dracula had no more than 30,900 men, according to Slavic chronicles. To bolster his numbers, Dracula called all able-bodied males 12 years of age and older to join his campaign. Even women were pressed into service (McNally and Florescu 49).

Unable to resist the crushing numbers of the Ottoman army, Dracula resorted to asymmetrical warfare, engaging in guerrilla tactics to delay, disorganize, and demoralize the enemy. He withdrew from the Wallachian plains in the south to the Transylvanian mountains, burning what he could not carry. Crops and food stores were burned, livestock killed, wells poisoned, and whole villages razed to the ground (McNally and Florescu 51).

In a time before refrigeration, C-rations, and meals ready to eat (MREs), armies had to live off the land and forage for their food and water, and 60,000 men get very hungry and very thirsty very fast. The summer of 1462 was the hottest on record to date, and under the hot blazing summer sun, with dwindling supplies, harried by attacks against their supplies lines, and chasing an elusive prey, Turkish moral began to waver, but the worst was yet to come (McNally and Florescu 51-52).

Dracula released criminals to attack the Turkish stragglers. Those infected with various diseases, such as the plague, were sent in disguise into Turkish camps to spread their disease. Many notable actions took place between the Turks and Wallachian forces, but two events that stand out include the Night of Terror (July 17, 1462), and the march on Tȋrgovişte itself (McNally and Florescu 51).

Despite Dracula’s harassing actions, Mehmed II continued steadily towards Tȋrgovişte. Knowing that a traditional field battle would totally destroy his forces, Dracula devised a bold plan to attack the Turk’s camp at night and kill the sultan cutting the head off the snake in his den. Such a move could potentially rout the slowly demoralizing Turks. Using his intimate knowledge of the land, Dracula would be able to move his forces up through hidden paths into the camp itself (McNally and Florescu 52).

The attack was a masterstroke and thousands of Turks, perhaps up to 15,000, were brutally murdered as they slept, cut down as they went for their weapons, or as they cowered in fear. Dracula got within sight of the sultan's tent, but was driven back. The attack was a total surprise and terror spread through the Ottoman ranks (McNally and Florescu 53).
Fig. 3: A depiction of the Night of Terror: The Battle with Torches, by Theodore Aman.
Dracula, who was being surrounded by the rallying Turkish forces, eventually retreated. According to a letter by papal legate Niccolo Modrussa reporting a conversation he had with Dracula, Mehmed II, did initially flee after the battle, but was compelled by his advisers to return and claim a tactical victory as Dracula’s forces withdrew (Florescu and McNally 145-146).
Despite their overwhelming surprise, the Wallachians had reportedly lost about 5,000 soldiers it could ill-afford to lose. Knowing he could not confront the Sultan again, Dracula fled north, leaving the Turks to approach Tirgovste unchallenged (McNally and Florescu 53).
Fig. 4: Dracula's Romania: Mid-15th Century Wallachia  (McNally and Florescu 187).

The Forest of the Impaled

Attempting to discover Dracula’s plans, a Wallachian soldier was captured, but did not speak. Though sawed in half, the dying Wallachian feared Dracula more than the Turks. This small story symbolizes the fear Dracula held over his own people, and which extended towards his enemies (McNally and Florescu 53).

Marching towards Tȋrgovişte, Mehmed II found the gates shut and city prepared to defend itself. Rather than put his already demoralized army into a long siege with few supplies, Mehmed marched around the city, tracking Dracula’s movements until they came to a small gorge about sixty miles north. There, the Turks found some 20,000 men, women, and children — mostly Turkish prisoners and some traitorous Wallachians — impaled in a semi-circle approximately a mile in diameter. The two highest stakes contained the bodies of the two envoys Mehmed II had sent earlier that year to secretly capture Dracula (Florescu and McNally 145-146).

The stench must have reached the noses of the Turks long before they set eyes on the gruesome scene. Bloated bodies rotting in the hot summer sun, birds nesting in body cavities — it was an image of hell that even Old Testament fire and brimstone prophets could not have dreamed. That night, Mehmed ordered a trench dug around his encampment and in the morning they retreated back to the Ottoman Empire (Florescu and McNally 147-148).

The Dragon in Chains

At the height of his great victory, Dracula’s boyers still plotted against him. They had suffered greatly, and when Dracula’s brother Radu called on the Wallachian people to accept the inevitability of Turkish rule and escape his brother’s cruelty by accepting him as their new ruler (Florescu and McNally 151-152). Despite Dracula’s victory, the fall of Constantinople weighed heavily on the minds of the Wallachians. As with the Sioux after their great victory over the U.S. Army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, they knew their victory was short-lived. 

Fig. 5: Radu, Dracula's brother.
19th Century portrait (“Radu al III”).
Radu’s call quickly began to deplete Dracula’s ranks and he moved to take the throne for himself. Fleeing towards the Carpathian Mountains, Dracula sought support from Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. After weeks of negotiations, Corvinus gave Dracula a unit of soldiers to complement his dwindling ranks. In reality, the king was arranging for his men to separate Dracula from the Wallachian troops and bring him under arrest to the Hungarian court (McNally and Florescu 95). The conflict in the border region had to cease and with Radu in power the Turkish beast would be held at bay, for now.
As Dracula learned, no good deed goes unpunished.

Imprisonment and Death

Dracula proved to be popular in European courts for his successful campaigning against the Turks, so Corvinus embarked on a PR campaign to justify his arrest of the Impaler Prince. Popular opinion sided with Dracula, but war is always a brutal experience, and even more so during the twilight of Medieval Europe. The prospect of peace, however obtained, eventually placated opposition (Florescu and McNally 161-162).

For twelve years, between 1462 and 1474 Dracula languished as a prisoner of the Hungarian king. Occasionally, he would be trotted out for state occasions as an object of intimidation, such as when a Turkish delegation arrived at the Hungarian court to conclude a peace treaty (Florescu and McNally 163).

Two independent accounts of Dracula during this time reveal a truly disturbed mind. The Russian ambassador Fedor Kuritsyn reported Dracula’s “. . . evil habit of catching mice and having birds bought at the marketplace, so that he could punish them by impalement.” A separate account by Gabriele, Bishop of Erlau to Pope Sixtus IV in 1476 said, “. . . he caught mice and, cutting them up into pieces, stuck them on small pieces of wood, just as he had stuck men on stakes” (Florescu and McNally 163).

The connection today between animal abuse and serial killers is well known, so it is remarkable that two separate contemporary accounts would note this behavior. Dracula’s socio-psychopathic behavior was so extreme that it stood out in a time when violence was commonplace and brutality an accepted part of life.

In January 1475, Radu died, reportedly of syphilis, giving Dracula an opportunity once again to take the Wallachian throne for a third time. Corvinus, who had long plotted to move against the Turks, now saw his opportunity and pledge Dracula his support to return him to power. The catch was Dracula would have to abandon his Eastern Orthodox Christian faith and become a Catholic. This would allow Dracula to marry within the Hungarian ruling family, providing a direct link between the Hungarian crown and the Wallachian principality, securing it as a buffer state against the Ottoman Empire (Florescu and McNally 163).

By the summer of 1476, Dracula, with Corvinus’ support gathered an army In Transylvania, working with his cousin Stephen the Great to move against the Turks in Moldavia and return the crown to Stephen’s hands. Now, ready to return the favor, Stephen gathered his troops to restore Dracula to power in Wallachia, and in early November 1476 they began their campaign. The battles against the latest Wallachian voivode, Basarab Laiotă were bloody, but by the end of month Dracula was back in control of the nation (Florescu and McNally 171-172). This third reign though was not to last.

Basarab quickly joined forces with the Turks and moved against Dracula in December 1476. By the end of the month, the Son of the Dragon met his death not far from the monastery at Snagov; perhaps at the hands of an assassin, perhaps at the hands of his own men who mistook Dracula for a Turk — owing to his habit of disguising himself as such to spy on their forces. Whatever the case may be, Dracula was beheaded and his head sent to the Sultan to assure him that the Impaler Prince was indeed finally dead.

As we all know, however, Dracula never really died, did he?


Despite Dracula’s success on the battlefield against the Ottomans, he only slowed them down. They continued their push through the Balkans until they finally lay siege to Vienna itself in 1529 and again in 1683, before finally being turned back.

With Dracula, we see that the desire for power was absolute. He was willing to do what it took to stay in power: change faiths, shift allegiances, and torture and kill to a degree that staggers the imagination to this day.

The religious conflicts between Christian and Muslim in the Balkans continued to be played out during the 1990s following the breakup of the former Yugoslav Republic. Death camps and torture returned. Ancient enmities were played out in regions were both Dracula and his father once battled the Turks.

Dracula cast a shadow that stretched long beyond his time, revealing the terrible nature of man that endures to this day.

The dragon would be proud.
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

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Works Cited
Aman, Theodore. The Battle with Torches. Pure Romania
        Imgur.com, 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://imgur.com/
Aman, Theodore. Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys. Pure
        Romania. Pure-Romania.com, 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.         <http://pure-romania.com/landmarks/land-of-dracula/>.
Forescu, Radu, R., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula, Prince of 
        Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston: Little, Brown and
        Company, 1989. Print.

McNally, Raymond T, and Radu R. Forescu, In Search of Dracula:
        The History of Dracula and Vampires. Boston and New York:
        Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.
“Mehmed II.” FloGlobe. FloGlobe.com, 2012. Web. 29 October
        2013.  <http://foglobe.com/mehmed-ii.html>.
“Radu al III-lea cel Frumos.” Secole.ro.  Secole.ro, 2013, Web. 29 
        Oct. 2013. <http://secole.ro/radu-al-iii-lea-cel-frumos>. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Vlad Dracula: The Dragon’s Shadow, 1431-1460

by G. Jack Urso

Fig. 1: Vlad Dracula (Vlad Tepes).
In a dusty corner in the pantheon of the heroes of western civilization are gathered its forgotten champions the ones to whom the dirty work of war is given. Vlad III Dracula, Prince of Wallachia, Duke of Amlaş and Făgăraş (1431-1476), known to history as Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) was born into the bleeding border region between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire from Asia Minor. Wallachia in the 15th century provides a fascinating study in the problems of maintaining power and protecting sovereignty for a nation-state situated between two great powers with conflicting foreign policies.  

Wallachia was surrounded by larger nations, ruled by leaders who had a great impact on European history, such as John Hunyadi, King Matthias Corvinus, or Sultan Mehmed II. Nevertheless, it is the name of Dracula that continues to echo through history, and for good reason; the real Vlad Dracula was a far crueler and more brutal man than any vampire legend or myth.

Enter the Dragon    

Dracula’s father, Vlad Dracul (dragon, see Fig. 1), was so-named due to his oath as a knight of the Order of the Dragon, also referred to as Draconists. The Order of the Dragon was committed to fighting against Islam, and the Turks in particular. Dracul took this oath in part to secure Sigismund’s support for his ascension to the Wallachian throne in late 1436 (Florescu and McNally 41, 48)
In taking this oath from Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, Dracul, was pitting himself against his own people who, like himself, belonged to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Dracul took the oath of the Order of the Dragon in 1431, the same year his son Vlad, later Vlad Dracula (Son of the Dragon), was born. This was the first a series of conflicting loyalties that would characterize the reigns of Dracul and his son (Florescu and McNally 41).
Fig. 3: The Knight's Hall, Nuremburg, Germany, where Vlad Dracul took his oath
as a knight of the Order of the Dragon, February 8, 1431 (Florescu and McNally n.p.).
In 1437, after the death of Sigismund, Dracul, in order to preserve his tenuous grasp on the Wallachian throne, entered into an alliance with the sworn enemies of the Draconists, the Ottomans. Indeed, in 1438 Dracul himself joined Ottoman Sultan Murad II on a raid into Transylvania, pillaging and ravaging the countryside. This brought Dracul into conflict with John Hunyadi, the Catholic Viceroy of the Kingdom of Hungary and Voivode of Transylvania (Florescu and McNally 49).

Even with Murad II, however, Dracul was playing a dangerous game of dueling agendas. During the 1438 Transylvanian raid, Dracul used his influence to spare the lives of Christians in the town of Sebeş. This, and other incidents, caused Murad II to question the loyalty of his Wallachian vassal and in 1442 he arrested Dracul and imprisoned him in Gallipoli. In order to regain his throne, Dracul pledged fealty once again to his Turkish overlord and in exchange left his sons Vlad Dracula and Radu as hostages (McNally and Florescu 21).

Here, at 11 years old, the young Vlad Dracula, abandoned by his father in exchange for power, left to his enemies and their alien, unchristian ways, learned a hard lesson before love, before family, before God, before loyalty, before life itself comes power. One is either the ruler or the ruled. For those at the top of the Medieval European social ladder the first step away from power was often directly into the grave, particularly in the violent Balkan border region with the Ottoman Empire.

In the Company of Wolves

The lives of Dracula and Radu were constantly in danger during their captivity. When Dracul joined John Hunyadi’s successful campaign against the Turks in 1443, he broke his agreement with the Ottomans and by rights both Dracula and Radu should have been put to the sword, or at the very least blinded like the sons of Serbian Prince Brankovic when he broke his agreement with the sultan (McNally and Florescu 22). Realizing that his actions in service to Christendom had doomed his sons, Dracul wrote in late 1443:
                Please understand that I have allowed my children to be
                butchered for the sake of the Christian peace, in order 
                that both I and my country might continue to be vassals 
                of the Holy Roman Empire.                
                                            Dracul to the city elders of Brasov 
                                                              (McNally and Florescu 22)
Hunyadi’s subsequent campaign of 1444 proved to be a complete disaster and he and Dracul held each other responsible (McNally and Florescu 23).

Vlad Dracul’s double dealing with Christian Europe and the Muslim Turks came to an end in November 1447. John Hunyadi, viceroy of Hungary and governor general of Transylvania, began a campaign against Dracul in order to remove him from power (Florescu and McNally 61). Not long afterwards, opposition forces caught up with Dracul’s eldest son and heir Mircea, who was “blinded with red-hot stakes and buried alive.” Then, in December 1447 at the behest of Hunyadi, Dracul himself was assassinated by Vladislav II Danesti, who was rewarded with the Wallachian throne in exchange for his efforts (McNally and Florescu 22-23).

The details of Dracula's treatment during Turkish captivity are not dealt with in depth by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in the classic texts: Dracula: Prince of Many Faces (1989) and In Search of Dracula (1994). While they discuss Dracul’s youngest son Radu's submission to the sexual advances of the future Mehmed II, they are silent as the matter regards the young Dracula himself. Norman Davies, however, author of the massive historical survey Europe: A History (1996), contends Dracula was raped while in captivity and the psychological trauma led to his obsession with impalement particularly via anal penetration (449).

Radu, in perhaps an early example of Stockholm Syndrome, accepted the invitations of the Ottoman Empire and became an officer in the court of Sultan Murad II in 1447, the same year his father and older brother were assassinated. Dracula, however, now about 16 years old, was not as easily seduced. He proved to be a difficult and truculent hostage who had to be whipped and beaten into obedience by his Turkish keepers who nevertheless feared their young prisoner’s belligerent temperament (Florescu and McNally 56, 60). Despite all that, when the Turks needed a candidate of their own for the Wallachian throne, it was Dracula, not Radu, they turned to.  
Whereas Hunyadi sought weakness for his Wallachian prince, the Turks sought strength a decision they would eventually regret.
The Dragon Princes
Vlad Dracul, knowing his own demise was looming, willed to Dracula two items associated with the Order of the Dragon: the sword made of Toledo steel presented to him my Emperor Sigismund upon taking his oath for the order in 1431, and a gold collar with a dragon insignia. In this way, Dracul was also symbolically passing to his son his oath as Draconist to fight Islam and Turks. Upon receiving the sword, Dracula was reported to have said that he would avenge his father’s death by personally killing Vladislav II Danesti (Florescu and McNally 63).

Meanwhile, Hunyadi’s military power began to wane following his defeat at the Battle of Kosovo Polje in October 1448. While Hunyadi and Vlad II Danesti were fighting south of the Danube, the Ottomans saw an opportunity to put their own candidate on the throne Vlad Dracula. Despite Ottoman support, or perhaps because of it, Dracula’s reign lasted only two months before Hunyadi and Vlad II Danesti returned to Wallachia and the young Dracula fled into exile to neighboring Moldavia, where his uncle, Prince Bogdan ruled. There, he formed a close relationship with his cousin, the future Stephen the Great (Florescu and McNally 65-66).

Dracula remained in Moldavia through October 1451 when Prince Bogdan, father of Stephen the Great, was assassinated. This compelled Dracula to seek refuge in Transylvania under the protection of John Hunyadi, who clearly did not view him as an ally, to say the least. Vlad II Danesti, secured back on the Wallachian throne, however, began adopting pro-Turkish policies to keep his crown from the threatening Ottoman Empire. This move alienated Vlad Danesti from Hunyadi and gave Dracula the opening he needed to ingratiate himself with the Hungarian viceroy (McNally and Florescu 24-25).

Hunyadi’s acceptance of Dracula at his court was only partially due to Vlad Danesti’s turnabout.  Dracula, having lived in the court of the Ottoman sultan and campaigned with his armies, had intimate knowledge of their language, customs, and military tactics. Dracula joined Hunyadi’s army as an officer and learned much about the successful tactics his Hungarian overlord used against the Turks in several campaigns (Florescu and McNally 68). What Dracula thought by having to seek refuge in the court of the man who ordered his father's assassination is not know, but he clearly accepted it as a means to an end.

Dracula would not have to wait long for his reward. It was during this time that, in return for his service, Dracula was invested with the duchies of Amlaş and Făgăraş, which had also been previous awarded to his father, Vlad Dracul (McNally and Florescu 24-25). Step-by-step, Dracula was  securing his father’s legacy, and the Wallachian crown was next in his sights.

The Return of the Dragon

In 1453, Constantinople, the last bastion of the aging Byzantine Empire, fell to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Byzantium, a relic of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire, was also the spiritual capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well as a buffer state against the Ottomans. Now that it had been absorbed by the Turks into their empire, fear spread through the Balkans that nothing could stop the rising Muslim tide from stabbing deep into the heart of Christian Europe (Florescu and McNally 74).

It is possible that Dracula may have once temporarily served as a page to the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologus, but even if he did not certainly the collapse of the last vestige of the Roman Empire had a profound impact on him (McNally and Florescu 25). The Ottomans were slowly grabbing more and more territory and with the collapse of Byzantium the principality of Wallachia stood next in line.

Fig 4: Europe circa 1500 (McNally and Florescu 187).
Three years later, in 1456, Dracula saw an opportunity to get back into power. That year, John Hunyadi was once again battling the Ottomans and in July succeeded in ousting them from Belgrade. Dracula’s role in this campaign was to protect Hunyadi’s Eastern flank. Now in command of sufficient forces to finally move against Vladislav II Danesti, Dracula met and killed his nemesis the man who murdered his father and brother in personal combat sometime in mid-July 1456, about the same time Hunyadi was taking Belgrade.  Only a month later, however, Hunyadi contracted the plague and died. By the end of August 1456, free from his Hungarian overlord, and having killed his Danesti rival, Dracula once again sat on the Wallachian throne, this time with fatal consequences for any that opposed him (Florescu and McNally 79-81).

A Throne of Thornes

He [Dracula] asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty.
Another twenty.
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”

Michael Beheim, Meistersinger (1416-circa 1472)
                                  (Florescu and McNally 90-91)

Wallachian law required that the voivode (governor) be elected by a small council of nobles called boyers. While in principle this was meant to prevent any one ruler from usurping power. Unfortunately, the result was political anarchy. From 1418 through 1456, the start of Dracula’s second and most notorious reign, the Wallachian throne exchanged hands no less than eighteen times. Typically, the reigns lasted only a few months or a couple years, and rulers often gained, lost, and then regained the throne (“Walalchian Voivodes 1247-1859”). Dracula ascended to power in 1456 because the boyers elected him. It was a decision they would soon regret.

Before turning his attention to his Turkish enemies, Dracula had to stabilize his country’s political, social, and economic situations. The horrible death of Dracula’s brother Mircea, who was blinded and buried alive on the orders of the boyers, gave him strong motivation to settle up a very personal debt.

During the Easter celebrations of Spring 1457, Dracula invited approximately 200 boyers and their families, and other “leading citizens” to a feast in Tȋrgovişte. There, Dracula seized them, young and old, male and female, and forced them to build the notorious Castle Dracula near the Argeş River (also referred to as Poenari Castle). Dressed in their Easter finery, the boyers and their families were worked until the clothes fell off their backs. If any survived, they found their titles and land given to other boyers or free peasants who owed their allegiance to Dracula alone, not to a council of noblemen (Florescu and McNally 91-93).
Fig. 5: Ruins of Castle Dracula along the Arguş River, also known as Poenari Castle
("Poenari Castle")
Between 1456 and 1462 nearly 90-percent of the Wallachian boyer council was comprised of free men from the lower classes (Florescu and McNally 95). There was no question during Dracula’s reign which way the council’s votes would go.

Socially, Dracula viewed, according to a Romanian folktale, “the old, the ill, the lame, the poor, the blind, and the vagabonds” as parasites on the nation. In his own words, Dracula said “. . . these vagabonds take your belongings gradually by begging but they still take it. They are worse than robbers.” In a joke of cruel irony, as he did with the boyers, Dracula invited these undesirable elements to a feast in Tȋrgovişte where they ate and drank themselves into a stupor. Then, he had the doors to the hall locked and burned the whole place down (Florescu and McNally 101).

Those who tried to defend themselves and avoid punishment only made things worse. One gypsy leader tried to escape death by claiming impalement or being burned alive was against his tribal law, so Dracula had him boiled alive and fed to his clan (Florescu and McNally 101).

Dracula’s use of various means of torture is well documented through various sources. Horses would be tied to each victims limbs and then torn asunder. Stakes had rounded tips to make impalements even more painful. Victims where staked through the chest, up the anus, or hung upside down and then impaled. Limbs were severed, eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off, heads scalped, bodies flayed, boiled alive, or eaten alive by wild animals. The Wallachian prince inspired fear at time when brutality and cruelty where commonplace (McNally and Florescu 41).

One event stands out as an example of Dracula’s penchant for terror as a means to assert his authority. Genoese ambassadors presented themselves at Dracula’s court, yet refused to take off their coifs (skullcaps). When Dracula inquired why, the ambassadors replied, “We are not obliged to take our skullcaps off under any circumstances, even an audience with the sultan or the Holy Roman Emperor.” Dracula, noting to the Genoese his desire to acknowledge their customs, nailed their caps to their head: “This is the manner in which I will strengthen your customs” (Florescu and McNally 96).

Through terror, torture, murder, and impalement Dracula asserted fear of his authority throughout Wallachia. One story, likely apocryphal, that symbolizes this fear is the tale of a fountain with a golden cup. Many travelers stopped and drank from the cup, but their fear of Dracula prevented anyone from stealing it, least they also fall victim to the stake (Florescu and McNally 103).

Trade and Traitors

The meager agricultural products produced by Wallachia were insufficient to maintain the voivode’s coffers. Trade brought gold and silver to the tiny principality and it was a resource Dracula would jealously guard.

Wallachia strategic location is not only due to it being on the border region between two warring cultures, but also it served as an important hub of trade moving goods form Western Europe to the Middle and Near East, as well as vice versa.

The death of John Hunyadi in 1456 set off a battle for the Hungarian throne between Hunyadi’s family and the Hapsburgs, who sought to expand their territory deeper into Central Europe. Dracula, who owed much to the Hunyadis, naturally supported their claim to the crown. In 1457, German Saxon’s in the Transylvanian town of Bistriţa rebelled against Hungarian control in support of the Hapsburg cause. Dracula descended on the town like the proverbial plague and crushed the brutally crushed the rebellion (Florescu and McNally 114).

Survivors from Bistriţa fled to the Transylvanian towns of Braşov and Sibiu, who, horrified at the treatment of their Saxon brethren, gave them refuge and accused Dracula of seeking Ottoman support. Further, they began seeking a new candidate to support for the Wallachian throne, including Dracula’s half-brother Vlad the Monk, and two members of the rival Danesti family —  Dan III, brother of Vladislav II, who had Dracula father and brother murdered, and Basarb Laiota (Florescu and McNally 116).

Dracula, who had granted trade concessions to Braşov and other Saxon merchants upon his ascension, now rescinded them and gave them to native Wallachians. Initial attempts to reach a political settlement failed and Dracula, unable to endure such a challenge to his authority anymore set out on the first of his punitive expeditions against the rebellious towns in 1458. The populations of entire towns were massacred and any survivors impaled. Those nobles who were spared the sword or the stake had all their possessions confiscated. This was essentially an ethnic cleansing of German-Saxons in the Transylvanian region (Florescu and McNally 116-117).

In one notorious incident in the winter of 1459, near Braşov, while pursuing Dan III, Dracula pillaged the outlying suburbs. He captured all those he could find and impaled them. Then, “he dipped his bread in the blood of his victims.” When a boyer held his nose against the stench, Dracula offended had him impaled on the highest stake. “Live up there yonder, where the stench cannot reach you,” Dracula is reported to have said in a Russian narrative (Florescu and McNally 120).

Was this just exaggeration by Dracula's opponents? To a certain extent, we must question the account in that the source of the report was his enemies. If this were an isolated incident we might be inclined to dismiss it; however, there are so many similar reports documenting Dracula's use of torture, and the lack of empathy with his victims, that it is not a stretch to suggest that the Impaler Prince's appetites did indeed run red.
Fig.6: German woodcut showing Dracula dining amidst the impaled, 1499
(McNally and Florescu 79).
Eventually, the Saxon opposition collapsed. Reparations were paid and Dan III was promised to be turned over to Dracula. In return, Dracula restored trading rights; however, Dan III was never delivered. As a result, Dracula returned to campaigning against the German towns even harder than before, if that was possible. The bloody internal conflict continued through 1460. In March, Dan III was eventually seized, forced to dig his own grave, and then beheaded by Dracula (Florescu and McNally 121).

Dracula, however, was not done with the Saxons. Amlaş and Făgăraş, the duchies Dracula held title to, still provided refuge to the former advisors and supporters of Dan III. Determined to end the rebellion once and for all, the Wallachian warlord destroyed whole towns and impaled the populations of entire towns, earning him the sobriquet, Vlad the Impaler. Throughout the duchy of Amlaş approximately 30,000 people were killed. Some towns, such as Amlaş itself, were so completely devastated they were never rebuilt (Florescu and McNally 122).

On October 1, 1460, a peace treaty was finally signed between Dracula and the Transylvanian Saxons. Each side made concessions, and Dracula wasn’t entirely pleased, but with King Matthias of Hungry guaranteeing the peace, his hand was forced. In any event, Dracula had greater concerns as he was soon to face his earliest and most hated of enemies the Ottoman Empire (Florescu and McNally 122).

Continued in:  Vlad Dracula: The Dragon’s Shadow, 1460-1476

Related Content
From my personal archives, Vincent Price’s Dracula, also known as Dracula: The Great Undead, is a sixty minute documentary featuring Vincent Price narrating a history of Dracula including:
  • A profile of the historical Dracula featuring rare clips from an unnamed mid-20th century Eastern European film about Vlad Tepes that features re-enactments of impalements and historically accurate costumes.
  • Rare video clips from movies about Dracula.
  • Film from Communist Romania in the early 1980s, featuring some of the locations of the historical Dracula and then-current rural burial rituals.

Works Cited 
Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. New York: Oxford University
        Press, 1996. Print.

Forescu, Radu, R., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula, Prince of
        Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston: Little, Brown and
        Company, 1989. Print.
McNally, Raymond T, and Radu R. Forescu, In Search of Dracula: 
        The History of Dracula and Vampires. Boston and New York: 
        Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.
“Poenari Castle (Castle Dracula).” Pure Romania
        Pure-Romania.com, 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://
Vlad II Dracul. n.d. Sighişoara Historical Museum, Sighişoara,
Vlad Tepes. n.d. Oil on canvas. Castle Ambras, Innsbruck, Austria.
“Wallachian Voivodes 1247-1859.” Websites of Balkan Folklore.
        Eliznik.org, Dec. 2005. Web. 29 Oct.  2013. <http://
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