The destination for history

In Dracula’s footsteps


When Abraham Stoker came to Whitby in 1890, on holiday with his family, he could have had no way of knowing that his stay in the town would inspire him to write a Gothic literary masterpiece.

Since its publication, his novel Dracula, originally intended to be published as The Un-Dead, has been translated into numerous languages and has been portrayed in every media form possible, including pantomime, stage shows, television series, radio plays – and of course films, commencing with the Gothic classic Nosferatu, starring Max Shrecke, in 1922. The word ‘Nosferatu’ translates in Latin as nos, we, fera, wild animal, and tu, you (roughly speaking, ‘we are all wild animals’, though there have been various other interpretations and explanations).

The word appears in Dracula on a number of occasions, including one entry that gives its own ungrammatical explanation: ‘The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he stings once. He is only stronger, and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil.’ It has been claimed that Bram Stoker stayed at a number of boarding houses in the town over the years; however, it is known for certain that he spent at least some of his early vacations at the home of seaside landlady Fanny Harker and her husband William: indeed, the Harker and the Stoker families became firm friends, so much so that he promised to use their surname and address in his future novel. True to his word, their home at 7 Royal Crescent Avenue (now Crescent Avenue) appeared in the story as ‘7 The Crescent’, and the Harker name became an integral part of the Dracula story.

The Real Dracula

This use of real names, places and people was not unusual in Stoker’s novels, and Dracula proved no exception. For instance, Professor Vambery of the Budapest University of Languages is said to have inspired the character of Professor Van Helsing, whilst it is widely accepted that the main character, Dracula, is based on Count Vladimir Tepes (pronounced Tse-pesh), whose name is often contracted to ‘Vlad Drac III’.

The surname Tepes translates as ‘Impaler’, and refers to the tyrant’s favourite method of punishing prisoners and law-breakers. Vlad III was, like his father before him, a member of an elite group of European Catholic princes who had vowed to defend Europe against the onslaught of the Ottaman Turks. The group was known as the Order of the Dragon. The Romanian word for dragon (and incidentally, also the word for Devil) is drac, whilst the suffix ula means ‘son of ’. Thus the name Dracula actually means ‘son of the dragon’ as well as ‘son of the Devil’, depending on the user’s point of view.

One story that has survived to illustrate the historical Drac III’s reputation for total intolerance of law breaking amongst his subjects concerns a solid gold cup that he ordered should be secretly laced with poisoned wine. In the dead of night the cup was placed in the central square of the town of Tirgoviste to tempt thieves. Such was the fear of retribution from Vlad Drac that it is said that not a single person attempted to steal the cup or even tried to drink from it. This episode illustrates well the ruler’s disturbed and distinctively cruel nature, a fact that has been confirmed in both Russian and German documents. In one notable case, diplomats from both countries had arrived at Vlad’s court for a political meeting. Despite being titled Prince, the envoys did not recognise him as a true Royal sovereign and refused to remove their hats in his presence as instructed. The outraged Vlad is said to have flown into a rage at this snub and ordered that their hats should be nailed to their heads as a demonstration of his disapproval, a punishment that was duly carried out.

The feared leader’s reign of terror ended with his death in December 1476, by which time he was considered a tyrant by some and a religious saviour by others. Despite his evil deeds, his body was buried within the grounds of Snagov monastery, where it lay undisturbed for about three years until officials ordered his remains to be disinterred. Strangely, when his coffin was opened it was found to be completely empty, a sign for some that he was a kind of Messiah and had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. The superstitious peasant population of Transylvania and Wallachia, however, was now convinced that Dracula had become a vampire. As such, his undead corpse was destined to travel the earth for eternity, seeking out the innocent victims in order to feed the Count’s blood lust.

Though his descendants are poorly documented, the real-life Dracula’s bloodline has certainly continued through to modern times. Following her death in Paris aged seventy-six on 14 May 1997, newspapers revealed that the Romanian Princess Catherine Caradja, otherwise known as Caradja-Kretzulesco, was in fact a direct descendent of Prince Vlad the Impaler. The princess had formerly fled from Bucharest to France to escape Communist rule in 1947. In contrast to her ancestor’s life of evil, she had become an active charity worker in her later years, collecting money in aid of Romanian citizens after the country’s political overthrow in 1989.

Stoker’s Dracula

Bram Stoker, though a well-balanced and pleasant individual with a definite sense of humour, was said to be unavoidably attracted to the study of ‘all things dark’. It has been acknowledged that as well as being a Freemason he was almost certainly a member of the Golden Dawn, an influential occult society that attracted Victorian academics, spies, university professors and diplomats who, it is said, gathered in secret to discuss and explore a wide range of mystical and taboo subjects.

It is also said that before writing his novel, Stoker spent seven years studying European folklore, especially the vampire stories from the region of Transylvania, having had his interest sparked by an 1885 essay entitled ‘Transylvania Superstitions’ written by Emily Gerard, the wife of the influential Chevalier Miecislas de Laszowski. Laszowski was a cavalry officer who, together with his wife, had been stationed in the Transylvanian town of Temesvar (now Timisoara, Romania). Another of Stoker’s associates who influenced his interest in vampires was Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian writer and traveller who was also a keen collector of superstitions and legends from the Baltic regions.

Because of these interests, there is no doubt that Stoker delighted in the Gothic, mysterious and historic aspects of Whitby, and indeed two real-life maritime incidents were instrumental in the town becoming a key part of the story. One involved a mysterious and apparently unmanned ship that sailed out of the fog near Whitby Harbour entrance and rammed a local fishing vessel, tipping its crew into the water. The ship then, despite the desperate cries of the distressed crew, sailed off into the mist, never to be seen again. The second real-life incident to have an influence on the story of Dracula was the wrecking of a Russian vessel, the Dmitri of Narva, in October 1885. It was carrying sand along the north-east coast and got into difficulty in atrocious weather. As it started to take in water its cargo of sand became unstable: the vessel limped through the harbour mouth at Whitby and was wrecked upon Tate Hill beach. In true form, Stoker slightly disguised the incident, transforming the Dmitri into the Demeter and giving its home port as Varna (an anagram of the real port of Navra.)

Bram Stoker knew that both the names ‘Demeter’ and ‘Dmitri’ had virtually the same meaning. ‘Dimitri’ was the Russian version of the Greek Demeter and as such is the equivalent of the British Earth Mother goddess. To the Romans she was known as Ceres, whilst the Celtic tribes knew her as Gaia or Mother Earth, the primeval Mother goddess of all goddesses. The fifty boxes of loam carried upon the Demeter, which were also no doubt meant to symbolically convey the same ‘earth’ message, were in the story consigned to Mr Billington the solicitor at 7 The Crescent before finally being delivered to Carfax House near Purfleet. Stoker is believed to have based his, or rather his character Jonathan Harker’s, description of Carfax House (‘close to an old chapel or church’) on ‘Purfleet House’, which was built there in 1791 by Samuel Whitbread, the brewer, together with a detached chapel for the ‘ease of use of his family’.

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books