Thus far on History’s nutcases, we’ve had a good mix of the harmless, like King George III, and the utterly diabolical, like last week’s Nero. This week, we’re covering someone who’s more like the latter of the two. His name was Vlad III Drăculea, but he’s better known as “Vlad the Impaler”. He’s infamous for his diabolical methods of war. Later, his reputation and name would be the basis for Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.
It was the cold, desolate winter of 1431. Vlad was was born in Sighișoara, in Transylvania (a part of modern-day Romania), to Vlad II Dracul, future prince of Wallachia. You might find his father’s epithet Dracul interesting. The story goes that the same year Vlad III was born, his father, Vlad III, traveled to Nuremberg. There, he was inducted into the “Order of the Dragon”, a fellowship of knights sworn to defend the world against heresy. The Holy Roman Emperor at the time was the one to give Vlad II the epithet “Dracul”, meaning “dragon”. Consequently, Drăculea, Vlad III’s epithet, or, “Dracula” as we know him better, was a diminutive of his father’s name, meaning “Son of the Dragon”.
Our Vlad grew up in Sighișoara, but later, in 1436, during the first year of Dracula’s father’s reign, he brought his sons to Târgoviște, the capital of Wallachia at that time. There, five-year-old Dracula was well educated by Romanian and Greek scholars. He learned combat skills, geography, math, science, several languages, the classical arts, and philosophy.
In 1442, when Dracula was about twelve, his father was tricked into a confrontation with the Ottoman Sultan. His father wasn’t very bright. Either that, or he wasn’t paying attention, because he sent for his two sons to meet him at the Ottoman court at Gallipolli. They were, of course, taken prisoner by the Ottoman authorities. For eight years, little Dracula was raised at Ottoman court as an ‘honored prisoner’. He wasn’t happy. His little brother was well behaved and earned the friendship of the Sultan’s son, going as far to convert to Islam. Dracula, on the other hand, was defiant and constantly punished for it. It’s probable that his childhood at the Ottoman court was so traumatic that it was responsible for the sadistic man he grew up to be.
After his father and older half-brother were assassinated, Dracula escaped to Moldova, where he studied under his uncle, Prince Bogdan. But in 1451, Prince Bogdan was assassinated and Dracula was forced to flee. In the following months, he resurfaced again as a pupil of the famous Hungarian military leader, Janos. Janos taught him everything he knew about battle strategy. And, five years after his escape from Moldova, in 1456, Dracula was sent to murder the current prince of Wallachia, a man named Vladislav II, who was too Turkish-friendly for everyone’s taste. When Dracula arrived in Wallachia, he took the throne from Vladislav II and became prince of Wallachia.
See, the awkward thing was, Wallachia was considered to be part of the Ottoman Empire. Dracula wasn’t too happy about this, especially when, after the Pope called for a crusade, the Ottoman Sultan sent envoys to Dracula to demand tribute to fund the Ottoman Empire’s army so they could fight the crusaders. Dracula refused, maintaining the independence of Wallachia. He had the envoys killed by nailing their turbans to their heads.
Naturally, the Sultan was furious and sent an associate to try and make peace with Dracula, or, if necessary, eliminate him. Dracula anticipated this, and set an ambush, launching a surprise attack on the traveling Turks. The Wallachians surrounded the Turks and defeated them. It was here that we have the first known account of Dracula impaling his victims. He impaled the entire army, and impaled the Ottoman associate sent to kill him on the highest stake in mockery of his rank.
From then on, Dracula waged war on the Ottomans in the area. In 1462, he crossed the Danube and lay waste to the entire region of Bulgaria between Serbia and the Black Sea. He massacred and impaled men and woman, old and young. Vlad himself wrote that he killed almost 24,000 Turks, not counting the ones burned in their homes or cut down by the army. Read, he impaled 24,000 people.
From then on, the stories of the crazy atrocities he committed in war, of the ridiculous waste he made of it just get worse. German accounts say he roasted children and fed them to their mothers. They say he cut of women’s breasts and fed them to their husbands, and after all that, he impaled everyone. Estimates of his victims range from 40,000 to 100,000. He razed whole cities to the ground.
The stories also go that Dracula liked to walk through the forests of his victims, washing his hands in their blood before sitting down amid the sounds of their screaming to have dinner. It’s been said that, in 1462, the Mehmed II was so sickened by the sight of twenty thousand impaled corpses outside Dracula’s capital that he turned tail and went all the way back to Constantinople. It’s also been suggested that Dracula like to dip his bread in the blood of his impaled victims, but that last story is a more far-fetched account that has yet to be confirmed.
Nobody knows exactly why Dracula was so sadistic. Maybe he was a psychopath due to his traumatic upbringing, maybe he just really hated the Ottomans, maybe he was a true sadist, or maybe there was something weird and supernatural at work. We’ll never know for sure. We’re not even exactly sure how he died. There are five varying stories. We do know he died somewhere around 1475 to 1477 during his third reign as Prince of Wallachia. Some say he was killed while fighting the Ottomans. Others say he was killed by disloyal Wallachian men. Some say he was killed during a hunt, or by one of his own men. The exact date and location of his death are unknown, but he was definitely dead by January. One story goes that the Turks decapitated him and sent his head back, preserved in honey, to be impaled on a spike. How’s that for justice?
Vlad’s body was buried unceremoniously at a monastery founded by him. Said monastery was demolished and rebuilt in 1589, and his body has been missing ever since.