Caution! The following content contains gruesome stories of torture and murder--this is not for the faint of heart!
Over 500 years ago Vlad the Impaler (1431-1477) also known as Dracula, was the princely ruler of Wallachia, a providence in modern day Romania. Born in Transylvania, he ruled barely seven years, but his horrific methods and sadistic cruelty would make him the stuff of legends that persist even today.
In 1431 Vlad's father, a military commander and ruler of Wallachia himself, received an honor from the Holy Roman Emperor initiating him into the Order of the Dragon. The order was one method the royals used to ensure their own protection, but it also swore the initiate to defend Christianity and fight its Turkish enemies. Vlad's father proudly adopted the nickname "Dragon" taken from the Latin "draco," or in his native language, Dracul. Years later his son, Vlad the Impaler, would call himself Dracula, or "son of Dracul."
Though no connection to vampiric myth exists, the bloodiness of his reign was enough to inspire the tales that followed him. The Romanians refer to Vlad as Tepes meaning, impaling prince due to his fondness for impaling as a means of execution; though there is no record that Vlad referred to himself in this way. There are, however, various letters and documents in Romanian museums written by Vlad in which he refers to himself as Dracula.
The Turks had just taken Constantinople a few months before Vlad the Impaler took the throne, following his father who had been burned alive by rival nobles. Wallachia threatened to be swallowed up by Ottoman rule. Vlad's response to the Turkish threat was to refuse to pay the Sultan an agreed upon annual sum, and to deny the Turkish army Wallachian men for their forces. In the famous battle that followed, Vlad found his army badly outnumbered by the Turks. He displayed cruel brilliance in the guerilla tactics he deployed during a strategic retreat as he drew the Turkish army deeper into his own territory.
Poisoning wells and burning villages along the way he left the Turkish army nothing of use. He even engaged his own form of germ warfare, sending infectiously ill people into the Turkish camps. When the Turks finally approached the outskirts of Vlad's capital in 1462, a sight awaited that would psychologically stagger the entire Turkish army. A field nearly 2 miles (3 km) long and half a mile (1 km) wide bristled with 20,000 stakes -- each one impaling a man, woman or child--Vlad's own subjects.
The Turkish Sultan withdrew. Vlad the Impaler had won the battle though the war was not over.
Concurrently the newly invented printing press was turning out pamphlets in Germany about Vlad the Impaler's horrific deeds. At least one such pamphlet may have been a source for later linking Vlad to the legendary persona of a vampire. The pamphlet was titled: The Frightening and Truly Extraordinary Story of a Wicked Blood-drinking Tyrant Called Prince Dracula. Depictions of his atrocities made from woodcuts often decorated the pages of these pamphlets. One such pamphlet claimed:
He had a large pot made and boards with holes fastened over it and had people's heads shoved through there and imprisoned them in this. And he had the pot filled with water and a big fire made under the pot and thus let the people cry out pitiably until they were boiled quite to death.
Also included were stories of roasting men and impaling children to their mother's breasts. Though it is impossible to know if these accounts are true other stories have multiple sources providing some corroboration. In one highly credited story, Vlad the Impaler is said to have been concerned that everyone in his providence be contributing to Wallachia. He invited all those not doing so -- the poor, hungry, sick and crippled -- to a huge hall for a feast. When the feast was over he asked if the people wished to be without cares, wanting for nothing. They wholeheartedly agreed. He then had the hall sealed and set afire, killing everyone. Afterwards he triumphantly declared there were no poor in his realm.
Russian sources also tell of a cruel man, but include a slightly different angle that emphasizes Vlad's adherence to his responsibilities to restore order and justice implying a moral code behind the cruelty. Turkish sources emphasize the atrocities while Romanian villages near the spot where Vlad's fortress stood carry on oral traditions to this day that sing his praises. All of the sources are biased, but between them a figure emerges that sheds a chilling light on the man who called himself Dracula.
Vlad the Impaler died in battle with the Turks in the winter of 1476. His head was displayed on a pike in Constantinople, but his body was buried at a monastery in Snagov that he had frequented. His mystery continues today as excavations in 1931 failed to turn up a coffin.