In 1462, Ottoman leader Mehmed II rolled into the town of Târgoviște in search of his nemesis, Wallachian leader Vlad Tepeş. What he found instead was “a forest of corpses,” over 20,000 people impaled on spikes.
This was the trademark of Vlad the Impaler. If you happen to be unfamiliar with impaling, imagine this: a stake, sharpened and greased, was shoved into one or both of the victim’s ‘lower holes’ (depending on the sex of the victim), and out through the mouth. It was done in a way that didn’t immediately kill them, allowing for an horrifically agonizing descent that could last for days.
Throughout his reign as the leader of Wallachia, Vlad used some seriously heinous techniques, including impaling, to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. But given his upbringing, his terrorizing rule should come as no surprise.
Vlad was born in 1431 in Transylvania. His dad, Vlad II Dracul, was the ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania) and a pretty tough dude who aggressively fought to protect Christianity in Europe. In 1442, Vlad’s dad, brother, and himself were all captured and taken hostage by the Ottomans.
They let Vlad II go, but the younger Vlad and his brother were forced to stay in Ottoman captivity. Though he was tutored and given some training, teenage Vlad was exposed to some unspeakably violent torture and a variety of executions. As you might expect, this had a bit of an impact on his mental health and more than likely shaped his adult obsession with death and torture. Somehow, he was the luckiest of the males in his family. His father was booted from power in Wallachia, beheaded, and chucked into a swamp. His brother got it even worse – he was tortured, blinded, and buried alive. It was not long after the death of his family that Vlad Tepes really began sticking it to his enemies (see what I did there?).
Once he regained power, Vlad got to work, quickly eliminating all opposition. The folks in his territory responsible for killing his father were the first in his sights. Wallachia had fallen on hard times, constantly warring and infighting, due mainly to a group of nobles known in the region as ‘The Boyars’. To eliminate the threat, Vlad invited the bulk of them to a large feast at his castle, where he went full-blown ‘Red Wedding’ on them, stabbing and impaling the lot.
That, however, was not his pièce de résistance. By the summer of 1462, Vlad had brought Wallachia into a constant state of war with the Ottomans, led by Mehmed II. Over the course of the conflict, Vlad stockpiled bodies: his own nobles, Turkish army, prisoners of war, etc. In June, he led a raid into Ottoman territory with the goal of finding and assassinating Mehmed in his tent.
Things went awry, and Vlad and his army got waxed and were forced to retreat back their capital at Târgoviște. Mehmed and his troops chased after them, but when they finally arrived, they found a perplexed scene: no soldiers, the gates wide open, and no residents. Mehmed and his army made it three miles into town before stumbling upon Vlad’s masterpiece…”a forest of corpses,” thousands of wooden stakes making Ottoman shish kebobs being feasted upon by crows.
According to a letter written by Vlad (and confirmed by a Greek historian of the time), there were nearly 24,000 bodies on display. After witnessing this deathscape, Mehmed realized he really didn’t want to tango with that kind of crazy, and he retreated back to Constantinople.
Throughout Vlad the Impaler’s reign, it is estimated he killed as many as 80,000 men, women, and children, using a variety of tactics. The legend of Vlad the Impaler also served as the historical inspiration for the story of ‘Dracula’.
Vlad’s father became known as Vlad Dracul, “The Dragon,” after joining a militant religious group known as The Order of the Dragon. Vlad the Impaler therefore became Vlad Dracula, or “Son of the Dragon.” It is no coincidence that a murderous and ruthless villain from Transylvania became synonymous with the vampiric Dracula of lore – but the historical Dracula is infinitely more terrifying than the literary one.
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