Picture a vampire. Yeah, you’re picturing Dracula. That’s Dracula. I mean unless you’re a Twilight fan, then maybe you’re picturing Robert Pattinson’s fine self. But no, chances are you’re picturing the title character from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” about a vampire named Count Dracula who moves from Transylvania to England in search of new victims of his undead curse. This character, who basically invented the genre of vampires in fiction, was loosely based on, at least named after, a 15th century Romanian prince named Vlad III AKA Vlad the Impaler AKA Vlad Dracula. But did you know, besides the name and the fact that they were both savage, blood-thirsty killers, Vlad Dracula and Count Dracula don’t really have all that much in common? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Everyone is familiar with Dracula, whether you want to be or not. If you’ve ever seen a drawing, a cartoon, a Halloween costume, anything of a vampire, then you’re familiar with Dracula. The cape, the slicked back black widows peak hair, the fangs, the coffin, all of it. What a lot of people don’t know is the story of the real life man who inspired him. So today, in the second of my Spooktober themed episodes (which are coming at you all month long, by the way), I’m telling the story of Vlad Dracula who is sometimes better known as Vlad the Impaler.
To tell this story we have to go back to mid 15th century Wallachia. Never heard of it? Yeah it doesn’t exist anymore. Wallachia was an eastern European principality that joined with Moldavia in 1859 to form present day Romania. So we’re in Romania, basically. What’s happening in this part of the world in 1450ish is not good. I mean, honestly what’s happening in every part of the world in 1450ish is not good but it’s exceptionally not good here. There are major problems going down between Hungary which was Christian and the Ottoman Empire which was Muslim. So nothing new there really. The Ottoman Empire was created by Turkish tribes that joined together and eventually grew into a massive empire covering most of southeastern Europe and the Middle East. And then you have Wallachia AKA Romania which is sort of stuck in the middle of it all. That’s where Vlad’s family comes in.
Our guy Vlad III was the second of 4 sons likely born around 1431 in Transylvania. His mother was a princess of Moldavia and his father, Vlad II, was an illegitimate son of a Wallachian noble. So how did this actual bastard come to marry a princess? Well he spent his youth at the court of Sigismund of Luxembourg, king of Hungary and future Holy Roman Emperor. Sigismund must have liked Vlad II, Vlad the dad quite a bit. He set him up with his princess bride and inducted him into the Order of the Dragon the same year Vlad III was born. This was a Christian military society formed by Sigismund in 1408 with 24 knights who fought heresy and tried to stop the expansion of the Ottoman empire which was, of course, Muslim. So when Vlad II joined this society he was given the last name Dracul which means Dragon in Hungarian. Because it was the Order of the Dragon. So now he’s Vlad Dracul. That makes Vlad III, his son, Vlad Dracula which means “son of the dragon.” So that’s where the name Dracula came from. Sigismund also made Vlad the dad Dracul voivode, or prince, of Wallachia. So it’s really thanks to Sigismund that Vlad’s family had any position or power at all.
But that does not stop Vlad the dad from switching sides and allying himself with the Ottoman Sultan Murad II who was basically the mortal enemy of his dude Sigismund. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what in the what happened with that? I did a lot of digging and none of it really seemed to satisfactorily explain why Vlad II flip flopped to the opposite side except that Wallachia sits squarely between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and maybe he started to think he’d be safer on the Sultan’s side. I don’t know. But he changed allegiance. Sultan Murad invites Vlad to his castle or whatever for a meeting and has him bring two of his sons with him, Vlad III and his younger brother Radu. So there’s an older brother, the first born son, he doesn’t go to this meeting, just Vlad and Radu the middle sons. But when they get there, Murad is like “Gotcha! What, do you think I’m an idiot? You just turned on Sigismund at the drop of a hat, how do I know you aren’t going to turn on me too?” And he forces Vlad II to leave his two sons behind as prisoners of the Ottomans. They are collateral, basically. Now Vlad II can’t do anything stupid because Murad has his sons.
This was pretty common back in the day. They were called “wards” and while they were technically prisoners, they had a pretty great life. They were raised alongside Murad’s own children, received an education, learned to fight. They aren’t like stuffed into prison cells or anything. It’s like Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, yeah here I go with Game of Thrones again but it’s the perfect example. Theon’s father had started a rebellion that Ned Stark swiftly squashed. Ned then took Theon as his ward. So now his father has to toe the line or Ned will do something really awful to his son. But in the meantime, Theon is kind of being treated as a son. He’s got a pretty cushy life. That’s what happened to Vlad and his brother Radu for around 5 years starting when Vlad was 11 and Radu was only 4.
While they are being treated quite well by the Sultan, Vlad and Radu form very different opinions of their Ottoman captors. Like Manteo and Wanchese, throwing it back to the Roanoke episodes. Radu’s loving it. He turns full Ottoman, eventually converts to Islam, he’s completely indoctrinated, Stockholmed, whatever you call it. Vlad is more resistant. He was older when they became wards of the empire so that probably has a lot to do with it. Radu probably didn’t have many memories of his actual life before Murad kidnapped him. Vlad is biding his time waiting to get back to his old life in Wallachia.
In the meantime, Vlad’s father, Vlad II, is ousted as ruler of Wallachia, which duh, he turned on the guy that gave him the gig in the first place. Then he’s captured and killed. This order was given by Janos (Yanosh) Hunyadi who was the current regent of Hungary, so yeah that checks out too. That same year, Vlad’s older brother Mircea was blinded and buried alive. Hunyadi puts a nobleman named Vladislav II in charge as the new voivode of Wallachia. Also the same year Vlad III is released by the Ottomans and he’s like “oh heck no.” And I have to imagine this was strategic on the part of the Sultan. He’s like “okay, my number one enemies just killed my ward’s father and bother and gave away his rightful title, go get um tiger.”
So at the tender age of 16, Vlad begins his fight to regain the throne of Wallachia. He kicks Vladislav off the throne with the help of the Ottomans, who basically sicked Vlad on him anyway, and becomes voivode of Wallachia, for a minute. This only lasts 2 months. Then the Hungarians kick him off and stick Vladislav back up there. Vlad goes into exile for 8 years. Don’t really know what he was up to. Just know he was bouncing around the Ottoman empire and Moldavia. But, at some point during his exile, he switches sides again. He switches from the Ottoman side back to the Hungarian side. And to make things even more confusing, Vladislav, the guy the Hungarians put on the Wallachian throne also switches sides. He switches from the Hungarian side to the Ottoman side. So, like what? They literally traded sides. I don’t understand why everyone is so willing to flip flop allegiances and yet also to kill for those allegiances. In 1456 Vlad and Vladislav have an epic battle, hand to hand combat. Vlad beheads Vladislav and regains the throne of Wallachia.
This is when his reign of terror begins. Wallachia is in bad shape at this point. It’s been completely ravaged by the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict. Trade has stopped, the fields are empty, and the laws have completely broken down. It’s the wild west, anarchy. Vlad comes in hot with an iron fist to crack down on crime. He has a zero tolerance policy with extremely harsh punishments for minor offenses. He is not a fan of the Wallachian boyars, the noblemen. These are the guys who had killed his father and brother. He appoints commoners and foreigners as public officials instead. People who are completely dependent on him. They cross him, they lose it all. The boyars are too independently powerful. They’ll never do.
Vlad has a plan for these boyars. He invites 200 of them and their families to his palace for an Easter banquet. Yeah it’s a trap. He’s red weddinging them. The women and elderly are stabbed and impaled and the men are forced into enslavement. Many of them would die of exhaustion soon after building Vlad a new castle.
Vlad has an equally as horrific plan for dealing with the homeless people and beggars who he believes are all thieves. He invites them to a feast too, which after the Easter banquet I’d be like nope but if you’re starving and someone invites you to a feast, I don’t know. They show up for this feast. He locks the doors and burns them all alive.
Vlad was not a fan of Germans either. Many German migrants, called Saxons, had settled in Transylvania back in the 12th century. Vlad imposed very high taxes on the Saxons and blocked their trade when they refused to pay. He went so much further than that though, destroying their villages and impaling them by the tens of thousands.
So let’s talk about impalement for a moment. Delightful topic, I know. Vlad impaled his victims alive so it was a mix of torture and execution. Not at all a humane death. A sharpened stick was inserted either through the belly button or through the rectum. Then lifted up and stuck into the ground on display with the person’s body skewered on it like a shish kabob. If you were lucky, the stick pierced some vital organ on its way in and you died quickly. If you weren’t lucky and it missed all the vital bits, your weight forced the stick to slide deeper and deeper into your body causing excruciating pain and you were left hanging there in agony, on display, for days until you eventually died, probably of dehydration.
In 1459, the Transylvanian Saxon city of Kronstadt (now called Brasov) started to support one of Vlad’s rivals. Justice was swift. Vlad swooped in and impaled some 30,000 people in Kronstadt, and then reportedly dined among them so that he could personally witness their pain and suffering as they slowly died a torturous death. So this guy’s a sick freak, for sure. He also burned Kronstadt to the ground and then when he got back to Wallachia he impaled some Saxon’s there too just for the heck of it. This is when he becomes known as Vlad the Impaler although he still self identifies as Vlad Dracula.
He’s also anti-Catholic. I guess the Hungarians and the Saxons are Catholic and his people are Orthodox which is more like protestant? He attacked a lot of Catholic cities and impaled a lot of people just for being Catholic. In 1462 Pope Pius II produced a report claiming that Vlad had killed some 40,000 people.
But, but he’s also against the Turks - the Ottomans. And on this front, he has the support of Mathias I who was the son of Janos Hunyadi. So Hunyadi, if you recall, was the Hungarian king who killed Vlad’s father and brother and put some other guy on the throne. It’s all extremely confusing. He’s like constantly switching sides. I cannot keep track of where his loyalty lies and I really think that’s why Vlad’s story isn’t more well known because it honestly just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Dude’s all over the place and I think what it comes down to is he’s just anti anything that doesn’t serve his own purposes, better him, empower him. He’s anti Catholic, now he’s anti Turk, now was anti Hungarian, now he’s like buddies with the Hungarian King and now he’s fighting the Ottomans but his brother is a converted Ottoman. It’s the most ill written story ever. Like any fiction writer would absolutely cringe at this nonsensical narrative. But, alas, that’s real life.
So Vlad is buddies with the new Hungarian King Mathias I, and against the Ottomans. The Ottoman Sultan right now is Mehmed II. Mehmed is the son of Murad who had taken Vlad and his brother Radu as wards way back when. So Mehmed is basically his brother. They were raised together. This is Rob Stark and Theon Greyjoy. In 1459 Mehmed sends an embassy to Vlad asking for a tribute of 10,000 ducats and 300 young boys. Eek. When they get there, Vlad asks the men to remove their turbans. They refuse for religious reasons so Vlad had their turbans nailed to their heads. Sends um on back to Mehmed like “here’s your tribute bro.”
So now it’s on. In 1461, Mehmed asks Vlad for a peace meeting to sort out all these harsh feelings. But, really, he intends to ambush Vlad and take him out. Vlad, who’s like the king of inviting people to peaceful events and then ambushing them is like, nope. He sees right through it and he starts invading Ottoman territory. Clearly not looking for peace. So Mehmed assembled an army of 90,000 men and advanced on Wallachia. Before he gets there though, Vlad pulls out his crazy card. He starts doing all these night raids, guerilla warfare, taking prisoners. These aren’t even his enemies he’s taking prisoner though. These are mostly Serbian Christians and Bulgarian peasants who were forced under the control of the Ottomans, totally subjugated. Vlad recognized this later in a letter to Mathias but it didn’t stop him from carrying out the horrifying actions I’m about to describe. Skip ahead about 30 seconds if you’d rather be spared the gruesome details. Basically Vlad impaled more than 23,000 of these prisoners, putting them on display along the route Mehmed would have to take to come attack him. French historian Matei Cazacu, who has published over 20 books on medieval Ottoman and Romanian history wrote quote “there were infants affixed to their mothers on the stakes and birds had made nests in their entrails.” Yeah, that’s why I told you to skip ahead guys.
So Mehmed is marching up with his army of 90,000, see’s this, what’s been described as a “forest of the dead,” turns around and marches straight back to Constantinople. He’s like “Nope, dude’s psycho. Not even going there. Forget it.”
In that letter he wrote to Mathias reporting these events, Vlad wrote that he quote “killed peasants, men and women, old and young… We killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers.” end quote. He also sent sacks full of severed noses and ears to Mathias to prove that all of this actually went down. And he’s calling them Turks but remember these are actually Christian Serbian and Bulgarian peasants who were being forcibly oppressed by the Turks, not actually Turks themselves.
But, while this seems like a smashing victory for psycho Vlad and his buddy Mathias, it actually backfires on them. Remember Radu? Vlad’s brother who got all Stockholmed by the Ottomans as a 4 year old ward. Well he’s still with the Ottomans. He’s full on Ottoman, converted to Islam and everything. Radu goes to the Wallachian noblemen, the boyars, who of course Vlad has treated terribly. He’s like “my brother’s insane. You’re being ruled by a complete maniac. Come on over to our side, come side with the Ottomans and you’ll get all your privileges back that Vlad stripped from you.” So they do. Vlad’s guys start switching sides on him.
And, speaking of switching sides, it seems his buddy Mathias turns on him too, to the surprise of no one. That’s all anybody does in this story. Vlad’s power is slipping. He’s lost supporters, lost a lot of money, lost a lot of soldiers. Mathias takes him prisoner in 1462 and keeps him imprisoned in Hungary for 12 years. During this time, power switches hands in Wallachia quite a bit. Then in 1476, Mathias is like, “alright dude, I’m gonna give you another shot at this” and he sends Vlad to reclaim the Wallachian throne for Hungary. He is actually successful for a hot minute. He wins back the throne. But then one month later he’s ambushed by Ottoman troops and beheaded. Which like, come on guys, are you really going to pass on the opportunity to impale this guy? But no they behead him and reportedly send his head to Mehmed back in Constantinople where it’s put on display above the city gates.
So Vlad was clearly an incredibly savage and brutal leader. This is undisputed. Dude was a serial killer disguised as a prince. But I need to point out that his lifetime coincides with another important historical event, a new development, really, that helps to launch his story to new heights, likely embellishing and inflating his reputation as a bloodthirsty killer. That is the invention of the printing press, thank you Gutenberg. The printing press changed the way information was spread. It made information accessible to the masses. Before this, books were either hand written or printed by engraving an intricate wood block for each page, both incredibly labor intensive. Because of this, they were very rare and expensive. They were not able to be mass produced so only the elite had access to books at all. With Gutenberg’s printing press, individual letters and symbols could be arranged and printed on the page with relative ease - moveable type. This made mass producing books a thing for the first time ever.
And it’s in these books that the tales of Vlad the Impaler are recorded and often exaggerated. I know I talked about some horrible stuff he did, particularly to those 23,000 peasants to drive Mehmed’s army back to Constantinople. But there are even more horrific reports of Vlad’s actions printed in these books thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press. I don’t know how accurate they are though so take this with a grain of salt and, once again, skip ahead 20 seconds if you’d rather not hear some seriously disturbing stuff. Like, whatever you’re thinking, it’s worse than that. So do feel free to skip ahead now. According to some of these books, Vlad, who of course preferred impalement, also apparently boiled people alive, burned mothers alive with their newborn infants, roasted small children and then forced their mothers to eat them, and mutilated women and forced their husbands to eat them. Which, ughhh, my brain is burning. So, I don’t know if any of that is true. This is the kind of stuff they were printing in the books about Vlad. None of that is verified. Is it 15th century click bait? Just trying to sell books? Probably. This is the first time they’ve had the ability to make money off mass selling books, now that they can mass make books. I wouldn’t put it past them to put some absolutely outrageous mess in there just to sell books.
For me, for history to be credible, there either has to be concrete evidence of it, forensic evidence, right, bodies, skeletons, uncovered showing signs that they were killed by Vlad in these horrible ways. We have this with the Jamestown Jane, evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, we have this with the Aztecs’ human sacrifices, that skull rack they found in 2015. Or, if we’re going with eyewitness accounts alone, it has be cross referenced. So multiple accounts of the same event from multiple sources that have nothing to gain from lying about it. Vlad’s “forest of the dead,” 23,000 impaled bodies - yeah, seems like that actually happened. We have Vlad’s letter to Mathias, we have Ottoman reports of it as the reason for their retreat back to Constantinople. It’s cross referenced and well documented by different people independently on all sides of the conflict.
One outlandish claim about Vlad was that he cried tears of blood. So immediately I want to be like, okay, well that’s clearly not true. But, according to a recent study published by the American Chemical Association, this one might actually be true, with forensic evidence to back it up - the best kind of evidence. According to this report, scientists very recently applied proteomic analysis to three letters written by Vlad. Basically, they used mass spectrometry to analyze protein residue left behind on the letters. Two of these letters were solid evidence. They had been sent by Vlad to the rulers of the city of Sibiu in 1475 where they have remained, stored in the Sibiu archives for over 500 years basically untouched. The third letter was restored in the 20th century although they claim that the restoration process minimized any biological or chemical contamination. So I don’t know about that one but the first two letters seem solid.
The scientists doing the analysis looked at the oldest, most degraded proteins present on the letters, assuming that those would belong to Vlad since he wrote the letters, he was the originator of the letters. According to an Ars Technica article by Jennifer Ouellette called “Scientists find evidence that Vlad the Impaler shed bloody tears” quote “the team identified 100 ancient human peptides - 31 of which were deemed of particular interest - and an additional 2,000 peptides from bacteria, viruses, insects, fungi, and green plants. Those 31 human peptides were related to blood proteins or the respiratory system, as well as ciliopathy or retinal diseases, or inflammatory processes, per the authors. One of the letters from 1475 contained three peptides specifically associated with proteins of the eye's retina and tears. The authors thus concluded that Vlad III may have suffered from a medical condition known as hemolacria, in which a person sheds tears of blood, as well as skin inflammation and respiratory illness. He may also have been exposed to plague-related bacteria or fruit flies and other pests, based on the non-human peptides analyzed.”
So analysis of proteins found on the letters suggest Vlad had hemolacria and did, in fact, shed tears of blood. If those proteins actually came from Vlad. That’s the question mark. Is it possible someone else with hemolacria handled the letters? Yes. But researchers assumed that the oldest proteins would have belonged to the letter writer - Vlad - and also dude had a reputation for crying tears of blood so there you go.
One book about Vlad in particular made a bigger impact than any of the others. In 1820, a British consul to Wallachia named William Wilkinson wrote a book called “An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: With Various Political Observations Relating to Them.” Yeah, I know, sounds real boring. But this book mentions Vlad and we know that Irish author Bram Stoker came across it in 1890 and then wrote in his journal quote “Voivode (Dracula). Dracula in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.” end quote. Which, like, I thought it meant dragon because of the Order of the Dragon? It apparently means devil in Wallachian and dragon in Hungarian and the Order of the Dragon was Sigismund’s Hungarian thing. So it means both. It means dragon and devil and Stoker latched onto the devil part. On another page of his notes, he had crossed out the words “Count Wampyr” and replaced them with “Count Dracula.” So it does seem that Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula was the inspiration, in name at least, for Stoker’s famous vampire Count Dracula.
But the name and the ties to Transylvania are all they really have in common. Stoker seems to have had other inspirations when writing Dracula, drawing on many sources. First of all, vampires were just kind of trending during the Victorian era. They liked creepy gothic stuff. Stoker would have been familiar with earlier works about vampires like “The Bride of Corinth,” “The Vampyre,” and “Captain Vampire” - a book written almost 20 years before Dracula by a 19 year old Belgian girl named Marie Nizet who was related to Romanian exiles. Get. Um. Girl.
Some scholars and historians have recently proposed that Stoker’s Dracula was influenced by a 19th century cholera epidemic that killed up to 1,000 people in the town of Sligo in western Ireland. Stoker’s mother, Charlotte Thornley, had apparently survived this epidemic when she was 14. According to a National Geographic article titled “Vlad the Impaler’s thirst for blood was an inspiration for Count Dracula” by Juan Jose Sanchez Arreseigor, Bram Stoker asked his mother to write down her memories of the epidemic and these writings, these memoirs really, have been analyzed by Irish researchers at the Sligo Stoker Society. Charlotte wrote of a really horrific experience during the cholera outbreak when complete pandemonium broke out. To keep people from fleeing Sligo during the epidemic and spreading the disease to other areas, officials blocked off the roads and dug a trench around the town, effectively trapping people in among masses of dead bodies, corpses in the streets. Doctors and nurses dosed cholera patients with opium or laudanum to tranquilize them and tossed them into mass graves still alive just to be rid of them. According to Arreseigor, quote “Stoker was fascinated by his mother’s description of cholera victims who were buried alive—a link, perhaps, to Dracula’s undead state.” end quote.
So Vlad Dracula wasn’t a vampire. He didn’t drink blood. He wasn’t undead. He was just a man. But, he was a bit of a monster himself - torturing and killing, impaling tens of thousands of people during his time as voivode of Wallachia. Despite all of that though, he’s kind of a national hero in Romania. They remember him as a successful leader, who kept the Ottoman Turks from encroaching further into Christian Europe, he cracked down on crime, and eliminated thieves AKA poor people. He’s a bit of a savior in their minds and they’re very against any connection between Vlad and Stoker’s Count Dracula or vampires at all. Which like, okay, I know he wasn’t a vampire and is only loosely connected to Dracula, that’s not my issue with him. My issue is that he massacred tens of thousands of innocent people including women and children using torturous, inhumane methods. I’m not so sure this guy should be anyone’s national hero, but I’m not Romanian so maybe I’m missing something. If I have any Romanian listeners who’d like to shed some light, hit me up! Maybe we can do a follow up mini fix or something. I’d love to know how this guy ended up a national hero. He seems to me more of a monster than any fictional vampire could ever aspire to be.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from National Geographic, Ars Technica, American Chemical Society, Time Magazine, nosweatshakespeare.com, Encyclopedia Britannica, Oregon State University Libraries, and a Half Arsed History podcast episode called “Vlad Dracula, the Impaler.” Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes.