On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.
Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.
This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.
Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?
The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.
When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.
When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.
But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.
Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”
Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.
* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.
In the month of November, there was a terrible execution in the Ukrain[e]. The son of a peasant in that country had given himself out for the Czarewitz, son of Peter I deceased, in the year 1718.
He had come into a village on the frontiers, where he had declared himself as such to three soldiers, who were on guard near the pyramidal beacons fixed along the limits. These had done homage to him, as also the inhabitants of the village. The priest had caused the bells to be rung, and said a mass in his favor.
At length the people of the village assembled, and perhaps the matter would have gone farther, if it had not been for a Sotnick, or Cossack captain, who, hearing of it, acquainted general Romanzow, then in the neighbourhood.
This pretended Prince and his adherents, who were not very numerous, were easily seized, and conveyed to Petersburgh, where they had their trial in the secret chancery; after which they were sent back to the Ukrain[e]. There the major-general Schipow had an order to see them executed.
The self-made Prince was impaled; the priest and the three soldiers were put to different kinds of deaths.
The Empress forgave the peasants, but the village was razed to the ground, and the inhabitants were removed to other places.
On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajdukStarina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.
The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.
Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.
He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.
By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.
The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.
A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.
Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.
In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.
Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”
Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”
For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:
On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.
Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.
Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.
But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.
He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.
The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the everycornerofearth.
But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.
The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.
The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.
As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,
The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.
(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)
Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.
According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)
* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.
This interesting, excommunicate sect had persisted for centuries in those hard-to-reach places in Alpine foothills, intermittently ignored and hunted. After Martin Luther, many Protestants inclined to see them as a proto-Reformation movement, or even a counter-papal apostolic succession reaching back to ancient Christianity.
At any rate, they sure weren’t Catholic.
And our friend the Duke decided — perhaps piqued by the murder of a missionary Catholic priest, or for whatever other reason — to mount one of those heresy-extirpating sorties and make them Catholic in 1655.
On April 17, the Marquis of Pianezza appeared with an overwhelming force of mixed Piedmontese, French, and Irish** troops. They conducted a few skirmishes, then made nice with the Waldensian civic leaders and induced them to quartering their troops temporarily further to some expedient pretext.
Alas! alas! these poor people were undone. They had received under their roof the executioners of themselves and their families. The first two days, the 22d and 23d of April, passed in peace, the soldiers sitting at the same table, sleeping under the same roof, and conversing freely with their destined victims …
At last the blow fell like a thunderbolt. At four of the clock on the morning of the 24th April the signal was given from the Castle of La Torre. But who shall describe the scenes that followed? On the instant a thousand assassins began the work of death …
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, and dashed against the rocks; or, more horrible still, they were held betwixt two soldiers, who, unmoved by their piteous cries and the sight of their quivering limbs, tore them up into two halves. Their bodies were then thrown on the highways and the fields. Sick persons and old people, men and women, were burned alive in their own houses; some were hacked in pieces; some were bound up in the form of a ball, and precipitated over the rocks or rolled down the mountains … Some were slowly dismembered, and fire applied to the wounds to staunch the bleeding and prolong their sufferings; some were flayed alive; some roasted alive; others were disembowelled; some were horribly and shamefully mutilated, and of others the flesh and brains were boiled and actually eaten by these cannibals.
Without doubting the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man, the cannibalism charge reminds that we’re dealing with propaganda alongside historiography. And what great propaganda — like, babies-torn-from-incubators great.
Thumbnails (click for a larger, disturbing view) of selected images of this date’s atrocities from Samuel Morland’s The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont
And there’s little doubt as to the overall savagery of the affair, which could well have become the opening salvo in a full-scale sectarian cleansing campaign. (A later addendum to Foxe’s Book of Martyrsnarrates the ensuing Piedmontese armed struggle, petering out before any definitive resolution in the field.)
Outrage at this hecatomb spread in Protestant Europe — which would also refer to the day’s doings as the “Bloody Easter,” since it corresponded with the eve of that celebration as reckoned by the Julian Calendar (source).
It was felt especially in Protectorate England, which intervened diplomatically.
A “day of solemn fasting and humiliation” was promulgated in Albion, along with collections for the relief of the survivors. Oliver Cromwell personally put £2,000 into the kitty.
More importantly, he dispatched diplomat Samuel Morland† to force the House of Savoy to lay off the persecution; in fact, he threatened to disrupt high statecraft between England and France unless the French twisted arms on behalf of the Waldensians.
Written correspondence for Morland’s diplomatic tour addressed to Louis XIV of France and various other continental potentates, as well as a fiery bit of oratory that Morland delivered to Savoy, all seem to have originated from the pen of Republican scribbler John Milton — the future author of Paradise Lost.‡
Milton, for whom the whole thing was more than just a day job, was further moved to put his umbrage at the slaughter into sonnet form:
Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl’d to the Hills, and they
To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
O’re all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant: that from these may grow
A hunder’d-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.
* The Waldensians in question here are interchangeably known as the Vaudois for their geographic region, actually above the Piedmont and abutting the Swiss region also known as Vaud. (These pages have visited the latter.)
This date was Easter Sunday in 1457, which would make it the date associated with one of the more memorable displays of theatrical brutality by Wallachian proto-vampire Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.
Having only just ascended the less-than-secure throne of Wallachia, a frontier principality pinched between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the 25-ish prince and onetime Ottoman hostage had a bone-chilling inauguration plan to shore up his security both internal and external.
He asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty,
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I have just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”
With ample proof of the boyars’ deceit and treacherous intents, Dracula decided it was timely to inflict upon them an exemplary punishment … mass impalement …
The oldest Romanian historical chronicle records the event two centuries later. It had taken place in the spring of 1457, during the Easter celebrations that the boyars were attending at the palace … “when Eastern Day came, while all the citizens were feasting and the young ones were dancing he [Dracula] surrounded them [the boyars] … led them together with their wives and children, just as they were dressed up for Easter, to Poenari, where they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked.” In actual fact, this episode, which is also recalled by the Greek historian Chalcondyles and firmly anchored in popular folklore, involved some two hundred boyars and their wives, as well as leading citizens of Tirgoviste … They were seized by Dracula’s men as they were finishing their meal in the main banqueting hall of the palace, following the elaborate Easter ritual at the Paraclete Chapel. In Dracula’s ingenious mind, one aspect of the punishment had a utilitarian purpose: the reconstruction of the famous castle high up on the Arges … On the way out of the chapel the old boyars and their wives were apprehended by Dracula’s henchmen and impaled beyond the city walls. The young and able-bodied were manacled and chained to each other and then marched northward under the vigilant eye of Dracula’s men.
But personal score-settling aside, Vlad’s sanguinary housekeeping had a statecraft dimension as well. It enabled him to centralize power in his own person, and had the happy side effect of speeding creation of a secure mountain fastness — Poenari Castle, which is one of several structures answering to the lucrative name of Castle Dracula.
While Vlad is (in)famous for his iron fist (and well-oiled spikes), it’s perhaps harder to say with confidence how much good this slaughter did him. Wallachia’s security situation was fundamentally defined by its neighbors no matter how cruel Vlad Tepes might be.
Vlad got some more impaling under his belt defending his country from Ottoman invaders (you’ll be shocked to learn that many boyars were more than happy to help the sultan get rid of this tyrant), but he was clapped in prison by the Hungarian ruler Matthias Hunyadi in 1462, lived most of the rest of his life in exile, and then died in battle attempting a Wallachian comeback in 1476. So basically, he got a few good years in … plus that whole latter-day afterlife he enjoys as tourist magnet, alleged literary inspiration, and nationalist icon.
And that’s more than one can say for most of the 15th century rulers who weren’t impaling their boyars.
That execution of a black slave and his white lover was exceptional — and, of course, the chronicles of the Cape are replete with less exceptional fare, the humdrum penal brutality of an 18th century colony disposed of in a sentence of two between reports of smallpox outbreaks, price fluctuations, the transit of slave ships, and all the other business of frontier life.
A slave condemned to be burnt alive for arson; another to be hanged for theft … Two white men hanged for desertion, sheep-stealing, and attempt to murder … A Javanese “Guru” sentenced to death for instigating slaves to run away, harbouring and arming them … Matthys of Ternate punished for running away and cattle theft, &c. Sentenced to be hanged … A slave hanged for breaking into the house of Lieutenant Captain Slotsboo … Five slaves sentenced to be broken, and a female slave to be scourged … Two soldiers sentenced to run the gantlope …
And so on.
This date marks a number of such executions for a minor slave revolt (incidents of slave insubordination also pepper the Colony records). At three full entries in the chronicle, 16 implicated slaves, and some spectacularly savage punishments, it must have been one of the more noteworthy of its day; what the colonial register leaves us is just enough to suggest the forgotten suffering and resistance of the half-nameless chattel of yesteryear.
January 7 — Some 16 fugitive slaves who had conspired, armed themselves, and did much mischief. They resisted the officers of justice, shot a soldier, and murdered a Hottentot woman. They were now brought up for examination.
February 7 — The sentences passed on the fugitive slaves, and the whole history of the case. “Tromp” to be empaled alive, and to remain in that position till he dies. “Cupido” to be put on a cross, his right hand to be cut off, and with “Neptunus” to be broken on the wheel, and then to be left on a hurdle until dead. “Titus” to be broken with the coup de grace. Jeroon and Thomas to be hanged; three others to be scourged and have their right heels cut off. The eleventh prisoner is merely to look on, and afterwards to be sent home; paying the costs however.
February 8 — The empaled convict found strangled in the morning. He had received some linen from a kind friend during the night for the purpose. He would otherwise have been still alive.
A decade and a half’s passage finds her a young woman wed to one Franz or Frans Joost/Jooste/Joostens, to whom she bore two sons … and, evidently, a homicidal grudge.
Early in 1714, Maria and her lover, a slave named Titus Bengale, murdered Frans, in consequence of which crime,
[s]he [Maria] is sentenced to be half strangled, after that to be scorched,* and after that strangled unto death. Titus to be empaled and to remain so, until death. After that his head and right hand are to be cut off and fixed on a pole, beyond the limits of his late master’s property. Fortuin, an accomplice, is also to have his right hand cut off, and without receiving the coup de grace, is to be broken on the wheel. After that he is to be placed on a grating until death takes place. After that his head is to be cut off, and with his hand placed on a pole, together with the head and hand of Titus. After that the bodies are to be taken to the outside place of execution, and there left exposed to the air and the vultures.
She’s the only white woman to be executed in 18th century South Africa.
September 3 — The slave Titus, above mentioned, died about midday, having lived in his misery about 48 hours; something horrible to think of, to say nothing of personally beholding the misery. It is said that 4 hours after his empalement he received a bottle of arrack from which he drank freely and heartily. When advised not to take too much, lest he should get drunk, he answered that it did not matter, as he sat fast enough, and that there was no fear of his falling. It is true that whilst sitting in that deplorable state, he often joked, and scoffingly said that he would never again believe a woman. A way of dying, lauded by the Romans, but damnable among the Christians.
* Literally, blaker. “To ‘blaker’ someone,” notes Nigel Penn in “The wife, the farmer and the farmer’s slaves: adultery and murder on a frontier farm in the early eighteenth century Cape,” Kronos, vol. 28 (2002), “was to hold burning straw to their face and to blacken it … a reference to the earlier practice of burning at the stake victims found guilty of heresy, witchcraft and sodomy. Surely we may also see, in the case of the blackening of Maria Mouton, a reference to her crime of cohabiting with slaves.”
** After another slaveowner was murdered later in the year, the chronicle laments that “crime is rapidly assuming large dimensions, in spite of the means used to prevent or suppress it. A clear proof that this Colony mainly consists of evil disposed, head-strong slaves and the refuse of convicts.”
This date is the 550th anniversary of (in)famous Wallachian dictator/vampire prototype Vlad III Tepes‘s destruction of the town of Amlas, impaling all its surviving citizens.
The signature execution form of “Vlad the Impaler” was as nasty as it sounds: still-living victim mounted on a long, oiled stake driven through the rectum and emerging through the mouth to expire agonizingly over a period of hours or days. Or, alternatively, stuck through the midsection, leaving the subject horizontally mounted like a flopping fish.
And he had frequent recourse to it during his long struggle for power in the treacherous 1450s and 1460s, the period* when Vlad III became famous for the iron-willed cruelty required to exercise power in a Wallachia squeezed between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Hungary.
(Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire myth, and the notion that Vlad Dracula “is” Count Dracula is one of those bits of popular folklore that’s become academically unfashionable. But still.)
The historical Vlad has his latter-day defenders, who see him as a nation-builder. Certainly, both the man himself and his vulnerable frontier principality were menaced by innumerable threats both foreign and domestic.
This date’s massacre was to deal with one such, Germans in the territory of Transylvania, which lay to the north of Vlad’s own Wallachia. Both realms are part of present-day Romania, and they were closely connected in Vlad’s time as well; the young Dracula himself was born in Transylvania, and Transylvanian towns had helped him take the Wallachian throne with the support of Hungary.
So far, everyone was on the same page. But when a power struggle erupted for the Hungarian throne in 1457, the “Saxon” emigres who formed the upper crust of merchants in Transylvania (supported by a vast sea of Romanian peasants) backed the Holy Roman Emperor while Vlad supported the usurping Hunyadi family that had so ably patronized him.** It’s quite a bit more dizzyingly complex than that, but the bottom line is that commercial and political conflicts soon saw Vlad Dracula mounting a campaign of Transylvanian terror from 1458 onward.
During the summer of 1460 Dracula organized his final raid on Transylvania. This time he attacked townships and villages in the district of Amlas known as the “Land of the Forest” or Unterwald … The meistersinger Beheim gives the exact date of the attack as falling on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew in the year 1460: August 24. Dracula struck in the early morning after “passing through the great forest” with his cavalry force. He burned the town of Amlas and impaled all the citizens, a priest having led the procession to the burial scene …
Dracula’s raid on Amlas was aimed at eliminating any remaining dissident resistance and at killing rival contenders to his throne … Dracula knew, for instance, that … the boyar Bogdan Doboca, was hiding in the village of Sercaia, in the Fagaras district. So he had the entire village razed to the ground; it had to be completely repopulated in the following century. Similar was the fat of the village of Mica. The narrator Beheim tells us that Dracula burned or destroyed half the communities in the Amlas district, including the capital city by that name. He “assembled all the citizens and all those he could find” from other villages and hanged them on hooks and pitchforks, after having had his men hack them to pieces with knives, swords, and sabers. Amlas was reduced to a ghost town, as it still is today, and other villages such as Saliste, Apodul de Sus, and Tilisca were similarly destroyed. Beheim claims that altogether some 30,000 Germans were killed during this Dracula raid on the district of Amlas.
Impressive as this date’s butchery would have been — although we know it from German propagandists who figure to have made the most of it — it was simply of a piece with Vlad’s Transylvanian campaign. To this campaign, Florescu and McNally attribute an impressive catalogue of atrocities, such as:
Slaughtering all the inhabitants of a village named Bod
Impaling one of his own captains who reported an inability to take an enemy position “for the inhabitants are brave and well fortified”
Boiling alive 600 Saxon merchants
Impaling as spies 41 Saxons who came to Wallachia to learn the Romanian language
Forcing one captured rival claimant with Saxon support to go through a Mass for the dead clothed in funerary vestments before personally beheading him
Fleeing Germans carrying spine-tingling eyewitness accounts and rumors of even worse made a happy match with that new media technology, the printing press, giving Dracula continental infamy and a purchase on future literary immortality.
“The horror genre conformed to the tastes of the fifteenth-century reading public as much as it does today,” observe those same authors Florescu and McNally in another volume. “No fewer than thirteen different fiteenth- and sixteenth-century Dracula stories have been discovered thus far in the various German states.”
The St. Bartholomew’s Day 1460 events are seemingly sometimes conflated† with a more famous bloodbath during the spring of 1459, when Vlad arranged a demonstrative mass impaling on the outskirts of Brasov.‡
All those whom he had taken captive, men and women, young and old, chlidren, he had impaled on the hill by the chapel and all around the hill, and under them he proceeded to eat at table and enjoyed himself in that way.
It’s this 1459 event that provides us the most horribly recognizable images of Dracula’s reign, with the insouciant Wallachian prince enjoying his repast amid a thicket of impaled wretches.
* 1456 to 1462, specifically, which was the second (and most consequential) of the three different periods Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. The Ottomans drove him out in 1462, and he took refuge in Hungary before a return bid in 1476, which ended in his own death in battle.
** And specifically, Mihaly Szilagy (Hungarian link), the uncle of the ascendant king Matthias Corvinus. The latter would seek to woo Saxon support, and he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Vlad Dracula. Wallachia was a small buffer state from the standpoint of a greater power like Hungary, and Wallachia’s ruler a political instrument no matter how much impaling he might do.
† Perhaps because Brasov’s Church of St. Bartholomew was among the targets ravaged by Dracula’s force?
‡ Attack staged from picturesquely vampiric Castle Bran.
Their crisscrossing armies roiled the Balkans, creating the opportunity for a bit of ill-fated separatism.
Arambasha [a title, not a name] Karposh raised a native Macedonian rebellion (detailed account of it here) that waxed and waned with the fortunes of the Austrian army. In his brief heyday, he was acclaimed “Prince of Kumanovo“.
But a November 1689 counteroffensive seriously harshed that vibe; the Turks overran his force and drug Karposh back to Skopje where he and a couple hundred fellow Macedonian captives are said to have been put to death by impalement on the lovely Stone Bridge over the Vardar. (Other versions of this story cite, less picturesquely, hanging.)
You can still see this landmark today in Skopje … capital of the now-independent Macedonia.
* Lest I wade carelessly into the Balkan ethnic crossfire, I hasten to declaim that “Macedonian” here refers to the geographic environs roughly coincident with the present-day Republic of Macedonia. No representation as to the man’s ethnicity or his project is intended, or attempted.