Vlad III, the real life inspiration of Bram Stoker’s spooky Dracula, was a medieval ruler of Wallachia, a region of what is now southern Romania. Better known to history as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, his methods of governance and warfare terrified his contemporaries. They send shivers down spines to the present day. His nickname Dracula, which means “son of Dracul”, is from the Latin draco, or dragon, after his father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to rally Christians against the Ottoman Turks. His other sobriquet, The Impaler, he got from his preferred method of punishment. The real life Dracula did not suck people’s blood. Instead, he shoved sharpened stakes up their butts.
Vlad III was born circa 1430 in Transylvania, the son of Vlad II, an exiled aristocrat. The father took over the throne of Wallachia in 1436, but was kicked out a few years later by rivals. So he switched sides, and allied with the Ottoman Sultan, who restored him to power. As proof of loyalty, he sent two sons, Vlad III and his brother Radu, to the Sultan’s court as hostages. Radu eventually converted to Islam, but Vlad disliked the Ottomans. He resented his father for his betrayal of the Order of the Dragon, into which Vlad himself had been inducted when he was five-years-old.
A Weird Real Life Ruler Who Inspired a Spooky Legend
Vlad the Impaler’s father was overthrown once again in 1447, and this time his enemies killed him while they were at it. The Ottomans marched in and installed Vlad on Wallachia’s throne, but his rule lasted only a few months before he, too, was overthrown. He regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, he invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447.
He then dragged those who fit the bill outside, and had them promptly impaled – a horrific way to die. Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their rear end. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad impaled people in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or even days of agony before they doed. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad impaled aristocrats arranged in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.
The mass impalements did not halt Vlad the Impaler’s spooky Easter Sunday feast, and the party went on. Afterwards, the wives and children of the impaled aristocrats were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress, still dressed in their Easter finery. He worked them hard, until most of them died of exhaustion. Months later, when the job was finally done, Vlad’s reward for the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, was to impale them. That was just the start of his passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much trouble. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and all who angered him.
Vlad also went to war against the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, the Sultan led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The spooky and horrific sight was enough to scare the Sultan, who promptly turned his army around and went back home.
The Massacre Behind the Spooky Tales of Cairo’s Haunted Citadel
The Mamluks, whose name means “those who are owned”, were a warrior class of slave soldiers and freed slaves. They were assigned various military and administrative duties on behalf of Arab dynasties in the Muslim world. The system of slave soldiery began in the ninth century with Turkic slaves from the Eurasian Steppe, then spread to include those from the Caucasus, the Balkans, Russia, and elsewhere. It lasted for a thousand years, into the nineteenth century. Although they began as slaves, the Mamluks eventually came to dominate the societies in which they operated. They were present in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and India, but their strongest hold was in Egypt.
They ruled Egypt, along with Syria, as the Mamluk Sultanate from 1250 to 1517, until defeated by the Ottoman Turks who conquered those countries. Although defeated, the Mamluks continued as a privileged class whose social status was higher than the general population. They were deemed to be the “true lords” and “true warriors”, and were often the de facto rulers who paid only lip service to the Ottoman Sultan, and ran Egypt as a nearly independent realm. Their run in Egypt finally came to an end in 1811, when they accepted an invitation to a feast from that country’s ruthless ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha. It was to be their final feast, and it gave rise to spooky tales of ghost sightings that have endured for generations.
The Albanian Adventurer Who Came to Dominate Egypt
Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769 – 1849) was born in Ottoman-ruled Greece to an Albanian family, and began his career as a tax collector for the local authorities. He first arrived in Egypt in 1801, as an officer in an Albanian mercenary unit, part of a force sent by the Ottomans to reoccupy the country after Napoleon Bonaparte withdrew French forces from there. The French had defeated the Mamluks and conquered Egypt in 1798, but although weakened, the Mamluks had not been destroyed. They jockeyed with and clashed with the Ottoman forces for power.
Amidst the turmoil, Muhammad Ali proved himself a wily political operator. He used his Albanian mercenaries to work with both factions, and his power and prestige rose steadily. He also allied with native Egyptian leaders, who distrusted and disliked both Mamluks and Ottomans, and worked hard to gain the general public’s support. The final result of his machination was that, in 1805, Egyptian notables demanded that the Ottoman Sultan replace his governor in Egypt with Muhammad Ali, and he was forced to yield. The new viceroy next turned his attention to the Mamluks.
The Mamluks, who had dominated Egypt for more than six centuries, posed a serious threat to Muhammad Ali Pasha, and he knew that he had to deal with them. As a class, they were Egypt’s feudal lords, and their vast landed estates were the country’s greatest source of wealth and power. Although Muhammad Ali received the title of Governor of Egypt in 1805, his undisputed authority was limited to Cairo. Beyond its walls, he was everywhere challenged by the Mamluks. So he decided upon a two-stage strategy, to first eliminate the Mamluks’ leaders, and then eliminate the entire Mamluk class.
On August 17th, 1805, he fed false intelligence to Mamluk forces near Cairo, that he would leave the city that day with most of his forces to a attend a ceremony some miles away. The Mamluks believed that Cairo was undefended, and rushed in to seize the city. Instead, they fell into an ambush, carefully prepared by Muhammad Ali. Surrounded in the city’s streets, many Mamluks were massacred. Dozens of their key leaders were captured, tortured, executed, and their heads were sent to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, with a boast that Mamluk power in Egypt had been broken.
The Mamluks Continued to Threaten Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Power
The 1805 defeat and massacre of the Mamluks greatly weakened but did not eradicate them. Survivors retreated to Upper Egypt, and began to unsuccessfully negotiate for a compromise. Muhammad Ali led an expedition that defeated them in 1807. However, they were saved at the last minute when news arrived of a British invasion of Alexandria and the Nile Delta region. Alarmed, the Pasha offered the Mamluks concessions if they helped him expel the invaders, and they accepted. Together, the two forces marched north to deal with the invaders. Divisions soon arose among the Mamluks, however. One faction advocated cooperation with the British, and another wanted to honor the agreement with Muhammad Ali.
It soon became moot. The British, who had invaded on the assumption that the Mamluks would join them, finally grew disgusted with their dissensions, despaired of their assistance, and evacuated Alexandria in September, 1807. An uneasy peace then descended between Muhammad Ali and the Mamluks. Some of their leaders were appointed administrators of certain Egyptian districts on condition that they pay taxes, and many of them returned to Cairo and resumed their residence there. However, Mamluk forces continued to clash with those of Egypt’s governor, until he took a final step to deal with them once and for all.
In 1811, an Egyptian army was prepared for a campaign against the Wahhabis in the Arabian Peninsula. Amidst a lull in tensions between Muhammad Ali Pasha and the Mamluks, the latter were invited to a ceremony in the Cairo Citadel to invest the governor’s son with the army’s command. They accepted, and on the morning of March 1st, 470 Mamluks, dressed in all their ceremonial finery and armed with shining gilded swords, rode their best horses, richly caparisoned, to the Citadel. There, they were warmly greeted in the courtyard by Egypt’s governor. As they were presented with coffee and hookah pipes per hospitality customs, the Pasha struck up casual and friendly conversations with them.
Eventually, Muhammad Ali rose, a signal to end the ceremony. The guests then mounted their horses, and formed in a procession preceded and followed by their host’s troops. It was planned that they would ride through Cairo to be seen by the crowds that lined the streets, until they reached the army’s camp, where a celebratory feast was to be held. The procession slowly made its way down a steep and narrow road that led to the Citadel’s great gate, Bab al Azab. The Pasha’s troops in front exited the Citadel, but soon as the Mamluks reached the gate, it was slammed shut before them. Simultaneously, the troops behind them raced back to close the exit to the rear.
As the procession of Mamluks confined along a narrow path milled about in confusion before the closed Cairo Citadel gate, a signal was given to begin their final eradication. Albanian troops loyal to Muhammad Ali Pasha, placed on the rooftops of nearby buildings that overlooked the trapped Mamluks, opened fire. An eyewitness described what happened next: “It was only moments before the narrow path was crowded with the corpses of men and horses, lying on top of each other, making any movement even more difficult than before. As for the Mamelukes who happened to reach the portal Bab al-Azab, they found it closed and turned back their horses.
But this caused even more chaos amongst the men and horses that were at the top of the incline, and they in turn tried to turn their horses back to the Citadel away from the bullets. However, the infantry spread across the walls opened fire, killing them in droves and the mayhem and horror increased. The Mamelukes soon realized that their horses were useless and so they descended to walk on foot and took off their clothes and finery which only hindered their movements at that terrible time. They started to run, swords and firearms in hand, wanting to meet an enemy to take their revenge for the catastrophe which had befallen them. But they found no-one and the bullets continued to rain down upon them hitting their mark.” That did in the slave soldier dynasty for good. Tales of spooky sightings of anguished and terrified Mamluk ghosts at the Citadel have circulated ever since.
The Spooky Aftermath of the Cairo Citadel Massacre
Of the 470 Mamluks who entered Cairo’s Citadel on March 1st, 1811, only one, Amin Bek, is reported to have survived the massacre. He was at the back of the procession when the gate was slammed shut. As death closed in from all sides, he spurred his horse into a jump from one of the Citadel’s walls, from a height of about 65 feet – equivalent to a modern building’s seventh floor. The horse died, but Amin Bek miraculously survived, and managed to escape to Syria. In the years after the massacre, many spooky tales circulated of encounters at the Cairo Citadel with the tormented ghosts of the slain Mamluks.
The events at the Citadel kicked off an indiscriminate slaughter throughout Egypt. Muhammad Ali Pasha had instructed subordinates throughout the country to be ready. When word arrived, they fanned out to slay any Mamluks they could lay their hands on. In Cairo, the Pasha’s soldiers began to loot Mamluk houses, and by the time order and discipline were restored among the troops, over 500 houses had been pillaged and trashed. A few Mamluk survivors fled south to Nubia, but even that refuge was lost to them in 1820, when the Pasha’s troops invaded and conquered the region. Muhammad Ali had secured the final destruction of Egypt’s Mamluks, and he went on found a dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952.
Paranoid Fears of a Spooky “Witch” in 1970s America
In the fall of 1969, a high school social studies teacher invited a University of Arizona expert on witchcraft and folklore to give a speech to upperclassmen. The speaker, Dr. Byrd Granger, addressed students of Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, AZ, and gave a presentation about the common traits of witches. According to Dr. Granger, witches like to wear devil’s green, have green or blue eyes, blond hair, a pointed left ear with a node, and a widow’s peak – a V-shaped point in the hairline in the center of a forehead.
As it so happened, there was somebody at the presentation who fit the description. It did not take long before heads swiveled towards Ann Stewart, a Flowing Wells English teacher who had all of those attributes. Few could have predicted the brouhaha that would ensue from that speech. After the witchcraft presentation, Flowing Wells High School students began to tease English teacher Ann Stewart about whether or not she was a witch. In the kids’ interest in the spooky stuff, Mrs. Stewart saw an opportunity to enhance their interest in literature and folklore. As seen below, that did not go well.
This Teacher Thought Spooky Rumors That She Was a Witch Were Lighthearted Fun
As Ann Stewart described it later: “I like to get kids involved. I teach American literature, among other things. Although I’ve never had a unit in the occult, we do delve into early American folklore and witchcraft. It was good fun and it stimulated them“. So she played along with the banter. She never said she was a witch. However, whenever students asked if she was one, she did not deny it. Instead, she replied with a variant of “Well, I have all the signs. What do you think?” What they – and the school administration – thought got her fired.
In 1970, to heighten her students’ interest in literature, Ann Stewart had suggested that they find out what astrology is all about. That further enhanced the rumors about her involvement with the occult. Later that year, a junior high school teacher invited her to speak before her eighth graders about folklore and witchcraft. As part of the presentation, Mrs. Stewart dressed up and played the part of a witch. When those eighth graders arrived in Flowing Wells High School that fall, many of them fueled the rumors that Mrs. Stewart really was a spooky witch.
This Conservative Community Did Not See Witchcraft as Fun and Games
Ann Stewart didn’t think much of the kids’ whispers that their English teacher was a spooky witch, and dismissed it as all in good fun. Unfortunately, Flowing Wells was a particularly conservative community. Many students, their parents, and faculty members at the high school did not get the joke. On November 27th, 1970, Stewart was suspended for: “teaching about witchcraft, having stated that you are a witch in a way that affects students psychologically“. She was also alleged to have been insubordinate, discussed subjects beyond the curriculum, been a bad influence on students, and aggravated other teachers.
The suspension of an American teacher in 1970 for witchcraft became international news. In conservative Flowing Wells, Stewart became a pariah, shunned by neighbors and former friends. She appealed to the school board, but it confirmed the decision to fire her. So she sued in court, and there won on grounds that the board had violated the legal procedures for dismissing a tenured teacher like Stewart. The court ordered her reinstatement, but as of February, 1972, she had not returned to her job, and it is unclear if she ever taught at Flowing Wells again.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading