Chemical analysis of letters written by the Romanian prince who may have inspired the novel Dracula, has revealed that he may have shed tears of blood due to a medical condition called haemolacria.

Vlad the Impaler

Source: © The Print Collector/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Scientists from the University of Catania in Italy used non-invasive sampling techniques to extract and analyse 500 peptides and 16 proteins from three letters written by Vlad III the Voivode of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler. The three letters were all written on rag paper in Latin between the years 1457 and 1475 and bear Vlad the Impaler’s personal signature – Vlad Dracula.

Vlad the Impaler was a fearsome ruler who, by some estimates, was responsible for almost 80,000 deaths during his reign. Some scholars have suggested that he was also the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire villain Dracula, although this is a contentious claim.

Extracting the peptides and proteins from the letters using ethylene-vinyl acetate films, researchers then characterised the samples using high-resolution mass-spectrometry. They discarded any biomolecules that could be from bacteria, viruses and fungi, and instead focused on human-related proteins and peptides.


Source: © Maria Gaetana Giovanna Pittalà et al

The image on the left shows the positions of ethylene-vinyl acetate strips on a letter written by Vlad the Impaler, dated 4 August 1475. The image on the right shows fluorescence mapping of phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan under flash UV illumination

A protein known as dermcidin, found in blood on the letters, is often expressed in the tear ducts of those suffering from haemolacria. Other peptides suggest that Vlad III could have also suffered from inflammation of the skin and respiratory tract.

The researchers point out that numerous people could have handled the letters over the years, so the key samples analysed might not necessarily have come from Vlad the Impaler. That means that presence of dermcidin isn’t enough to fully confirm stories that Vlad the Impaler did indeed ‘shed tears of blood’. But while the fictional character of Dracula was famous for drinking blood, it is possible that his real-life inspiration cried tears of it.