Clues on Ancient Documents Suggest That Vlad the Impaler—The Prince Who Inspired Count Dracula—May Have Shed Tears of Blood

Using new technology, scientists are able to find out increasingly intimate information about famous figures from the past.

Portrait of Vlad the Impaler (c. 1431-1476), from a painting in Castle Ambras in the Tyrol. Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images.

Vlad the Impaler, a notoriously ruthless 13th century Romanian ruler who may have been the inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula, has been the subject of a new chemical analysis. A study of three letters he wrote has led scientists to speculate that he may have had a rare condition that made him cry tears of blood.

Also known as Vlad III, the fearsome military leader ruled over the historical region of Wallachia and became known for condemning unfortunate victims to death by being impaled on poles.

“He was not very tall, but very stocky and strong, with a cruel and terrible appearance, a long straight nose, distended nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which the large wide-open green eyes were framed by bushy black eyebrows, which made them appear threatening,” is how a 15th century papal legate Nicholas of Modrussy once described the prince.

A letter by Vlad the Impaler tested by researchers. Photo courtesy of the University of Catania.

A new research project set out to learn more about the man behind this reign of terror by subjecting his personal letters to a mass spectrometry analysis. This sophisticated technique was used to remove samples of proteins and peptides from the letter’s surface.

Further testing was conducted on all molecules that were deemed to be of human origin, although the researchers admitted that they cannot be completely sure these were left by Vlad III himself.

The primary insights offered by this new evidence was that the prince likely suffered from various medical afflictions. It appears that he had a respiratory tract infection but, more surprisingly, one letter from 1475 C.E. was also covered in proteins related to the retina that indicated Vlad III may have shed tears partially composed of blood.

This condition, known as hemolacria, is usually caused by either an infection like bacterial conjunctivitis or some kind of injury or other environmental damage.

The letter was written just a year or two before Vlad III’s death in around 1476 or 1477. The researchers’ report caveated that the data “cannot be considered exhaustive” but concluded that he “probably suffered, at least in the last years of his life” with the illness.

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