Dracula may have wept blood on tear-stained letters, chemical analysis reveals

From George Orwell to Vlad the Impaler, this novel form of analytical chemistry is enhancing how we view history

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published August 24, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431-1477) posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler, Voivode of Wallachia (1456-1462). (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431-1477) posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler, Voivode of Wallachia (1456-1462). (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

New research published this month in the journal Analytical Chemistry details how an innovative protein analysis technique has uncovered a rich bevvy of biochemical evidence about the life and health of the most famous (alleged) vampire in history — indeed, the inspiration for Count Dracula himself.

His sweating fist cantering across the surface of Romanian rag paper in swooping lines of 15th Century Latin as steadily as his armies swept through the Carpathian mountains, we know for certain that Vlad Drăculea — merciless defender of Wallachia, harbinger of an estimated 80,000 deaths — wept and bled into the very ink of his hand-written letters. But now it seems that Vlad the Impaler, namesake of Bram Stoker's 1897 epistolary horror, may have even wept literal tears of blood, as described in the oldest stories about him.

"To our reckoning," writes a team of researchers led by chemist Maria Gaetana Giovanna Pittalà of Italy's University of Catania, "this is the first time such research has been carried out and has helped to bring to the limelight the health status of Vlad Dracula the Impaler."

It's no silver bullet. But, by analyzing the makeup of three carefully preserved letters from Dracula — two written in 1457 and one in 1475 — the scientists discovered peptides indicating tears and blood, along with proteins linked to an inflammatory disease and a genetic respiratory disorder known for chronic lung and sinus infections.

"He probably suffered, at least in the last years of his life, from a pathological condition called hemolacria, that is, he could shed tears admixed with blood. Additionally, he also probably suffered from inflammatory processes of the respiratory tract and/or of the skin," the researchers wrote.

Hemolacria can be caused by multiple disorders, including vascular lesions and trauma, such as cataract surgery. But while it is a very rare condition, it (obviously) isn't true vampirism. Folks in the 15th Century may not have realized this, however, which may have inspired the legends about Dracula.

We know for certain that Vlad Drăculea — merciless defender of Wallachia, harbinger of an estimated 80,000 deaths — wept and bled into the very ink of his hand-written letters.

Being able to parse these ancient proteins allowed researchers to accomplish two remarkable things. First, the peptides fleshed out the intimately sanguine humor of Dracula himself — even as the researchers account for the accumulation of their historical handling.

"It is worth noting that more medieval people may have touched these documents, which cannot be denied, but it is also presumable that the most prominent ancient proteins should be related to Prince Vlad the Impaler, who wrote and signed these letters," the team wrote.

The peptides also allowed Pittalá's team to explore the wider context of Dracula's life as the environmental conditions of latter-year 15th century Wallachia. Under mass spectroscopy, a milieu of tell-tale peptides came into focus, revealing a biochemical story of the area's blend of merchant traders, soldiers and migrants, travelers mingling from as far away as Persia and Mongolia. Thousands of peptides were found in the investigation from plants and insects, to fungi and bacteria — even traces of the Black Death. 

Using Croc plastic to rewrite history

Sophisticated, precise use of mass spectrometry in World Cultural Heritage artifacts has been a boon to researchers and conservationists alike. The research team reviewing Dracula's letter applied a non-damaging, extremely thin film of ethylene-vinyl acetate. (This versatile polymer, also known as EVA, is the same material used in shoes like Crocs and some yoga mats.) Then they used special augmented reality software to map out the high-concentration hot spots for proteins, allowing them to light up their digital copies and apply different fluorescence levels of pseudo-color in green, yellow and red.

Prior to taking on Dracula's handwriting, Righetti and the Zilbersteins went on a historical cultural spree of discovery.

It's not the first time this technique has been used. Nor even the first time Dracula's hand-writing was given the spectrometry treatment by two of the new study's co-authors, Svetlana and Gleb Zilberstein. The married couple began studying the ancient remnants of Vlad's literal blood, sweat and tears in 2022.

The story actually began when Gleb reached out to then-81-year-old Italian chemist and protein-spectrometry pioneer Pier Giorgio Righetti. As Righetti tells it in Smithsonian Magazine, Gleb called Righetti up with an exciting idea about how to study the delicate artifacts without damaging them.

"I know how we could do it without needing to take a sample," Gleb told him.

Prior to taking on Dracula's handwriting, Righetti and the Zilbersteins went on a historical cultural spree of discovery.

They found tuberculosis in the blood stains of the shirt Anton Checkov was wearing when he died and evidence the playwright's final blow may have been a stroke. In letters from George Orwell, they impressively sussed out tuberculosis in the typically protein-barren landscape of a typewritten letter. In the original manuscript of The Master and Margarita, the duo discovered evidence that Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov may have been self-medicating with morphine while writing. And in the notebooks of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, the appearance of silver, gold, arsenic and lead revealed that Kepler may have been a practicing alchemist.

But this time something was different about the Zilbersteins' meticulously careful work. The night air took on a mysterious quality as the scientists emerged from the Romanian archive, as strange occurrences materialized suddenly and dramatically. In an interview with the Guardian, Gleb described the unsettling events that started after nightfall.

"It was mystical that we were extracting Dracula's molecules on the day that Bram Stoker's novel was published 125 years ago," he said. "We did not specifically plan this date. All night, after the extraction of Dracula's molecules, it rained, dogs howled and lightning flashed. It was really a very magical atmosphere. Count Dracula blessed his release from the Romanian archive."

Death, taxes and Dracula

The Zilbersteins were admittedly less interested in the letter's writing than their biochemical landscape. But what did Dracula actually have to say in the missives? Timeless confessions of transcendent undying love for some Englishman's bride? Instructions to a beleaguered assistant on the transport of his coffin? Tragically, the letters' contents contain no such smudge of romance.

Alas, academic work in the humanities doesn't always deliver adventures of the Indiana Jones variety. Rather, the letters are filled with the prince's rather dry administrative concerns. It would seem that the letter further proves that life's only two certainties are death and taxes — and not even Dracula could escape the latter.

"We, Vladislav Dracul, voivode of the Transalpine regions, publicly notify and recognize by the present witnesses, who are all responsible, that the illustrious master Thomas Altemberger, master of the people of the town of Sibiu, for himself and the other people of said town and of the town of Braşov, in order to pay the twentieth-part [tax] as by written command of our gracious lord and king, effectively gave and allotted to us two hundred Hungarian florins. About those two hundred florins, we free the said master and the consuls of the aforementioned towns, making them unencumbered and entirely released by the power and testimony of this document. Written in Bălcaciu, in the day of St. Coloman martyr, in the year of the lord 1475."

The Zilbersteins and Righetti have gone onto start a business proffering the unique protein-analyzing tech, called SpringStyle Tech Design. They plan to make it available for public use by offering it to government archives, museums and libraries. 

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The Zilbersteins' next project is something of an American dream. Using the same methods to investigate the logbook of slave ships, the duo want to reveal and restore the bodily history of African people brought to America by white slave-traders. These scientific techniques and tools, the duo believe, can be used to enrich our cultural understanding of historical figures through the genetic bread-crumb trail they leave behind — as long as we tender the fragments of their legacy with an eye toward the immortality of their stories.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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Biology Deep Dive Dracula Folklore Forensics George Orwell History Science Vampire Vlad The Impaler