Countess Elizabeth Bathory has gone down in history as Die Blutgrafin (The Blood Countess), who tortured to death over six hundred women and girls, sometimes biting chunks of flesh from their necks and breasts – the origin of legends that she bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her own skin white and translucent.
Yet, there is a strong case that the accusations arose from a conspiracy against her by the Palatine of Hungary, Count Thurzo, and her own son-in-law, Miklos Zrinyi, grandson of the hero of Szigetvar.
Born in 1560, the offspring of two branches of the Bathory family (whose intermarriage might explain several cases of lunacy in the dynasty), Elizabeth was married at the age of 15 to Ferenc Nadasdy and assumed responsibility for their vast estates, which she inherited upon his death in 1604. To the chagrin of her sons-in-law and the Palatine, she refused to surrender any of them. Worse still, from a Habsburg standpoint, the election of her nephew, “Crazy” Gabor Bathory, as Prince of Transylvania raised the prospect of a Bathory alliance that would upset the balance of power and border defenses on which Habsburg rule depended.
In December 1610 Thurzo raided her residence at Cachtice, and claimed to have caught her literally red-handed. Under torture, her associates testified to scores of secret burials at Sarvar, Cachtice and elsewhere, and the Countess was immediately walled up in a room at Cachtice, where she died four years later in 1614. Although Thurzo amassed nearly three hundred depositions, no trial was ever held, as the death of Gabor Bathory reduced her political significance to the point that it served nobody’s interests to besmirch the Nadasdy and Bathory names.
While there’s little doubt that there was a conspiracy against the Countess, it’s hard to believe that she was totally innocent. There were accusations of her cruelty at Sarvar even before her widowhood, and the theory that the tortures were actually medical treatments doesn’t explain the most atrocious cases. Probably the best one can say is that she was a victim of double standards in an era when brutality was rife and the power of nobles unbridled.
Here is what the castle at Cachtice looks like today:
The less controversial aspects of Elizabeth Bathory’s life are actually far more interesting than the brief outline above might suggest. However, as separating fact from fiction is so difficult in the case of Ms. Bathori, I eventually gave up on attempting to include details on all aspects of her life.
And after all, it is the lurid accusations against her that people find interesting and it is these accusations which I will explore below. Bear in mind, as I explained above, that these allegations may be influenced by a conspiracy. So, perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle? However, even if the truth is in the middle in regard to the Elizabeth Bathory case, this is still quite a damning account of The Blood Countess…
According to the testimony against her, Bathory’s initial victims were local peasant girls, many of whom were lured to Cachtice by offers of well-paid work as maidservants in the castle. Later she is said to have begun to kill daughters of lower gentry, who were sent to her by their parents to learn courtly etiquette. Abductions were said to have occurred as well. Additionally presented at the trial, there were accusations of pagan practices and witchcraft.
The pagan practices and witchcraft were described as follows:
Her tastes were of a certain slant, and consequently she began to gather about herself (as her ample financial resources readily accommodated) persons of peculiar and sinister arts. These she welcomed into her presence, affording them commodious lodging and lavish attention to each of their most singular needs and interests. Among them were those who claimed to be witches, sorcerers, seers, wizards, alchemists, and others who practiced the most depraved deeds in league with the Devil and which are too painful to mention. They taught her their crafts in intimate detail and she was enthralled. But learning such unspeakable things was not enough.
Allegedly, it was in her husband’s absence that Elizabeth began torturing young servant girls for her own pleasure, although to be fair, this may in fact have been a pastime to which Ferenc himself introduced her to. Among the activities attributed to Elizabeth in this period were beating her maidservants with a barbed lash and a heavy cudgel, and having them dragged naked into the snow and doused with cold water until they froze to death. The alleged intent behind this last practice was to see which forms the bodies could be frozen into – a crude sort of sculpture garden if you will…
Her accomplices at this time were Helena Jo, her childrens’ wet-nurse, Dorothea Szentes, known also by the graceful diminutive “Dorka”, a peasant woman of noted physical strength alleged to be a witch, and Johannes Ujvary, also referred to as Ficzko, a manservant described as a dwarf-like cripple.
At the trial, Dorka, Ilona Jó and Ficko were found guilty and put to death on the spot. Dorka and Ilona had their fingernails ripped out before they were thrown into a fire, while Ficko, who was deemed less guilty, was beheaded before being consigned to the flames.
The following examples provide a flavor of the testimony recorded at the trial of Elizabeth’s accomplices:
…a 12-year-old girl named Pola somehow managed to escape from the castle. But Dorka, aided by Helena Jo, caught the frightened girl by surprise and brought her forcibly back to Cachtice Castle. Clad only in a long white robe, Countess Elizabeth greeted the girl upon her return. The countess was in another of her rages. She advanced on the 12-year-old child and forced her into a kind of cage. This particular cage was built like a huge ball, too narrow to sit in, too low to stand in. Once the girl was inside, the cage was suddenly hauled up by a pulley and dozens of short spikes jutted into the cage. Pola tried to avoid being caught on the spikes, but Ficzko manoeuvered the ropes so that the cage shifted from side to side. Pola’s flesh was torn to pieces.
One accomplice testified that on some days Elizabeth had stark-naked girls laid flat on the floor of her bedroom and tortured them so much that one could scoop up the blood by the pailful afterwards, and so Elizabeth had her servants bring up cinders in order to cover the pools of blood. A young maid-servant who did not endure the tortures well and died very quickly was written out by the countess in her diary with the laconic comment ‘She was too small…’
At one point in her life Elizabeth Bathory was so sick that she could not move from her bed and could not find the strength to torture her miscreant servant girls… She demanded that one of her female servants be brought before her. Dorothea Szentes, a burly, strong peasant woman, dragged one of Elizabeth’s girls to her bedside and held her there. Elizabeth rose up on her bed, and, like a bulldog, the Countess opened her mouth and bit the girl first on the cheek. Then she went for the girl’s shoulders where she ripped out a piece of flesh with her teeth. After that, Elizabeth proceeded to bite the girl’s breasts.
Some of the more consistent themes to emerge from the testimony against Elizabeth revolved around the following practices:
- often fatal surgery on victims
- starving of victims
- extensive sexual abuse (Elizabeth is said to have been bisexual)
- severe beatings over extended periods of time
- burning and mutilation of the hands and often the face and genitals
- biting the flesh off of faces, arms and other body parts
- freezing to death
The use of needles and scissors were also mentioned by the collaborators in court.
Despite lurid descriptions of bathing in blood that were bandied about following the trial, no actual mention of bathing in blood is to be found in the records of the trial itself.
Below is an example of the tone of the stories describing Elizabeth Bathory’s bathing habits:
When back in the castle, each batch of young girls would be hung, alive and naked, upside-down by chains wrapped around their ankles. Their throats would be slit and all of their blood drained for Elizabeth’s bath, to be taken while the heat of their young bodies still remained in the thickening and sticky crimson pool.
And every now and then, a really lovely young girl would be obtained. As a special treat, Elizabeth would drink the child’s blood: at first from a golden flask, but later, as her taste for it increased, directly from the stream, as the writhing and whimpering body hung from the rafters, turning pale.
The BBC has a profile on Elizabeth Bathory that is more eloquently composed than I could ever hope for, so I shall allow it to serve as the last word:
Truth and Fiction
As noted, the most common story of Elizabeth Bathory’s reign of terror – that of the blood bath – is unsupported by the evidence of any of the witnesses. Moreover, the nature of the trial renders suspect all of the evidence given there, as said evidence was largely extracted under torture or threat of torture, and was probably ‘tuned’ to create the most vivid impression. However, the story of the Blood Countess has been seized upon by many writers and film-makers, for whom the heady mixture of Elizabeth’s beauty, sophistication, extreme cruelty and bisexuality have formed the basis for many a prurient retelling.
It has become difficult to distinguish the facts from the fiction in the case of Countess Elizabeth Bathory. After the blood baths, the most frequent embellishment is the playing up of her involvement with the occult, ranging from the simple presence of her supposed witches, through tales of the infernal rites she enacted in the company of her husband, to accounts of her maintaining a court filled with alchemists, sorcerers and satanists of every stripe as advisers. A similarly occult element brings in claims of the Countess’ insistence on virgin victims. Such a stipulation is not attested to in the direct evidence, although prudence would probably have meant that most of the victims were at least unmarried. She herself is variously accused of witchcraft, vampirism and lycanthropy.
As always with historical characters and historical atrocities, the great risk in these retellings is that the brutal murders of Elizabeth Bathory’s victims should become just a piece of background, their role as faceless victims cemented forever. This risk is exacerbated by the ‘bad-girl glamour’ which invariably accompanies Elizabeth’s portrayal. As modern day serial killers become twisted folk heroes and objects of adoration, so Elizabeth Bathory’s fascination pervades these stories, turning a cruel and twisted woman into an intensely sensual, sexual, almost romantic figure.
Ultimately, we can never really know the causes and motivations of Elizabeth Bathory’s actions. We can only look back on the case of the Blood Countess, and wonder at the brutal culture and the extraordinary circumstances that might have created such a monster among monsters.