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The Blood Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Erzsébet Báthori)…

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.

elizabeth-bathory

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:

cachtice castle

*****

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…

The Accusations

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.

Elizabeth Bathory

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.

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14 thoughts on “The Blood Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Erzsébet Báthori)…

  1. Pingback: In Search of Transylvania’s Vlad Dracula: The Dracula Tour | The Velvet Rocket

  2. Pingback: Bathory | bluemovies Bathory | let us prey

  3. oh this story makes my skin crawl. How can someone be so frigen Evil??? I have finally come to the conclusion that people who committ acts like this are NOT human. They have to be of the Cannannite blood line. Satans seed line. There is no way that a normal person would be able to fit the bill for such a Satanic woman. She obviously was heavily into the occult but even just that doesnt seem to b the complete reason that she would have such a sick appetite for blood and tortourouse murder and the only reason that she was ever stopped was because of a conspiracy that had to do with money and ownership of land??? That is pretty bad in itself. I am sure that people knew long before that what she was capable of and nothing was done about it. Or they just waited for a reason to take her out and when her husband died that was it. I just know that the 2 people that were helping her were just as gnarly and sick. I hate the fact that we even have historical figures like this to remember. I know that sicker acts go on even today but there seems to be a whole time period in the darker ages of history when this stuff was just rife in rich aristrocratic society. I am sure she is burning somewhere right now for eternity…………wonder if it was worth it???????

  4. I found this interesting. I didn’t know about Erzsébet Báthori until my mom mentioned something about her. I heard little from my mom about Erzsébet Báthori so I decided to write a report over her. Thanks for the information!

  5. As sick and sadistic as her motives were, I cant help but be captivated by the whole thing, just the fact that she may very well be the basis for Dracula (COUNT Dracula/COUNTESS Erzsabet of Transylvania, her husbands family the Nadasdys being part of the Dracul family dynasty, and the obvious blood feasting) is enough to peak my interest. But there is so much more to her life and the atrocities she committed, that the mystery leaves something to be desired. And you cant really blame her completely, yes she is responsible for her actions. But she, along with most of the world, were oblivious to what we now refer to as common sense, because common sense arose from the wrong actions and terrible ideas of our ancestors, so those were different times. There were a lot of fanatics back then, it is entirely possible that the ones Elizabeth was known to frequent with, could have suggested that the essence of youth is in the blood of virgins, among other absurd ideas and practices that she was known to participate in (torturing for enjoyment, lesbianism). She possessed a lot of power and influence, she was a beautiful woman, and maybe she wanted to keep her youth for her political image. And with Elizabeth having as much influence and power as she did, I fail to see why she wouldn’t pursue this idea, they didn’t know better yet. The world was one of trial and error. Unbeknownst to them, this was definitely an error, but a very intriguing error.

    I wish i could speak with her.

  6. i personally think that elizabeth was a very weird person, although she is related to me, i think that the whole medical thing is just a bunch of bru ha ha. she knew perfectly well what she was doing, and at this very moment, she is paying the price

  7. Unfortunately, you did not pursue your reseach on her diligently enough. :) As an ethnographer I am aware of the fact that tragic events reverberate in the folklore of the area where they occurred for a very long time. I have collected stories and ballads based on famous murders, double love suicides and such that happened way before Erzsebet’s time. But when I visited Csejte in 1983, I found very little evidence of any such folk memory. People knew about the story and were happy to exploit it as a tourist attraction, but no stories, no families claiming any victims from among their relatives..
    Upon further readings I found out that she was a shy, withdrawn person who did not like to attend fashionable parties, instead loved to be alone and read. She was married off young, her husband traveled a lot and she, being a voracious reader, got interested in books on the occult. As a result she did some weird things that made her household, and later people in the area, gossip about her, calling her a witch. She wasn’t a particularly nice mistress either. As per the custom of her time, she did not think twice when she felt that a servant needed to be punished.
    She was in her forties when her husband died. She was the cousin of the then ruler of Transylvania, count Gabor Bathory, and she was fabulously wealthy, A lot of people were jealous of her and felt snubbed by her refusal to attend their parties. One of her neighbours, Gyorgy Thurzo, a known political enemy of the Bathory’s, decided to pick up on the rumors and accused Erzsebet of witchcraft, as later became apparent, plotting to put his hands on some of the Bathory-Nadasdy wealth. So they arrested Erzsebet, then arrested several servants, among them her chamber maid, her children’s wet nurse, and the children’s “playmate”, a young cripple called Ficko (pronounced Fitzko, meaning little guy). The two women and Ficko were brutally tortured and as a result “admitted” to all those stories that Erzsebet is being accused of to this day. They were declared accomplices of Erzsebet and a few days later put to death. Erzsebet herself was never tried. Had she been tried, those stories may not exist today. Documents that attempted to prove her innocence were ignored (they are still there in the archives), all the accusations were accepted in people’s minds without a second thought. Yet, let us think about it: the drained blood of how many persons would be needed to fill even a small bathtub? And by the time it got filled, the blood would have coagulated into a jelly-like mass, anyway.
    Erzsebet was kept in prison without ever having the chance to appear before a judge. They walled her into a small room, leaving only a small hole where they pushed in food for her. And there she lived, in a dark room, surrounded by her own urine and excrement. She died less than four years later, by that time insane. Yes, she paid the price (for whatever) while alive. May her soul be at peace now! The wealth, of course, was confiscated by the Habsburg court, part of which was then puchased by Thurzo for a very favorable price.

  8. Hi! Im currently doing a major project on Erzsebet Bathory and I was wondering whether you have any references that I can draw upon?

    • I’m afraid not. I wrote about the Countess a while ago and no longer have my notes or reference material…

      • Hi Eva -

        By all means, please feel free to reference my post as much as you like. Best of luck on your report…

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