Elizabeth Báthory – Between fact and fiction

Elizabeth Báthory
(public domain)

Erzsebet or Elizabeth Báthory; the sixteenth-century Hungarian Countess is not a household name, but her story is embedded in popular culture. Elizabeth is believed to have been a mass murderer, with the highest number of victims in the world.  Part fact, part legend, the idea of Elizabeth as a crazed, vampiric, lesbian has contributed massively to the folklore and imagery surrounding vampirism and helped to forge the idea of a link between bloodsuckers and the region of Transylvania. It is widely believed that Bram Stoker was inspired by Elizabeth Báthory as well as Vlad the Impaler when he wrote Dracula in 1897.

Elizabeth was born in Nyírbátor, Hungary in August 1560. Her parents, George and Anna, were part of the Hungarian nobility and her uncle Stephen was King of Poland and Prince of Transylvania. Elizabeth grew up in Ecsed Castle and received an exemplary education, particularly excelling in languages. At the age of fifteen, Elizabeth was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of a Baron. The couple had a lavish wedding with almost 5000 guests attending. Due to her higher rank, Elizabeth kept her own surname, which her husband also adopted. Elizabeth received Csejte Castle as a wedding gift from her new family. During this period Elizabeth and her husband seemed happy, and there was nothing unusual reported. The pair settled in Ferenc’s family’s estates and had at least five children together despite Ferenc studying in Vienna a lot of the time.

In 1578, Ferenc took up a post leading the Hungarian troops against the Ottomans. He was known as the Black Knight of Hungary during this posting and the subsequent ‘Long War’ and was feared due to his extreme cruelty towards prisoners. While her husband was away on campaign, Elizabeth maintained the family estates which comprised of seventeen villages. There are many reports of her assisting destitute women and poor villagers in her capacity of Countess, but it was also during this period that the first evidence of Elizabeth’s evil nature appeared. It is said that while Ferenc was away at war, Elizabeth would ask him to send letters to her describing the sadistic torture techniques he was using on his prisoners, the Countess apparently took great pleasure in reading these letters, and it was not long before her reputation as a kind ruler began to slip.

After her husband’s death in 1604, if we are to believe the witness testimonies of the time, Elizabeth is said to have become a crazed serial killer. The helpful ruler and mother of five was apparently shaken by her husband’s death and driven to despair by her fading youth, and she began to kill young girls. The highest estimation of deaths given by a witness was 650, the names of all these girls were supposedly written in a book kept by the Countess. This estimation seems ludicrous, and it is hard to believe the Countess could have continued to murder girls at such a high rate without being found out. Most of the witness testimonies give figures between 36 and 50 which seems to be a more feasible number of victims. At Elizabeth’s trial, the number decided upon was 80.

Elizabeth was not tried for her crimes until 1610 although there had been rumours of girls disappearing from 1602 onwards. There were over 300 witness statements taken during the trial, which makes up all of the available evidence for historians examining the case today.

Early on, while her husband was still living, and shortly after his death, Elizabeth is known to have been very strict with her female workers who were often peasant girls. Elizabeth would go into fits of rage and beat the girls so badly that she had to sprinkle sawdust on the ground to soak up their blood. Despite this treatment of staff, Elizabeth was able to keep a steady supply of young women coming into the castle. A small group of higher ranking serving staff would go out into nearby towns and villages to recruit girls for their mistress. In around 1601, a woman called Anna Darvolya moved into the household. It is rumoured that Anna was Elizabeth’s lover, but there is no substantial evidence to back this up. There is plenty of evidence from statements from other members of staff that Anna encouraged Elizabeth’s sadistic side, and it seems that Anna was a catalyst for Elizabeth becoming a mass-murderer.

This new phase in Elizabeth’s life meant that more young women were needed. Elizabeth made a terrible mistake at this point by taking in girls from noble families, who thought their daughters were receiving lessons in etiquette. It was much more noticeable when these girls of high status went missing. Rumours filled the town, but Elizabeth usually found a cover-up story for the deaths. A local clergyman commented that they would only need to dig up the bodies to see that they were in fact beaten to death. Whether 36 or 650 girls were killed, we have no idea, but we can gain an insight into what happened to the girls because so many of the witness statements match up.

The accounts of the brutality suffered at the hand of Elizabeth, and her servants are often difficult to read. Elizabeth was accused of: pouring cold water over girls and leaving them to freeze to death outside, depriving them of food and sleep for weeks on end and tying them up outdoors, covered in honey in order to encourage animals to attack them. Even more gruesome are the accounts that suggest Elizabeth would beat girls to death, mutilate their genitals with hot pokers and knives, pull their mouths apart with her bare hands and even bite chunks of their flesh off or force girls to do so to each other.

On one occasion, while beating a serving girl, Elizabeth is said to have noticed that her skin felt much softer when it had been covered in the servant’s blood. As an ageing widow, Elizabeth supposedly became obsessed with the idea of preserving her youth. The legend is that the Countess would drain the blood from young virgins in order to bathe in it. There is no evidence for this happening, however, and the idea first appeared a century after Elizabeth’s death. These images of a vampiress bathing in blood or trying to maintain her youth can be seen in books and films from Dracula to Twilight and are ingrained in folklore.

Elizabeth Bathory was finally tried for her crimes in 1610, when the Count Palatine of Hungary, Count Thurzó collected hundreds of witness reports. Elizabeth was found guilty of killing 80 girls, the judge at her trial said that ‘the lady has committed terrible crimes against the female blood’. Due to her high rank, Elizabeth managed to escape the death penalty but was sentenced to life in prison under the watch of her own family. Elizabeth was bricked into a small set of rooms in her own castle, with just a hole to pass food to her. The Countess died alone on 21 August 1614 after four years in confinement. Elizabeth’s accomplices, her serving staff Dorothy Szentes, Helena Jo and John Ujvary were sentenced to death for helping her lure in and murder the girls. The women had their fingers pulled off with hot pincers before being burned alive, and John was beheaded.

Despite the lack of evidence for many of the stories surround Elizabeth Bathory, she has been declared as the world’s most prolific serial killer. For generations, it was illegal for Hungarians to even speak her name. Today, Elizabeth is little more than a tourist attraction and a gruesome legend. Tourists flock to visit Čachtice, where there is a statue of the Countess, a museum, the ruins of her castle and even a wine company named after her. Elizabeth has been immortalised, just as she wished.1


  1. Sources:
    *Tony Thorne: Countess Dracula
    * Kimberley Craft: Elizabeth Bathory, a Memoire
    * www.britannica.com
    * Margaret Nicholas: The world’s wickedest women

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