I've been researching Elizabeth (or Erzabet) Báthory—the “Blood Countess”—for my nonfiction wip, tentatively titled ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Bastards, and Bad Seeds. Elizabeth most certainly is one of the baddest of bad seeds, and since it's Halloween, I thought I'd put up a special holiday post about this fifteenth/sixteenth century Hungarian noblewoman who was one of history's greatest mass murderesses.
So, sit back, relax, curl up with a goblet of your favorite potion, and enjoy the gruesome life story of one of history's real-life ghouls.
ELIZABETH (ERZABET) BÁTHORY
“The Blood Countess”
“The Blood Countess”
She made the Marquis de Sade look like Mother Teresa. In an age when her English counterparts were plying their needles or playing the virginals, Elizabeth Báthory was employing red hot pincers and bathing in virginal blood.
Stephan Bathory, King of Poland
Like most noble families, the Hungarian Báthory clan, and especially Elizabeth’s parents, György and Anna (whose father, also named Stephan Báthory, had been a Voivode or Prince of Transylvania), prided themselves on the purity of their line, and of course inbreeding leads to insanity. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth’s family had its share of mentally deranged relations. This niece of the Polish king Stephan Báthory, a political crony of Prince Vlad Dracula of Wallachia, came by her brutality honestly—or at least genetically. Her aunt Klara was a bisexual sadomasochist with a specific talent for flagellation; one of her uncles was into devil-worship; and Elizabeth’s brother was merely a libidinous drunkard. Her own predilections appear to have been a fatal combination of nature and nurture.
Because of her noble rank, it was beneath Elizabeth’s dignity, even as a child, to be scolded for anything she did; consequently, she grew up vain, willful, and arrogant. She also would eventually become quite a beauty; tall, raven-haired, and voluptuous, with pale skin and catlike amber eyes.
Although Western Europe had emerged from the dark ages into the comparatively enlightened and cultured Renaissance, much of the central and eastern areas of the continent had yet to cast off the violence and superstition of the Middle Ages. And while the Tudors were no strangers to torture, and particularly to gory and incendiary public executions, the nobles of Mittel Europe, lacking the poetry of a William Shakespeare or the paintbrush and chisel of a Michelangelo, resorted to making their murders as heinously creative as possible.
When Elizabeth was a little girl she was permitted to witness a public execution where a gypsy (the malfeasor) was stuffed into the freshly slit belly of a horse (while the completely innocent beast was still alive), and sewn into the warm, bloody cavity. The tortured horse writhed in pain and tried to rid itself of its unwelcome burden, while the gypsy struggled in vain to free himself from the horse’s gut. Both expired in due course, but not until they’d provided a bored and jaded populace with a highly entertaining reality show.
Perhaps this is where baby Báthory developed her taste for gruesome torture. In any case, she lived in an especially violent culture and came from a particularly demented family with a ghoulish cast of role models. But surely from witnessing the public’s delight in and the authorities’ sanction of this unique form of execution, Elizabeth must have grown up assuming that anything goes.
She was never quite right in the head, however. Elizabeth began to experience epileptic seizures at the age of four or five in addition to the violent mood swings of a classic manic depressive. Though her temper was fierce, her birthright shielded her from chastisement, let alone punishment, for any bad behavior. The Báthorys were a wealthy, influential and powerful Protestant family, highly connected in the world of sixteenth-century Hungary.
In 1570, at the age of nine, Elizabeth was contracted in marriage to Ferenc [pronounced Franz] Nádasdy, eleven years her senior, and was packed off, according to the custom of the time, to reside with her future mother-in-law. There she may have been given a long lead as well, because it was rumored that she’d given birth in 1574 to an illegitimate daughter fathered by a peasant boy. The child, if there ever was one, was purportedly smuggled away—to where and to whom, no one seems to know.
Before Elizabeth got herself into further trouble, in the presence of 4500 guests she was married to Ferenc Nádasdy on May 8, 1575 in the palace at Varannó. She was fourteen years old; the groom was twenty-five. Although he was already a war hero known for his feats of athletic prowess off the battlefield (though his own mother admitted that her boychik was “no scholar,”), Ferenc made the rare move of adopting his bride’s surname as his own. It would greatly enhance his prestige to be thought of as a Báthory.
Ferenc wouldn’t be the first to marry a younger, smarter wife. Elizabeth was much better educated than her husband, able to read and write Greek, Latin, German, and her native Hungarian. Nevertheless, it’s always good for spouses to have common interests, and in the case of Elizabeth and Ferenc, they shared a particularly unusual one: both were sadists.
Ferenc’s temper was notorious. As a warlord he didn’t spare the rod, savagely flogging and beating both adversary and underling; and earning himself the remarkably complimentary and alliterative nickname, “The Black Hero of Hungary.” His wife’s soubriquet was equally insouciant; in due time she would be known throughout Europe as “The Blood Countess.”
After a brief stay at Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár, where Elizabeth whiled away her hours while Ferenc studied in nearby Vienna, the couple took up residence in the thirteenth-century Castle Csejthe [also spelled Čachtice], a gloomy fortress perched high in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania.
It had been a wedding gift from the Nádasdy family to their teenage daughter-in-law. The castle, or the picturesque rubble that remains of it, is located in present-day Slovakia.
Ferenc made his living fighting the Ottoman Turks and consequently spent little time at home. While he was off butchering his enemies, his young wife developed an odd way of relieving her boredom. No embroidery or dancing lessons for Elizabeth. She didn’t even curl up with a good heretical tract. Instead, Aunt Klara began popping ’round to school her niece in her preferred methods of entertainment: flagellation, lesbian orgies, and various forms of sadomasochism.
Klara was abetted by a loyal retainer named Thorko who introduced the beautiful young newlywed to the occult, piquing her interest in mixology. Elizabeth grew adept at concocting sundry drugs, brews, and potions; and in her husband’s absence her various houseguests included self-proclaimed sorcerers and seers, warlocks, witches, and alchemists. Before long, black magic and torture were her favorite ways to pass the time. She became especially fond of a set of silver pincers that could clip and claw off chunks of someone’s flesh. The device had a particular allure because it was so versatile: it could be heated until it was as hot as a branding iron or attached to a sturdy whip, turning it into an effective flaying tool. Ferenc, who made a career out of massacring Hungary’s military enemies, couldn’t stand the heat. When Elizabeth got out the silver pincers, he had to leave the room.
While Ferenc was off fighting the Turks, Elizabeth also amused herself with a variety of Italian sex toys and took it into her head to color it—bleaching her hair the same pale blond that was all the fashion in sixteenth-century Venice among both noblewomen and courtesans.
She liked to collect recipes, too, writing to her husband at the front about a particularly effective one she’d learned from one of her handmaidens. “Dorka has taught me a lovely new one. Catch a black hen and beat it to death with a white cane. Keep the blood and smear a little of it on your enemy. If you get no chance to smear it on his body, obtain one of his garments and smear it.”
Like most sadists, Elizabeth learned that the best victims were the weak. As there were no existing laws governing the relationship between masters and servants, the peasant girls employed at Castle Csejthe were fair game and fertile fodder for Elizabeth and Klara’s gruesome hobby.
Five of Elizabeth’s most loyal and trusted servants ensured that the girls (those who survived the tortures, or who made it safely through another day after their fellow slaveys and sculleries were murdered) would keep quiet about what they had seen or heard. One girl who was deemed too voluble had her mouth sewn shut.
In fact everyone in Hungary, regardless of rank or proximity, lived in terror of the wrath of the powerful Báthorys.
Still only an adolescent girl herself when she began torturing peasant girls, Elizabeth took advantage of a serving wench’s merest misstep, using it as an excuse to punish her. But rebukes and slaps were for sissies. If a girl was suspected of theft, she was commanded to strip naked and was then tortured by the application of red-hot coins pressed against her bare skin.
Sometimes the countess opted to go organic: the girls were whipped with stinging nettles after being beaten with some other device. And even if a servant girl hadn’t misbehaved she might still end up as the day’s entertainment. Mutilation was frequently on the menu. Girls were placed into cages fitted with internal spikes that impaled them everywhere as the cage tightened, resulting in an agonizing and bloody death. Pincers and tongs, heated until they glowed, were used to tear off bits of flesh. Scalding irons branded their tender skin. Elizabeth even perfected a technique of tearing a girl’s head apart by tugging the sides of her mouth until they ripped, and her neck snapped in two.
The countess was said to have achieved sexual ecstasy during these torture sessions, squealing in girlish delight at the sights and sounds of her victims’ agony. She enjoyed whipping them from the front, just so she could see the pain and terror on their faces.
Sometimes for kicks and giggles Elizabeth would slather a girl with honey and tie her to a tree, leaving her to the mercy of insects and other wildlife with a sweet tooth. Her water torture involved stripping the girls naked, pouring water on them and then leaving them in the frigid mountain air to freeze to death. And even Dick Cheney would have been impressed with Elizabeth’s “star-kicking” game. Bits of oiled paper were inserted between her victims’ toes and set aflame. She had endless hours of fun watching the hapless young women trying to kick off the burning paper, which, thanks to the piping hot oil, was stuck to their skin, burning it as well. If that became boring, she could always burn the girls’ genitals with a hot poker, or candle wax. Other instruments of torture included razors, torches, and knives.
In 1604, at the age of forty-seven, Ferenc died, possibly from a wound he received in battle. Between 1585 and 1598 he and Elizabeth had had five children, two of which had died in infancy. The surviving offspring were in placed the care of governesses, a common practice at the time.
With Ferenc in his grave, Elizabeth was a lonely, thirty-something widow, losing her looks and intent on staving off the aging process. Traditional cosmetics weren’t doing the trick. Even a glamorous new wardrobe failed to deflect attention from her epidermal flaws.
But by then she had discovered that torture and mutilation had an additional, and healthful, benefit. One day, a hapless servant accidentally pulled the countess’s hair while she was brushing it, and received such a resounding slap that her nose bled; the blood splashed on Elizabeth’s hands (or face, depending on the source of the anecdote). After regarding herself in a mirror, Elizabeth was convinced that her skin looked ever so much more youthful where the virgin girl’s blood had spattered her. If only Restylane and Botox had been invented—how many young lives might have been spared!
After Anna Darvulia, one of Elizabeth’s entourage, suggested that bathing in the blood of virgins would be as beneficial as a fountain of youth, Elizabeth lured as many peasant girls as she could to Castle Csejthe, as well as to her other properties, to ensure that her new beauty regimen, as well as her preferred form of entertainment, remained uninterrupted. According to historian Margaret Nicholas, she and her confederates roamed the area after dark in search of fresh victims, though that allegation sounds a bit too gothic to be credible. At the castle the girls were systematically slaughtered, their blood collected in vats and buckets. If a victim was particularly beautiful, Elizabeth was reputed to have imbibed her blood. According to local lore the countess would sometimes bite the necks, shoulders, and breasts of these girls, devouring their flesh.
Even if the last accusation was fanciful to the point of straining credulity, it becomes plausible enough, given the other atrocities Elizabeth was believed to have committed.
It is a sad comment on the culture of sixteenth-century Hungary, that countless young peasant women went missing and the authorities never bothered to search for them. No one dared speak out against the Báthory family, even if they had their suspicions; and other members of the nobility were loath to betray one of their own.
Elizabeth wasn’t even discreet about cleaning up after herself, and no one else might have been around to mop up the gore, since her supply of domestics eventually dried up, so to speak. Rotting corpses and mutilated bodies dotted the castle’s hallways and corridors.
After more than three decades of wholesale kidnapping, torture, and mutilation, Elizabeth ran out of peasants. She managed to purchase the service of a few more by telling their families that their daughters were being given the opportunity to serve the illustrious Báthory family. Naturally, the countess neglected to inform them that it was as a moisturizer.
But in 1609 came a stroke of good news. Erzsi Majorova, a local widow who had become one of Elizabeth’s confidantes, informed her that she’d been doing it all wrong for years. No wonder she was getting wrinkles and crows’ feet, aging despite her best efforts! She’d been using peasants! The way to ensure a permanently youthful complexion was to bathe in the blood of virginal aristocrats!
So Elizabeth cleverly advertised for young women of the minor nobility to attend a sort of finishing school at Castle Csejthe, accepting twenty-five girls at a time to learn “the social graces appropriate to their class.” The young ladies were indeed finished—but not in the way their families had anticipated. And after several young noblewomen permanently disappeared, people began to notice; the rumors even reached Vienna, the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.
As early as 1602 a courageous Lutheran minister named István Magyari complained to the local and Viennese authorities, but nothing was done. Elizabeth’s family was fully aware of her crimes, but dismissed any mention of them as malicious gossip and idle supposition, as well as the superstition of unlettered peasants.
Finally, in 1610, her dark deeds were brought to light after four corpses of young girls that had been carelessly tossed over the castle walls were discovered. Magyari had long suspected some ghoulish scenario after Elizabeth had asked him to discreetly bury some bloodless corpses; at long last, the local officials agreed to hear his allegations.
No one cared about dozens, if not hundreds, of missing peasant girls; but the disappearance of so many aristocratic young ladies bore investigation. Thanks to István Magyari, the evidence of Elizabeth’s atrocities eventually reached King Matthias II of Hungary. Although he had undoubtedly heard of Elizabeth’s brutality, he had dithered for years before finally having to confront it. Why? He owed the Bathory family money! But it eventually became convenient for Matthias to take the matter in hand because a cornerstone of his reign was to curb the increasing power of the nobility. By bringing the Blood Countess to justice Matthias would make an example of the Báthorys (who ruled Transylvania at the time) to any nobles who might be getting too big for their breeches.
Matthias II of Hungary, Holy Roman Emperor
In December 1610, eight years after István Magyari first spoke up about the dark doings at Castle Csejthe, King Matthias dispatched the Lord Palatine of Hungary, Count György Thurzó, to raid the castle.
But Thurzó already knew about Elizabeth’s crimes; he was a relative of the Báthory family. However, he accepted his commission, and on his arrival at Castle Csejthe, discovered that his kinswoman’s atrocities were even worse than he had imagined. He nearly tripped over the corpse of a girl in the main hall; then a groan grabbed his attention. It came from a dying girl whose body was so pierced with holes that she resembled a sieve.
Dead and mostly dead girls were found in a number of holding cells. In the basement several more victims were discovered hanging from the rafters, their bodies slit open and dripping blood into large vats placed on the floor below them that would be used for another of the countess’s rejuvenating soaks.
After Thurzó ordered the excavation of the basement floor, another fifty corpses were uncovered. A maidservant named Zusanna directed him to Elizabeth’s desk where he found a ledger containing a tally, in her handwriting, of her victims. Some 650 names were on the list, though her confederates would later dispute this number, placing the total body count at four to five dozen. However, between 100 and 200 bodies were removed from the castle by Thurzó’s investigators.
Elizabeth’s accomplices, Dorottya (“Dorka”) Szentes, Ilona Jó, and a washerwoman named Katarína Benická, were arrested. Also arrested was Elizabeth’s dwarf, János Újváry, nicknamed both Ibis and Ficzko, who has been characterized by one historian as retarded. Erzi Majorova managed to escape, but she was subsequently apprehended.
Some historians claim that Elizabeth was arrested along with her servants; others state that because she was a noblewoman she could not be arrested. Because aristocrats were not permitted to be placed on trial, Elizabeth was never called upon to testify in her defense. In any event, if she had been found guilty and executed for her crimes, her property would have been forfeited to the crown. Naturally, it remained in the best interests of the Báthory family to hold onto their real estate at all costs.
On January 7, 1611, Elizabeth’s accomplices were placed on trial before a panel of twenty judges. Two hundred witnesses testified against the absent countess. What they had to say undoubtedly shocked the court. For example, it came out during the trial that a twelve-year-old girl named Pola had managed to escape Elizabeth’s clutches but was pursued by Dorka and Ilona who brought her back to the castle. Pola was placed inside a spherical cage lined with dozens of spikes. As the cage was hauled up by a pulley, the unfortunate child was pierced all over and bled to death. And one of Elizabeth’s diary entries referred to a young maid who had died too quickly for her demise to provide much amusement; she had deemed the girl “too small.”
Finally a verdict was rendered: The servant girl Zusanna was acquitted. Katarína was imprisoned for life. The retarded dwarf Ficzko was beheaded and then burned. Erzi, Dorka, and Ilona were all pronounced guilty of being witches and because their fingers had been quite literally “dipped in the blood of Christians” [Lewis, p 38] had them ripped from their hands with hot pincers, a weapon with which they were undoubtedly all-too-familiar.
Since the countess’s rank prevented her from being tried, her relatives took it upon themselves to exact punishment—which conveniently kept her property within the family. Confined by her relations to her bedchamber in Castle Csejthe, Elizabeth was no longer considered a danger to anyone and remained out of reach of King Matthias. Slits in the walls allowed her a bit of light and air and permitted food and water to be passed to her.
Her house arrest lasted a little more than three years. On August 21, 1614 the fifty-four-year-old countess was discovered lying face down in her makeshift prison, having recently breathed her last. She was buried in the church at Csejthe, but the villagers grew too vociferous about having a mass murderess reposing among them, so Elizabeth’s body was moved to the Báthory family crypt located near her birthplace, at Ecsed.
It has been suggested that the reason charges were never brought against Elizabeth Báthory herself was because the king owed her money, but moreover, because she was innocent: the scapegoated lesbian daughter of a powerful Protestant family that dared to oppose the (Catholic) Hapsburg emperors. But if that were the case, then it is unlikely the Báthorys would have been either so prominent or so feared. Could it really be true that people kept their mouths shut about the goings-on at Csejthe Castle because there was in fact nothing going on? And if religious dissent was at the heart of the matter, why was the man who ultimately blew the whistle on Elizabeth a Lutheran minister—one who shared her religious views, rather than opposed them? Some things don’t tally and we may never have all the answers because documents are either sealed in Hungary’s archives or are too difficult to decipher because of their age and the obscurity of the seventeenth-century form of the language.
Although we may view Elizabeth’s countryman Vlad Dracula as a mass murderer, he might have argued in his defense (if he didn’t impale you first), that his brutality was a necessary evil in order to maintain law and order in a culture that lived and died by the sword, as well as to maintain his occasionally tenuous possession of the Wallachian crown. Elizabeth Báthory—the “Blood Countess”—was also a royal mass murderer; but there was no political rationale for her outsized brutality. Her atrocities were committed for sport, though admittedly there came a time when they became a vital part of her skin care regimen. Vanity never had a higher, or more gruesome, price.
Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Báthory? Do you believe the stories about her?
Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Báthory? Do you believe the stories about her?