As today is Halloween, I thought it only fitting to write about the woman who is in the Guinness World Records as the most prolific female murderer. She comes under the category of legendary people, not only because her alleged deeds are certainly legendary, and have inspired other stories (including possibly Dracula), but because it has also been questioned whether she was in fact guilty at all.
Ecsedi Báthory Erzsébet, a late sixteenth-century copy of a 1585 portrait when she was 25 years old – the only known image of her. WikiCommons.
Born on the 7th August 1560, Elizabeth (or Erzsébet in her native language) was a Hungarian noblewoman who came from one of the most prestigious families in the country. The Báthory family owned land in modern-day Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, and essentially ruled the entire area of Transylvania. Through her parents, she was related to the King of Poland, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the Prince of Transylvania. Elizabeth certainly had shining heritage, and was destined for greatness.
Due to her birth, she was afforded the best of education – she was taught Latin, German, and Greek, and later in life was able to read and write in 4 languages. Allegedly, as a young girl she was witness to sadism in some of her relatives, watching torture of servants and being instructed in Satanism. By the age of 10 she was engaged to nobleman Ferenc Nádasdy, around 5 years her senior. It is said that before the marriage, when Elizabeth was 13 years old, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter by a peasant boy. The child was hidden away, and if Ferenc’s family knew of it, they were too keen to build an alliance with the Báthorys to care. When Elizabeth was 15 she married the 19 year old Ferenc, and the wedding was huge – around 4,500 people attended. As Elizabeth was of higher birth than Ferenc, she refused to take his name, and he instead took hers.
A seventeenth-century portrait of Ferenc Nádasdy, WikiCommons.
The couple initially spent little time together, with Ferenc away studying in Vienna, but they went on to have at least 6 children together. Elizabeth was gifted swathes of land by her husband upon their marriage, including Čachtice Castle, Čachtice country house, and 17 adjacent villages. Elizabeth was certainly a powerful, independent woman, who often ruled and defended the couple’s territories in her husband’s absence. In 1578, Ferenc was appointed chief commander of the Hungarian Troops in their fight against the Ottomans, and Elizabeth was left to manage the estates. During the Long War of 1593 – 1606, Elizabeth was responsible for defending their estates as they lay on the route to Vienna, and had been attacked by the Ottomans in the past.
As well as being capable of managing and defending their vast territories, Elizabeth was very generous to the poor and needy. She gave lots of money to charity, and often intervened on behalf of impoverished or disadvantaged women and children. However, in private, dark stories circulated.
Čachtice Castle, gifted to Elizabeth by Ferenc, and one of the main locations of her nefarious deeds. Source.
Between 1602 and 1604, a Lutheran minister named István Magyari made complaints against her, both publicly and at the court in Vienna. It was said that Elizabeth was responsible for mass torture and murder. Whilst her husband was alive, however, little was made of these accusations in official circles. After her husband’s death in 1604 though, Elizabeth’s behaviour seems to have become even more extreme, and after a few years it was impossible to ignore accusations.
As such, in 1610, the Hungarian King Matthias II assigned György Thurzó, the Palatine of Hungary (the highest ranking office), to investigate. Evidence was collected for the next two years, and what emerged was a picture of abhorrent horror. More than 300 witnesses were interviewed, from commoners to noblemen and priests.
According to the evidence gathered, Elizabeth and her servants had been responsible for the abduction of servant girls 10 – 14 years old who had been often lured with the promise of paid work in Elizabeth’s castles. Elizabeth would then proceed to torture and kill these girls in a variety of cruel ways: she would pour cold water on them and leave them in the snow to freeze to death; she would cover them in honey and let them be eaten alive by ants and insects; she would burn them, beat them, stick needles under their fingernails. Other accusations include Elizabeth biting the flesh off of their faces and arms, and even forcing the girls to eat their own flesh. The methods were endless and as horrifying as the next.
Elizabeth portrayed in the 2006 slasher film “Stay Alive”.
Eventually, Elizabeth was said to have moved onto girls of the lesser gentry who had been sent to her to learn courtly etiquette. Elizabeth would torture and kill as she travelled her lands, with atrocities reported at her castle of Čachtice but also in Vienna, Bratislava, Sárvár, and elsewhere. This may have helped her stay under the radar for so long.
On the 30th December, 1610, György Thurzó arrived at Čachtice Castle, and Elizabeth was arrested, along with four of her servants. Supposedly Elizabeth was caught in the act of torture, with one dead and one dying girl being discovered, and others wounded and locked up. However, Elizabeth was in fact arrested before any victims were discovered.
Although Elizabeth had now been detained, the issue of what to do with her was surprisingly tricky. Her family were one of the most influential in the country, and the entire family would have been disgraced, and all of her property seized by the crown. Many were not keen for the crown to gain so much, and many – including Thurzó – worried about causing an upheaval amongst the nobility, or causing dissent amongst the lower classes. Thurzó, Elizabeth’s son, and two of her sons-in-law had planned to hide Elizabeth in a nunnery to end her life quietly, but once rumours of her murder of daughters of lesser nobility spread, it became impossible to do so.
Engraving of Georg III Thurzo of Bethlendorf (György Thurzó), 1607, by Aegidius Sadeler, II. Via Art Institute Chicago.
Although King Matthias was keen for a trial and execution, Thurzó convinced him against this. It was decided that Elizabeth would be kept under strict house arrest. She was imprisoned in Čachtice Castle under solitary confinement, being bricked into a set of rooms with no windows, and only thin slits to allow ventilation and food to be passed through. She was never again let free.
However, it was unthinkable that no punishment for the crimes be given, and so proceedings began against her accomplices – her servants who had procured girls and aided in the torture. The trial began at the start of January 1611 and was presided over a Supreme Court judge, and 20 associate judges. Much of the testimony gathered previously by Thurzó was given in court, with sometimes dozens of people testifying in a day.
Even during the trial, the exact number of Elizabeth’s victims was debated. The lowest number given was 36, and the highest claimed to be over 650 – the latter being given by a woman named Susannah who claimed to have seen one of Elizabeth’s books which listed all of her victims. This large a figure could not be proven, as this diary was never found, and so the official court number was given at 80 murders. Elizabeth herself was never put on trial, and she died 4 years later in 1614 still detained at Čachtice.
Elizabeth’s deeds quickly fell into legend. Locals called her the Blood Countess, and her body had to be moved from its initial place of interment at the church of Čachtice due to local protests. It was supposedly moved to her family crypt at Ecsed, but the location of her body today is unknown. In later years, her story was embellished – in 1729, the first written account of her case was produced by Jesuit scholar László Turóczi, and he included the story that Elizabeth would bathe in her victims’ blood in order to retain her beauty and youth. This then fed into stories that Elizabeth was a witch or a vampire – particularly because of her connection to Transylvania. However, the contemporary accounts do not mention the story, and in fact recount how Elizabeth would often have to change clothes because hers had become so blood soaked – hardly suggesting she was trying to save the blood.
Historical Mixed Media Figure of Elizabeth Báthory produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix based on her physical description found in historical records. WikiCommons.
Elizabeth therefore went down in history as one of the most evil and cruel women of all time. However, some have questioned this narrative. Several historians have suggested that the trial was a fabrication in order to ruin a very wealthy woman in order to seize huge swathes of land in Slovakia and Hungary. This would have been easier particularly after her husband was dead. There is also the issue that bodies weren’t produced until after Elizabeth was detained. Nevertheless, many dispute this, saying that the huge wealth of consistent testimony could not have been fabricated, and also citing how long rumours had been spreading about her deeds before a trial was brought, as well as the fact that bodies were presented.
In all likelihood, the accusations against Elizabeth were true. If conspirators at court were wanting to bring her down, there were many other ways they could have done it – and the accusations would not have needed to have been so elaborate, extreme, or plentiful. How many girls were killed by her hand is impossible to know, but it is clear that even the most conservative estimates make her an extremely prolific serial killer. Elizabeth has passed into legend, and it is for good reason that she has become known as the Blood Countess.
Previous Blog Post: An Interview With: Tim Wingard – Medieval Sexuality and Animals
Previous in Legendary People: Lady Godiva
You may like: Mythical Creatures: Medieval Vampires
Check out my history book recommendations on Bookshop UK.
Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory – by Kimberly L. Craft.
Elizabeth Bathory: The Life and Legacy of History’s Most Prolific Serial Killer – by James Oliver