Elizabeth Bathory – The ‘Blood Countess’
She is one of the earliest serial killers in recorded history – the original sado-masochistic femme fatal. She stands out as a shocking lesson in just how dangerous a sadistic, demented powerful woman can be. The passing of the centuries has left us with an incomplete picture of the true nature of her crimes. But what we do know is truly stomach churning. In this week’s Biographics we peer into the depraved life of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.
The woman who we know as Elizabeth Bathory was born Erzsebet Bathory on August 7th, 1560 in Nyirbator in the Kingdom of Hungary. She was born into one of the most prominent families in Central Europe. As a result, she was lavished with the very best education and classic upbringing. During her formative years she learned to speak Hungarian, Slovak, Greek, Latin and German.
Elizabeth was a child with severe health problems. Historians have speculated that the fact that her parents were first cousins may had contributed to her weak constitution. She was an epileptic and, as such, was prone to violent seizures.
It has been recorded that young Elizabeth was exposed to all sorts of horrific atrocities during her formative years. She is said to have begun laughing at the sight of a man, whose crime was stealing, being sown into the body of a horse. She would also regularly witness the severe beating of servants.
Unlike the majority of young girls, Elizabeth was not offended by the violence that she saw – in fact, she seemed to be drawn to it. At the age of ten, she had become a rather stunningly beautiful young lady. It was then that she became engaged to a fifteen-year-old Hungarian count by the name of Ferenc Nadasky. As was the custom, she moved into her future husband’s parent’s palace and received education in running the estates that were under the control of her mother-in-law.
A Husband’s Influence
Legend has it that Elizabeth had an affair with a peasant boy in her early teens and became pregnant. It is said that she gave the child away secretly. Meanwhile, Ferenc is supposed to have discovered the affair, had the peasant castrated and then thrown to a pack of wild dogs.
Whether this story is true or not, it is clear that Elizabeth was active sexually. She married Ferenc on May 8th, 1574 when she was fourteen. The wedding was an extravagant affair, with four and a half thousand people in attendance. The party raged on for three days at the height of which Ferenc gifted his wife with a castle of her own. It just happened to be Castle Cachtice, one of the darkest, most bleakly gothic castles in all of Hungary. The castle, situated in the Little Carpithians in modern day Slovakia, was surrounded by a village and farmland. It would come to be the scene of many of her most horrific crimes.
The young couple united two ultra-powerful families. It made them the power couple of the day. For the first few years, Elizabeth was busy learning about and overseeing the many estates that she controlled. Her husband was off fighting against the Ottomans. He proved to be a great warrior, earning the nickname the ‘Black Knight of Hungary’. His absolute brutality in the face of the enemy terrified his enemies and shocked his allies.
The Turks invaded Hungary in 1591, precipitating what had become known as the Long War, which lasted from 1593 to 1606. The war was to drag on, severely depleting the Hungarian economy. However, Elizabeth Bathory never felt the pinch because her husband kept showering her with gifts from the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the couple grew so wealthy during this time that they actually lent money to the Hungarian Hapsburg Empire to keep the country afloat.
During the war years, Cachtice was threatened by the Turks. Elizabeth had to defend her husband’s estates and she did so effectively. At times, she also gave refuge to desperate peasants, feeding and housing them.
Over the first few years of their marriage, Elizabeth and Ferenc didn’t spend much time together. When they did, it is said that they bonded over their love of violence, torturing young servant girls who were under their charge. Ferenc taught his teenage wife innovative methods of torture, such as rolling up pieces of oiled paper, placing it in-between the toes of a servant girl and then setting it on fire. It is also claimed that he gave Elizabeth a clawed glove for her to scratch up the faces of disobedient servant girls.
There is no doubt that her husband introduced Elizabeth to all manner of atrocity. But there was another evil influence. In 1601, the household was joined by a strange woman by the name of Anna Darvolya. It was rumoured that she was a witch. What seems undeniable is that Elizabeth’s personality underwent a dramatic change from the time that Darvolya entered the household. She became more sadistic. Whereas her husband taught her to torture, Anna taught her to kill.
Under the sinister tutelage of Anna Darvolya, Elizabeth was responsible for the death of several of her servants around this time. The disappearances of the girls raised no eyebrows, as peasants were completely disposable at that time and place. Any questions that were raised by family members we quickly squelched by virtue of the huge power that the Bathory-Nadasdy’s held. Elizabeth was, in all practical terms, untouchable – she could torture and kill to her heart’s delight.
Even the power of the Bathory-Nadasdy’s, however, could not prevent the rumours. Local pastors became increasingly suspicious as Elizabeth more frequently asked them to come to the castle to perform funeral rites for servant girls who had, apparently, died of cholera. It is recorded that one priest called her aside after having attended one too many funerals and said to her . . .
Your Grace should not have acted so because it offends the Lord, and we will be punished if we do not complain to you and criticize your Grace. And in order to confirm that my words are true, we need only exhume the body and you will find that the marks identify the way in which death occurred.
Elizabeth was outraged that the priest would dare accuse her in this manner. She threatened that she had powerful relatives who would tolerate such talk. She then stormed out of the church, leaving it for her husband to smooth things over with the priest.
Together the murderous couple had five known children, with the youngest being born in 1598. Around 1601, Elizabeth’s husband, Ferenc became unwell. We don’t know the specific nature of his condition, but it led to paralysis of the legs. He died in 1604, bringing their 29-year marriage to an end. At the time of her husband’s death, Elizabeth was 44 years of age.
The Black Widow
The loss of her husband caused another noticeable change in Elizabeth. Servants noticed that she became even more sadistic. The stress of having to take the reins of an extensive empire was no doubt a contributing factor. It appears that she now transformed her penchant for sadism from a hobby into a full-time preoccupation – specifically in the torture and murder of young women.
With almost four hundred servant girls over the length of her vast domains, Elizabeth had no shortage of victims. Of course, killing her staff was a bit of a hassle as it meant that she’ have to replace them. So, she increasingly began to lure girls from the villages surrounding her castles. When she had had her fill of torturing these unfortunates, they would be flung over the castle walls to be ripped to pieces by wolves.
Elizabeth built up a loyal team of sycophants who facilitated her murderous actions. Anna Darvolya was her main accomplice. Also brought into the sadistic circle was the nurse who looked after the children, a woman by the name of Ilona Jo, along with a friend of hers by the name of Dorka. There was also a washerwoman named Katalin. The most sinister of the helpers were Anna and Dorka, who would try to outdo each other in inflicting pain on their victims. The youngest of the murderous clan was a disfigured teen by the name of Fizcko.
The typical progression of a servant girl into this horror would begin with a simple mistake in the performance of her duties. This could be as menial as missing a stitch. The Countess, if she was present, would fix an evil stare on the girl, yell at her and then begin slapping her around. Elizabeth had devised all manner of creative punishments to go with specific misdemeanours. So, girls who made any kind of mistake in sewing would be stabbed repeatedly with long sewing needles. Usually, girls would be stripped naked before they were tortured.
Elizabeth revelled in inflicting psychological torture on her victims. After sticking needles into the fingers of a girl, she would comment,
If it hurts the whore, she can pull it out.
The girl would naturally take this as permission to pull the needle out. But when she did, Elizabeth would pull out a knife and cut the finger off. She was also known to have, on at least one occasion, bitten a chunk of flesh from the face of one her victims.
Servants would be lucky to get away with a lost finger or two. More often than not, the bloodlust within the depraved heart of the Countess unable to be quelled, they would be dragged off to a torture chamber. It was here that Elizabeth employed her torture squad to carry out much of the dirty work. All manner of implements were made use of to cause the most gruesome afflictions imaginable. Pincers were used to rip the girl’s flesh, the insides were torn out and there have even been reports that cannibalism was enforced on some of the girls.
We know certain details of what took place in the torture chambers of the Bathory castles because of the investigation and trial transcripts that occurred when fate eventually caught up with Elizabeth Bathory and her accomplices. However, over the centuries, the legend took over and many of the crimes attributed to her are mere fiction.
Perhaps the most pervasive belief is that she had the blood drained from virgins and would bathe in it in order to preserve her youthful beauty. This story is almost certainly untrue. Not one of the servant girls who testified against Bathory mentioned anything to do with the practice. Rather, account after account mentions that the floors of the torture chambers were covered in blood, which they would have to clean up. The Countess showed absolutely no interest in preserving the blood as part of some narcissistic beauty regime.
By 1609, the rumours of what was taking place at the Bathory castles were rife. But, there was nothing the law could do to put a stop to it. At that time, peasants were unable to bring charges against nobles. Some parents even looked at the demented Countess as a source of ready revenue, selling their children to her for a lump sum. On the face of it, the trade was made to provide servant duties, but if the child was to die of cholera, what of it?
Elizabeth’s appetite for blood was insatiable. They bodies were piling up such a rate that her group of enablers were running out of places to bury them. Many of the girls were placed in shallow graves in the castle courtyards and some of these were dug up by hungry dogs.
By the beginning of 1609, Elizabeth’s closest confidante, Anna Darvolya died of a stroke. Around this same time her debts began to mount. With all of the children grown and married, the countess fell into a spiral of loneliness and desperation.
For some reason, Elizabeth decided that she needed to find a better class of victim. We don’t really know why, but the general belief is that her lady steward, Erzsi Majorova, who many believed to be a witch, convinced her that if she took the lives of noble girls, her financial fortunes would turn around. Or it may simply have been that she was running out of peasant victims.
Whatever the reason for the change, it led Elizabeth to the decision to open a finishing school for young noble women. It would be the perfect cover for her to continue her torturous ways with a higher class of victim. At the same time, the attendance fees that the parents of the girls paid would infuse some much-needed funds into the Bathory coffers.
By now it appeared that Elizabeth’s insatiable need to kill young girls had led to the depths of insanity. It certainly clouded her reasoning. It was obvious that the aristocratic parents of teenage girls who suddenly disappeared would move heaven and earth to get to the bottom of what had happened to their pride and joy. But, none of that mattered to Elizabeth – all she saw was a ready supply of nubile young bodies.
Inevitably, the body count began adding up – and the parents came calling. Elizabeth made up the bizzarest of excuses – one of the girls had gone crazy and killed the other girls before committing suicide. No one was convinced. Some parents appealed to the king, Matthias II, and he decided to undertake an investigation.
The official royal investigation was put into the hands of the king’s highest-ranking representative, Gyorgy Thurzo. This man happened to be one of Elizabeth’s dead husband’s closest associates. On his deathbed, Ferenc had even asked Thurzo to look out for his wife. However, Thurzo’s loyalty to the king was stronger than that to his old friend. Still, he treated Elizabeth with a level of respect that she would not otherwise have received.
Thurzo began to interview witnesses. He soon had dozens of people who testified to the Countess’ depraved ways. Servants who had managed to get out of the castle alive spoke of seeing blood drenched walls, hearing terrible screams and noticing the ever-growing ready-made cemetery in the castle courtyard. However, none of the people that Thurzo spoke to was an actual eyewitness of the torture.
Thurzo became convinced of Elizabeth’s guilt. However, he felt terrible about the pledge that he had made to his dying friend that he would look out for his widow. He decided to write to Elizabeth’s relatives asking for advice. A secret agreement was reached by which Thurzo would be able to complete his investigation but Elizabeth would never be brought to trial. She would go directly to prison without the embarrassment to the family that a public trial would bring. It’s interesting to note that none of Bathory’s relatives argued that she was innocent.
By December of 1610, Thurzo believed that he had enough evidence to arrest Elizabeth. But he wanted to make absolutely sure. So, he had himself and the king invited to dine at the Bathory castle. Elizabeth was frantically nervous, but she tried to act the gracious hostess. Things went well until she served the men a post dinner dessert cake. On first bite, both men began to feel unwell. Convinced that the countess had tried to poison them, they made a speedy exit.
On New Year’s Eve, 1610, Thurzo returned with a contingent of armed guards. They hid outside the castle gates and waited. Before long Elizabeth and her lady steward, Erzsi Majorova, came out to cast a protective spell designed to protect the countess and bring about the death of investigator Thurzo.
Thurzo and his men listened to the women’s incantations. When the two went inside, the investigators crept towards the castle entranceway. They immediately noticed the mutilated body of a young girl near the doorway. Two more were found just inside the doorway. Then they heard the sound of screaming which led them to the torture chamber. The discovered Elizabeth’s murder team hard at work.
It is unclear whether Thurzo actually caught Elizabeth in the act of torture. However, he was now convinced of her guilt. The countess was found and taken into custody. She immediately claimed her innocence, blaming everything on her servants. Thurzo wasn’t moved, however, and he threw Elizabeth into her own dungeon.
In the end, 306 people testified against Elizabeth. Even the members of her murder crew turned against her, incriminating themselves in the process. The total reported murder count varied between 80 and 650.
Bathory’s accomplices were put on trial in January, 1611. Scores of witnesses, and even some surviving victims, took to the witness stand. The judges also examined some of the cadavers that had been taken from the Bathory castles. Death sentences were handed down to Ilona Jo, Dorka and Fizcko. Prior to their executions Ilona Jo and Dorka were given their own form of torture. Their fingers were torn out by iron tongs before they were put to death and then tossed onto a bonfire.
Fizcko’s was spared this torture due to his youth. Instead he was beheaded and then burned.
Katalin was the only one who was not put to death. She had been the most soft-hearted of the bunch. On several occasions, she herself had been beaten for sneaking food into the victims. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Thurzo kept to his word and Elizabeth was never put on trial. She was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in her own Cachtice Castle, confined in one of the dungeons which had been the scene of some of her atrocities.
Her only visitors were priests and the man who had put her behind bars, Thurzo. The clerics reported that she was unrepentant and crazed with rage. None of the priests were able to get her to acknowledge the severity of her crimes, and she continued to insist that it was her assistants who were the real criminals. When a priest challenged her as to why she didn’t order them to stop, she said that she had been afraid of them.
Elizabeth reserved her greatest animosity for Thurzo. At one point, when he came to see her, she began to subject him to an awful harangue, at which point he interjected . . .
You, Elizabeth, are a wild animal. You are in the last months of your life. You do not deserve to breathe the air on the earth or see the light of the Lord. You shall disappear from this world and shall never reappear in it again. As the shadows envelop you, may you find time to repent your bestial life.
Elizabeth Bathory complained to a guard that she had cold hands on August 21st, 1614. He told her to go lie down and try to get some sleep. She did – and never woke up.
Her body was buried in the Church cemetery at Cachtice. But it is said that it didn’t remain there long due to local uproar at the outrage of having such a murderess buried in their midst. The body was supposedly exhumed and taken to the Bathory family crypt. However, when the crypt was opened in 1995, the corpse of Hungary’s most infamous murderess was nowhere to be seen.
Brian Montgomery: Elizabeth Bathory: Evil Beauty
Valentine Penrose: The Bloody Countess
Edward Eaton: Elizabeth Bathory