Since we're in the second half of October and Halloween and el dia de los muertos and all that is fast approaching, I figured this post was somewhat "of the season..."
Have you ever heard the legend of the European Countess who bathed in the blood of maidens so as to keep herself looking young and easy breezy beautiful? It turns out this legend is based on an actual person.
Elizabeth Bathory (1560? - 1614), or -- more properly, in Hungarian -- Erzsébet Báthory, was born into one of the most prominent Hungarian noble families. Her parents, Baron György Báthory and Baroness Anna Báthory (1539-1570), were cousins: her father was from the Ecsed branch of the family and her mother from the Somlyó branch. Her maternal uncle, Stefan Báthory (1533-1586), was King of Poland, and several relatives on both sides of her family were Voivodes of Transylvania. Among these, her first cousin Zsigmond Báthory (1572-1613) is also noteworthy for his prestigious marriage to the Habsburg Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria (1574-1621) in 1595, although their matrimony was unhappy and short lived.
Some of Erzsébet's less upstanding relatives were said to be sadistically cruel or to suffer from other vices, and some were perhaps rumored to be witches or devil-worshippers: her aunt, Countess Klara Báthory of Ecsed, was supposedly notorious for her bisexual love affairs. Aunt Klara married four times, and she may have been suspected of murdering one or two of her husbands and of practicing the dark arts. Erzsébet also had an older brother, Stefan, who was a reputed lecher and drunkard (not that we'll hold that against him).
Erzsébet was born and raised in Eastern Hungary, on her family's estates near the neighboring towns of Nyírbátor and Nagyecsed. Like many Hungarian nobles at this time, Erzsébet's family was protestant. From what I've read, Erzsébet was considered to be something a beauty. She also must have been quite intelligent given that she was literate in four languages (Hungarian, German, Latin and Greek) at a time when many Hungarian noblemen were only semi-literate. It is also reported that, even as a young girl, Erzsébet had a vicious temper and frequently exploded into fits of rage.
At the age of 11, Erzsébet was bethrothed to Count Ferenc Nádasdy (1555? - 1604) whose family was not quite as illustrious as the Báthory clan (after their marriage he took the name Báthory-Nádasdy). But Ferenc was very wealthy, and he gained a reputation as a fierce warrior in the ongoing conflict with the Turks. In 1578 he became chief commander of the Hungarian troops, and his bloodlust and prowess in battle earned him the nickname "Black Bey."
By all accounts, when she was 14, Erzsébet became pregnant by a peasant. Her family hushed the whole affair up: keeping her sequestered during her pregnancy and giving the child away. The next year (1575), Erzsébet and Ferenc were married as planned. This union of two powerful families was much celebrated, and supposedly the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Maximillian II(1527-1576), was invited to attend although he was obliged to send his regrets as the wartime journey would have been too dangerous. The couple was childless for the first ten years of their marriage, but between 1585 and Ferenc's death in 1604 Erzsébet would bear him two daughters and a son who survived infancy. By all accounts she was a good mother.
After her marriage, Erzsébet became the mistress of the Nádasdy castle near Sárvár (pictured above), one of several castles owned by Ferenc. She was left in charge of administrating and protecting these estates during Ferenc's prolonged military campaigns. It was at this time that Erzsébet allegedly began to mercilessly punish the maidservants, sometimes torturing them to death. She would use any mistake or infraction of the rules -- real or imagined -- as a pretext, and sometimes there would be no reason at all. Ferenc's degree of knowledge and his attitude regarding his wife's crimes is not recorded, but most of the speculation suggests that he probably encouraged her in her sadistic pursuits and that he may have joined in himself.
After her husband's death, the Countess' wrongdoings grew worse. After a brief stay at court in Vienna, Erzsébet travelled between her late husband's estates in search of young women to torture for her pleasure. Her accomplices included a sadistic maidservant known as Anna Darvulia (who died in 1609); a tough peasant woman named Dorottya "Dorko" Szentes; Ilona Jó , an old nursemaid; Erszi Majorova, the widow of a tenant farmer; and a dwarf called "Fickó."
Peasant girls were lured to the castle with promises of well-paying jobs, and some girls may have been simply abducted. For years, the Countess' aristocratic rank and her relatives in high offices effectively shielded her from responsibilty for these misdeeds. Peasant families had no real avenue for redress against a noblewoman, although they might turn to their local clergymen. One source I read also suggested that the widowed Countess was careful not to travel through the country without armed guards for she rightly feared the people's retribution.
Investigation and Trial
Between 1602 and 1604, a Lutheran parson named István Magyari complained to the authorities in Vienna, but no actions would be taken for several years. In 1609, the Countess supposedly opened up her home as a gynaeceum for the education of the daughters of lesser nobles . Unlike the peasant girls, any mysterious deaths which occurred among these young women would have been hard to ignore. Thus, in 1610, the King of Hungary (who would later become Holy Roman Emperor), Mathias II (1557-1619), appointed the Lord Palatine of Hungary, Count György Thurzó (1565? - 1616), to investigate the accusations.
Thurzó, who was a relative of Erzsébet's, had probably heard about her alleged proclivities years earlier, but up until that point he had taken no official action (although he may have attempted to have her confined to a convent where she could presumably do no more harm to young girls or to the family reputation). For Mathias, however, there was also an important political motive for going after the Countess: the King of Hungary is said to have owed a substantial debt to the wealthy Faranc's estate, a debt which Erzsébet was rather insistent he pay. Hence, if the Countess were found guilty of the alleged crimes, not only would the debt be extinguished but the crown could also seize her extensive landholdings.
On December 29, 1610, Thurzó led a expedition to search Čachtice Castle where the Countess' most atrocious acts were said to have occurred. They must have uncovered sufficient evidence of foul deeds, for in January of 1611 two public trials were held against the Countess' accomplices in the town of Bytča. The trials were presided over by Royal Supreme Court Judge Theodosious Syrmiensis de Szulo, and the 13 witnesses included the accused (whose confessions were doubtlessly elicted through torture), clergymen, nobles, survivors, victim's family members, and some eye witnesses among the Countess' servants such as the castellan of the Sárvár castle.
As for Erzsébet herself, Count Thurzó employed all his considerable political influence to insure that she never stood trial (despite the king's insistance), so as to spare the Báthory clan from supreme infamy -- not to mention the seizure of her property. Instead, Thurzó had his cousin bricked up in her chamber in Čachtice castle leaving just a narrow slit for food to be passed through. There the Countess remained for over three years until her death on August 21, 1614.
The best evidence regarding the grizzly details of the Countess' alleged crimes comes from the witness testimony recorded during the trials, and this evidence ain't all that great. As stated above, the defendants' confessions were the product of coercion (torture or threatened torture) and much of the remaining witness' testimony was hearsay. For what its worth, the misdeeds most consistently described involved sticking pins into sensitive parts of victims' anatomy (such as the skin beneath their fingernails), starving them, severely beating them (sometimes to death), burning and mutilating them, freezing them to death, and sometimes (when the Countess was bed ridden and unable to harm her victim's in a more vigorous manner) biting off chunks of their flesh.
Among the more lurid (perhaps less likely) accusations: it was said that the Countess would punish girls suspected of stealing by pressing red-hot coins into their flesh, that she (at least once) left a naked girl exposed in the wilderness and smeared with honey so she would be eaten alive by insects, and that she punished a maidservant who would not keep quiet by literally sewing her mouth shut. It was also said that the Countess would have girls laid out naked on the floor of her bedroom and that she would then flagellate them until her own clothes needed changing and cinders were needed to soak up the bucketloads of blood . Another morbid account, supposedly given by a servant, tells how once a 12-year-old girl was caught by Dorko and Ilona Jó as she attempted to flee: she was dragged back to the castle where she was put into a circular cage so small she needed to crouch. The cage was hoisted up by a pulley and suspended from the ceiling. Then a dozen short spikes jutted into the cage. The poor girl attempted to avoid the spikes, but the dwarf Fickó made the cage swing back and forth until she was torn to pieces.
Most accounts put the number of young women murdered by the Countess and her minions at around 60-100. One witness claimed to have seen a journal the Countess kept of all the victims she abused and killed which purportedly numbered +600, but there is no outside evidence this journal ever existed.
To put these stories into some perspective, the value of human life was not held in the highest regard in 17th-century Hungary, when the country was a battleground in the wars raging between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Turks. Enemies captured in battle were frequently mutilated, and it was not uncommon for nobles to punish peasants they deemed guilty of some offense in a heinous manner. For example, I read one source suggesting that one of Erzsébet's uncles, when he was Voivode of Transylvania, had a rebel cooked alive on a red-hot throne and then had his burned flesh forcibly fed to his fellow insurgents. I also read several sources which cited the rumor that, when Erzsébet was a young girl, she watched as a gypsy caught stealing on the family estate was sewn up into the stomach of a dead horse with just his head sticking out and was thus left to die. These tales seem to be just about as well evidenced as the more fanciful accusation's against the Countess herself. Nevertheless, they show that sadistic cruelty was surely not the sole dominion of Erzsébet and her cohorts, even if her crimes were deemed "horrorific" even by contemporary standards.
Given the "unspeakable" nature of acts for which they were accused, it is also ironic to note the fate met by the Countess' accomplices: Dorko and Ilona Jó were condemned as witches and thus their fingers (which had been "dipped in Christian blood") were ripped off before they were burned alive. The dwarf, Fickó, was deemed to be less culpable, so he was merely beheaded before having his body tossed into the flames.
But did she bathe in blood?
So what about the baths in the blood of virgins? These are assuredly pure myth. The bloodbaths are never mentioned in the otherwise explicit trial testimony, and they first appears in a history written by the Jesuit László Turóczi in 1729. Contemporary historian, Radu Florescu, has suggested that this legend has its roots in antiquated notions on gender: people had trouble assigning the masculine vices of sadism and bloodlust to a woman, and so this story was born attributing her crimes to vanity. It is likewise unclear what weight we should give to the testimony, oft repeated during the trials, that Erzsébet was a witch and devil worshipper. It is possible that Erzsébet and her associates were truly devotees/practioners of the occult or that witchcraft provided a backdrop for the indulgence of her twisted appetites. It is also possible that, again, contemporaries would naturally link such wicked deeds, at least when committed by women, to witchcraft and that the embellishments took off from there.
The infamous Čachtice castle (pronounced Chakh-tee-tseh and pictured above), which is located in present-day Slovakia, today lies in ruins as it was destroyed by anti-monarchist rebels in 1708.
Sources/further readings: it is nearly impossible to write a history of Erzsébet Báthory without venturing into the realm of speculation and rumor, particularly if one limits oneself to material available on the web in English. There is a lot of crap out there harping on how the Countess was a lesbian, a vampire and/or a witch with little concern for anything so mundane as facts and evidence. Here's some of what I read:
Wikipedia entry: a fairly restrained account with some footnotes citing sources.
h2g2 article: another restrained, well-reasoned account, although it doesn't cite sources.
Crime library article: a long, lurid account which veers into myth and fiction. It does cite sources but a lot of them are books with titles like "Dracula was a woman."
Mad monarchs article: this is actually a pretty restrained, brief bio which includes a lot of seemingly historical facts and details about Erzsébet's life when she wasn't torturing maidens.
I also found an interesting blog post by a writer/journalist who completed a motor tour of Erzsébet's castles in Central Europe. Too bad the photo links are no longer functioning!
Báthory Erzsébet portrait image taken from http://bathory.org; Báthory coat of arms illustration found on www.madmonarchs.nl ; Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár photo found on www.wikipedia.org and taken by Wolfgang Glock is in the public domain; Čachtice castle photo (c) www.slovakia.com.