When you think of serial killers most would automatically think of Bundy, Gacey, or even Jack the Ripper. Would you believe that a woman with a supposed body count of up to 650 young woman would be one of those at the top of that list? But was she really a murderess or simply the victim of a conspiracy for power?
Little is known about her early life because most of those records have been destroyed. What we do know is that Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Báthory was born on a family estate in Nyírbátor, Hungary, in 1560-1561, and she spent most of her childhood at Ecsed Castle. Her father was George Báthory of the Ecsed branch of the family, brother of Andrew Bonaventura Báthory, who had been Voivod of Transylvania, while her mother was Anna Báthory, daughter of Stephen Báthory of Somlyó, another Voivod of Transylvania, who was of the Somlyó branch. She was well educated (she knew Latin, German and Greek). On May 8, 1575 she married Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of Baron Tamás Nádasdy de Nádasd et Fogarasföld and his wife, Orsolya Kanizsay. She moved to Castle Čachtice and, after some delays, gave birth to several children before Nádasdy died in 1604 (29 years of marriage). His death left Elizabeth the ruler of vast, strategically important estates, whose governance she took on wholeheartedly.
It could be thought that Bathory’s position had become so strong that she was a threat to leaders of Hungary, and needed to be dealt with accordingly. Also, she was a known supporter of her nephew Gabor Báthory, ruler of Transylvania and rival to Hungary. The act of accusing a wealthy widow of murder, witchcraft or sexual impropriety to seize her lands was far from unusual during this time. Bathory has since become synonymous with vampire. Allegedly, when realising her looks were fading, she kidnapped and sacrificed many young maidens from the surrounding villages, drinking and bathing in their blood in order to absorb their essence and achieve eternal youth and beauty. Legend has it that up to 650 bodies were recovered from the moat of her castle. So the story goes, Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess of Transylvania, was then bricked alive into the walls of her castle and left to die. The true story is far less exotic.
King Matthias II assigned George Thurzó Palatine of Hungary to investigate Báthory after several complaints were made against her. After Thurzó had two notaries collect evidence and testimony from more than 300 witnesses he went to Csejte Castle and arrested Báthory and four of her servants, who were accused of being her accomplices: Dorotya Semtész, Ilona Jó, Katarína Benická, and János Újváry (“Ibis” or Fickó). Thurzó’s men reportedly found one girl dead and one dying and reported that another woman was found wounded while others were locked up. The countess was put under house arrest. Báthory was supposedly caught in the act of torture (there is little to no evidence to support this). Three of the defendants – Semtész, Jó and Ficko – were condemned to death and their sentences carried out immediately. Before being burned at the stake, Semtész and Jó had their fingers ripped off their hands with hot pincers. Ficko, who was deemed less culpable, was beheaded, and his body burned. Benická was sentenced to life imprisonment, since testimony indicated that she was dominated and bullied by the other women. Following the trial, a red gallows was erected near the castle to show the public that justice had been done. It is assumed that most of the charges against her were confirmed by the torture of the people closest to her.
Thurzó debated further proceedings with Elizabeth’s son Paul and two of her sons-in-law. A trial and execution would have caused a public scandal and disgraced a noble and influential family (which at the time ruled Transylvania), and Elizabeth’s considerable property would have been seized by the crown. Thurzó, along with Paul and her two sons-in-law, originally planned for Elizabeth to be spirited away to a nunnery, but as accounts of her murder of the daughters of lesser nobility spread, it was agreed that Elizabeth Báthory should be kept under strict house arrest and that further punishment should be avoided. King Matthias urged Thurzó to bring Elizabeth to trial and suggested she be sentenced to death, but Thurzó successfully convinced the king that such an act would negatively affect the nobility. Thurzó’s motivation for such an intervention is debated by scholars. It was determined that Matthias would not have to repay his large debt to Elizabeth.
There were so many charges piled up on Elizabeth, amongst them were allegations that she:
•Kept her servants chained up every night so tight their hands turned blue and they spurted blood.
•Beat them to the point where there was so much blood on the walls and beds that they had to use ashes and cinders to soak it up.
•Strangled a servant to death with a silk scarf
•Burned her servants with metal sticks, red-hot keys, and coins
•Stabbed them, pricked them in their mouths and fingernails with needles, and cut their hands, lips, and noses with scissors.
•Stitched their lips and tongues together.
•Made servants sit on stinging nettles, then bathe with said stinging nettles.
•Have them stand in tubs of ice water up to their necks outside until they died.
•Smeared a naked girl with honey and left her outside to be bitten by ants, wasps, bees, and flies.
•Heated up a cake to red-hot temperatures and made a servant eat it.
•Cast a magic spell to summon a cloud filled with ninety cats to torment her enemies.
•Buried them in gardens, grain pits, orchards, and occasionally cemeteries.
The bathing in people’s blood seems to be just a made up story (like the majority of the charges) as is the supposed exact number of Báthory’s victims (if she did kill anyone at all). During the trial, Szentes and Ficko reported 36 and 37 victims, during their periods of service. The other defendants estimated a number of 50 or higher. Many Sárvár castle personnel estimated the number of bodies removed from the castle at between 100 and 200. One witness, a woman named Susannah, who spoke at the trial mentioned a book in which Báthory supposedly kept a list of a total of over 650 victims, and this number seems to have stuck. As the number of 650 could not be proven, the official count remained at 80. It would appear that Elizabeth Bathory, far from being an immortal creature of the night, draining the blood of young virgins, was in fact the victim of a plot to relieve her of her estates and wealth.
Báthory was imprisoned in Čachtice Castle and placed in solitary confinement. She was kept bricked in a set of rooms, with only small slits left open for ventilation and the passing of food. She remained there for four years, until her death. On 21 August 1614 in the evening her Ladyship complained to her bodyguard that her hands were cold, whereupon he replied “It’s nothing Mistress. Just go lie down.” She went to sleep and was found dead the following morning. She was buried in the church of Čachtice on 25 November, but according to some sources due to the villagers’ uproar over having “The Tigress of Čachtice” buried in their cemetery, her body was moved to her birth home at Ecsed, where it was interred at the Báthory family crypt. The location of her body has since been lost to history. Reportedly, the location of the diaries is unknown but there are 32 of her letters stored in the Hungarian state archives in Budapest.
Phoebe and Adela