The first thing we have to be aware of when delving into the life, crimes and times of Erzsebet Bathory de Ecsed is that most of what we know was written almost a hundred years after her death. Tales of vampirism, sadism, torture and murder have been weaved so intricately, growing more horrific and depraved over the decades, that the original person of the Countess has become almost hopelessly lost, swallowed by the monster created in the feverish, nightmarish minds of later writers. And yet, it is possible, for those brave enough to attempt it, to cleave a bloody swage through the flesh and bone of this ravenous beast and find the real truth of the woman who spawned a legend, to find the real person who earned the title, “Countess Dracula.”
Erzsebet Bathory has gone down in history as the most prolific female serial killer of all time. Records written at the time of her trial however, and the evidence collected, paint a rather different picture of her. One witness and later writers, allege that she murdered somewhere in the region of six hundred girls in a period spanning ten years. She was in fact accused of killing just eighty at her trial.
On August 7th 1560, Erzsebet was born to one of the most powerful Hungarian families of the time, the Bathory’s, on the family estate at Niyirbator in Hungary. She spent most of her childhood at Ecsed Castle, Ecsed being a title that she would carry through life. She was betrothed to Ferenc Nadasdy, a political match set up by her parents, and on the 8th of May 1575 they were married at little palace of Varanno. It was a modest affair, there just being 4,500 guests there. Immediately after the wedding, Erzsebet, along with her new husband, retired to Nadasdy Castle where she was left alone for long periods while Ferenc studied in Vienna.
As a wedding gift to his new bride, Ferenc gave her his home, Csejte (Cachtice) Castle, along with a large country house and seventeen, surrounding villages, which is where the majority of her work force came from. The castle nestled in the Little Carpathians in Trencin, an area that nearly three hundred years later, would be written extensively about by a little known author, Abraham Stoker in his 1897 novel, “Dracula”.
Ferenc was to leave wife again for long periods, for in 1578 he was promoted to Commander In Chief of the Hungarian forces, in their war against the ever invading Ottomans. While he was absent, it was left to Erzsebet to run and look after the estates and all that they comprised. This included providing for their tenants even up to point of medical care for them.
Erzsebet was a highly educated and gifted woman, fluent in the reading and writing in four different languages. There is also concrete evidence that she truly cared for her tenants. In one case we see her as an intermediary on behalf of a woman whose husband had been taken prisoner by the Turks. In another instance we see her working on behalf of another woman whose daughter had been savagely raped by Turkish soldiers and made pregnant.
In 1585, Erzsebet gave birth to the first of six children, a girl, whom she named Anna. After another daughter, Ursula, she gave birth to her first son, Andrew. Sadly both Ursula and Andrew died at an early age. All her surviving children were passed over to a governess to bring up, just as she had been and as was the custom of that time. In 1604, at the age of 47yrs, her husband, Ferenc died, succumbing to an injury he had sustained in the heat of battle. They had been married for 29yrs. All evidence suggests that Erzsebet had been deeply devoted and in love with her husband and that his death, at so young an age, devastated her.
Some scholars have suggested that it was through boredom that Erzsebet began to abuse her servant girls while others suggest that the death of Ferenc had unhinged her. Personally, I believe that this sadistic streak was already in her and now, with the passing of Ferenc, it was finally let loose. Evidence suggests that the minor tortures and sadistic beatings were already common place but were kept hushed under the strong influence of her husband. With him gone now, Erzsebet was cast adrift, her anchor gone, and on the not too distant horizon, a devastating storm was brewing.
Between the years 1602 and 1604, rumours began to spread about the murderous tantrums of the Countess and they came to the attention of a Lutheran Minister, Istvan Magyari, who took them to the authorities in Vienna. Whether the authorities were reluctant to move against so prominent and powerful a family, who, at the time, ruled Transylvania, or whether they did not quite believe the rumours, it was many years later, in 1610 when they finally acted. The Hungarian King Mathias, appointed a cousin of Erzsebet’s, Count Gyorgy Thurzo, the Hungarian Palatine to investigate the case. Thurzo, in turn, employed two notaries to gather the evidence against Erzsebet, and this they began to do in March of 1610.
But even before the collation of evidence, Thurzo deliberated over a quandary he found himself wrapped in. A trial and inevitable execution would cause great scandal and bring shame upon one of the most powerful families in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, not acting was out of the question as Erzsebet had not only allegedly murdered peasant girls but girls of minor nobility. There was a hair brained and panicky idea to spirit the Countess of to a convent but the murder of the noblewomen demanded some sort of punishment and justice. In the end, together with Erzsebet’s son, Paul, and two of her son-in-laws it was decided to detain the Countess under strict, house arrest for the remainder of her natural life. This suited King Mathias who was heavily in debt to the Bathory family and was without the financial means to honour the it. In return for keeping the whole affair low key, the debt was written off. In 1611, following the trial in which Erzsebet was neither accused or condemned for the murder of the unfortunate girls, she was walled up in her apartments, fed daily through a narrow aperture until her death on August 21st 1614, some three years later. She was 54yrs old.
The actual arrest of the Countess is legendary, with the heroic Count Thurzo storming Castle Csejte with a handful of loyal men. Later writers allege that in the hall they come across a young girl, battered and half drained of her blood. On reaching the Countess’ apartments, they find the lady half drunk on human blood. It is smeared across her lips and the goblet she holds still contains some of the crimson fluid. At her feet lies the dead body of another girl and in the dungeons, they find many other girls in various degrees of dying, some still harnessed to various infernal torture machines of the Countess’ own designs. The reality of course was nothing so dramatic.
Although at first, Mathias had ordered the death penalty, Thurzo was successful in talking the king out of it by stating the damage it would have done to the nobility. Scholars however, have hotly debated his motive ever since.
The Countess was put under immediate house arrest and a trial for her accomplices was called for January 7th 1611, presided over by the Royal Supreme Judge, Theodosius Syrmiensis de Szulo along with twenty other judges. Erzsebet herself did not attend the trial in person. The defendants in the court were Janos Ujvari, known locally as Ficko or Ibis, Dorottya Szentes, also referred to as Dorka, Ilona Jo, and Katarina Benicka. Ficko, Dorka and Ilona Jo were found guilty and executed immediately. Dorka and Ilona Jo were tossed onto a blazing fire alive after first having their finger nails ripped away. Ficko, deemed less guilty than the women, was beheaded first and consigned to the flames afterwards. It was found that Katarina only acted out of fear of the Countess and the others and so was condemned to life in prison.
Between 1610 and the trial in 1611, the notaries collected testimonies from some three hundred witnesses. Among the actual trial records, (translated versions which I have actually read) were the testimonies from the four accused plus those of noblemen, peasants and priests. Other testimonies included were those of the workers and personnel from Sarvar Castle, where some of the atrocities took place. According to these testimonies, Erzsebet’s initial targets were adolescent girls from a peasant background, lured into her service by the promise of well paid work, lodgings and medical care. But there was no amount of medical care that could have helped these unfortunate victims. Later on, she turned her wicked attention to the lesser noblewomen, girls who had been sent Erzsebet’s gynaecium, a sort of finishing school for young ladies, their parents part of her court. She was also said to have abducted victims.
The majority of tortures and crimes that were stated in the court records were based on hearsay. There were however, tortures that were consistently mentioned as listed below.
Severe beatings over long periods of time that led to eventual death.
Freezing to death.
Surgery on victims, more often than not leading to fatalities.
Biting the flesh of faces and other parts of the body.
Burning and other mutilations of the hands, faces and genitalia.
Erzsebet Bathory, like so many psychotic tyrants of the past, was a product of her times. She was no stranger to brutalities. There is a record of an instance in Erzsebet’s childhood when she witnessed her father’s brand of justice on an unruly servant. The man was taken into the castle courtyard at Ecsed and stripped naked. His horse was then slaughtered before him and its chest opened up. Then the man, bound hands and feet, was placed inside the horse with just his head exposed while the animal was sewn back up again. The man was left to a slow and agonising death.
Other records state that a young servant girl once found a penny and instead of declaring it, kept it. When the Countess was informed, she had the maid brought to her private rooms and there, took the penny from her. The Countess then placed the coin in the fire into it glowed red hot, after which she took it out with a pair of tongs and made the servant girl hold it until she passed out with the pain.
Yet other records spoke of the Countesses psychotic rages. Once in one of these tempers she would take a poker or a riding crop to the girls and beat them incessantly until she was near collapse with exhaustion. However, being the sadist she was, Erzsebet did not stop the beatings there. She had one of her cohorts carry on until she was sufficiently rested and able to continue.
Other witness accounts state that a common punishment of the female servants by the Countess took place during the freezing cold and terribly harsh winters of the Carpathians. Here she would have them stripped naked in the castle courtyards and stood in a vat of cold water. She would then watch while her accomplices poured cold water over their heads. In a region where the winter temperatures can fall to minus thirty, this was a brutal and agonising way to die.
In the beginning, the Countess would bury the dead in the churchyards during night time and it was these activities that first began to unnerve the communities and start the rumours. Many times over, the ecclesiastical authorities complained to the monarchy but the grievances went largely unheeded. Erzsebet, having gone unchallenged for so long, became complacent. She would have the bodies of her victims dumped in the nearby countryside and woodlands. There was even instances when she stuffed their corpses beneath beds and floorboards, having them removed only when complaints of their stench was voiced. According to witnesses, Erzsebet murdered indiscriminately at locations all across Hungary, not only at Csejte but at Sarvar, Sopronkerestzur, Bratislava (what was then Pozony in Pressburg) and Vienna. She was also accused of atrocities between these locations too.
A shadowy figure by the name of Anna Darvulia was said to have initially influenced the Countess into her sadistic ways but she died long before the trial opened. It will never be possible to determine the number of unfortunate girls who lost their lives to the brutal and sadistic Countess. Later writers put the number at between 400 and 650 but this clashes greatly with the original court records, testimonies given by the four defendants. During their periods of service to the Countess, Ficko and Szentes put the figure at between 36 and 37. The other two defendants put the number considerably higher, at 50 plus. The personnel at Sarvar put the estimate higher still, between a 100 to 200. One witness at the trial spoke of a diary, written by the Countess herself, who listed the number of girls at 600 plus. Of course, this alleged diary was never produced. It was from this that later writers based their estimates on and which became irrevocably weaved into the legend that became the “Blood Countess”.
Many modern day writers, including Laszlo Nagy, have stated that the Countess was the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy. The theory certainly fits Hungarian history of that time. As in the rest of the European continent and Britain too, there was a great deal of religious conflict. Erzsebet was a Transylvanian Protestant aristocrat, in religious opposition to the Ruling, Catholic Habsburgs of the time. With the onset of the 17th Century, tales of vampires began to emerge from the far reaches of Eastern Europe, a land still relatively unknown by the West. Numerous writers and poets were inspired to write about them and inevitably, the ancient tales of “The Bloody Lady of Cachtice” would become entwined within them. It is from here that the legends of her blood drinking and bathing would come to the fore and haunt the imagination forever more.
In 1729, the legend of the Countess bathing in blood appeared for the first time in the writings of the Jesuit Monk, Laszlo Turoczi in his Tragica Historia. It was the first written account of the Bathory story outside the transcripts of the court hearing. The earlier writings of the Marquis de Sade influenced the feelings toward the Countess and the belief that she committed the crimes out of pure, sadistic pleasure took hold. 1875 saw the publication, for the first time, of the actual witness accounts from the trial which had resurfaced back in 1765. These accounts state that the bathing in blood by the Countess in the endeavour to retain her youth and good looks were nothing but legend. However, some accounts do state that the Countess did indeed shower in the blood of her victims and drew it from the flesh during her biting frenzies. These legends however, continued and persisted, sometimes to denounce female vanity while yet other versions of the tale were designed to horrify and entertain.
My own personal view of Erzsebet Bathory is that she was a sadistic and psychologically twisted individual who drew great pleasure from the torture, beating and murder of the young women in her charge. At a time in history where life was cheap and inconsequential, her crimes were so outrageous that they even drew the attention of hardened commoners and authorities alike. As in all tragedies of this kind, our thoughts should always turn to the victims and their families whose blood spawned one of the bloodiest legends in the world. May they rest forever in the bosom of Christ Jesus. Amen.