Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween Special Profile: The Blood Countess

The case of Elisabeth Bathory is an ideal one for the Halloween season. Her life story reads like a modern horror novel and, indeed, the lurid tales of the notorious Hungarian countess have been cited as the inspiration for numerous works of fiction intended to terrify. She is known today as one of the most infamous serial killers in history and yet, as with so many figures who have gained such notoriety, it is difficult to separate the facts from the lurid fiction. Are the horror stories about her true? If not, she must be one of the most grossly misrepresented figures in all of history. If, on the other hand, they are, she would justly deserve to be known as one of the most vicious living nightmares known to man. Elizabeth Báthory was born on August 7, 1560 on the family estate in Nyírbátor, Hungary to George Báthory of the Ecsed branch of the family. Her uncle was the former Voivod of Transylvania, Andrew Bonaventura Báthory, and her mother was Anna Báthory whose father was Stephen Báthory of Somlyó, who had also been Voivod of Transylvania and King of Poland. She grew up at Ecsed Castle near the Romanian border and was given a good education, becoming learned in Greek, Latin and German.

On May 8, 1575 Elisabeth was married to a Hungarian count who was often away fighting the Turks, leaving Elisabeth to manage his extensive estates in the Carpathian mountains in his absence. In 1604 he was mortally wounded in battle, leaving Elisabeth completely on her own as she had little to do with the raising of their children. It was during his long absences and after his death that many lurid rumors began to spread about the countess. From very early in life Elisabeth was known as a great beauty with long, lovely hair, shapely figure and she was especially known for her white, spotless, almost shining complexion. As the story goes, she became excessively vain, perverse and increasingly obsessed with the occult, surrounding herself with all sorts of alchemists and other assorted charlatans. She recruited local peasant girls to serve in the castle, which was considered quite an honor as well as a duty. However, more and more of these girls began to go missing and most seemed to be very attractive young virgins, which only fueled the horror stories and speculation about what was going on in the castle.

As the tales go, Elisabeth Bathory had become fanatically obsessed with retaining her youthful beauty she was so proud of. She became convinced that the only way to accomplish this was to regularly bath in the blood of virgin girls. Some accounts said she was even given to vampirism and would drink the blood of the girls from fine, jewel-encrusted cups. All sorts of torture allegedly were carried out by the bad tempered countess in her house of horrors; servant girls slashed with razor blades, whipped to a bloody pulp, burned with red hot pokers, burned with red hot coins for stealing, having their mouth sewed up with needle and thread for talking too much or being tied naked to trees to be devoured by wild animals. Every conceivable horror was talked about to explain the disappearances and the summons of a young girl to the castle was considered as good as a death sentence. Many went in, none ever came out. Eventually, so the stories go, her habit of bathing in blood so depleted the local female population that there were virtually no peasant girls left, which forced the murderous countess to look for victims among the aristocracy.

So, the countess decided to advertise her castle as something of a “finishing school” where aristocrats could send their daughters to learn proper manners, behavior and all the things expected of a high-born, well-to-do young lady. Knowing the venerable name the countess represented, many, especially among the minor gentry, jumped at the chance to send their girls to study in such a famous household. They had no idea what they were in for. Upon entering the castle they entered a world of unimaginable horrors, presided over by the demented countess who would bite off chunks of their flesh, mutilate their bodies in a number of areas as well as presiding over sadistic sexual rituals before bathing in their blood. If even a fraction of the horror stories are true, the castle of the “Blood Countess” was a living nightmare if ever there was one. However, the pedigree of her new victims would be her undoing. Fellow aristocrats were not going to stand idle once it became clear that their daughters, sent to the countess for schooling, were never coming back.

If she had contented herself with tormenting her own people or could have stopped herself once her immediate supply was exhausted she might have escaped all punishment. But, of course, she could not. It was a compulsion, a sadistic depravity born out of vanity. She must maintain her famous beauty and so she must have more virgin girls to kill to fill her tub. To do this, she would have them suspended over it and then slash their throats. Eventually, her victims included some of the most important and powerful families in that part of Hungary and the nobility gathered to take action against the monstrous woman. Alarming reports had even spread to Vienna and so King Matthias sent agents to investigate. Before this was even completed, as more and more stories were collected, each more gruesome than the last, it was decided that the countess would have to go. She was arrested and the King, thoroughly disgusted by the reports that reached him, wanted to put her to death but he was persuaded that this would inflame the nobility who would not want to see one of their own executed no matter what the crime. Instead, Elisabeth Bathory was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of her life. So it was the she spent the rest of her days, walled up inside a few rooms of her castle, screaming and ranting, totally shut off from the outside world with no doors, no windows and only a small opening to pass her food. Under such conditions she lived only another four years before her death on August 21, 1614.

And so Elisabeth Bathory, the “Blood Queen” or the “Countess of Blood” has gone down in popular memory as one of the most terrifying monsters of history. Her story has been the subject of many books, horror novels and even a few slasher films. But is it all a true story? Was she really responsible for torturing to death some 650 girls and some accounts claim? A few have their doubts. For instance, there is evidence that, when she was actually administering her estates, the countess acted with wisdom and even compassion. There is evidence that she championed the cause of poor women and those raped by marauding Turkish soldiers during the war. Much of the reported “hard evidence” for her crimes was also conveniently lost and lately some have even pointed to the possibility of a conspiracy against her. The countess was (officially anyway) a Protestant and thus none too popular with the very Catholic Hapsburg rulers in Vienna. Some now have put forward the theory that the whole story of the vicious “Queen of Blood” was part of a Hapsburg conspiracy to bring down a prominent Protestant noblewoman. If so, the tactic succeeded beyond all expectation. One would hope that humanity could not be capable of such crimes as have been attributed to Countess Elisabeth Bathory and yet, even if she really were the victim of the greatest “smear job” in history, the image of her as a nightmarish monster has become so engrained in popular culture it would be impossible to think she could ever be rehabilitated no matter what evidence ever comes to light. At least one film, made by a Slovakian filmmaker, has tried to tell the story of the countess as the victim of a conspiracy to ruin her by the villainous Palatine of Hungary but, so far, it is the more lurid (if harder to believe) stories of murder and depravity that prevail when the name of Elisabeth Bathory is mentioned.


  1. I read about her decades ago in one of those pop-culture books purporting to be a serious discussion of the origins of the Dracula legend. Hard to believe that someone could be that evil, and yet every year the news had stories of serial killers who did unspeakable things to their victims, so her crimes were not out of the realm of possibility.

    My only question then was why, if this was true, did it take people so long to catch on?

    My question today is why do you have the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi at the top of your post?

  2. "She grew up at Ecsed Castle near the Romanian border [...]" - that is simply not true. First of all, there wasn't even a Romania back then, it came into being in the 19th century, 150 years ago. Second, Romania was much smaller, as Greater Hungary existed, up until the end of WWI. Ecsed - until 1920 - was not even close to the Romanian border, it was closer to Russia.

    This is only the case in today's mutilated Hungary.

  3. Mrs Rudd, I found that portrait in 5 or 6 places labelled as Bathory, didn't look like the others but I figured they knew more than I did. If you can show me a source that says it's someone else I'll take it down.

    PA, probably no one but you would know where the borders of old Hungary were. Modern readers need a modern point of reference.

  4. I may be able to help there, Mad Monarchist:
    The sites that use the portrait as Countess Bathory seem not be the most professional either.
    Unfortunately I don't know what to offer as a replacement.

  5. MM - I don't see an email address anywhere, so just enter "Lucrezia Panciatichi" in your search engine. It is a 1540's painting by Bronzino of a Florentine woman.

    I went through the images to see who started this canard, but of course, no sources given for the artwork. Someone's imagination working overtime again ("Ooo look! That's pretty. Let's call it Elizabeth Bathory! Nobody will know any different.")

  6. I first got to read about her and her story when I was researching a topic for my term paper way back in my university days. I was intrigued and at the same time appalled by her acts, and can't almost believe that one person (and a woman) could be capable of committing such heinous crimes, all for her personal gratification.

  7. Which is one of the biggest reasons I can't bring myself to completely buy the story. The details are so fantastic, so horrific and disgusting that the extremism alone makes me suspect it may have been overblown accusations rather than truth. No one would want to believe that any human being could be capable of the things she's accused of doing.


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