Amongst the many contenders for having inspired Bram Stoker when writing his seminal work, Dracula, few have been afforded as prime a position as has the Hungarian noblewoman, Elizabeth Bathory.
In the early seventeenth century, Bathory was accused of having killed as many as 650 victims. She was convicted of her crimes, spending the remainder of her life under house arrest. But was she guilty of these crimes, or was she the victim herself of an elaborate set-up?
The Early Life of Elizabeth Bathory
Elizabeth Bathory was born on the family estate of Nyirbator in eastern Hungary on the 7th of August 1560. Her father was George VI Bathory, the voivode of Transylvania, the senior government official in this region, approximating to eastern Romania today, but which was then, like Hungary, a constituent part of the broad territories of the Habsburg Archdukes of Austria.
Her mother was Anna Bathory, a woman descended from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s royal family. Thus, Elizabeth was born into one of central Europe’s most important noble families, which owned vast estates across Hungary and Transylvania.
Elizabeth was a sick child. She almost certainly suffered from what we would today quickly diagnose as epilepsy, but which was then defined as an inexplicable illness called ‘the falling sickness.’
This mainly was untreatable, and the only vague treatments involved folk remedies such as rubbing non-sufferers blood on the lips of the person with epilepsy when a seizure occurred. Subsequent writers and analysts have speculated that this supposed ‘treatment’ was the source of Elizabeth’s apparent blood-lust later in her life.
When she was just fifteen years of age, Elizabeth was married to Count Ferenc Nadasdy, a senior Hungarian noble family member himself, but one who was junior to the Bathorys.
As a consequence, Ferenc took Elizabeth’s second name. Thousands of Europe’s aristocratic lineages attended the wedding on the 8th of May, 1575. It was a promising start to a union that would end in complete notoriety.
Elizabeth Bathory’s Marriage
During its early years, Elizabeth and Ferenc’s marriage was relatively uneventful. The young couple settled at the village of Csejte in Hungary, where they had an immense castle and estate. Elizabeth oversaw the estate management, while Ferenc was absent in his role as a military commander.
The Count was a senior military leader in Hungary when the Austro-Hungarian state was perennially at war with the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. Hungary was effectively the bulwark of Christendom against the northward advance of Islam, and Ferenc was central to this.
For many years, he was away from Elizabeth as a result, most prominently during the Long Turkish War, which took place between 1593 and 1606. During the latter conflict, the Count became ill from some unknown disease that left him partially paralyzed and then killed him shortly afterward in 1604.
The charges against Elizabeth began during the Long Turkish War and escalated during her husband’s illness. By the time he died in 1604, rumors were teeming throughout the Habsburg dominions and as far away as the capital in Vienna that dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of young women and girls had disappeared in Csejte at the Bathory castle.
Alarmed, King Mathias II assigned the Palatine of Hungary, Count Thurzo, to investigate in 1610. By the end of the year, he and his aides had collected dozens of statements from supposed witnesses to Elizabeth’s crimes, and this figure rose to over 300 witness statements in 1611.
The evidence collected was extensive and graphic. Bathory had allegedly detained hundreds of women and girls and tortured them, usually to the death, in her castle.
Her methods had included burning irons and needles and starving, beating, and freezing her victims. There were even inferences that she had engaged in cannibalism and both drank and bathed in the blood of her victims.
Those she apparently tortured had been either abducted or were the children of prominent Hungarian nobles and gentry who had sent their daughters to Csejte to learn court etiquette at the Bathory household.
Elizabeth Bathory’s Death
After collecting their evidence, the authorities moved to arrest her. Finally, on the 30th of December 1610, they entered Csejte castle and arrested Bathory, along with several of her senior household servants who had been identified as accomplices to her crimes. In the weeks that followed, the state decided that a trial would be scandalous and must not be allowed to go ahead.
Instead, they decided to place Elizabeth under house arrest for the remainder of her life. Stories that she was confined inside a small room where the only door was bricked up are exactly that; stories. She was confined to her home, but it was a spacious one and not overtly torturous confinement. Unfortunately, it did not last long either. On the night of the 21st of August 1614, she died in her sleep.
Was Elizabeth Bathory Guilty?
The question is, was Bathory, a homicidal torturer? In 1610 and 1611, hundreds of witnesses came forward to attest to the disappearance of perhaps over 600 young women and girls. They provided sensational details of how she had tortured and killed them. But the evidence is less concrete than it first appears.
The identities of most of the victims are unavailable, and the vast majority of the supposed witnesses were providing hearsay evidence of things they had heard about but not witnessed themselves.
Layers of exaggeration were then added to the case. For instance, it was rumored that when the authorities had arrived to Csejte Castle in December 1610 that they had caught Bathory red-handed torturing one of her victims in a blood ritual. The reality was less dramatic. She was having dinner.
So, why the possible conspiracy? There was a possible motive to fabricate an elaborate tale completely. Count Thurzo, who had been placed in charge of the investigation in 1610, and Nikola Zrinski, a relative of Elizabeth’s, had come to an arrangement about three weeks before her arrest whereby they would divide up her vast estate between themselves.
Perhaps they offered many of those who came forward as witnesses incentives. Moreover, all this was occurring while Europe was at the height of its witch-craze, and it is entirely possible that Elizabeth fell prey to another species of female oppression at the time.
The truth is we may never know if Elizabeth Bathory was genuinely a vicious torturer and serial killer who killed hundreds of individuals in the 1590s and 1600s or if she was the victim herself of an elaborate land-grab in early seventeenth-century Hungary.
Read about other famous killers in history like Ed Kemper.
1.) Raymond T. McNally, Dracula was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania (New York, 1983); Tony Thorne, Countess Dracula (London, 1997).
2.) For extensive studies of Bathory, see Kimberly Craft, Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Bathory (London, 2009); Miranda Twiss, The Most Evil Women in History (New York, 2002); Damian McCoy, ‘Scavengers of Human Sorrow: The Lives and Crimes of Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory, 1405–1615’ (MA Diss., California State University, Fullerton, 2015); Richard Pallardy, ‘Elizabeth Báthory’, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition (2009).
3.) Rachel Leigh Bledshaw, ‘No Blood in the Water: The Legal and Gender Conspiracies against Countess Elizabeth Bathory in Historical Context’ (PhD diss., Illinois State University, 2014).
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