There are two main schools of thought surrounding the case of Elizabeth Bathory: the “she was a clever, educated women who was a victim of vicious rumors” and “she was a demoness sent from hell who bathed in her victims blood.” With very little historical documentation surviving, and what remains thick with heresay and contrived evidence, the story of Elizabeth Bathory remains shrouded in mystery. (also, it’s quite gruesome, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, don’t read on).
Born in Hungary on 7 August 1560 to noble parents (members of the Bathory family ruled Poland and Transylvania), Elizabeth Bathory was a clever child, educated in politics, science and the arts. She spoke four languages and showed a fondness for astronomy.
According to some scholars, Elizabeth suffered from fits and flights of intense rage. She became pregnant by a peasant at the age of 14, and the family had to take drastic measures to avoid a scandal.
Elizabeth married Nádasdy Ferenc, on 8 May, 1575, when she was 15, at the beautiful palace of Varannó. Elizabeth moved to Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár, where she managed the estates while her husband studied in Vienna and commanded the Hungarian troops. To his new wife, Nádasdy gifted Csejte Castle, in the Little Carpathians, and 17 villages.
Apparently, according to some very tenuous accounts, Elizabeth’s husband also taught her a few great “tricks” including how to freeze a girl to death in winter by pouring cold water over her until it froze and she could not move, or how to torture a girl by covering her in honey and leaving her tied up for bugs to nibble and bees to sting.
Part of Elizabeth’s duties included looking after the peasants and serfs, including providing health care. During the Long War she even organised the defence of her husband’s estates against the Ottoman empire. She aided several destitute women, including women raped and beaten by Ottoman soldiers.
According to some accounts, she was incredibly vain, changing clothes six times a day and spending hours admiring herself in the mirror. She was known throughout the land as a great beauty.
Elizabeth gave birth to six children, four of whom survived past early age. Anna (1585), Katherine (1594) and Paul (1597) and Miklós (unknown). In 1604, Nádasdy died from an injury sustained in battle.
The Crimes, the Rumors, the Blood.From 1602, rumors started spreading about atrocities in the area. It took eight years for the authorities to take these claims seriously, and in 1610 Juraj Thurzo, the Palatine of Hungary and a relative of Elizabeth, sent two notaries to collect evidence.
The notaries took evidence from over 300 witnesses, including commoners, nobility, priests, and members of Elizabeth Bathory’s household. Witnesses say she had started with the torture and murder of the daughters of local peasants, who’d come to the castle to work, but then moved to daughters of the lesser gentry, who came to her gynaeceum to learn courtly etiquette.
When asked of the nature of the torture, Elizabeth’s servant Flicko said:
“They tied the hands and arms very tightly with Viennese cord, they were beaten to death until the whole body was black as charcoal and their skin was rent and torn. One girl suffered more than two hundred blows before dying. Dorko [another accomplice and procurer] cut their fingers one by one with shears and then slit the veins with scissors.”According to witnesses, Elizabeth committed many crimes upon these hapless girls, including:
- severe beatings, administered by Elizabeth herself, who reportedly beat girls about the face “till their bones broke”.
- applying red-hot irons to the soles of girls’ feet.
- mutilation of the face, hands and genitals, including cutting off or splitting open the fingers,
- sexual abuse of the most depraved nature
- placing oily rages between a girls legs and setting them on fire.
- mock “surgury”, including forcing one girl to strip a piece of flesh off her own arm.
- abductions. If girls did not come willingly, they were beaten unconscious and carried to the castle.
- biting off their flesh, sometimes until they died. Witnesses report she would have male servants eat their flesh.
- stabbed with needles and scissors
- freezing to death
- forcing girls into small cages filled with spikes, or tying them up to the walls in the dungeon.
No one knows the exact number of girls Elizabeth tortured and killed. The notoraries listed 80. King Matthias says he knew of 300. One servant speaks of a book containing over 650 names, written by the Countess herself. (supposedly, diaries of Elizabeth Bathory are kept in the state archives at Budapest, but the translation is difficult because of damage, wretched handwriting, old lauguage and horrific content.)
In December 1610 Thuzro arrested Elizabeth, locked her in the castle and arrested four of her servants. When they searched the palace they found one girl dead – her hands burnt and her breasts bitten off, and bones, body parts and personal effects from missing girls. A more thorough investigation threw up more bodies – many with no eyes or arms. They found one girl burned in the fireplace, and more in shallow graves around the castle. Thuzro claimed he “saw no orgies” but, as a relative, he might have been attempting to salvage some dignity.
King Matthias wanted Elizabeth brought to trial, but Thuzro and other family members convinced him against this. Scholars debate his reasons for this: some suggest he realised the negative effect executing a member of such an influential family (who ruled transylvania at the time). Others believe he was under Elizabeth’s spell.
Her servants were not so lucky. The trial in 1611 found all three servants – Dorka, Ilona Jo and Flicka - guilty, and sentanced them to death. Ilona Jo – Elizabeth’s childhood nurse – admitted to killing about 50 girls. She said:
“she had applied red-hot pokers from the fire, shoving them into the mouth of some hapless girl, or up her nose. The mistress herself, she testified, had placed her fingers into the mouth of one girl and pulled hard until the sides split open. She had also stabbed them all over with needles, making them bleed, or had torn open their flesh with sharp pincers. She liked to slit open the skin between their fingers.”Dorka and Ilona had their fingernails ripped out before they were thrown on a fire, and Flicka was beheaded before he joined them on the flames.
Elizabeth was never tried or convicted, and maintained her innocence, claiming the girls had died of various natural causes. In 1610 she was bricked into a suite of small rooms at Csejte Castle, where she lived in solitude until her death in 1614.
Legend has it that when they tore down the wall to retrieve her body, they found a brief document to the effect that before her imprisonment she had invoked a dark ritual to send 99 cats to tear out the hearts of her accusers and judges. The priest, who read it, recalled the many cats they had seen that night when they entered the castle.
Some scholars debate the validity of the case and court records. Many of the testemonies sound invented – like her consort with the devil – and based on heresay and peasant myths. Many would have been drawn from witnesses under torture. Some scholars believe the entire case was a conspiracy theory aimed at deposing the powerful bathory family.
Her family buried her in the church of Csejte, the villagers’ revolted over having “The Tigress of Csejte” buried in their cemetery, so they moved her body to her birth home at Ecsed, where she lies in the Báthory family crypt.
Elizabeth’s story inspired tales of terror from the 17th century to this day. The first account of her case, written in 1744 by a catholic priest, included details of witchcraft, vampirism and occult rituals, because at the time, the Catholic church was “discovering” and executing witches, vampires and warewolves. The legend of her bathing in their blood seems to have been created in the 18th century, as part of a tale warning against vanity. The text (translated) reads:
“Elizabeth was wont to dress well in order to please her husband, and she spent half the day over her toilet. On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in her head-dress, and as a recompense for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spurted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful—whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been. Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty.” Her servants would catch the blood in a tub so that Erzsébet could bathe at the hour of four in the morning. After the bath she appeared more beautiful than before.”