Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess, is one of the most famous of all historical vampires. She is perhaps less well-known only than the infamous Vlad Dracula, known also as Tepes (the Impaler) and he - although noted for his savage and very public methods of execution - was no vampire, but has merely been cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker's fictional Count Dracula. In fact, the historical Dracula is usually best known as a devout, if savage, Christian warrior and noted for his successful enforcement of the law within the Voevodate of Wallachia. Elizabeth Bathory on the other hand is renowned as a torturer, an eater of flesh and a bather in blood, and has been cited by prominent vampirologist Raymond McNally in his book Dracula was a Woman (which is currently out of print) as a closer model for Bram Stoker's creation than Tepes.
Bathory, like Stoker's Dracula, was a Hungarian1 of noble blood, whereas Tepes was Romanian; the Voevod, or Prince, of Wallachia when said title was not in the hands of his brother. Also, although his deeds were bloody, Tepes is never reported to have drunk the blood of his victims, while Elizabeth Bathory is reputed (admittedly with only anecdotal evidence) to have not only drunk but bathed in the blood of young virgin girls. The truth of whether she was a model for the Count will remain known only to Stoker, but certainly in the years since Dracula was published, the Blood Countess has exercised a powerful fascination on many writers and film-makers.
The Birth and Childhood of Elizabeth Bathory
Erzsebet Bathory, known more commonly in the Western world by the anglicised name Elizabeth, was born in 1560, the daughter of Baron George Bathory and Baroness Anna Bathory. George and Anna were both Bathorys by birth; he a member of the Ecsed branch of the family and of the Somlyo. Such inbreeding was not uncommon in the aristocracy of 16th Century Eastern Europe, as the purity of the noble line was seen as paramount.
The Bathory were one of the most powerful Protestant families in Hungary, and numbered warlords, politicians and clerics among its members. Elizabeth's ancestor Stephan Bathory had fought alongside Vlad Dracula in one of his many successful attempts to reclaim the Wallachian throne, and his namesake, Elizabeth's cousin, became Prince of Transylvania in 1571, and was later elected King of Poland. Other members of the family were less respectable however, including Elizabeth's brother (also called Stephan), a noted drunkard and lecher.
Elizabeth was highly-educated for her time, being fluent in Hungarian, Latin and Greek in a time when most Hungarians of noble birth - even men, who generally would have been better schooled than their female kin - were all but illiterate. She is also said to have been a great beauty, although it is unlikely that anyone would have openly said otherwise of the daughter of such a prominent family. At the age of eleven, Elizabeth was engaged to Count Ferenc Nadasdy, a skilled warrior and athlete, but as reported by his own mother's hand, 'no scholar'. He was - by varying reports - five or 15 years Elizabeth's senior. It was Ferenc's mother, Ursula, who arranged this engagement, one which would give considerable prestige to the Nadasdy family.
In seeking to divine the genesis of Elizabeth's sadistic behaviour it has been suggested that she might have been insane from childhood. It is said that the young Elizabeth suffered from seizures accompanied by loss of control and fits of rage, which may have been caused by epilepsy, possibly stemming from inbreeding. She was also able to witness the brutal justice handed down by her family's officers on their estates at Ecsel. One anecdote describes an incident in which a gypsy, accused of theft, was sewn up in the belly of a dying horse with only his head exposed, and left to die. Such tales afford a grisly reminder that her own acts - while excessive even by the standards of the time - were not so very far removed from deeds which would have been considered quite normal.
The Marriage of Elizabeth Bathory and Ferenc Nadasdy
In 1574 Elizabeth fell pregnant by a peasant lover. She was quietly sequestered until the child, a daughter, was born and given to peasant foster parents to be raised. In 1575 she was married to Ferenc in a gala festival to which the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Maximillian II, was invited, sending a delegation and a lavish gift with an apology for his unavoidable absence. His reason was the danger of travelling in turbulent times, and there is little to suggest that he was seeking to avoid either family. Elizabeth retained her maiden name, and Ferenc added it to his own, less distinguished one, becoming Ferenc Bathory-Nadasdy
After her marriage, Elizabeth was established as mistress of the Nadasdy estate around Castle Sarvar. Here the Nadasdys enjoyed a reputation as harsh masters, and while much of Elizabeth's cruelty is doubtless due to her own nature, Ferenc is said to have shown her some of his own favoured ways of punishing his servants. There are also tales of the couple engaging in diabolic rites and patronising various occultists and satanists. It is unusual, although far from unheard of, for retellers of the story to claim that Ferenc was unaware of his wife's perversions.
Elizabeth is reported to have been a good wife in her husband's presence, but Ferenc was a warrior by nature, and frequently absent. To occupy her time she is said to have taken numerous young men as lovers. She even ran away with one of these, but returned after a very short time to her husband. She also spent time visiting her aunt, noted at the time for her open bisexuality, and contemporary reports seem to consider Elizabeth's sexual ambivalence to be an integral part of her overall perversion.
After ten years of marriage Elizabeth finally gave her husband children; three daughters and at last a son, delivered in quick succession from 1585 onwards. By all reports, Elizabeth was an excellent and doting mother.
Elizabeth Bathory's Crimes
It was in her husband's absence that Elizabeth is reputed to have begun torturing young servant girls for her own pleasure, although this may in fact have been a pastime to which Ferenc himself introduced her to. Her accomplices at this time were Helena Jo, her childrens' wet-nurse, Dorothea Szentes, also known as Dorka, a peasant woman of noted physical strength alleged to be a witch, and Johannes Ujvary, also referred to as Ficzko, a manservant sometimes described as a dwarf-like cripple. Among the activities attributed to Elizabeth in this period were beating her maidservants with a barbed lash and a heavy cudgel, and having them dragged naked into the snow and doused with cold water until they froze to death.
In January 1604, Ferenc Nadasdy died of an infected wound, reportedly inflicted by a harlot whom he refused to pay. Elizabeth transferred herself to the royal court at Vienna with almost unseemly haste, and took to spending much time at her castle at Cachtice (pronounced Chakh-teetsay) in north-west Hungary (now Slovakia). Here she took up with Anna Darvula, described as the most active sadist in her entourage, and, like Dorka, alleged to be a witch. Darvula was also said to be Elizabeth's lover. This was the period in which Elizabeth is said to have committed her greatest atrocities, under the guidance of Darvula.
It is also at this time that legend tells us that she discovered, on striking a servant girl who accidentally pulled her hair whilst combing it, that blood appeared to reduce the signs of ageing on her skin. The popular version of events tells how Elizabeth took to bathing in the blood of young girls2, although of the various horrific eye-witness accounts of her crimes, none describe these blood baths.
Elizabeth's proclivities went largely undetected - or at least ignored - until around 1609. In fact the Lord Palatine of Hungary, Count Cuyorgy Thurzo, probably knew of her activities much earlier. He was her cousin however, and to protect the family name took no official action, although he may have tried to have Elizabeth confined to a nunnery. In 1609 however, Darvula died, and Elizabeth seems to have taken up with a new accomplice/lover, the widow of one of her tenant farmers, named Erszi Majorova, and it was perhaps at Erszi's instigation or encouragement that Elizabeth turned her hand against a number of girls from families of noble blood but little wealth.
The Downfall of Elizabeth Bathory
The deaths of peasant girls might be overlooked, but the murder of nobles, even those of such limited means as those Elizabeth selected, could not go unnoticed. The King of Hungary ordered her arrest, and Count Thurzo moved quickly to save the family as much face as possible by affecting her capture on his own terms. On 30 December he led soldiers in a night raid on Castle Cachtice; as it was Christmas, the Hungarian Parliament would not have been in session, allowing the Lord Palatine to act unhindered. This raid supposedly found a dead girl in the hallway, and many other victims dead, dying or awaiting torture in cells. Dorothea, Helena and Ficzko were arrested, along with Katarina Beneczky, a washerwoman newly entered into the Countess' service. Erszi Majorova escaped capture in the raid but was later also arrested. Elizabeth herself was held but not taken away with her associates.
In January 1611 Elizabeth's accomplices were subjected to two hurried show trials, in which they gave evidence, almost certainly extracted under torture, and were convicted of their heinous crimes in a matter of days. In the second trial, another servant named as Zusanna gave evidence of the existence of a register, in her mistress' handwriting, which recorded over 650 victims who had died at the Countess' hands over the years. This evidence was shaky as the register was never actually produced, but it was enough to convict the servants.
Helena Jo and Dorothea Szentes were named as the foremost perpetrators and sentenced, as witches, to have the fingers which had 'dipped in the blood of Christians' torn out with red-hot pincers, and then to be burned alive. As a lesser offender, Ficzko was decapitated before his body was burned alongside the two women. On 24 January, Erszi Majorova was also sentenced and executed. Of those tried, only Katarina Beneczky escaped the death sentence, exonerated by her fellow defendants and also by the testimony of Zusanna.
Elizabeth Bathory was present at neither trial, and was convicted of no crime. However, when she attempted to flee, her cousin had her confined to the castle at Cachtice, although her family stubbornly refused the King's demands that she be tried for her crimes. While he was probably shocked by the extent of the Countess' deeds, the King's desire for justice was almost certainly in part due to a large debt incurred against Ferenc in his lifetime. Elizabeth's conviction would have allowed the King to not only write off that debt, but also to seize the Nadasdy lands, and those held by Elizabeth as a Bathory. Consequently, the Bathorys must have brought all of their considerable influence to bear to keep that from happening.
From the Horse's Mouth - Testimony of Elizabeth Bathory's Crimes
The following are examples of the testimony of the servants recorded at the trial of Elizabeth's accomplices.
... a 12-year-old girl named Pola somehow managed to escape from the castle. But Dorka, aided by Helena Jo, caught the frightened girl by surprise and brought her forcibly back to Cachtice Castle. Clad only in a long white robe, Countess Elizabeth greeted the girl upon her return. The countess was in another of her rages. She advanced on the 12-year-old child and forced her into a kind of cage. This particular cage was built like a huge ball, too narrow to sit in, too low to stand in. Once the girl was inside, the cage was suddenly hauled up by a pulley and dozens of short spikes jutted into the cage. Pola tried to avoid being caught on the spikes, but Ficzko manoeuvered the ropes so that the cage shifted from side to side. Pola's flesh was torn to pieces.
One accomplice testified that on some days Elizabeth had stark-naked girls laid flat on the floor of her bedroom and tortured them so much that one could scoop up the blood by the pailful afterwards, and so Elizabeth had her servants bring up cinders in order to cover the pools of blood. A young maid-servant who did not endure the tortures well and died very quickly was written out by the countess in her diary with the laconic comment 'She was too small...'
At one point in her life Elizabeth Bathory was so sick that she could not move from her bed and could not find the strength to torture her miscreant servant girls... She demanded that one of her female servants be brought before her. Dorothea Szentes, a burly, strong peasant woman, dragged one of Elizabeth's girls to her bedside and held her there. Elizabeth rose up on her bed, and, like a bulldog, the Countess opened her mouth and bit the girl first on the cheek. Then she went for the girl's shoulders where she ripped out a piece of flesh with her teeth. After that, Elizabeth proceeded to bite the girl's breasts.
- From Dracula was a Woman McNally, R
The Fate Of Elizabeth Bathory
Although she was never convicted of any crime, Elizabeth Bathory's family declared her a menace to their name, and she was walled up within her bed chamber, with only small slits for ventilation and the passing of food left open. After three years, a guard looking through one of the slots saw the infamous Blood Countess lying face down on the floor of her chamber, dead.
Elizabeth died in Castle Cachtice on 21 August, 1614. The bulk of her estate was divided, according to her will, between her children. She was taken from the castle and buried at her birthplace at Ecsed. She was to have been buried at Cachtice, but the local populace would not hear of such a woman being interred in their parish, let alone on consecrated ground. While the views of the peasantry would have been of little matter, it would perhaps be feared that Elizabeth's grave would be desecrated, bringing further insult upon the family name.
Truth and Fiction
As noted above, the most common story of Elizabeth Bathory's reign of terror - that of the blood bath - is unsupported by the evidence of any of the witnesses3. Moreover, the nature of the trial renders suspect all of the evidence given there, as said evidence was largely extracted under torture or threat of torture, and was probably 'tuned' to create the most vivid impression. However, the story of the Blood Countess has been seized upon by many writers and film-makers, for whom the heady mixture of Elizabeth's beauty, sophistication, extreme cruelty and bisexuality have formed the basis for many a prurient retelling.
It has become difficult to distinguish the facts from the fiction in the case of Countess Elizabeth Bathory-Nadasdy, in spite of - or perhaps because of - the wealth of documentary evidence in the case as many of the original trial records survive in Hungary to this day. After the blood baths, the most frequent embellishment is the playing up of her involvement with the occult, ranging from the simple presence of her supposed witches, through tales of the infernal rites she enacted in the company of her husband, to accounts of her maintaining a court filled with alchemists, sorcerers and satanists of every stripe as advisers. A similarly occult element brings in claims of the Countess' insistence on virgin victims. Such a stipulation is not attested to in the direct evidence, although prudence would probably have meant that most of the victims were at least unmarried. She herself is variously accused of witchcraft, vampirism and lycanthropy.
As always with historical characters and historical atrocities, the great risk in these retellings is that the brutal murders of Elizabeth Bathory's victims should become just a piece of background, their role as faceless victims cemented forever. This risk is exacerbated by the 'bad-girl glamour' which invariably accompanies Elizabeth's portrayal. As modern day serial killers become twisted folk heroes and objects of adoration, so Elizabeth Bathory's fascination pervades these stories, turning a cruel and twisted woman into an intensely sensual, sexual, almost romantic figure.
Conclusions and a Note on the Material
In researching this entry, the Researcher made an early decision to disregard any and all material which opened its description with either of the phrases: 'Elizabeth Bathory was a lesbian', or 'Although Elizabeth Bathory was not a lesbian'. It is the Researcher's feeling that the nature of Elizabeth Bathory's crimes should not be attributed to her sexual orientation but rather to a deep personal dysfunction. To dwell upon sexuality as a formative factor is not merely crass, but also perpetuates Elizabeth Bathory's sexual glamour. Her actions were in part an expression of tremendous sadism, and in part no more than an extension of the contemporary attitude towards the value of human life - especially that of people with no social standing; it was after all only when she began killing noble girls that Elizabeth's crimes caught up with her.
As for the claims that Elizabeth was afflicted by madness in the form of epileptic fits and violent spells, while this might explain, but certainly not excuse, some of her deeds, others remain as testaments to a far more calculating cruelty. Many of her reported crimes involved long, drawn-out tortures, not acts of sudden violence. She is also reported to have disposed of two of her castles in order to finance her 'pastime', also not actions reconcilable with anything so simple as a savage and bloody temper.
Of course, any conclusion drawn at this time would be merely speculative, and certainly to claim any single root to Elizabeth Bathory's insanity would be trivialising the nature of madness to the level of soap opera analysis. While it is beyond doubt that by modern standards Elizabeth Bathory was quite insane, it would seem to have been a deep-seated and complex madness rather than a periodic imbalance. While the confiscation of her first child can not have failed to affect her, it seems unlikely that it would have by itself created the creature described in the trial reports.
Ultimately, we can never really know the causes and motivations of Elizabeth Bathory's actions. We can only look back on the case of the Blood Countess, and wonder at the brutal culture and the extraordinary circumstances that might have created such a monster among monsters.
1 At the time Transylvania was in Hungary.
2 Only at a much later date did the stipulation that her victims be virgins appear.
3 The closest any comes are descriptions of the Countess biting her victims, and of being so soaked in blood in pursuit of her pleasures that she had to wash and change her clothes.