Elizabeth Báthory

Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (Hungarian: Báthory Erzsébet; 7 August 1560 – 21 August 1614) was a Hungarian noblewoman and reputed serial killer from the noble family of Báthory, who owned land in the Kingdom of Hungary (now Hungary, Slovakia and Romania).

Báthory has been labeled by Guinness World Records as the most prolific female murderer, though the precise number of her victims is debated. Báthory and four collaborators were accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women between 1590 and 1610. The highest number of victims cited during Báthory’s trial was 650. However, this number comes from the claim by a servant girl named Susannah that Jakab Szilvássy, Báthory’s court official, had seen the figure in one of Báthory’s private books. The book was never revealed, and Szilvássy never mentioned it in his testimony. Despite the evidence against Báthory, her family’s importance kept her from facing execution. She was imprisoned in December 1610 within Castle of Csejte, in Upper Hungary (now Slovakia).

The stories of Báthory’s sadistic serial murders are verified by the testimony of more than 300 witnesses and survivors as well as physical evidence and the presence of horribly mutilated dead, dying and imprisoned girls found at the time of her arrest. Stories describing Báthory’s vampiric tendencies (most famously the tale that she bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth) were generally recorded years after her death, and are considered unreliable. Her story quickly became part of national folklore, and her infamy persists to this day. She is often compared to Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia (on whom the fictional Count Dracula is partly based); some insist she inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), though there is no evidence to support this hypothesis. Nicknames and literary epithets attributed to her include The Blood Countess and Countess Dracula.

Early years

Elizabeth Báthory was born on a family estate in Nyírbátor, Kingdom of Hungary, in 1560 or 1561, and spent her childhood at Ecsed Castle. Her father was Baron George VI Báthory of the Ecsed branch of the family, brother of Andrew Bonaventura Báthory, who had been voivode of Transylvania, while her mother was Baroness Anna Báthory (1539–1570), daughter of Stephen Báthory of Somlyó, another voivode of Transylvania, who was of the Somlyó branch. Through her mother, Elizabeth was the niece of the Hungarian noble Stephen Báthory (1533–1586), the king of Poland and the grand duke of Lithuania of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the prince of Transylvania. Her older brother was Stephen Báthory (1555–1605), who became a judge royal of Hungary.

As a child, Báthory suffered multiple seizures that may have been caused by epilepsy, possibly stemming from the inbreeding of her parents. At the time, symptoms relating to epilepsy were diagnosed as falling sickness and treatments included rubbing blood of a non-sufferer on the lips of an epileptic or giving the epileptic a mix of a non-sufferer’s blood and piece of skull as their episode ended. This has led to speculation that Báthory’s killings during her later life were part of her efforts to cure the illness she had been suffering from since childhood; however, there is no hard evidence supporting the speculation.

As another attempt to explain Báthory’s cruelty later in her life, many sources say that she was trained by her family to be cruel. Stories include a young Báthory witnessing brutal punishments executed by her family’s officers, and being taught by family members involved with Satanism and witchcraft. Again, there is no hard evidence for these claims.

Báthory was raised a Calvinist Protestant. As a young woman, she learned Latin, German, Hungarian, and Greek. Born into a privileged family of nobility, Báthory was endowed with wealth, education, and a stellar social position.

At the age of 13, before her first marriage, Báthory allegedly gave birth to a child. The child, said to have been fathered by a peasant boy, was supposedly given away to a local woman that was trusted by the Báthory family. The woman was paid for her act, and the child was taken to Wallachia. Evidence of this pregnancy came up long after Elizabeth’s death through rumors spread by peasants; therefore, the validity of the rumor is often disputed.

Married life

Báthory was engaged at age 10 to Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of Baron Tamás Nádasdy de Nádasd et Fogarasföld and Orsolya Kanizsay in what was probably a political arrangement within the circles of the aristocracy. As Elizabeth’s social standing was higher than that of her husband, she refused to change her last name, and instead Nádasdy assumed the surname Báthory. The couple married when she was 15 (and he was aged 19) at the palace of Vranov nad Topľou (Varannó in Hungarian) on 8 May 1575. Approximately 4,500 guests were invited to the wedding.

Nádasdy’s wedding gift to Báthory was his household, Castle of Csejte situated in the Little Carpathians near Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčín (in present-day Slovakia). The castle had been bought by his mother in 1569 and given to Nádasdy, who transferred it to Elizabeth during their nuptials, together with the Csejte country house and seventeen adjacent villages.

In 1578, Nádasdy became the chief commander of Hungarian troops, leading them to war against the Ottomans. With her husband away at war, Báthory managed business affairs and the estates. That role usually included responsibility for the Hungarian and Slovak people, even providing medical care.

During the Long War (1593–1606), Báthory was charged with the defense of her husband’s estates, which lay on the route to Vienna. The threat was significant, for the village of Csejte had previously been plundered by the Ottomans while Sárvár, located near the border that divided Royal Hungary and Ottoman-occupied Hungary, was in even greater danger. There were several instances where Báthory intervened on behalf of destitute women, including a woman whose husband was captured by the Ottomans and a woman whose daughter was raped and impregnated.

Báthory’s daughter, Anna Nádasdy, was born in 1585 and was later to become the wife of Nikola VI Zrinski. Báthory’s other known children include Orsolya (Orsika) Nádasdy (1590 – unknown) who would later become the wife of István II Benyó; Katalin (Kata or Katherina) Nádasdy (1594 – unknown); András Nádasdy (1596–1603); and Pál (Paul) Nádasdy (1598–1650), father of Ferenc II Nádasdy. Some chronicles also indicate that the couple had another son, named Miklós Nádasdy, although this cannot be confirmed, and it could be that he was simply a cousin or died young, as he is not named in Báthory’s will from 1610. György Nádasdy is also supposedly a name of one of the deceased Nádasdy infants, but nothing on that can be confirmed. All of Elizabeth’s children were cared for by governesses, as Báthory had been.

Ferenc Nádasdy died on 4 January 1604 at the age of 48. Although the exact nature of the illness which led to his death is unknown, it seems to have started in 1601, and initially caused debilitating pain in his legs. From that time, he never fully recovered, and in 1603 became permanently disabled. He had been married to Báthory for 29 years. Before dying, Nádasdy entrusted his heirs and widow to György Thurzó, who would eventually lead the investigation into Báthory’s crimes.

Accusation

Investigation

Between 1602 and 1604, after rumours of Báthory’s atrocities had spread through the kingdom, Lutheran minister István Magyari made complaints against her, both publicly and at the court in Vienna. The Hungarian authorities took some time to respond to Magyari’s complaints. Finally, in 1610, King Matthias II assigned Thurzó, the Palatine of Hungary, to investigate. Thurzó ordered two notaries to collect evidence in March 1610. In 1610 and 1611, the notaries collected testimony from more than 300 witnesses.

According to the testimonies, Báthory’s initial victims were servant girls aged 10 to 14 years; the daughters of local peasants, many of whom were lured to Csejte by offers of well-paid work as maids; and servants in the castle. Later, Báthory is said to have begun killing daughters of the lesser gentry, who were sent to her gynaeceum by their parents to learn courtly etiquette. Abductions were said to have occurred as well. The atrocities described most consistently included severe beatings; burning or mutilation of hands; biting the flesh off the faces, arms and other body parts; freezing or starving to death. The use of needles was also mentioned by the collaborators in court. There were many suspected forms of torture carried out by Báthory. According to the Budapest City Archives, the girls were burned with hot tongs and then placed in freezing cold water. They were also covered in honey and live ants. Báthory was also suspected of cannibalism.

Some witnesses named relatives who died while at the gynaeceum. Others reported having seen traces of torture on dead bodies, some of which were buried in graveyards, and others in unmarked locations. Two court officials (Benedek Dezső and Jakab Szilvássy) claimed to have personally witnessed the Countess torture and kill young servant girls. According to the testimony of the defendants, Báthory tortured and killed her victims not only at Csejte but also on her properties in Sárvár, Németkeresztúr, Pozsony, Vienna, and elsewhere. It is an important fact, which Szilvásy’s and Deseő’s statement came half year later than the arrest. These two persons were mentioned by the servants during the torture, so it is possible that they were also afraid of the torture, if they don’t give the “right answer.”

Arrest

Thurzó went to Csejte Castle and arrested Báthory along with four of her servants, who were accused of being her accomplices: Dorotya Semtész, Ilona Jó, Katarína Benická, and János Újváry (“Ibis” or Fickó). Thurzó, and the soldiers found an alive “prey” girl in the castle, but there is no document that they asked her what had happened to her. Although it is commonly believed that Báthory was caught in the act of torture, she was having dinner. Initially, Thurzó made the declaration to Báthory’s guests and village people that he had caught her red-handed. However, she was arrested and detained prior to the discovery or presentation of the victims. It seems most likely that the claim of Thurzó discovering Báthory covered in blood has been the embellishment of fictionalized accounts.

Thurzó debated further proceedings with Báthory’s son Paul and two of her sons-in-law. A trial and execution would have caused a public scandal, an influential family which ruled Transylvania would be disgraced, and Elizabeth’s considerable property would have been seized by the crown. Thurzó, along with Paul and her two sons-in-law, originally planned for Báthory to be spirited away to a nunnery, but as accounts of her murder of the daughters of lesser nobility spread, it was agreed that she would be kept under strict house arrest and that further punishment should be avoided.

King Matthias urged Thurzó to bring Báthory to trial and suggested she be sentenced to death, but Thurzó successfully convinced the king that such an act would adversely affect the nobility. Thurzó’s motivation for such an intervention is debated by scholars. It was decided that Matthias would not have to repay his large debt to Báthory.

Trial

Most of the witnesses testified that they had heard the accusations from others. They didn’t see it themselves. The servants confessed under torture, which was not credible in contemporary proceedings either. They were the king witnesses, but they were executed quickly. The murders were based on rumors. There is no document to prove that anyone in the area complained about the Countess. With so many missing girls, there should be at least one correspondence about it. At this age, if someone was hurt or someone even stole a chicken, a complaint letter was made. There was no regular trial, no court hearing against the person of Elizabeth Báthory. Two trials were held in the wake of Báthory’s arrest; the first was held on 2 January 1611 and the second on 7 January 1611.

The exact number of Elizabeth Báthory’s victims is unknown, and even contemporary estimates differ greatly.

Prison and death

On January 25, 1611, Thurzó wrote in a letter to Hungarian King Matthias regarding the capture of the accused Elizabeth Báthory and her confinement in the castle. The palatine also coordinated the steps of the investigation with the political struggle with the Prince of Transylvania. The widow was detained in the castle of Csejte for the rest of her life, where she died at the age of 54. As György Thurzó wrote, Elizabeth Báthory was locked in a bricked room, but according to other sources (written documents from the visit of priests, July 1614), she was able to move freely and unhindered in the castle, so today the bondage could be called house arrest. In the last month, she signed her arrangement, in which she distributed the estates, lands and possessions among her children. On the evening of 20 August 1614, Báthory complained to her bodyguard that her hands were cold, whereupon he replied “It’s nothing, mistress. Just go lie down.” She went to sleep and was found dead the following morning. She was buried in the church of Csejte on 25 November 1614, but according to some sources due to the villagers’ uproar over having the Countess buried in their cemetery, her body was moved to her birth home at Ecsed, where it was interred at the Báthory family crypt. The location of her body today is unknown. The Csejte church or the castle of Csejte do not bear any markings of her possible grave.

Reputation

Several authors such as László Nagy and Dr. Irma Szádeczky-Kardoss have argued that Elizabeth Báthory was a victim of a conspiracy. Nagy argued that the proceedings against Báthory were largely politically motivated, possibly due to her extensive wealth and ownership of large areas of land in Hungary, escalating after the death of her husband. The theory is consistent with Hungarian history at that time, which included religious and political conflicts, especially relating to the wars with the Ottoman Empire, the spread of Protestantism and the extension of Habsburg power over Hungary.

There are counter-arguments made against this theory. The investigation into Báthory’s crimes was sparked by complaints from a Lutheran minister, István Magyari. This does not contribute to the notion of a Catholic/Habsburg plot against the Protestant Báthory, although religious tension is still a possible source of conflict as Báthory was raised Calvinist, not Lutheran. To support Báthory’s innocence, the testimony of around 300 witnesses and the physical evidence collected by the investigators have to be addressed or disputed. That evidence included numerous bodies and dead and dying girls found when the castle was entered by Thurzó. Szádeczky-Kardoss argues the physical evidence was exaggerated and Thurzó misrepresented dead and wounded patients as victims of Báthory, as disgracing her would greatly benefit his political state ambitions.

Folklore and popular culture

The case of Elizabeth Báthory inspired numerous stories during the 18th and 19th centuries. The most common motif of these works was that of the countess bathing in her victims’ blood to retain beauty or youth. This legend appeared in print for the first time in 1729, in the Jesuit scholar László Turóczi’s Tragica Historia, the first written account of the Báthory case. The story came into question in 1817, when the witness accounts (which had surfaced in 1765) were published for the first time. They included no references to blood baths. In his book Hungary and Transylvania, published in 1850, John Paget describes the supposed origins of Báthory’s blood-bathing, although his tale seems to be a fictionalized recitation of oral history from the area. It is difficult to know how accurate his account of events is. Sadistic pleasure is considered a far more plausible motive for Elizabeth Báthory’s crimes.

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