Bathory, Elizabeth (1560–1614)
Bathory, Elizabeth (1560–1614)
Hungarian countess, influential landowner, and mass-murderer, who tortured and killed perhaps 650 women, thereby becoming one of the horrific legends of Europe. Name variations: Countess Erzsébet Báthory, "The Blood Countess," "Tigress of Csejthe." Born in 1560 into a Hungarian noble family at Castle Ecsed, Transylvania; convicted for murder and imprisoned in Cachtice Castle where she died in 1614; daughter of George andAnna Bathory ; married Count Ferencz Nadasdy; children: one out-of-wedlock (name unknown) and four by marriage, Anna, Ursula, Katherina, and Paul.
The world into which Elizabeth Bathory was born in 1560 was riven by political turbulence and war. The lands known today as Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia were a battleground between the warlords of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Vast armies ravaged the military frontier of Transylvania as Christian king and Muslim sultan vengefully played the various Balkan princes as pawns in a dirty diplomatic game. Plague visited the land with its skeletal grip, and human life was cheap.
Elizabeth's land of Hungary had fallen into a marked state of decline. King Louis II (Lajos II) and nearly all his government and nobility had been massacred by the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Mohacs in 1526. The capital, Budapest, and most of the country, thereafter fell under the Ottoman sway. Feudal lords reasserted local power over those Hungarian areas which had not been conquered and reigned as they willed. The rulers of Transylvania maintained a tenuous independence by siding with the Christian Holy Roman emperor or the Muslim sultan of the Turks as the fortunes of life and war dictated.
The family of Elizabeth Bathory was prominent in the grand events of these times. One of her earliest recorded ancestors, named Wenzelin, had come from German Swabia in the 11th century and had entered the service of King Stephen I the Great of Hungary. By the 14th century, the Bathorys, as the descendants of Wenzelin had become known, were the possessors of tremendous estates and had divided into two familial lines: the Ecsed and Somlyo branches.
Elizabeth was a product of both lines, for her father George was an Ecsed while her mother Anna was a Somlyo. The Bathory family coat-of-arms consisted of three wolf's teeth below a crown encircled by a dragon biting its tail. The Bathorys were rumored to be related to that most infamous personage of the 15th century, Vlad Tepes III of Wallachia, known as Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula.
Elizabeth was born in 1560 at Ecsed Castle where she passed her earliest years. Despite the fact that her family included one cardinal and bishops of the church, judges, governors, sheriffs, two princes of Transylvania, and one king of Poland, her relatives in general hardly can be reckoned to have been a wholesome influence during her childhood. In the words of historian Raymond McNally:
The constant intermarriage among the few Hungarian noble families evidently caused the blood to run a bit thin. One of Elizabeth's uncles was reputedly addicted to rituals and worship in honor of Satan, her aunt Klara … enjoyed torturing servants, and Elizabeth's brother, Stephan, was a drunkard and a lecher. Many members of Elizabeth's family complained in their private letters of symptoms which showed signs of evident epilepsy, madness, and other psychological disturbances.
It was said that Elizabeth herself had epilepsy, though in those days the word epilepsy was used to describe many mental and physical illnesses, and in her youth showed a predilection for torturing animals. She dressed in the clothes of men and played manly games. An intelligent child, Elizabeth was fortunate to be tutored, so that, in time, she would become a highly educated young woman versed in Hungarian, German, and Latin. In those days, an education was a rare commodity even among nobles.
In 1571, at age 11, she was affianced to Count Ferencz Nadasdy who was himself only 16. Ferencz's father Thomas had won the title of Prince Palatine and thereby was empowered to act in Hungary as a viceroy or special governor on behalf of the Holy Roman emperor. This, indeed, was an alliance between two very powerful and wealthy Hungarian families who, additionally, happened to be Protestant in a time of religious reformation, when Catholics and Protestants were engaged in political and even military struggles against each other.
Her betrothal notwithstanding, Elizabeth indulged in amorous games with local peasant boys: by age 14, she was with child. Alarmed by the probability of a scandal, her mother whisked Elizabeth away to a distant Transylvanian castle where the baby, a daughter, was born. A woman who agreed to take care of the unwanted baby was endowed with money and exiled to Wallachia for the duration of Elizabeth's lifetime.
Several months later, in 1575, Countess Elizabeth and Count Ferencz were married at Veranno Castle in one of the most impressive and splashy high-society weddings of the century. Maximilian II Habsburg (the Holy Roman emperor), and other distinguished luminaries attended. Despite the fame of the Nadasdys, Elizabeth insisted on keeping her own name, because the Bathorys were of a more notable and ancient lineage. Ferencz, however, was a rising star. In the words of author Gabriel Ronay, over the next years:
He became the youngest general to command the border fortress defences of southwest Hungary, and gained the high title of Master of the Emperor's Horse. In 1600 Count Nadasdy was appointed the commander-in-chief of Christian forces in Transdanubia, making him the most powerful person in the country.
Between 1575 and 1603, Ferencz conducted war against the Turks, visiting his wife only occasionally during lapses in the fighting. In the beginning, Elizabeth stayed at the Nadasdy seat at Sarvar Castle where she superintended the household and "disciplined" the servants in increasingly creative ways. Elizabeth beat her serving girls with a cudgel, stuck needles into various parts of their anatomies, and threw young women into the snow naked and had water poured on them until they froze to death. This latter act of barbarity was immortalized by Hungarian artist István Csok, who in the 19th century painted a scene of Elizabeth Bathory seated before several female victims, laughing, as accomplices doused her victims with water. The painting resides in the Hungarian State Archives.
The young couple had no children during the first ten years of marriage. Then, in 1585, Anna was born, followed by two more daughters, Ursula and Katherina, over the next several
years. Finally, a son, named Paul, was born to Ferencz and Elizabeth in 1598. According to author William Seabrook, who quotes from one surviving letter written by Elizabeth to Ferencz, Elizabeth had turned to witchcraft in order to induce fertility.
Certainly, the companions with which she had surrounded herself by the late 1500s suggest an unusual preoccupation with the black arts. Among her select coterie was a man, reputedly a sorcerer called Janos Ujvary or, simply, Ficzko ("lad"), three alleged witches with the names ofHelena Jo, Dorothea Szentes , and Anna Darvulia , and two others known as Erzsi Majorova and Katarina Beneczky . This small list, however, is by no means exhaustive, for there were other partners in crime who did not appear in court when Elizabeth was placed on trial in 1611.
By all contemporary accounts, Elizabeth, despite her growing depravity, was an exceptionally beautiful woman. The original likeness of her seems to have been "rediscovered" by Dr. Raymond T. McNally during his research at the small town museum at Cachtice in modern-day Slovakia. This "realistic" portrait, which bears the caption "The Tigress of Csejthe," apparently served as the model for a more idealized copy which once hung in Castle Zay-Ugrocz and which reposes today in the Hungarian State Museum in Budapest.
The "idealized" portrait, which appeared in the book Elizabeth Bathory: The Blood Countess (Eng. translation of title) by German author R.A. von Elsberg in 1904, represents the standard depiction of Elizabeth Bathory. Like the enigmatic Mona Lisa, the portrait may evoke a different visual interpretation from each viewer. R.E.L. Masters and Edward Lea, authors of Sex Crimes in History, noted Elizabeth's:
astonishingly white flesh, almost translucent, through which one could see clearly the delicate blue veins beneath; long shimmering silken hair, black as the plumage of a raven; sensual, scarlet lips; great dark eyes capable of a doelike tenderness, but sometimes igniting into savage anger, and at other times glazing over with the abandoned somnolence of intense sexual passion.
Elizabeth was proud of her pronounced beauty and whiled away hours preparing herself for the coming day. As the years wore on, she became decidedly narcissistic, and woe to the poor handmaiden who failed to please her mistresses' tastes during these morning ablutions, for the unfortunate victim would be stripped and tortured by Elizabeth and her companions.
Elizabeth Bathory wished to remain young and beautiful not only for those brief interludes when her husband returned from the wars but in order to please her growing list of lovers. According to local witnesses, during the early years of her marriage Elizabeth eloped with a mysterious stranger dressed in black with milk-white skin and sharp teeth. Eventually, Elizabeth returned to her husband without the stranger. Gabriel Ronay recorded that in addition to several affairs, Elizabeth was wont to indulge in "sexual horseplay" with one of her manservants, openly, in front of her castle staff.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth's litany of horror knew no natural bounds. Her victims were universally female who were preferably fair-haired, fair-skinned, large-bosomed, and under the age of 18. Girl servants were beaten until they became unrecognizable lumps of congealed flesh, bone, and blood on the stone floor. Molten wax, knives, branding irons, rods and rope were employed in the most gruesome fashion. Paper doused in oil was ignited between the toes and thighs of young women. At least one victim was smeared with honey, tied to a tree, and abandoned to the mercy of forest insects and other interested scavengers. Several were forced to eat their own flesh and those of other victims. Elizabeth herself, when ill, frequently bit and ripped out pieces of the faces and breasts of attendants who displeased her. Whenever her imagination flagged, her cohorts stepped forward to play out fantasies of their own.
During one beating, Elizabeth was spattered by the blood of her victim. While wiping off the blood, she noted that her skin appeared more smooth, more youthful. Subsequently, the belief that blood could renew her youth and beauty became an obsession which led her into even more heinous crimes. New devices of torture were created. For example, an iron cage with spikes fixed inward was hung from a ceiling. Elizabeth and friends would poke and burn a young woman trapped inside who would struggle in torment. The spikes inside the cage caused severe lacerations and consequent bleeding. Positioned underneath, Elizabeth drank and washed in the blood as it rained down. Conversely, the red source of life was caught in a trough and transported to her bath which she began to take, as a ritual, at four o'clock in the morning.
Another device, called an Iron Maiden, was her tour de force. An Iron Maiden was shaped like a coffin with a sculpted face while spikes lined the interior at carefully selected points. Elizabeth's particular model, which had been especially made for her by a German clockmaker, came replete with blonde hair. In this instance, a victim would be placed inside, the door closed (as slowly as Elizabeth desired), and the ensuing river of blood would be collected in a basin, heated, then poured into her bath.
When Elizabeth's husband Ferencz Nadasdy fell ill in 1603 and finally died in January 1604 at age 47, Elizabeth was free to expel from her household the mother-in-law whom she had hated. With her children fully grown, Elizabeth was also free to step up the pace of her activity. As the toll of victims mounted, however, rumors of devilish happenings began to spread. Convenienced with several ancestral holdings, including the impressive castles of Ecsed, Sarvar, Cachtice, and Beckov as well as a townhouse in Vienna, Elizabeth was able to shift her operations and set up torture chambers at will. Her special companions helped establish a far-ranging network of individuals, who, for money and favor, found fresh victims for the countess of blood. The usual come-on, as these procurers ranged about the towns and countryside, was that Countess Bathory was seeking servants and attendants. To impoverished people consigned to the backward hamlets of Transylvania, this offer for their daughters seemed an attractive prospect.
Emboldened by her success in acquiring and in disposing of large numbers of human beings and desperate to combat the effects of aging, Elizabeth began to take chance after chance. Well into her 40s, she found, to her dismay, that neither bathing in blood nor practicing the black arts could turn back the hands of time. Her crony, Darvulia, convinced her mistress that what she now needed was blue blood, from the daughters of the aristocracy.
Her indiscretion and willingness to torture and kill members of the nobility proved her undoing, for the aristocracy had a voice in the high affairs of state. Much of Elizabeth's survival had been due to the fact that her previous victims had been from the peasantry who had no say in government. Peasant claims, and even complaints from minor officials of the church against the powerful Bathorys, would hardly have been countenanced in a court of law. In fact, such claims had gone forward to no avail.
Finally, in 1610, King Matthias II of Hungary, brother of the Holy Roman emperor, ordered the current Prince Palatine, Count George Thurzo, to establish a court of inquiry into the allegations against Elizabeth Bathory. Because Matthias was Roman Catholic while the Bathorys and Count Thurzo were Protestant, the situation was sensitive. Further, Thurzo was Elizabeth's neighbor and had to play carefully with Elizabeth's cousin, Prince Gabor Bathory of Transylvania. Matthias probably acted because stories that had reached him had assumed monstrous and essentially unavoidable proportions. There may have been an additional consideration, however, one based on solid economics. Matthias owed Elizabeth Bathory a considerable sum of money, a sum which, if she were found guilty, would be forfeit to the crown.
As the court sat in the city of Bratislava and collated critical information from hundreds of witnesses throughout autumn, Thurzo became convinced of what he almost certainly must have suspected and even already known, that there was indeed considerable evidence against Elizabeth. Leading a party to her castle residence at Cachtice on the evening of December 29, 1610, in order to place her under house arrest, he began to uncover definite facts. Three of her recent victims and a special torture chamber were found inside.
When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared more beautiful; whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been. Elizabeth, therefore, formed the resolve to bathe her face and her entire body in human blood, so as to enhance her beauty.
—Michael Wagener (1796)
Thurzo moved quickly in order to keep the scandal as tightly under wraps as possible so as to minimize damage to the illustrious Bathory name. Further, he worked with determination to prevent the confiscation of Bathory lands by the king, an endeavor for which he expected to be rewarded by the appreciative family. The speedy show trials set in the town of Bycta on the 2nd and 7th of January 1611 produced a number of witnesses, including four of Elizabeth's principal companions who had been captured with her during Thurzo's raid. Elizabeth herself was not present at the trials but was kept under guard at Cachtice Castle. At these hearings, Helena Jo, Ficzko, Dorothea Szentes and Katarina Beneczky testified with almost incredible honesty, hoping thereby to alleviate their sentences. (Darvulia already had died a natural death.) Testimonies of witchcraft, torture, vampirism, and even cannibalism surfaced, but only the charge of multiple murder officially was entered into the court proceedings.
The accused admitted to a varied number of killings from 37 to 51, but these confessions clearly were on the low side, for no one had been with Elizabeth at all of her infamous torture chambers. Moreover, the Blood Countess had conducted pathological homicide throughout her life and before finding her special friends. One witness, simply described as "the maid Zusanna," claimed to have knowledge of a ledger in Elizabeth's own handwriting listing the death of 650 women.
If the pronouncement of "guilty" was a foregone conclusion, the severity of sentencing was not. In those days a member of the aristocracy convicted of a capital offense was entitled to decapitation, a form of punishment considered more refined than hanging which was reserved for common criminals. Despite their frank confessions, Helena Jo and Dorothea Szentes had their fingers torn out with fiery pincers, then were burned alive. Ficzko was beheaded, his body drained of blood, then thrown into a fire. Katarina escaped the death sentence, but later in the month another of Elizabeth's accomplices, Ersi Majorova, was apprehended and executed.
Under the circumstances, Thurzo secured for Elizabeth an astounding sentence of clemency: henceforth, she was to be imprisoned for life. Workmen soon arrived at Cachtice Castle and walled the Blood Countess into one room, leaving only enough holes for ventilation and one small opening so that food could be passed to her. Next, four gibbets were erected at the four corners of the castle to symbolize that justice had been done. Count Thurzo then secreted the records of the judicial proceedings away to his own castle where they remained until discovered by a cleric, Father Laszlo Turoczy, in the 1720s.
Elizabeth remained confined as an unhappy prisoner protesting her innocence for three-and-a-half years. Finally, on August 21, 1614, one of her guards peered through a hole of her chamber and saw her lying face down on the floor. Countess Elizabeth Bathory had died at the age of 54. She was interred hastily and without ceremony in the crypt of the church in Cachtice village; however, after many local complaints, the body was soon removed to the Bathory family seat at Ecsed. A contemporary Hungarian historian, István Krapinski, recorded that she had died "suddenly and without crucifix and without light."
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