Elizabeth Báthory: Mass Murderer or Victim?

Bathory movie poster
A modern portrayal of Bathory.

Elizabeth Báthory is famed as the ‘Blood Countess,’ an Eastern European aristocrat who tortured and murdered over six hundred girls. However, we actually know little about both her and her alleged crimes, and the general trend in modern history has been to conclude that her guilt may well have been overplayed, and that she was, perhaps, the victim of rival nobles who wished to take her lands and cancel their debts to her.

Nevertheless, she remains one of Europe’s most (in)famous criminals and has been adopted by modern vampire folklore.

Early Life

Báthory was born into the Hungarian nobility in 1560. She had powerful connections, as her family had dominated Transylvania and her uncle had ruled Poland. She was relatively well educated, and in 1575 married Count Nádasdy. He was the heir to a rival Hungarian aristocratic family, and was widely viewed as a rising star of the nobility and, later, a leading war hero. Báthory moved to Castle Čachtice and, after some delays, gave birth to several children before Nádasdy died in 1604. His death left Elizabeth the ruler of vast, strategically important estates, whose governance she took on actively and unyieldingly.

Accusations and Imprisonment

In 1610, the Count Palatine of Hungary, Elizabeth’s cousin, began to investigate allegations of cruelty by Elizabeth. A large number of potential witnesses were questioned, and a range of testimonies gathered implicating Bathory in torture and murder.

The Count Palatinate concluded that she had tortured and executed dozens of girls. On December 30th, 1610, Báthory was arrested, and the Count claimed to have caught her in the act. Four of Bathory’s servants were tortured, tried, and three were found guilty and executed in 1611. Meanwhile, Báthory was also declared guilty, on the basis she had been caught red-handed and imprisoned in Castle Čachtice until she died.

There was no official trial, even though the King of Hungary pushed for one, just the collection of several hundred statements. Bathory’s death, in August 1614, came before the reluctant Count Palatine could be forced into organizing a court. This allowed Bathory’s estates to be saved from confiscation by the King of Hungary, thus not tipping the balance of power too much, and allowed the heirs—who petitioned, not for her innocence, but for their lands—to keep the wealth. A substantial debt owed by the King of Hungary to Báthory was waived in return for the family’s right to look after her while in prison.

Murderer or Victim?

It may be that Bathory was a sadistic murderer, or that she was a simply a harsh mistress whose enemies turned against her. It could also be argued that Bathory’s position had become so strong thanks to her wealth and power, and a perceived threat to leaders of Hungary, that she was a problem who had to be removed. The political landscape of Hungary at the time was one of major rivalries, and Elizabeth appears to have supported her nephew Gabor Bathory, ruler of Transylvania and rival to Hungary. The act of accusing a wealthy widow of murder, witchcraft, or sexual impropriety to seize her lands was far from unusual during this period.

Some of the Alleged Crimes

Elizabeth Bathory was accused, in the testimonies gathered by the Count Palatine, of killing between a couple of dozen and over six hundred young women. These were almost all of noble birth and had been sent to the court for learning and advancement. Some of the more repeatable tortures include sticking pins into the girls, tearing at their flesh with heated tongs, dousing/submerging them in freezing water and beating them, often on the soles of their feet. A few of the testimonies claim Elizabeth ate the girls’ flesh. The alleged crimes were claimed to have taken place at Elizabeth’s estates across the region, and sometimes on the journey between them. Corpses were supposed to have been hidden in a variety of places—sometimes getting dug up by nosy dogs—but the most common method of disposal was to have bodies secretly buried in churchyards at night.

Adaptation

Bram Stoker tipped his hat to Vlad Tepes in Dracula, and Elizabeth has also been adopted by modern horror culture as a figure of almost equal ghoulish importance. There is a band named after, she has appeared in many films, and she has become a kind of sister or bride to Vlad himself. She has an action figure (well, at least one), involving blood, perfect for the fireplaces of the morbid. All the while, she might not have done any of this at all. Examples of the more skeptical, historical view are now filtering into common culture. It seemed almost impossible to find the latter when this article was first written, but now a good few years later there is a small current.