Feminist Friday: The Blood Countess: Erszebet Bathory
The Blood Countess: Erszebet Bathory
History is filled with monsters … and the Transylvania countess may be the queen of all of them. What would drive a woman to murder hundreds of innocent girls?
Born in 1560 in Ecsed, Transylvania, Erszebet was born into the powerful and ancient Bathory clan, who could trace their lineage back to the knight Vid Bathory, who slew a dragon with a mace. The Bathorys were one of the oldest families in Transylvania, and numbered King Stephen of Poland among their relatives. Unfortunately, the key to keeping power was to not dole out property and prestige to others, so it was thought that the Bathorys frequently intermarried, resulting in inherited madness and cruelty. Erszebet was thought to be one such victim.
Said to be a beautiful child, Erszebet was also said to be a bit unhinged, prone to violent rages that almost no one could stop. It was also rumored that Erszebet suffered from fits, collapsing and shaking violently; it’s possible that she was epileptic. She was a witness to torture at an early age, and it’s said that she learned how to flagellate prisoners—as well as experiment with sorcery—from her aunt, who was rumored to be a witch.
At eleven years old, Erszebet was engaged to the future Count Ferenc Nadasdy, who was four years older than she. The engagement was seen as ideal; the Nadasdys were wealthy, renowned warriors and the Bathorys were skilled in politics. For once, marrying outside the family could be a boon to them.
Perhaps the set-up wasn’t to Erszebet’s liking; when she was fourteen years old, she allegedly had an affair with a peasant man and became pregnant. Her parents hid Erszebet in the country until she gave birth to a daughter, who was then given to a peasant couple to raise. Once recovered, Erszebet was brought back to her family’s castle where preparations were made for her impending marriage.
At fifteen years old, Erszebet married Ferenc Nadasdy on May 8, 1575, and a banquet was held for 4,500 guests. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II was invited (which should show you what kind of clout the Bathorys had), but politely declined, saying that the roads were too dangerous for him to travel. Instead, he sent a delegation and many expensive gifts, impressing the nobility and ensuring a prosperous future for the young couple. In a move that seems ahead of its time, Nadasdy allowed Erszebet to keep her maiden name, probably more to remind people who he was married to than out of any sense of equality.
Erszebet moved with Nadasdy into Castle Savar, one of his many castles in the Slovakian area, and was delighted to learn that the count also had an interest in the dark arts and enjoyed torturing his servants. One of his favorite methods to punish maids, as he taught Erszebet, was to have their arms bound behind them, their shoes removed, and then to place pieces of oil-soaked papers between their toes and set them alight. In pained panic, the girls would try to kick the flames away; Nadasdy called this “star-kicking,” and used it to entertain his noble guests. He also showed Erszebet how to strip a girl naked, tie her to a tree, and then cover her with honey so that she would be stung by bees, wasps and other insects that were attracted by the smell.
During the early years of their marriage, the Ottoman empire was hellbent on invading Transylvania, and Nadasdy was often away from home, fighting on the front lines. Without her husband there to entertain her, Erszebet became bored, and whiled away her time by renewing her study of black magic. She had her childhood nurse, Ilona Joo, summon alchemists, witches and warlocks, defrocked priests, vampires, werewolves and sadists to her court to tutor her and entertain her. She took on several lovers, and eventually became so enamored of one man (said to be a vampire) that they ran away together and reputedly eloped.
Apparently, marriage to a reanimated corpse wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and Erszebet timidly returned to Count Nadasdy. Instead of being outraged at her betrayal, Nadasdy forgave her and allowed her to return, but on two conditions: she give him an heir, and she be constantly monitored by his mother, Ursula. Relieved by his mercy, Erszebet pledged everlasting loyalty to Nadasdy and shortly after her 26th birthday, gave birth to her first child, a boy. She gave birth at least three more times in rapid succession (though there’s some confusion as to exactly how many children there were total, as well as how many sons and daughters.) Erszebet put her lessons in sorcery aside and was, by all accounts, a loving and devoted mother.
Then everything started to go to hell.
In 1604, Count Nadasdy, “the Black Hero of Hungary,” the high commander of the Hungarian army, was killed in battle, though it was also rumored that he had been stabbed to death by an enraged prostitute after he refused to pay for her services. How Erszebet took the news isn’t recorded, but soon after she renewed her interest in the dark arts and took greater pleasure in beating and torturing her servants. She banished her mother-in-law, who took Erszebet’s children with her when she left.
Widowed, her children taken away, extremely rich, wielding a massive amount of power and connected to some of the most powerful nobles in Europe, Erzsebet saw nothing standing in her way. She moved to Castle Csjethe, a wedding gift from her husband, and made it her permanent home. There she began to slip further into depravity—and fear. She was afraid of death, and, even worse, of losing her beauty that she was so famous for. A story recounts how Erszebet noticed an old woman walking past, and asked one of her current lovers if he would ever kiss something so ugly. The old woman heard the discussion and angrily turned on Erszebet, warning her that one day she would be just as old and decrepit-looking. Erszebet was frightened.
One day a serving girl was brushing forty year old Erszebet’s hair. The countess was already losing her patience with the girl, and when the maid accidentally pulled too hard, Erszebet flew into a rage, spinning around and slapping the maid hard enough to draw blood. The girl’s blood splattered onto Erszebet’s hand, and as the countess began to wipe it away, she noticed something; where the blood had fallen, her skin looked younger, whiter, and was softer. More youthful.
Could the girl’s blood have done that? Did the blood make her skin younger?
Intrigued, Erszebet went to her chief witch and lover Anna Darvula, an imposing woman from one of the local villages, and told her what happened. Anna agreed with her, saying that the blood of a girl—especially a young virgin—had curative properties. If Erszebet bathed in the blood of young women, then she would remain young and beautiful for ever.
Delighted, Erszebet set to work. She released a notice to the countryside saying that she was hiring young girls as serving maids in her castle, and offered a salary that was more than generous. Desperate to get out of their impoverished lives, dozens of girls signed up to work for the countess—only to be herded into the dungeons, where they were kept penned up like animals and fattened (as Erszebet believed that stout girls had healthier blood.) Many of the girls were killed outright and their blood collected, while others were slowly bled, tortured as entertainment for Countess Bathory. Many of the girls were never seen again, and such a large number of dead women and girls were taken from the castle that the local priests like Janos Ponikenasz refused to conduct any more funerals. Erszebet didn’t mind; she just had the bodies buried elsewhere.
From 1604 until 1611, the local villagers lived in terror. They knew something was happening at Castle Csjethe—there were times they could hear screaming—but they didn’t know what was occurring. Eventually girls stopped signing up as maids, so Erszebet sent her nurse Ilona Joo, the witch Dorothea Szentes, and the dwarf manservant Johannes Ujvary, nicknamed Ficzko, into the towns to lure girls away. When that didn’t work, the girls were abducted, carried away in a black carriage pulled by black horses to Castle Csjethe, where they were fattened, slaughtered, and their blood poured into a tub for Erszebet to bathe in. The villagers protested to local nobles and magistrates, but they were ignored; after all, they were peasants and expendable. Who cared what happened to them?
In 1609, Anna Darvula died, and Erszebet hired the witch Erzsi Majarova to replace her. By then Erszebet was convinced that the blood baths were no longer working, and Erzsi assured her that all Erszebet needed was better blood—blood of noblewomen, which was purer than the peasant stock she had been using. Erszebet believed her, and soon sent out notices to lesser noble families that she was opening a school of etiquette for young ladies. Finally, her scheme starts to unravel.
Dozens of young noblewomen arrived at the castle and were immediately locked away. When one family hadn’t heard from their daughter in months, they sent an inquiry to the countess. Erszebet replied that the poor girl had committed suicide, but didn’t elaborate. The shocked family didn’t believe her, and immediately petitioned the Hungarian king Mathias II for an investigation. By then Mathias had heard all the rumors of what was happening at Castle Csjethe, and he ordered the Lord Palatine, Grigori Thurzo, Erszebet’s own cousin, to go and investigate.
On December 30, 1610, Thurzo arrived at Csjethe with soldiers, the provincial governor, local gendarmerie (armed police) and a local priest. They entered through the dungeons, and were beside themselves with horror at what they found there; girls and women dead and dying, bled dry, butchered, burned, beaten, flayed, whipped, frozen to death, locked inside iron maidens, packed in cages. Sickened by what he saw, Thurzo led his retinue up into the main courtroom of the castle, where he found Erszebet in the middle of a sadistic orgy, having just killed another girl.
Thurzo arrested everyone present and freed the surviving girls. He reported back to King Mathias, who then ordered a trial to be held. Three hundred people testified against Countess Bathory, and her diary was discovered with a list of 650 names of girls she had murdered. A court of twenty-five judges found her guilty on 80 counts of murder, but, because she was nobility, she was not sentenced to death (her associates Ilona Joo, Dorothea Szentes and Erzsi Majarova were all tortured and burned alive, while Ficzko was beheaded and burned.) Instead, Erszebet was walled up alive in her bedchambers in Castle Csjethe, allowed only a few slits for air and light and a small opening to slide food through. Her son begged for mercy on her behalf, but he was the only one who had any compassion for the woman now known as the Blood Countess … a woman who was still shockingly youthful at the age of fifty.
Erszebet Bathory lived for four years in her bedroom tomb, never once speaking to any of the guards there. She was found dead on August 21, 1614, but her story lives on in fiction, most notably as an inspiration for the home and the increasingly youthful appearance of a vampire count in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
So ends the story of the most prolific serial murderer in history … or does it? There is one interesting fact that I haven’t mentioned yet ….
Most of the story is untrue.
Erszebet Bathory may not be 100% innocent—it was common and expected at that time for nobles to beat servants and employ torture when needed (as you’ll see), and Erszebet probably did mistreat a number of people in her household, but not nearly to the degree that people claim. In fact, the court records initially stated that she was responsible for the deaths of 35 people, not 650. That figure came a week after her trial had ended, when her diary was allegedly discovered.
At the time she was arrested, Erszebet was a Protestant in an area that was largely Catholic, she held land that was in strategic locations and thus valuable, and she was extremely rich—even more wealthy than King Mathias, whom had borrowed a large loan from Erszebet’s husband and didn’t have any way of paying back. Furthermore, Erszebet had petitioned for a more autonomous Transylvania and her other cousin Gabor wanted to be rid of the weak Mathias and install himself as king. Erszebet could have easily financed Gabor’s campaign, and this terrified Mathias.
Furthermore, there is proof in Grigori Thurzo’s letters to his wife that the plan to arrest Ersebet had been in motion for at least a year prior to him arriving at her castle. Not only that, but Thurzo was in contact with church leaders in the towns and villages near Csjethe, encouraging them to turn their congregation against the countess. After Thurzo stated to the king what was “happening” at the castle, he offered to show evidence, but it took him another 24 hours to find a corpse and a terrified girl. If he had actually seen everything that he had stated, it shouldn’t have taken him that long to produce evidence.
At the trial, it was said that 300 witnesses testified against Erszebet, with 35 appearing daily, all asked the same eleven questions. Nearly all of the witnesses that were arrested in the castle were brutally tortured to obtain a confession, and a person put under that sort of horrific pain would say anything to get it to stop. In fact, court notes show that many of the witnesses didn’t agree on details, and often were vague as to who they were talking about. Erszebet herself was never once examined.
And as for the blood bathing … that detail didn’t emerge until the 1720s, when the Jesuit priest Laszlo Turoczy published his history of Hungary. He stated that Erszebet bathed in tubs filled with blood, but that was never once stated during Erzsebet’s trial. He had collected local lore and presented it as history—he had nothing to back up the claim.
Erzsebet’s diary with the alleged 650 listed victims, along with many court documents, were sealed after her trial and placed in the Hungarian archives, where they are said to remain today. If the diary is ever found and unsealed, maybe then we’ll learn the truth about the Blood Countess.
Erszebet Bathory Works Cited:
Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vampires, Jay Stevenson
The Everything Vampire Book, Barbara Karg et al
The Element Encyclopedia of Vampires, Theresa Chung
The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves and Other Monsters, Rosemary Eileen Guiley
The Vampire Book, J. Gordon Melton
Vampires: Restless Creatures of the Night, Jean Mariony
Vampires: From Dracula to Twilight, Charlotte Monatgue & Hesba Stretton
Weiser Field Guide to Vampires, J.M. Dixon
The Werewolf Book, Brad Steiger
Bad Girls, Jan Stradling
Rejected Princesses, Jason Porath
Uppity Women of Medieval Times, Vicki Leon
Mad Kings & Queens, Alison Rattle et al