Did Elizabeth Bathory really torture and murder hundreds of innocent young girls? Or did powerful men fabricate those horrors to seize her wealth?
IN 1602, RUMORS BEGAN TO CIRCULATE around the village of Trenčín, present-day Slovakia: Peasant girls looking for servant work in the Csejte Castle were disappearing.
Many looked to Countess Elizabeth Bathory when attempting to explain the disappearances. Bathory, scion of a powerful Hungarian family and the product of inbreeding between Baron George Bathory and Baroness Anna Bathory, called the castle home. She received it as a wedding gift from her husband, Hungarian war hero Ferenc Nádasdy.
In 1578, Nádasdy became chief commander of the Hungarian army and embarked on a military campaign against the Ottoman empire, leaving his wife in charge of his vast estates and the governing of the local populace. Since then, views that Bathory tortured her servants began to spread. These views would become much more dramatic in 1604, when Bathory’s husband died.
According to witnesses, it was at this time that Bathory began murdering her victims, the first of which were poor girls lured to the castle with the promise of work. Soon enough, witnesses said that Bathory expanded her sights, and started murdering daughters of the gentry sent to Csejte for their education as well as kidnapping girls who would never have come to the castle on their own.
As a wealthy noblewoman, Bathory evaded the law for six years, until Hungarian King Matthias II sent his highest-ranking representative, György Thurzó, to investigate the complaints against her. Thurzó collected evidence from some 300 witnesses who leveled a bevy of truly horrifying charges against the countess.
According to the reports and the stories told long after, Bathory burned her victims with hot irons; beat them to death with clubs; stuck needles under their fingernails; poured ice water over their bodies and left them to freeze to death outside; covered them in honey so that bugs could feast on their exposed skin; sewed their lips together, and bit chunks of flesh off their breasts and faces.
In addition, witnesses said Bathory liked using scissors to torture her victims. She used the instrument to cut off their hands, noses, and genitals. One of her favorite pastimes, witnesses said, was using scissors to slice open the skin between her victims’ fingers.
Even more than those horrific acts of violence, the sometimes-supernatural stories that surround the acts help define Elizabeth Bathory’s terrifying legacy today.
At the time of Thurzó’s investigation, some accused her of cannibalism, while others claimed to have seen her have sex with the devil himself. The most infamous accusation — the one that inspired her infamous nickname, the Blood Countess, as well as the rumors that she was a vampire — alleged that she bathed in the blood of her young victims in an attempt to maintain a youthful appearance.
After hearing the accusations, Thurzó ultimately charged Bathory with the deaths of 80 girls. That said, one witness claimed to have seen a book kept by Bathory herself, where she recorded the names of all of her victims — 650 in total. This diary, however, appears to only be a legend; it has never been found.
When the trial ended, Bathory’s accomplices, one of whom worked as a wet nurse for the countess’ children, were convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Bathory herself was bricked up in her room at Csejte, where she remained under house arrest for four years until her death in 1614.
But Bathory’s case may not have been that cut and dry; in fact, some Hungarian scholars say it may have been motivated more by others’ power and greed than her supposed evil. It turns out that King Matthias II owed Bathory’s late husband, and then her, a sizable debt. Matthias was not inclined to pay that debt, which historians say may have fueled his move to incriminate the countess and deny her the opportunity to defend herself in court.
Likewise, some historians say that witnesses probably provided the incriminating — yet contradictory — testimony under duress, and that the king called for the death penalty before Bathory’s family could intervene on her behalf. This too may have been politically motivated, as the death penalty meant that the king could seize her land.
Perhaps, historians say, the true story of Elizabeth Bathory looks more like this: The countess owned strategically important land that increased her family’s already vast wealth. As an intelligent, powerful woman who ruled without a man at her side, and as a member of a family whose wealth intimidated the king, his court went on a mission to discredit and ruin her.
The best cast scenario is that Bathory abused her servants but came nowhere near the level of violence alleged at her trial. Worst case? She was a bloodsucking demon sent from hell to murder virgins. Both make a for a good story — even if only one of them is actually true.