When you say the name ‘Elizabeth Bathory’, a few things probably spring to mind. After all, she’s widely known as the Blood Countess, so you probably imagine a woman in a bath of blood.
Indeed, while researching this post, I encountered a plethora of articles that described Bathory as “the infamous blood countess”, “the self-made vampire”, the countess “who bathed in blood to preserve her beauty”, “history’s only known ‘real’ vampire”, or “the sixteenth-century countess who practiced magic and bathed in the blood of virgins”.
Yet how many of these descriptions, pronounced as though they were fact, are true? Are the legends about Bathory true? Or are they the over-exaggerations of a family hungry to get their hands on the wealth of a powerful woman?
Let’s find out in this week’s post! Click play below to hear the podcast episode of this post.
So who was Elizabeth Bathory?
Now, before we start, at no point is this post an apology for a serial killer, as Bathory is often described. Instead, I’d rather we look at what is documented, and where the legends about her may have come from, since that’s what matters in terms of folklore.
Also known as Báthori Erzsébet, Elizabeth Bathory was born to an incredibly powerful family on August 7, 1560, in Hungary. In fact, this prominent family controlled Transylvania. Her uncle, Stephen Bathory, was king of Poland.
Her family betrothed Bathory to Count Ferencz Nádasdy when she was 11 or 12. While slightly lower down the social order, Nádasdy still came from an influential family. A year or two later, she allegedly gave birth to a child with a lower-order lover. The family hid the baby girl, and Nádasdy reputedly had the lover castrated and then torn apart by dogs (Cavendish 2014). It’s a hint of what is to come.
She and Nádasdy married in 1575 when Bathory was just 14. Bathory kept her surname since she outranked Nádasdy, and he added her surname to his. Bathory ran the estates while her soldier husband was away fighting, and bore him four children between 1585 and 1595.
Some articles claim that Nádasdy knew about Bathory’s murderous inclinations (History.com 2019). Nádasdy apparently taught Bathory a nasty trick called ‘kicking the stars’. It involved soaking a piece of paper in oil, placing it between a servant’s fingers, and setting it on fire. If rumours are believed, he also gave Bathory a pair of gloves with claws to help with punishing the servants (Bartosiewicz 2018: 106). So he didn’t so much know about them as actively encourage them.
A local woman named Anna Darvulia, described as a witch by others, moved into the castle in 1601. Her subjects claimed it was this that caused Bathory’s cruelty to escalate from severe punishment to murder (Bartosiewicz 2018: 107). Bathory and Darvulia apparently got through servant girls at an alarming rate. At first, they tried to blame the deaths on a cholera epidemic, though local clerics became suspicious due to the sheer number of funerals they were asked to perform (Bartosiewicz 2018: 107).
Rumours began to emerge of widescale killings in 1604, after the death of her husband. People whispered that Bathory had a taste for torture and murder. She chose servants or daughters of local peasants as victims, luring them to the castle with promises of work.
Apparently, she drank their blood to preserve her looks. Others claimed she slashed her victims with scissors, burned them with red hot metal items, bit them, and stabbed them. Some starved, others were beaten to death. The claims of her torture get far worse, but you get the idea.
No one did anything. Who could possibly speak out against such a powerful and apparently untouchable noblewoman?
In 1609, claims emerged that she’d also murdered higher-born women. These girls came from nobles families and were sent to Bathory to receive an education.
Finally, people started to listen.
Matthias, king of Hungary, ordered Bathory’s own cousin, György Thurzó, to investigate. He took depositions from those who lived near her estate, which claimed Bathory tortured and killed over 600 girls. Even worse, four of her servants helped her to do so. Other claims put the number of victims as a couple of dozen.
The evidence suggested that Bathory killed the girls for some kind of sexual gratification since they were naked while under torture (Holte 1999: 167). Other witnesses claimed Bathory both drank and bathed in the victims’ blood to stay young (Holte 1999: 167). One apparent ‘defense’ was that the screams of tortured people eased Bathory’s regular migraines (Bartosiewicz 2018: 107). Apparently, her son-in-law even reported that his hunting dogs kept digging up body parts in the castle grounds (Morgans 2014).
The authorities arrested Bathory and her servants on December 30, 1609. Three servants were executed after the trial in 1611. Bathory herself never faced trial, instead being placed under house arrest until she died. The fact she was related to the aristocratic families of Poland, Transylvania, and Hungary probably helped.
It also doesn’t sound like a fun punishment. Bathory was reportedly held in a room with walled-up windows. She died there on August 21, 1614.
There’s always a but…
Richard Pallardy points out that it may not be such a simple story. Documents from the 1611 trial support the accusations. That said, we have to remember Bathory was a powerful woman. She became even more powerful after her husband died and she gained control of his holdings. These were tempting pickings for relatives seeking to grab her lands (2021). I also should point out that while 52 people gave testimonies about the horrible goings-on, none of them actually saw it happen themselves (Bartosiewicz 2018: 110). They merely repeated what they’d heard about.
Tony Thorne explains that the people who testified were those of Nádasdy’s family. They would have been in power were it not for Bathory’s control of his lands (quoted in Morgans 2014). Thorne notes her intelligence after reading her letters, and the tendency for men to try and threaten her.
Pallardy also points out that the family cancelled a large debt that Matthias owed her. They did so because Matthias let them manage her house arrest. The allegations allowed them to plunder her land, so Pallardy suggests the allegations “were politically motivated slander” (2021).
Had Bathory been found guilty, Matthias would have confiscated her vast fortune. Instead, Thurzó struck a deal with Bathory’s children. She would be caught and put under house arrest, thus preventing her from killing anyone else, but also keeping the fortune in the family (Bartosiewicz 2018: 111).
This in itself has a precedent since people have long accused wealthy women of heinous crimes in order to access their property. Even in the Victorian era, men would have their wives declared insane so they could access their wife’s fortune with impunity.
According to Tony Thorne, there’s no concrete evidence that she did commit the crimes and may have been framed. Yet he also wonders why they didn’t accuse her of witchcraft, rather than mass murder, which would have been a more ‘obvious’ claim at the time (quoted in Morgans 2014). There’s a possibility that she wasn’t accused of witchcraft because if she had been, the church would have taken her lands (Bartosiewicz 2018: 119).
Another theory believed Thurzó believed Bathory to be guilty. Having promised Nádasdy he would look after the family, he spared Bathory the stress and pressure of a trial (Bartosiewicz 2018: 119). Remember, Bathory was not allowed to testify at her own trial. Was this because she was mentally unbalanced, or innocent?
Some think we need to take Bathory’s own family history into account. Her parents were both Bathorys since the family consolidated their power by marrying off different branches. Other accounts say that Elizabeth suffered from seizures and fits of rage from an early age, possibly caused by inbreeding (Medical Bag 2014). Aleksandra Bartosiewicz refutes the suggestion that inbreeding in the Bathory family caused her actions since her parents came from branches of the family separated by seven generations (2018: 115).
Bartosiewicz also raises the point that no landowner would kill that many servants, since they’d need ready workers on their estates. Given the number of epidemics sweeping the land at the time, you wouldn’t risk leaving yourself short-staffed (2018: 116).
I read a claim that an uncle taught her Satanism, while an aunt taught her about sadomasochism. The same article claimed Nádasdy built Bathory a torture chamber as a gift (History.com 2019). We have to wonder where evidence for such a claim would come from.
Which takes us onto the main legend.
The main legend about Bathory is that she bathed in the blood of virgins. One apocryphal tale claims a servant girl snagged a knot in Bathory’s hair while brushing it, and Bathory struck her in anger. She apparently struck her so hard the girl bled. Bathory later noticed the skin on her hand where the blood fell seemed more youthful. So began her unusual skincare regime.
But. It’s notable that the stories about bathing in blood only appear 100 years after she died. These didn’t appear in the original witness testimonies and given the extent of these reports, there’s no reason for anyone to have withheld them. Instead, they appear thanks to a Catholic priest who tried to discredit Bathory (Thorne quoted in Morgans 2014). Yet this is what has attached itself to Bathory, a claim so outlandish we can’t possibly believe it to be true.
The legend of her being walled up is also untrue. She was placed into the custody of her guards, though she was still allowed to receive guests (Bartosiewicz 2018: 117). Again, we find it so much easier to believe the unlikely story, because it seems to somehow befit such a gruesome and horrific tale.
Many of the legends were originally passed on orally, turning them into folklore. She was rediscovered by Slovakian nationalists at the beginning of the 20th century as an example of a Hungarian aristocrat oppressing the Slovakian people (Bartosiewicz 2018: 112). As a result, Bartosiewicz notes that Slovakian scholars are unwilling to paint Bathory in a favourable light (2018: 112). Julian Morgans points out that historians only gained access to contemporary records following the end of the USSR in 1989 (2016). Other evidence still remains in the archives, waiting to be explored.
Some of the legends about Elizabeth Bathory have no doubt been twisted or distorted due to fictional retellings. The fact that the legends seem so close to vampire lore has no doubt helped to spread them further. Indeed, it even proves to be a myth that Bathory inspired Dracula. Elizabeth Miller debunks this myth by noting that while Bram Stoker consulted a book that included a section on Bathory, he made no notes from that section (1999: 188). Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1970) purported to be based on Bathory, with Ingrid Pitt forced to bathe in blood to retain her youth and beauty. While a terrible film, it still contributed to Bathory’s apparently bloodthirsty reputation.
So what do we make of it all?
On one hand, it’s entirely possible that Bathory was framed. This is especially possible since none of the testimonies came from actual witnesses. In this approach, the deeds attributed to her became a way to grab her fortune.
Bartosiewicz suggests that the accusations against Bathory twisted her interests in anatomy and healing into something sinister. Darvulia’s talents in surgery and bloodletting also gave rise to over-exaggeration about their actions in the castle (2018: 116). Remember, in the early 17th century, medicine was rudimentary at best. The lancing of a boil or the cutting out of any kind of tumour would be horrendous. Scholars actually examined the death dates of young ladies and found they matched cases of plague and typhus in the area (Bartosiewicz 2018: 117). 8 women died at the castle within a single week in 1610. Yet a letter proves Bathory was in Vienna with her daughter at the time (Bartosiewicz 2018: 117).
On the other hand, it’s also possible that she did do the things she’s accused of doing. Some articles do discuss the idea that when Thurzó arrived, there were bodies and body parts littered all over the castle. If so, then her reputation as one of history’s worst serial killers is entirely deserved.
But one thing is certain. She did not bathe in human blood to appear more youthful. That is a later invention that speaks directly to a presumption that a woman will do anything to stay young.
What do you think? Let me know below!
Bartosiewicz, Aleksandra (2018), ‘Elisabeth Báthory – a true story’, Review of Historical Sciences, 17 (3), pp. 103-122.
Cavendish, James (2014), ‘Death of Countess Elizabeth Bathory’, History Today, 64 (8), https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/death-countess-elizabeth-bathory.
History.com Editors (2021), ‘Hungarian countesses’ torturous escapades are exposed’, History, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bathorys-torturous-escapades-are-exposed.
Holte, James Craig (1999), ‘Not All Fangs Are Phallic: Female Film Vampires’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 10 (2 (38)), pp. 163–173.
Medical Bag (2014), ‘The Legend of Elizabeth Báthory: The Blood Countess’, Medical Bag, https://www.medicalbag.com/home/features/grey-matter/the-legend-of-elizabeth-bathory-the-blood-countess/.
Miller, Elizabeth (1999), ‘Back to the Basics: Re-Examining Stoker’s Sources for “Dracula.”’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 10 (2 (38)), pp. 187–196.
Morgans, Julian (2016), ‘Inside the Ruined Castle of a Medieval Serial Killer’, Vice, https://www.vice.com/en/article/ex9awa/inside-the-ruined-castle-of-medieval-serial-killer-elizabeth-bathory.
Pallardy, Richard (2021), ‘Elizabeth Báthory’, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-Bathory.
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