“The Blood Countess.” “The Female Dracula.” “The Tigress of Csejte.” All these monikers and multitudes more (although most not so sensational-sounding) have been ascribed to Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed of Hungary.
The 16th- and 17th-century misdeeds of this ignoble noblewoman — who was, indeed, born in Transylvania — seem so fantastically fiendish that could only exist in the realm of fiction. Alas, the Countess’s atrocious indulgences proved all too true. Her crimes came to light on December 26, 1609.
Between 1585 and that moment of her downfall, Báthory is believed to have abducted, jailed, savaged, sexually violated, and ultimately murdered literally hundreds of young female virgins from the area over which her family ruled (it’s now Slovakia).
Most notoriously, Báthory is thought to have bathed in the blood of her victims as part of a ritual that she believed would maintain her own youth and beauty in perpetuity.
Prior to her discovery, the Countess’s reputation grew quickly — and fearsomely — among her subjects. After years of teenaged girls disappearing, the terrified talk and frantic warnings among common people grew too loud to simply ignore. Lutheran minister Istvá Magyari publicly appealed to royalty for something to be done.Still, Hungary’s King Matthias didn’t order an investigation until Báthory’s henchmen had run through the common people and reportedly started plucking off the daughters of the rich and powerful.
Count Gyorgy Thurzo took the case and made haste to Báthory’s residence, Castle Csejte. On the day after Christmas, he and his battalion reportedly burst in on the Countess mid-torture-session and witnessed her subjecting youthful captives to unspeakable agonies. The hammer of justice came down fast.
Thurzo arrested the Countess and a cadre of her cohorts. His soldiers rounded up torture devices, mutilated corpse remains, bones, and other evidence of Báthory’s dastardly doings. The bust resulted in Bathory facing 80 individual charges of murder.
After a trial, the court judged all involved to be guilty. Elizabeth Báthory was sentenced to life in solitary confinement and she was walled up in a room of Castle Csejte. One hole in the bricks provided air, the other was used to slide in food. She lasted three years before expiring.
Although the court could only “prove” 80 killings, some reports list the number of Báthory’s casualties as high as 650. Even the lowest, though, rank deep into three digits.
No matter what the actual tally, the Countess’s crimes immediately became the stuff of nightmares and legends. In cultures low and high, she continues to both repel and fascinate — especially in regard to details that spilled forth both during her trial and after her death.
The infamous blood baths, for which the Countess is most commonly known, have never actually been substantiated. Other accusations — such as her ability to conjure a cloud filled with 90 cats that would torment her enemies — are obvious folklore.
Still, the aspects of Countess Báthory that have come to be regarded as factual are at least as macabrely compelling as the numerous fright films and heavy metal musical tributes that her heinous reign inspired.
For example, an uncle supposedly brought Elizabeth up to worship Satan, while her aunt incestuously schooled her from an early age onward in the dark arts of sadomasochistic sex.
At just age 15, Elizabeth married Count Nadaddy and, as an expression of his love, it was claimed he built her a cutting-edge torture dungeon to her exact specifications.
After her arrest, Countess Báthory’s closest associates and collaborators in the kidnappings and defilement of virgin girls were said to be her nurse, Ilona Joo, and a self-described “witch” named Dorotta Szentes. She also supposedly had a male lover named “Ironhead John.”
Among the specific outrages with which the court did charge Báthory was her practice of forcing girls to cut off and cook their own flesh, usually the buttocks, to be served to guests and other prisoners, and even eaten by the victims themselves. In addition, Báthory was said to cover her nude abductees in honey, after which she left them tied up outdoors to be eaten by insects.
In the end, the records kept of the case are perhaps not the most dependable. Some accounts even list her arrest as having occurred in 1610. So perhaps it’s wise to take some of these accusations with a grain of salt and/or a goblet of (fake) blood. In fact, some scholars attest that all such practices ascribed to Báthory are pure myth.
No matter what, though, Countess Elizabeth Báthory has come to loom as one of the ages’ most notorious monsters — an inhumane intersection where history meets horror and creates an opportunity to meditate upon the vast hideousness that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another. What a bloody legacy.
Main image: Portrait of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, WikiMedia Commons