Elizabeth Bathory
Photo: Keith Corrigan/Alamy

Elizabeth Bathory Biography

(1560–1614)
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Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory is thought to have murdered hundreds of young women in the early 17th century.

Who Was Elizabeth Bathory?

Countess Elizabeth Bathory, or Erzsébet Báthory, was a wealthy and powerful Hungarian noblewoman whose relations included an uncle who was king of Poland and a nephew who was prince of Transylvania. In 1610 she was accused of gruesome acts of serial murder and confined to her home of Castle Čachtice, where she remained until her death. Bathory is reputed to have killed at least six hundred victims, earning her a Guinness World Record for most prolific female murderer. Her actions resulted in a nickname of the "Blood Countess" and may have been a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, it's possible Bathory was not guilty of all the crimes that have been laid at her feet.

Early Life and Marriage

Bathory was born in Nyírbátor, Hungary, on August 7, 1560. 

At the age of 11, Bathory, who was considered a beautiful and well-educated girl, became engaged to Count Ferenc Nadasdy. Some accounts of her life include her giving birth to an illegitimate child, fathered by another man, before her marriage.

A 15-year-old Bathory married Nadasdy on May 8, 1575. The couple's first child was born 10 years later, in 1585. Bathory gave birth to five children. Two died as infants, but two daughters and a son survived.

As her husband was a soldier who was often off fighting Ottoman Turks, the couple spent most of their marriage apart. However, he may have schooled her in techniques of torture when they were together. After Nadasdy died in January 1604, Bathory took control of her extensive estates.

Crimes

Bathory was accused of a haunting litany of crimes against both female servants and minor noblewomen who'd come to her for training and education. Most of her alleged assaults and murders took place after she was widowed in 1604.

Some of Bathory's victims were covered with honey and left outside for insects to devour. During colder parts of the year young women might be stripped naked and forced into deadly ice baths. Bathory sometimes tortured girls by driving needles into their fingers, cutting their noses or lips or whipping them with stinging nettles. She would bite shoulders and breasts, as well as burning the flesh, including the genitals, of some victims. The intimate nature of Bathory's attacks suggests a sexual motivation, though it's impossible to know with certainty what compelled her to act.

Depictions of Bathory often mention her bathing in the blood of virgin victims in an attempt to recapture her lost youth. However, this depraved action isn't backed up by contemporaneous witness accounts (which otherwise didn't shy away from gore). The first mention of Bathory's blood baths came 100 years after her death and thus seems to be an invention.

Capture

On December 29, 1610, Count György Thurzó, who oversaw judicial matters as the lord palatine of Hungary, arrived at Bathory's Castle Čachtice to investigate the countess' alleged crimes against women of noble birth (any mistreatment of servants was not a concern to authorities). He reportedly surprised Bathory in the middle of tormenting a victim and in response immediately imprisoned her in her home (her high status meant she would not be jailed as a common criminal).

Four of Bathory's servants — three females and one male — were then arrested, questioned, and subjected to torture. Their court proceedings began early in January 1611. These servants denied their culpability in the murders but admitted to burying multiple victims, though the number in their accounts varied between 36 and 51. In addition to shifting blame to their mistress and each other, they also implicated a deceased servant, Darvulia, who'd served as a maid and governess. Two of the women and the male servant were sentenced to death, which was quickly carried out. The fourth was spared immediate execution; what happened to her afterward is unknown. Another woman, who'd supposedly used magic to aid Bathory, was also soon killed.

After these executions Thurzó continued to investigate the countess. One witness stated that Báthory herself had listed 650 victims in her papers, though the number of victims varied in other testimonials and the countess' exact death toll remains unknown. The evidence gathered by Thurzó also included 289 witness statements.

Isolation

As a member of a powerful family, Bathory was not put on trial. Instead, she was isolated — perhaps walled up — in Castle Čachtice, where she remained until her death in 1614.

As she was not convicted of a crime, Bathory's holdings passed to family members instead of being seized.

Innocent or Guilty?

The evidence against Bathory has flaws: Of 289 witness accounts, more than 250 offered either hearsay or no information whatsoever. The testimony that Bathory had listed 650 victims was a secondhand accounting of what a court official had discovered — yet the official who'd supposedly seen this information didn't testify. Many of the witnesses who spoke against Bathory were beholden to Thurzó, who oversaw the entire investigation. And the fact that Bathory's servants were tortured makes their confessions unreliable.

Why might Bathory have been subject to outside machinations? Imprisonment allowed family members to take control of the powerful widow's possessions (her sons-in-law knew beforehand that her arrest was coming). The Habsburg court owed her money they didn't want to pay. And Bathory's support of her nephew Prince Gábor Báthory of Transylvania, who was in conflict with the ruling Habsburgs, potentially placed her in danger.

However, it's unlikely Bathory was completely innocent. In 1602 a priest wrote a letter that discussed the excessive cruelty exhibited by Bathory and her husband towards their servants. The testimony against Bathory could have included true tales about how harshly she acted with lower classes. Such acts weren't illegal at the time — Bathory was only punished because her victims were said to have included noblewomen — but would still make Bathory responsible for many ruined lives.

Death

The body of a 54-year-old Bathory was found on August 21, 1614, in Castle Čachtice (located in present-day Slovakia), where she'd been imprisoned since 1610. She was initially buried in the crypt on her estate, but her body was likely moved afterward.

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