She’s considered the first “real” female serial killer– one who killed for sadistic, sexual, hedonistic lust instead of political or personal power. She’s been memorialized, sexualized and vampirized since the discovery of her trial records in the 1720s; and has inspired ten bloody horror films, eight black metal band names, and numerous legends and folklores.
An OG female sadomasochist, the Grande dame of serial killers:
Elizabeth Bathory (Hungarian form, Báthory Erzsébet) was born into a well-established aristocratic family in Hungary in 1560. She received a classical education and spoke five languages – Hungarian, Slovak, Greek, Latin, and German. However, not all was well in the world of little Elizabeth as rumors circulated that she suffered from terrible epileptic seizures, and fits and outbursts of rage, as a child. Additionally, her parents were cousins – which, back then, was a common occurrence for aristocratic families but due to what we know now about the results of inbreeding and incest, it is likely that the Bathory family carried a series of heredity illnesses.
Although it would be an exaggeration to say that cruelty ran in the Bathory family, their condoning attitude towards violence may have influenced Elizabeth; as she was born into a world of torture with her corner of Europe being soaked in the blood of countless commoners who had not done the bidding of their nobles. Due to this, Elizabeth observed many traumatizing events during her childhood, including once witnessing a captured thief being sewn into a horse and seeing her father’s officers torture the peasantry that lived near her family’s estate. Additionally, it’s been recorded that her uncle taught her satanism and her (reportedly, bisexual) aunt taught her sadomasochism.
When Elizabeth was ten, she became engaged to fifteen-year-old Count Ferenc Nadasdy, the son of another powerful Hungarian family. As was common during this time, she moved into his family’s palace and began to learn how to run her in-laws’ massive estates. Rumor states that Elizabeth had an affair with a peasant boy during her engagement, which resulted in a pregnancy. She was forced to give the child away, while her fiancée castrated the boy and threw him to a pack of wild dogs. Whether this is true or not, Elizabeth developed a reputation as a woman with a ravenous libido, and Nadasdy became famous for his ‘creative’ cruelty.
Happy Wife, Happy Life
The couple was married when Elizabeth was fourteen. As a wedding present, Nadasdy gifted his bride with a castle that overlooked the small Slovakian village of Cachtice (Csejthe). Shortly into their marriage, Nadasdy left for the Hungarian border to fight off the Ottoman, while Elizabeth moved between their many castles to oversee their lands and keep their numerous household accounts in order. Although they may not have seen much of each other, they reportedly carved out enough time in their schedules to bond over a shared interest of torturing young servant girls.
Nadasdy taught Elizabeth how to roll up a piece of oiled paper, place it between the toes of a disobedient servant, and then set the paper on fire – a fun game he called star kicking. He brought her the clawed glove that she used to slash her servant’s skin. He even once covered a young girl in honey and forced her to stand outside so she would be incessantly stung by insects. He was an inspiration to young, impressionable Elizabeth. However, Nadasdy was not her only partner.
In 1601, a mysterious woman named Anna Darvolya joined their household as Elizabeth’s companion. Darvolya was described by locals as a ‘wild beast in female form’ and was rumored to be a witch. Once Darvolya arrived at the castle, the servants quickly began to see Elizabeth’s personality change, stating that “the Lady became more cruel”.
Elizabeth and Darvolya used a variety of techniques to torment the lesser servants. In the winter, they would take a girl into the snow, pour cold water on her until it turned to ice, and then leave her there to freeze to death. During the spring, they would spread honey on a girl’s naked body then tie her down outside so bees and bugs would eat away at all. They also shoved needles under fingernails, sewed mouths shut, and clubbed girls with razor-sharp weapons until they perished. She allegedly even singed the private parts of a girl with a burning candle.
Additionally, it was noted that the girls chosen for ‘punishment’ seemed to always be the ones with the biggest breasts; and that Elizabeth would bite pieces of flesh from the girls’ necks, shoulders and chest.
Some of the servants that witnessed these crimes, swore that Elizabeth started ingesting the victims’ blood as part of dark rituals. Others claimed that after an exceptionally brutal beating, she discovered the regenerating effects of bodily fluid on the skin and starting bathing in it to stay beautiful for her beloved husband. While these statements were later proved to be untrue (based on the fact that there was no mention of either claims in the trial record), there was plenty of bloodshed within the castle – with the walls literally being spattered with it.
Then, in 1604, Nadasdy died of illness. Again, servants noticed a change in Elizabeth – she was growing more and more violent. And what it appeared to begin as a ‘hobby’ became a full-blown obsession.
Elizabeth reportedly became consumed with torturing and killing young girls. She took permanent residence in Cachtice and began kidnapping the village’s young girls. As before, she didn’t work alone. She formed a ‘torture squad’ consisting of Anna Darvolya, her children’s nurse, Ilona Jo; an old friend of Ilona Jo, who went by Dorka; a washerwoman named Katalin; and a young, disfigured boy known as Ficzko.
“Anywhere she went,” confessed Ilona Jo, “she looked immediately for a place where [we] could torture girls.” A townsman heard from several servant girls that “their mistress could neither eat nor drink if she had not previously seen one of the virgins from amongst her maids killed in a bloody way”.
Dumped bodies were being found in the region – four mutilated corpses were found in a grain silo, several in a canal behind the castle, others in the cornfields and forests. Numerous parents, who had sent their daughters to work at Elizabeth’s castle, lodged official complaints that the countess unsatisfactorily explained their daughters’ disappearances. In fact, reports of the cruel torture deaths of peasant girls in Elizabeth’s employ circulated for decades but were largely ignored; as disciplining one’s servants to death, in the 1600s, was perceived as excessively cruel and impolite but nonetheless, remained an aristocrat’s prerogative.
However, once reports began to come in from other aristocratic families about their daughters’ disappearances while in the care of Elizabeth Bathory – parliament could no longer ignore what was occurring in the small village of Cachtice.
A priest’s diary from the period, with detailed descriptions of events, only provides this short matter-of-fact notation: “1610. 29 December. Elizabeth Bathory was put in the tower behind four walls because in her rage she killed some of her female servants.”
The year before her arrest, some twenty-five young women from declining noble families were invited to stay in Elizabeth’s castle. Most of the aristocratic families were happy to send their children to Elizabeth, hoping the opportunity would somehow raise the prestige of their family. During the young women’s stay, several of the girls disappeared. When concerned parents began to inquire about their children, Elizabeth’s bizarre explanation put everyone on edge.
The countess claimed that one of the girls had been so jealous of her classmates’ jewelry that she murdered every single one of them and then committed suicide. When the family demanded that the body of their daughter be returned, Elizabeth refused, stating that a suicide fatality had to be immediately buried unmarked on unconsecrated ground. She also explained other multiple deaths as being caused by outbreaks of disease and cited the fear of an epidemic panic as the reason for secretly burying the victims.
Reports of missing girls of noble births were investigated by the Hungarian parliament. Throughout 1610, the parliament’s investigators gathered depositions against the countess from numerous witnesses of both noble birth and common rank. During the Christmas holiday, fueled by news that four corpses of young women had been dumped over the castle wall in full view of the village, parliament ordered Elizabeth’s superior Prince George Thurzo to ride to Cachtice, raid the castle, and arrest the countess.
On the evening of December 29, 1610, Elizabeth was celebrating the holiday in her manor house when one of her servants, a young girl named Doricza, was discovered stealing a pear. Enraged, Elizabeth ordered that the girl be taken to the laundry room, stripped naked and tied. Elizabeth and her female servants took turns attempting to beat Dorciza to death with a cub. Elizabeth was reported to be so soaked in blood that she had to change clothes. Dorciza was a strong girl and did not die in the beating, but was eventually stabbed to death, by one of Elizabeth’s female servants, with a pair of scissors. The girl’s body was dragged out and left by a doorway in the courtyard for disposal in the morning.
At almost exactly that same moment, Prince Thurzo’s raiding party arrived at the house. They burst into the courtyard, ordered the female servants to stand aside, and came upon the bloody, still warm body of Doricza. A search of the premises revealed the bodies of two more brutally murdered girls, and a further search of the whole estate uncovered multiple decaying bodies hidden at the bottom of the tower.
Elizabeth Bathory was locked in her castle, while her four servants – Ilona Jo, Dorka, Katalin and Ficzko (Dorvolya had died the year before from a stroke) – were taken away by Prince Thurzo to be questioned and charged for their complicity in the murders. At the end of the interrogations, the servants were charged as Bathory’s accomplices, despite their pleas that they had no choice but to obey the countess’s orders. The four were put on trial three days later, and their testimony was entered as evidence against Elizabeth.
(As was common during those days) the trial only lasted a day. At the end of the trial, the two female servants were sentenced to have their fingers torn away with hot pincers before being thrown alive into a fire. The male servant, because of his youth, was sentenced to decapitation and his body was also thrown into the fire. The fourth defendant was acquitted and vanished from the record.
The case against Elizabeth Bathory was reviewed by a higher court five days later. Elizabeth desperately petitioned the court to make an appearance to defend herself, but her family blocked those attempts.
Prince Thurzo who married into the Bathory family allegedly wrote to Elizabeth’s son and sons-in-law to ask for advice when the palatine initially determined that Elizabeth was guilty – before the raid on her castle was held. They reached a secret decision that Thurzo could investigate the crimes if he promised that Elizabeth would never be brought to trial. Elizabeth could be locked up and her servants could be interrogated, but the family wanted to avoid the spectacle of having the ‘mad countess’ on the stand. Aside from their reputation being stained, if Elizabeth was convicted for murder or witchcraft, all of her wealth and properties would go to the Hungarian crown. This would include a debt from the Hungarian king who had borrowed money from Elizabeth’s husband when he was still living. As his widow, Elizabeth was owed the money; if executed, the crown debt would be canceled instead of being paid out to her surviving family members.
With the family’s preservation in mind, Prince Thurzo utilized his title of Lord Palatine (meaning he had the king’s judicial powers when in a particular region) and staged the trials in his own jurisdiction in such a way that it ensured that Elizabeth’s property and debts remained payable to all surviving relatives. [Launching current theories suggesting that Elizabeth was innocent and actually a victim of a family plot to seize her wealth]
“You, Elizabeth, are like a wild animal… I condemn you, Lady of Cachtice, to lifelong imprisonment in your own castle.”
On January 7th, Prince Thurzo himself, and his raid party, testified before some twenty judges and jurors describing the event of finding the still warm corpse of Doricza. Depositions of thirteen witnesses were heard. It is here that a witness identified as “the maiden Zusanna” testified that a register was discovered in Elizabeth’s drawers listing her victims and that it totaled 650 names – which sounds realistic when considering that this amount is over a thirty-five year period equaling about 19 young women a year.
Despite the crown’s attempt to hold a retrial of the countess and condemn her to death, the agreement between Thurzo and the Bathory family prevailed; and Elizabeth remained imprisoned at Cachtice. Reportedly, when Elizabeth attempted to challenge Thurzo’s authority, he condemned her in front of several of her relatives, stating: “You do not deserve to breathe the air on Earth, nor to see the light of the Lord. You shall disappear from this world and shall never reappear in it again.”
The powerful family immediately sealed the trial records and Elizabeth was walled in alive in her castle apartment. The exterior windows were bricked up with only a few small openings for ventilation and food to give her contact with the outside world.
On August 21, 1614, one of the jailers observed the countess collapsed on the floor, dead. Her family divided her property among themselves, while the details of her crimes and trial vanished from the public record. The indictments, trial transcripts, and judgments were hidden away in closed archives. All mention of her name in Hungary was prohibited for the next one hundred years. Her name forgotten until Jesuit scholar, Father Laszlo Turoczy, discovered the trial records in 1720.
- Elizabeth Bathory. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-Bathory
- Clark, Josh. Was a Hungarian countess the world’s most prolific serial killer. How stuff works.
- Countess Elizabeth Bathory “The Blood Countess”. https://crownchurchandestates.weebly.com/
- Drew, Bettina. Mistress of Terror and Torture. The Washington Post. 1995.
- Bathory’s Torturous escapades exposed. A&E Television Networks. 2009.
- Sherman, Elisabeth. The Disturbing True Story of Elizabeth Bathory, Blood Countess. All that’s Interesting. 2016
- The Lineup Staff. The Blood Reign of Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The Lineup. 2017.
- Telfer, Tori. Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History. 2017.
- Vronsky, Peter. Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters. 2007
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