Elizabeth Báthory: The West's Most Legendary Serial Killer
One of the most prolific alleged serial killers who's ever lived, Elizabeth Báthory, had the perks of timing and aristocracy on her side. This Hungarian noblewoman is believed to have used her position of power to cull so many victims from the countryside without repercussions that even though her horrific crimes (she is said to have used skewers, hot pokers, and bugs to torture her victims) are well known, we still don't know exactly how many people she killed. Without a trustworthy record of her misdeeds, it's impossible to calculate, but at her trial in 1611, the number was estimated to be around 650 over a period of just six years. When did she find the time? Well, it's possible that she didn't.
Bathed In Blood
Born to Baron George VI Báthory of the Ecsed in 1560, Elizabeth Báthory might as well have come out of the womb drinking blood. It's believed that Báthory suffered from epilepsy, a condition that would easily be inherited thanks to inbreeding in the Hungarian royal family, and one common treatment for seizures at the time involved rubbing blood into the skin of the afflicted. Victims of the disease were also fed the blood of healthy people as a means to cleanse the sufferer of their illness. Much of what we know about Báthory comes from texts that are hundreds of years old that attempt to explain her actions later in life, so this could be a conflation of events, but it's possible that her parents, nurses, and other caregivers really did feed her blood at a young age.
The Sins Of The Father
In the case of Elizabeth Báthory, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Baron George Báthory and Baroness Anna Báthory were known to revel in torturing Hungarian peasants for the most minor infractions, even—especially—in the presence of their daughter. An often-quoted story about her grim childhood claims that she stood by as a Romani man who was accused of theft was sewn into the belly of a dying horse and left there for the remainder of his short life. Her attendance at these scenes was no accident or act of negligence: It was explicitly for the purpose of teaching her how to treat those beneath her. Witnessing such acts of brutal sadism seemed to have left the desired impression on young Elizabeth.
A Young Bride
On May 8, 1575, Elizabeth Báthory was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of Hungarian statesman Baron Tamás Nádasdy de Nádasd et Fogarasföld, when she was only 15 and he was 19. Because Elizabeth's standing in society was much higher than Nádasdy's, he changed his surname to Báthory. The young couple promptly moved to Castle of Csejte in the Little Carpathians, where she began taking care of their business affairs and the surrounding estates while her husband left to fight in the Thirteen Years' War. During their marriage, Báthory gave birth to four confirmed children and a rumored fifth.
A Young Widow
After Nádasdy passed away following a lengthy illness in 1604, Elizabeth had free reign to treat the people in her kingdom as she wished. Around this time, Báthory is alleged to have started bringing victims into her castle through a variety of means to torture and mutilate them. Some of her victims were young women who were sent to her by their parents to learn etiquette, while others were simply peasants who were kidnapped or lured to the castle with offers of well-paid servitude.
Stories about Báthory's years on her own show no end to her cruelty. She was accused of beating her victims, chewing the flesh from their faces, burning them with hot tongs, and covering them with honey before releasing live ants to feast on their skin. It’s believed that the servants who weren't tortured were ordered to carry out some of the murders for her while she watched or eat the flesh of her victims, whose bodies soon filled unmarked cemeteries, grain silos, and churchyards. One of the most well-known rumors about Báthory is an alleged penchant for bathing in the blood of young girls, although it's unclear if this is folklore or if the deranged countess was really spending her evenings filling tubs with fresh blood so she could have a soak.
In 1610, at least six years after her killing spree is believed to have begun, the Archduke of Austria and King of Hungary appointed György Thurzó to investigate the mad noblewoman. Over the next year, Thurzó and two helpers interviewed some 300 people who told them outrageous tales about the horrors occurring at the Báthroy estates.
The testimonies were all over the place. Some claimed that they knew girls who'd been killed, others insisted they'd seen traces of corpses in Báthory's castle, while still others reported rumors about torture they'd heard from various sources. The hundreds of testimonies were enough to arrest Báthory and four of her servants who were believed to be accomplices.
Allegedly, Thurzó caught Báthory in the middle of torturing someone, although it's most likely that she was having dinner. Either way, he told the public that she was caught "red-handed." Even then, the story of Báthory was mired in speculation and mythology.
Csejte castle became her prison
No Trial, Some Tribulation
Following the arrest of her servants, there was no trial for Báthory. Her accomplices were put to death, but the noblewoman wasn't even booked out of respect for her family and their wish to keep a royal scandal out of the Renaissance version of the headlines. It was never conclusively proven that she even intentionally killed anyone, but there was no question that she treated her servants with horrific cruelty, so she was punished all the same.
What happened to Báthory, however, is up for debate. According to one story, Thurzó ordered the noblewoman to be walled up inside her chambers with only enough space in the bricks for food to pass through, although documents written by priests following their visits to the castle state that Báthory could move freely throughout her home with little change in her day-to-day life in her final years. She passed away on August 21, 1614 and was buried in the church of Csejte before her remains were removed to the Báthory family crypt at Ecsed, Hungary.
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