If power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once observed, then absolute power in the hands of a psychotic, sexual sadist can unleash the hounds of hell. Such was the case of Erzsébet “Elizabeth” Báthory, a late-16th-century Hungarian countess — and the most prolific female serial killer in history, whose murderous reign historians are still trying to make sense of today.
Four hundred years ago today, in August 1614, the notorious 54-year-old royal died under house arrest in Čachtice Castle in modern-day Slovakia, having been implicated in as many as 650 deaths — mostly peasant girls and servants. Báthory’s depraved life inspired a number of stories, films and books, including possibly Bram Stoker’s Dracula; so many, in fact, that the legends and myths surrounding the “Blood Countess” have begun to obscure the shocking, and very real, ledger of her vile deeds.
The scale of Báthory’s brutality was off the charts, even for her era.
Violence, cruelty and torture were endemic in the early modern period in which Báthory lived; her contemporary and namesake, Queen Elizabeth I of England, presided over countless executions and tortures. Medieval punishments like drawing and quartering were still very much a part of public life. Still, even if 650 victims sounds like an inflated figure, the scale of Báthory’s brutality was off the charts, even for her era, and she is a striking example of a very rare historical breed: the female serial killer.
Born in 1560 into Hungarian nobility and one of the wealthiest Protestant families in Europe, young Elizabeth was prone to fits of rage and seizures, and it appears that mental illness — possibly the result of years of inbreeding — was common in her extended family. Still, she was an accomplished student and, after having been engaged at the age of 11 to the older warrior Count Ferenc Nádasdy, is said to have been a loving and doting mother.
Báthory grew up in a time when nobles enjoyed the power of life and death over their subjects and servants, who were considered merely chattel. Cruel beatings were commonplace, but the countess developed a taste for something far more sinister. Her husband may have participated in the savagery as well, but by most accounts it was not until after the count’s death in 1604 that Báthory’s depravity reached truly pathological dimensions.
The torture and murder was done largely for Báthory’s pleasure.
With the help of a few of her maids and a dwarf manservant called Ficzko, Báthory began torturing and killing dozens of peasant girls, who had been lured to her castle by the prospect of employment. According to the testimony of witnesses, still preserved in the Hungarian archives, Báthory’s victims were beaten with lashes, knives, irons and cudgels; some were doused with cold water and left to freeze in the snow, while others had needles shoved under their fingernails and fingers lopped off if they tried to remove them.
The torture and murder was done largely for Báthory’s pleasure, and some scholars believe she was a sexual sadist in addition to a psychopath. Often there was a sexual element to the punishments, from genital mutilation to the countess biting off pieces of the girls’ faces and shoulders.
Báthory and her accomplices terrorized the surrounding countryside for years with impunity. And it was not until her bloodlust crept up the social ladder, and the daughters of nobles went missing, that her fellow royals started to pay attention to the dark rumors surrounding the countess.
Just after Christmas in 1610, Báthory’s castle was raided by the local authorities, who were horrified to discover dead and dying maidens strewn across the courtyard and basement. The countess’s collaborators were imprisoned, put on trial, and themselves tortured and executed. Báthory herself was never tried or convicted — perhaps to spare her family the embarrassment — but she was placed under house arrest in a tower room within Čachtice Castle where she died less than four years later.
In the years that followed, Báthory’s legend grew, and new stories about her, including that she was a vampire who liked to bathe in the blood of virgins to maintain her youthful appearance, also spread. More recently, an apologist backlash has emerged, arguing that Báthory was not a serial killer but was set up by relatives trying to take down the powerful widow and confiscate her lands.
But the Blood Countess was neither a vampire nor the victim of a grand conspiracy. She was a profoundly disturbed human being who, by virtue of her influence and place in society, could play out her darkest fantasies. It was Báthory’s privilege, as much as her psychosis, that was responsible for one of history’s greatest reigns of terror.