AMAZING STORIES from the past
The Bloody countess
In the 17th century, a Hungarian noblewoman was held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young women. Did Elisabeth Bathory have her victims killed so she could use their blood to prolong her fading beauty - or was her behaviour provoked by sheer sadism?
On a freezing night in December 1610, the Chief Imperial Prosecutor of Hungary and his troops stormed the castle at Cachtice, in response to rumours of dreadful deeds being enacted within its walls. They came upon its countess in the process of torturing several girls. Reports that young women were being murdered at the castle seemed to have been confirmed in the most terrible way.
WAS ELISABETH A BORN SADIST?
Born in 1560 to one of Hungary's noblest families, the Bathorys, the young Elisabeth was considered a radiant beauty. In 1572, she married Count Francis Nadasdy, to whom she bore six children. An intelligent woman who could read and write in four languages, it also seems likely that she had violent sexual fantasies from an early age. The families of both Count Nadasdy and his wife had a history of violence and the Bathorys in particular may have been inbred. Her husband may have known of Elisabeth's sadistic tendencies and it is claimed that an aunt introduced her to the idea of flagellation, using an instrument of torture that her husband had once used when interrogating his Turkish prisoners.
Although Elisabeth became notorious for the harsh punishments that she meted out to her female servants, her behaviour was not at first seen as a sign of a disturbed personality. But following her husband's death in around 1604, when Elisabeth was in her forties and her beauty was fading, rumours of killing sprees began to circulate.
THE LEGEND OF THE BLOODY COUNTESS
Elisabeth's taste for blood was apparently aroused by a seemingly innocuous event. She wore her hair elaborately arranged and it would be regularly dressed by a servant. But on this occasion, the maid who was brushing her hair pulled it too hard. Enraged, the countess struck her in the face so violently that she began to bleed from her mouth and nose. A few drops of blood fell on the countess's hand which she wiped away. But when she looked at the hand, the spots where the blood had fallen appeared more youthful. As a result, it was said, she conceived the ghastly idea of rejuvenating her entire body with young girls' blood.
At first content with gathering blood from her victims' veins, Elisabeth developed a craving for ever greater quantities. An 'Iron Maiden', designed to impale a body on hundreds of steel spikes, was said to have been built for her. The blood was collected and channelled directly into the countess's bathtub. Whenever Elisabeth wished to refresh her complexion, the torture was repeated with a fresh batch of girls.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A MONSTROUS OBSESSION
Though several accounts of torture tally with the legend, they probably misinterpret the countess's motives. In the 17th century, sadistic perversions would only have been ascribed to men. Elisabeth's behaviour was attributed to her vanity, but in reality it seems to have been the pleasure she gained from watching the suffering of others that lay at the heart of her behaviour. Although her husband and family knew of her perversion, they did nothing to stop it.
The torture took place at all of Elisabeth's homes but especially at Cachtice, in the Carparthian mountains. The castle was ideally equipped for keeping her activities secret. It had a mighty deep, dark underground passages and dungeons. There she was surrounded by a throng of female servants who would be summoned on the pretext of performing a small task. They would then be bound and tortured by the countess's helpers or by Elisabeth herself. Initially, the torture was confined to sticking needles under the maids' fingernails or cutting them with scissors. But Elisabeth soon progressed to more violent behaviour, including beating her victims with whips.
At first, the victims were probably peasant girls, but women of higher birth were also involved. It was the fashion for girls from respectable but impoverished homes to be sent to aristocratic courts to acquire social skills and be raised in a manner befitting their status. Elisabeth apparently took full advantage. Parents were told that their daughter had eloped with a lover or died of an illness. Visits by family members were discouraged.
As more girls started to disappear, rumours began to circulate. It was even alleged that some girls from aristocratic families had been kidnapped on Elisabeth's orders.
INVESTIGATING THE RUMOURS
But it was only when the parish priest of Cachtice and some Viennese monks lodged complaints about cries that had been heard at the castle that the rumours were investigated. The emperor, Matthew II, assigned Chief Imperial Prosecutor Thurzo to find out what had been going on and he and his soldiers entered the castle on December 29, 1610. Thurzo himself noted seeing only one body on the night that he searched Cachtice, although one of his lieutenants reported finding bodies or parts of bodies throughout the castle. They also found girls who were still alive and their testimony was heard. A large number of torture devices were also discovered.
Between 1611 and 1614, when Elisabeth died, more than 300 people were interrogated, but the countess herself was never brought to a formal trial. A number of assistants confessed under torture by Thurzo that they had helped to procure victims and take part in sadistic acts. All had served Elisabeth for many years, one as nurse to her children. Three were executed by being burnt alive barely a week after Thurzo and his men entered Cachtice Castle.
But Elisabeth escaped the death penalty. Her high birth seems to have guaranteed her survival. Executing her would have required the enactment of a special statute to strip her of her royal immunity. It is also likely that Thurzo did not want to strain relations with neighbouring Transylvania, which was governed by Elisabeth's nephew, Gabriel. Her punishment was to be walled up in a suite of rooms in her castle, with only slits left for food. Here she died miserably in the summer of 1614.