If you are into True Crime, horror, the occult, or any of those sorts of interests odds are you’ve heard at least a little about Madam Bathory. She is often considered the female counterpart to Vlad the Impaler. Although whereas Vlad is largely praised for his vampire-like mythos, Countess Elizabeth Bathory not so much. There were rumors of her being a vampire and using her own servants as sacrifices to remain young through dark rituals. In modern times the question has become, how much of what was said about her rings true, how much is made up, and how much is somewhere in the middle.
Before we dive deep, I want to begin by saying, Madam Bathory is no innocent victim. Like many nobles of the time, she was a cruel mistress, and even before the rumors of her occult dealings began, she had a reputation for being exceptionally brutal. While the extent of how barbaric she was is up for debate (and indeed what we will be exploring), it is almost universally accepted that the reason the rumors were able to get such footing was, in large part, attributed to how cruel Bathory actually was. So the lie may be an exaggeration, but there is some foundation of truth. At the same time, however, the role of misogyny in her mythos is there. As already mentioned, Vlad’s cruelty was often accepted as a smart way to retain control and be feared by both his subjects and enemies. Bathory was labeled just a horrible woman who was possibly a witch. Add to that that she was a woman of considerable means during a time when men were used to having all control, and by accusing her, there was potential to seize said means. But enough with that digression.
Elizabeth Bathory was born in 1560 to one of the most powerful families in the Hungarian nobility. Powerful enough that when she married at the age of 15 (ugh), it was actually her husband who gave up his name to her and her family. Her husband, Nadasdy, was a military man and often gone from their home. It led to many questions about his involvement. Some speculate that he was an active participant and that he even taught his wife methods of torture that he learned in battle to use on her victims. Some believe that he was completely unaware because of his extended absences. However, what is confirmed is that the rumors of Bathory’s exploits increased significantly when he died in 1604. What that means really is dependent on where you fall in the belief of Bathory’s guilt or “innocence.” Was he a partner, but one that would reign her in? Did losing him drive her to further cruelty? Or was her being newly single the perfect chance for her enemies to pounce?
So what were Bathory’s crimes? Well, as to what we can mostly confirm, she did, in fact, like to torture her servants and inflict beyond harsh punishments on them. There are rumors that one servant girl was caught stealing a pear (or some type of fruit), and that Bathory did not simply have her beaten to death, but did it herself, something not heard of. Further unheard of is the seeming enjoyment that the countess got from it. She beat the girl for so long she had to stop and change during its course before finally killing her.
Other rumors were that she liked to stick needles into servants’ fingers and lips. Rumors were also that she engaged in the mutilation of her victims before killing them, including but not limited to the breasts. That she would dump water on people and send them into the winter to die or letting them starve to death. The problem is the descriptions of what she did are so varied.
There were over 300 people that testified against Madam Bathory, and all sorts of ideas of torture were revealed, but very few of them confirmed. The ones where multiple people made claims are broadly accepted, but with that many people crossover is likely, especially as they knew what the others were saying. For instance, some sources discuss the rumors that she would cover servants in honey and leave them to be attacked or even killed by insects; others do not mention this.
The list of potential crimes she committed is long and shocking. It includes sexual torture, mutilation, creative deaths, and even slower, longer agonizing cruelty, such as slowly cutting into and harming (but not enough to kill) people over long periods of time.
Extreme punishments for servants were not unheard of during that time; however, Bathory might have taken it to a new level if the rumors were true. The other issue is that they weren’t just servants.
The accounts of Bathory’s cruelty take a bit of a turn away from “punishment” because it was believed that she would bring young girls in with the offer a job but only the intention of killing them. They were not victims of a time where severe punishments were the norm, but rather victims of a serial killer. If this is true, it ultimately sets Bathory apart from what was considered standard. Her cruelty already pushed her over, but to lure people in only with the intent of torturing and killing was new and beyond the pale.
It also makes Vlad a poor analog for her. If Madam Bathory was luring young women solely to kill them, it makes her more like modern serial killers, especially those with sexually sadistic tendencies.
This also led to the rumors that push Bathory from being more than a serial killer. As time went on and the legends of her acts increased, so did the motivation for those acts and the aftermath of them. The rumors of torture lead to rumors of bringing girls in for that solely, which lead to Madam Bathory the Blood Countess. Nearly a century after her death, a book was published which recounted the testimonies and investigations of those that survived Bathory. In it, it posited that Bathory’s motivations weren’t simply for murder but for the blood itself.
This is where Bathory’s legend really began to take off, and how she became… well, not a household name but a common name for people with particular interests. After torturing her victims, the rumor was that she and her living servants would collect all of their blood so that she could bathe in it. The reasoning for Bathory’s young victim type was this, their young blood would help her retain her youth, and all the more potent since they were more likely to be virgins.
There were claims of ritual sacrifice, of Bathory drinking blood and engaging in cannibalism, and all other horrid acts related to the occult. It was also suggested that the countess kept a diary in which she named all of her victims and that it included over 650. No evidence of the diary has ever been discovered, and during the investigations were this all came out, she was “only” ever accused of 80.
So what’s the problem? 300 witnesses, and she was investigated and accused of at least 80 murders? Well many. As stated, punishments for servants were awful at the time, so we can say that she was most likely guilty of that – it was rumored to be a family thing after all – it’s really debatable if it counts as a crime. Beyond awful, I know. The other issue is the political landscape. King Matthias II, who was in charge of seeing that Madam Bathory was investigated, owed Bathory’s late husband a great deal of money.
Remember earlier, I mentioned that the rumors of her crimes increased greatly upon the death of her husband? It may have been less about her no longer having someone to hold her back and more about the fact that she no longer had a man between her and the other nobility. For all that Bathory was the more powerful in the couple according to family, she was, after all, a woman. It is also worth noting that not only could conviction clear the debt, but if she were found guilty, she would surely be put to death, thus allowing King Matthias II the chance to seize her land and part of her family’s political power. This is some pretty incredible motivation.
She was also a pretty capable ruler for all of her limitations. Her family believed in education, even for women, so she was intelligent. She was also good at strategy and making deals. While she was unable to reach the levels of other notable women as a ruler, she was considered a boon to the family. After both marriage and the death of her husband, she showed no intention of taking a backseat to a man in power. I think we know enough to know that strong women who demanded independence during that time were often targeted.
The testimonies themselves are also called into question. Many of her most vocal accomplices that revealed the worst of what she did were tortured into giving their statements. While the details of what they experienced are unknown, it would be worth asking (if there were a way to get an answer) how much crossover there was between their experiences and what they stated they witnessed and participated in.
In the end, Bathory was spared, sort of. While many were glad to help the king in the investigation, they had to admit that the whole thing seemed politically motivated at the end of the day. The king was convinced that Madam Bathory and her family were too powerful, and the case was too shaky, so instead, she was placed under house arrest. She only survived for 4 more years before dying. The big problem that this result has for people like me curious about the crimes is that there was no official trial. All of the testimonies mentioned were simply given in the investigation. There was no on the record trial, so the accounts are shaky at best and also one-sided. Bathory was never required to defend herself, so she and anyone on her side’s accounts are simply not there.
Now, as I said at the start, Madam Bathory is no innocent victim. Giving her every benefit of the doubt that the investigation was motivated by politics and misogyny, she was still a cruel woman. She still engaged in torture as a form of punishment and death for minor crimes. You can point out that it was a product of the times, but that doesn’t make it right. She has blood on her hands and of innocent people.
However, the legend surrounding her is shaky and does raise the question of who Madam Bathory was. Was she a victim of politics who has been painted in history as a bloodthirsty, occult obsessed, serial killer? Or was there truth in the rumors of her cruelty and that she was one of the oldest and most vicious serial killers in history? The disappointing fact is we will never know for certain. I think we can likely guess that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
For now, Madam Bathory remains mostly a legend. A fascinating story of a powerful woman who has been twisted by history into two possible, equally compelling, potential stories.