Born in 1560, Erzsebet (or Elizabeth) Bathory was the daughter of an aristocratic soldier and the sister of Poland’s reigning king. Her family, in fact, was one of the oldest noble houses in Hungary, its crest bearing the draconic symbol incorporated by King Sigismund into the Order of the Dragon. The Bathory clan included knights and judges, bishops, cardinals, and kings, but it had fallen into decadence by the mid-16th century, the royal bloodline marred by incest and epilepsy, with later family ranks including alcoholics, murderers and sadists, homosexuals (considered criminally deviant at the time) and Satanists.
Though physically beautiful, Erzsebet was clearly the product of polluted genetics and a twisted upbringing. Throughout her life, she was subject to blinding headaches and fainting seizures—probably epileptic in nature—which superstitious family members diagnosed as demonic possession. Raised on the Bathory estate at the foot of the brooding Carpathian Mountains, Erzsebet was introduced to devil worship in adolescence by one of her Satanist uncles. Her favorite aunt, one of Hungary’s most notorious lesbians, taught Erzsebet the pleasures of flagellation and other perversions, but young Erzsebet always believed that where pain was concerned, it was better to give than to receive. When Erzsebet was barely 11, her parents contracted her future marriage to Count Ferencz Nadasdy, an aristocratic warrior. Their wedding was postponed until Erzsebet turned 15, finally solemnized on May 5, 1575. The bride retained her maiden name as a sign that her family possessed greater status than Nadasdy’s clan. The newlyweds settled at Csejthe Castle, in northwestern Hungary, but Count Nadasdy also maintained other palatial homes around the country, each complete with a dungeon and torture chamber specially designed to meet Erzsebet’s needs. Nadasdy was frequently absent for weeks or months at a time, leaving his bride alone and bored, to find her own diversions. Erzsebet dabbled in alchemy, indulged her sexual quirks with men and women alike, changed clothes and jewelry five or six times a day, and admired herself in full-length mirrors by the hour. Above all else, when she was angry, tense, or simply bored, the countess tortured servant girls for sport.
One major source of irritation in the early years of marriage was Erzsebet’s mother-in-law. Eager for grandchildren, Nadasdy’s mother nagged Erzsebet incessantly over her failure to conceive. Erzsebet would finally bear children after a decade of marriage, but she felt no maternal urges in her late teens and early twenties.
Young women on her household staff soon came to dread the visits of Nadasdy’s mother, knowing that another round of brutal assaults would inevitably follow the old lady’s departure. Where torture was concerned, the bisexual countess possessed a ferocious imagination. Some of her tricks were learned in childhood, and others were picked up from Nadasdy’s experience battling the Turks, but she also contrived techniques of her own. Pins and needles were favorite tricks of the trade, piercing the lips and nipples of her victims, sometimes ramming needles beneath their fingernails. “The little slut!” she would sneer, as her captive writhed in pain. “If it hurts, she’s only got to take them out herself.” Erzsebet also enjoyed biting her victims on the cheeks, breasts, and elsewhere, drawing blood with her teeth. Other captives were stripped, smeared with honey, and exposed to the attacks of ants and bees.
Count Nadasdy reportedly joined Erzsebet in some of the torture sessions, but over time he came to fear his wife, spending more and more time on the road or in the arms of his mistress. When he finally died in 1600 or 1604 (accounts vary), Erzsebet lost all restraint, devoting herself full time to the torment and sexual degradation of younger women. In short order, she broadened her scope from the family staff to include nubile strangers. Trusted employees scoured the countryside for fresh prey, luring peasant girls with offers of employment, resorting to drugs or brute force as pervasive rumors thinned the ranks of willing recruits. None who entered Erzsebet’s service ever escaped alive, but peasants had few legal rights in those days, and a noblewoman was not faulted by her peers if “discipline” around the house got out of hand.
By her early forties, Erzsebet Bathory presided over a miniature holocaust of her own design. Abetted by her aging nurse, Ilona Joo, and procuress Doratta Szentesaka “Dorka” Erzsebet ravaged the countryside, claiming peasant victims at will. She carried special silver pincers, designed for ripping flesh, but she was also comfortable with pins and needles, branding irons and red-hot pokers, whips and scissors . . . almost anything at all. Household accomplices would strip her victims, holding them down while Erzsebet tore their breasts to shreds or burned their vaginas with a candle flame, sometimes biting great chunks of flesh from their faces and bodies. One victim was forced to cook and eat a strip of her own flesh, while others were doused with cold water and left to freeze in the snow. Sometimes, Erzsebet would jerk a victim’s mouth open with such force that the cheeks ripped apart. On other occasions, servants handled the dirty work, while Erzsebet paced the sidelines, shouting, “More! More still! Harder still!” until overwhelmed with excitement, she fainted into unconsciousness on the floor.
One special “toy” of Erzsebet’s was a cylindrical cage, constructed with long spikes inside. A naked girl was forced into the cage, then hoisted several feet off the floor by means of a pulley. Erzsebet or one of her servants would circle the cage with a red-hot poker, jabbing at the girl and forcing her against the sharp spikes as she tried to escape. Whether she cast herself in the role of an observer or active participant, Erzsebet was always good for a running commentary of suggestions and sick “jokes,” lapsing into crude obscenities and incoherent babble as the night wore on.
Disposal of her lifeless victims was a relatively simple matter in the Middle Ages. Some were buried, others were left to rot around the castle, while a few were dumped outside to feed the local wolves and other predators. If a dismembered corpse was found from time to time, the countess had no fear of prosecution. In that place and time, royal blood was the ultimate protection. It also helped that one of Erzsebet’s cousins was the Hungarian prime minister and, another served as governor of the province where she lived.
Erzsebet finally overplayed her hand in 1609, shifting from hapless peasants to the daughters of lesser nobility, opening Csejthe Castle to offer 25 hand-picked ingenues “instruction in the social graces.” This time, when none of her victims survived, complaints reached the ears of King Matthias, whose father had attended Erzsebet’s wedding. The king, in turn, assigned Erzsebet’s closest neighbor, Count Gyorgy Thurzo, to investigate the case. On December 26, 1610, Thurzo staged a late-night raid on Csejthe Castle and caught the countess red-handed, with an orgiastic torture session in progress.
A half-dozen of Erzsebet’s accomplices were held for trial; the countess was kept under house arrest while parliament cranked out a special statute to strip her of immunity from prosecution. The resultant trial opened in January 1611 and lasted through late February, with Chief Justice Theodosius Syrmiensis presiding over a panel of 20 lesser jurists. Eighty counts of murder were alleged in court, though most historical accounts place Erzsebet’s final body count somewhere between 300 and 650 victims. Erzsebet herself was excused from attending the trial, held in her apartment under heavy guard, but conviction on all counts was a foregone conclusion. The “bloody countess” had run out of time. Erzsebet’s servant-accomplices were executed, Dorka and Ilona Joo after public torture, but the countess was spared, sentenced to life imprisonment in a small suite of rooms at Csejthe Castle. The doors and windows of her apartment were bricked over, leaving only slits for ventilation and the passing of food trays. There, she lived in isolation for three and a half years, until she was found dead on August 21, 1614. The exact date of Erzsebet’s death is unknown, since several meals had gone untouched before her corpse was found.
Bizarre as it is, the Bathory legend has grown in the telling, most recent accounts incorporating tales of vampirism and ritualistic blood baths supposed to help Erzsebet “stay young.” Erzsebet’s sanguinary fetish is usually linked to the spilling of some unnamed servant girl’s blood, with the countess accidentally spattered, afterward impressed that her skin seemed more pale and translucent than usual—traits considered beautiful in those days, before discovery of the “California tan.” In fact, extensive testimony at Erzsebet’s trial made no mention of literal blood baths. Some victims were drained of blood from savage wounds or by design, but deliberate exsanguination was linked to Erzsebet’s practice of alchemy and black magic, rather than any design for a warm bath. In any case, Erzsebet’s murder spree began when she was in her teens or twenties, long before the threat of aging ever crossed her mind.