The Apprehension of the “Blood Countess“ Elisabeth Báthory for Mass Murder in 1610

29  December 1610, Castle Csejte (Čachtice), halfway between Brno and Bratislava, is stormed by the men of  the Palatine of Hungary to apprehend the “Blood Countess“ Elisabeth Báthory for mass murder.

“Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty. Two old women and a certain Fitzko assisted her in her undertaking. This monster used to kill the luckless victim, and the old women caught the blood, in which Elizabeth was wont to bathe at the hour of four in the morning. After the bath she appeared more beautiful than before.“ (Sabine Baring-Gould, “The Book of Were-Wolves“, 1865)

A copy of her portrait, showing Elisabeth Báthory at the age of about 25,
the only existing contemporary likeness – the original disappeared during the 1990s.

The disastrous defeat at Mohács in 1526 that toppled the once proud Kingdom of Hungary, once ruling Eastern Europe from Bratislava almost to the shores of the Black Sea, left the whole region in turmoil. The early conversion of the remaining Hungarian nobility to Protestantism while the remaining Hungarian heartland became part of the Catholic Austrian Empire of the Habsburgs brought Royal Hungary, as the area became known, one step further towards a complete disarray of matters in the multi-ethnic region. The continuous struggle against the Ottoman Turks pushing towards Vienna did not really stabilise the situation either. With the old feudal laws still in place and the Renaissance as well as Humanism beginning to gain grounds in Eastern Central Europe as well, the last decades of the 16th century gave rise to a special breed of semi-independent nobility trying to assert itself between the claim to power of House Habsburg and the Ottoman threat, being highly educated but wielding absolute power over their underlings and treating their peasants, especially those of Slovak origin, with barbarous cruelty and fighting the Turks with equally savage means. One especially picturesque example is Count Ferenc Nádasdy, the “Black Knight of Hungary” along with his dear wife, Erzsébet Báthory, the “Blood Countess”.

Ferenc Nádasdy, looking the part of the “Black Knight of Hungary”

Related to the Voivods of Wallachia as well as the Kings of Poland, young Erzsébet, born in 1560, was not only heiress to vast lands in what is now Slovakia, but grew up learning four languages and was befittingly married to the almost equally illustrious Count Nádasdy at the age of 15. The marriage was apparently happy, produced five children even though Ferenc was more often away to the wars than not – quite successfully, capturing five important castles from the Ottomans and achieving the nickname “Black Knight” for his excessive cruelty against Turkish prisoners – while Mrs Nádasdy at home began to develop the habit of torturing her servants, allegedly to discipline them. Later testimonials from Elisabeth’s trial tell of the happy couple devising new methods of inflicting pain on their household until Ferenc died of a mysterious disease in 1604 while away on the frontlines. And when Habsburg Emperor Matthias II now made his move to seize the vast Protestant Nádasdy- Báthory lands something seemed to have snapped within Elisabeth, now in her mid40s. Residing in her castles of Sárvár and Csejte, legend has it that she perceived a rejuvenating effect on her skin when drops of blood of one of her victims hit her. What followed is not quite clear, but the rumours range from her regularly drinking the blood of her servant girls to taking full baths in their blood, along with ongoing torture and murder.

Dark and forbidding: Castle Čachtice at sunset* 

The complaints against the Countess filed at Vienna since 1602 finally provided the opportunity for Emperor Matthias to send his new Palatine of Hungary, György Thurzó, of an equally influential local family and infamous for his land annexations, to apprehend Elisabeth Báthory. During the following trial, Báthory had no chance to defend herself, but over 300 witnesses were heard of all ranks and the results as well as the finds at Castle Csejte were quite shocking. Up to 650 girls were tortured and she was finally convicted for the murder of 80. Fearing a public scandal, Palatine Thurzó and the emperor decided not to execute her but wall her in at Castle Csejte with no contact to the outside world until her death four years later in 1614. Now considered as one of the most prolific female serial killers in history, the forming of her gory legend already began during her lifetime. The connection with the vampire myth happened relatively late but is today certainly the most popular context while the 18th and 19th century usually indulged in being fascinated by tales of witchcraft as well as  the sadomasochistic and homoerotic subtext of the life and times of Elisabeth Báthory and artistic adaptions quite often were rather trivial erotic novels until the 20th century discovered her as a protagonist and anti-hero of various tales. However, attempts to prove that the charges against her were trumped up and that she was a victim of a Habsburg conspiracy did never fully convince.

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