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You might not know the name, but you probably know the story: a vain noblewoman lures young virgins into her castle and bathes in their blood to stay young forever. She is Countess Dracula, a real life vampire and history's most prolific serial killer. It might be terrifying, a testament to human cruelty, to hear that such a person truly did exist. But dig even just a little deeper and you'll find the figure behind the legend has almost nothing to do with the myth she's grown into.
Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed, known as Elizabeth Bathory in English, was born into a wealthy family in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary on the 7 of August, 1560. Her parents came from two different branches of the Báthory family and reports of seizures and fits of rage surround Elizabeth and her father, perhaps a result of epilepsy and inbreeding. After all, they were ruled by the notoriously inbred Habsburgs. With the Báthorys being such a distinguished line there is little doubt her upbringing was exceptional for a woman of her era. She was even known to be better educated than her husband, and of a better enough standing to keep her own surname through the marriage. She was engaged to her future husband, Ferenc Nádasdy, at age 11. He was already known for his part in the near constant war against the Ottoman Empire, and there are reports of his cruelty that include playing football with enemy heads and dancing with corpses. During the marriage, he kept up his military responsibilities, leaving his wife to care for their growing family… and their lands. Taken all together, this couple were the most powerful pair in the country. Without Ferenc, all of that power lay with Elizabeth, and continued to do so when she was left a widow in 1604. In a time when women had few rights and widows were stripped of their belongings, Elizabeth lived up to her claim of "You will find a man in me."
As for Elizabeth’s own cruelty, rumours began to circulate shortly before her husband’s death. It was even a Lutheran minister who made the initial accusations. The crown, however, took its time responding. Gyorgy Thurzó, Palatine of Hungary and loyalist of King Mattias II, was sent to investigate in 1610.
This is where the reports begin to flourish.
Priests, servants, maids, commoners… everyone was questioned about their infamous Lady. This is at least one place where the myth and the accusation appear to line up: they all agreed that her victims were mainly young women, either peasants sent to work or lesser nobles sent to learn etiquette. Torture methods vary from scalding and exposure to severe beatings and being covered in honey and ants. The horror only seemed to grow with each step of the investigation.
But this is the same Elizabeth who was known to help and promote young women and war widows; a 17th century feminist. Even the scalding bares some resemblance to methods of healing known in the area and era. This is a time notoriously unreliable, with prisoners tortured into confessions that we could never know the truth of. In fact, some of Elizabeth’s more loyal servants who refused to comply died during the investigation.
When it was decided the evidence was overwhelming and that the Countess needed to be taken into custody, Gyorgy himself stormed the castle where she was spending the last years of her life. He claimed to have caught her in the act of torture, quite literally red handed, passing dead and dying victims on his way. King Mattias quickly called a trial and execution order, only to be barely convinced otherwise with the agreement that he would never have to repay the immense debt he owed to the rich and powerful Elizabeth.
It is far more likely that the story of Elizabeth being arrested during dinner is true, with the one of her being found with blood on her hands a radicalisation. Even Gyorgy himself, and his wife, were said to be unconvinced of her guilt until the last moments. How could this be the same man who caught a killer in the act?
During the trial of her accomplices (and Elizabeth herself by proxy, although it was at this point assumed she was guilty) the official count of her victims lay around 80, much lower than even that of the next highest amount of proven victims, Pedro Lopez with 110, and he confessed to 300. This is also where the number 650 comes from. It has her listed in countless places as history’s most prolific serial killer, but it was a witness who mentioned a book that was never found. Even in this court, with everything stacked against her, they could not accept this as true.
And so Elizabeth was walled up for her crimes, and her accomplices killed.
I don’t doubt that as a woman in a time where being one was unimaginably hard, Elizabeth had to show her strength through cruelty, force, and an incredibly strict nature. Did she perhaps go too far in her reprimands? I think so. But I also think that the men who surrounded her did much worse.
I also think that the fear that still surrounds her to this day and the myths that grew around her like weeds do her a great disservice. At the very least we should remember that living to 40 as a woman, and one who everyone would see dead for their own gains, is an accomplishment to be admired.
A serial killer? Perhaps. But no more or less than others of her class. Had she been a man, the story of the blood countess might be a footnote in history, if anything at all.
And history’s most prolific? Almost certainly not. Even now the numbers that we attribute to her would be dismissed in court, and we know for certain that there are worse killers, with uncontested numbers.
If the killer Gilles de Reis can be listed as a soldier first, perhaps we can begin to dismantle this myth, and call Elizabeth a Countess first.