On December 30, 1610, the gruesome crimes and serial murders of the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory were uncovered by Count György Thurzó, who raided Báthory’s castle in Upper Hungary, after leading the investigation into her torturous escapades.
Elizabeth Báthory was born in 1560 into one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Transylvania which, thanks to copious inbreeding, had already spawned its fair share of sadists, psychotics and devil worshippers. At 15, she was married to Count Ferenc Nádasdy, whose wedding gift to Báthory was his household, the Castle of Csejte, situated in Upper Hungary, in present-day Slovakia.
With Nádasdy away at war, leading the Hungarian armies against the Ottomans, Elizabeth Báthory was entrusted with managing the affairs of her husband’s estates. It is during that time that Elizabeth Báthory allegedly began finding new ways of keeping herself amused, gathering around her witches, sorcerers, alchemists and other practitioners of the black arts, and engaging in acts of cruelty against the local peasant population.
Ferenc Nádasdy died in 1604 and rumours of atrocities being committed in the Castle of Csejte began to spread throughout Royal Hungary shortly after. But it was not until 1610 that King Matthias II assigned the Palatine of Hungary György Thurzó to investigate and collect evidence against the Hungarian countess. By October 1610, Thurzó and his two notaries, András Keresztúry and Mózes Cziráky, had collected dozens of witness statements describing Báthory’s atrocities.
According to the testimonies, aided by several trusted servants, Elizabeth Báthory amused herself by torturing girls with pincers, needles, razors, knives, red-hot irons and pokers. Some were plunged into icy streams and frozen to death. Others were starved in the dungeons and torture chambers the countess had installed in her castle, or smeared with honey, and left to be attacked by bees and ants. Two court officials claimed to have personally witnessed the countess torture and kill young servant girls. Báthory was also suspected of cannibalism.
In December 1610, after exposing the evidence to the King, György Thurzó led a raid of Báthory’s castle and arrested the Hungarian countess. Báthory’s accomplices were put on trial and burned as witches, but as a noble, the countess herself could not be tried or executed, which would have caused a public scandal. So she was imprisoned and immured in a windowless room in her own castle until her death, four years later, possibly of suicide at age 54.
Labeled by the Guinness World Records as the most prolific female serial killer in history, Báthory is believed to have tortured and killed up to 650 young women between 1590 and 1610. Her bloodthirsty activities have led many to cite her as one of the first vampires in history. Often compared to Vlad the Impaler, her nicknames include The Blood Countess and Countess Dracula.
Since her death, various myths and legends surrounding her story have indeed preserved her as a prominent figure in folklore and literature during the 18th and 19th centuries. The most common motif was that of the countess bathed in the blood of young girls with the hope of regaining her lost beauty and youth, which appeared in print for the first time in 1729, in the Jesuit scholar László Turóczi’s Tragica Historia, the first written account of the Báthory case.
But several historians have argued that Elizabeth Báthory was in fact a victim of a politically motivated conspiracy, possibly due to her extensive wealth and ownership of large areas of land in Hungary, which escalated after the death of her husband. This would be consistent with Hungarian history at that time, marked by continuous religious and political conflicts.
Coinciding with the vampire scares that haunted Europe in the early 18th century, the myth of the blood-soaked escapades of Elizabeth Báthory, a Protestant, could indeed have been propaganda spread by the Catholic Hapsburgs to extend their power over Royal Hungary…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.