Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Legend of Bloody Countess


Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Bathory ( 7 August 1560 – 21 August 1614), was a Hungarian countess from the renowned Bathory family, has often been described as “Countess Dracula.” She is possibly the most prolific female serial killer in history and is remembered as the "Blood Countess" and as the "Bloody Lady of Cachtice", after the castle near Trencsén (Trencín), in the Kingdom of Hungary, where she spent most of her adult life. The Báthory family defended Hungary against the Ottoman Turks. After her husband's death, she and four collaborators were accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls and young women, with one witness attributing to them over 600 victims, though she was only convicted on 80 counts. In 1610, she was imprisoned in Cachtice Castle, where she remained bricked in a set of rooms until her death four years later. She was never formally tried in court. The case has led to legendary accounts of the Countess bathing in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youth. These stories have led to comparisons with Vlad III the Impaler of Wallachia, on whom the fictional Count Dracula is partly based, and to modern nicknames of the Blood Countess, Bloody Countess and Countess Dracula. The Bathory family was an old and illustrious one—one of the oldest in Transylvania in fact.

bloody countess elizabeth bathory
The family traced its descendency from Vid Bathory, a legendary and mighty warrior who had allegedly slain a dragon with a mace in what is now eastern Romania. This may have created the motif for the Romanian Christian knight Iorgi—also said to have killed a dragon— who later became St. George, patron saint of England. They were also related by what looks to have been incestuous marriages amongst various other members of similar clans. Her mother, Anna Bathory, was the sister of King Stephen of Poland, and her father Iorgi (George—her mother’s third husband) was the ruler of several countries.

However, instances of inbreeding had led to rumours of madness and monstrous births in former years. Elizabeth Bathory was born into this troubled lineage in 1560. Her mother was a devout Calvinist and an exceptionally strong character, and her father, George, was a hard-working man who had held several administrative posts under the Hapsburgs. She had at least one elder brother, one of the many Stephens (a popular name among the male Bathorys) and two younger sisters, Klara and Sofia, who disappeared from history without trace. In 1571 at age 11, Elizabeth was promised in marriage to the fifteen yearold Count Ferenc (Francis) Nadasdy, fabulously wealthy and reckoned to be one of the most eligible bachelors in Hungary at that time.

Such young betrothals were not uncommon and were usually for political reasons rather than any sort of romantic notions. In order to acquire the notable family name, Francis changed his own to that of Bathory, giving him the tradition of that family, as well as its notoriety. Francis and Elizabeth waited four years to marry, finally doing so on 8th May 1575. Elizabeth was sent from the Bathory castle and into the care of her mother-in-law, the formidable Lady Ursula Kasnizsai. Whilst she was at the court of Lady Nadasdy, plagues and epidemics raged through Eastern Europe, carrying away the poor and wretched in the villages of Hungary.
The tides of illnesses and disease, however, simply lapped around the walls of the castle at Savarin, keeping everyone there confined. Elizabeth found herself increasingly under the control of her severe and dominant mother-in-law. It was around this time that she was, according to legend, visited by a “black stranger,” perhaps a forest demon to whom she is said to have given herself. What actually might have transpired is that she had an affair with one (or more) of the servants, leading to the supposition that she may very well have been sexually promiscuous. When her mother-in-law died, Elizabeth joined her husband at the remote Csejthe Castle.

By this time, the Muslim Turks were making advances and (as they had done in Vlad III’s time) the Christian forces were trying to limit their expansion. Count Francis was now a solider in the Hungarian army and had distinguished himself in battle becoming known as “The Black Hero of Hungary.” He was consequently away fighting against Turkish incursions for much of his time, leaving his wife alone in the gloomy fortress. It was now that Elizabeth fell under various influences. The servants at Csejthe, for the most part, were local people, steeped in local lore and legend. The area seemed to have been superstitious and filled with old tales and practices, many of which stretched back across the centuries. Certain servants appear to have initiated Elizabeth into rather unsavoury practices. Elizabeth may well have been attracted to lesbianism (she had an aunt who was renowned throughout Hungary in this respect) and this may have played a prominent role in some of the occurrences at Csejthe.

An old servant woman named Darvula—locally regarded as a witch—together with a maid named Dorottya Szentes, seem to have played a major part in the terrible acts that were to make Elizabeth Bathory’s name a by-word for evil and depravation. To these may be added the name Janos (or Johannes) Ujvary, who is described as Elizabeth’s majordomo. There seems little doubt that many of these “practices,” whilst reeking of dark witchcraft, also contained sexual elements.
In 1600, Count Francis was killed in battle against the Turks and it was now that the real period of Elizabeth’s atrocities began. She was now mistress of Csejthe and a formidable power in the locality. However, the depravity of her life was beginning to tell on her physically—she appeared to be growing old and haggard much more swiftly than she would have liked. It is here that legend takes over.

According to one popular tale, a young maidservant was brushing the Countess’s hair when she accidentally pulled it. Angered, Elizabeth struck her across the face, so sharply that she drew blood. Later, looking at the area on which the girl’s blood had fallen, the Countess imagined that the skin seemed younger and fresher than the skin around it. She consulted with the witch Darvula and learned that it was imagined in the countryside that the blood of a virgin, accompanied by certain abominable rites, had youth-giving properties.

This set Elizabeth off on a bloody and murderous trail. Together with her accomplices, she began to recruit young local girls from the villages round about, ostensibly to work as servants at Csethje, but in reality to be murdered within the castle walls. Each day, the Countess would bathe in their blood in the belief that it returned at least some of her youthful looks. There were accounts of her actually drinking the blood as a restorative medicine. Most of the girls whom Elizabeth and her cohorts murdered came from the Slovak population of Hungary—girls who were often considered of the “lower order” in society. For a while, the authorities did not overly worry about the disappearance of the girls.

The official story was that they had contracted illness and died. For a number of years—roughly between 1601 and 1611—the Countess murdered innumerable servant girls with impunity and without any official enquiry. Many people, particularly in the locality, either knew or suspected what was going on within the castle but none dared voice it. Once a Lutheran pastor spoke out against her, claiming that there was a great and horrific evil going on in Csethje, including cannibal feasts and blood-drinking orgies, and although initially his words fell on largely deaf ears, some people started to pay attention.

A legend says that one of the girls who the Countess was about to kill managed to escape and raised the alarm in the surrounding countryside, although this is not extremely likely. What is more likely is that the rumours surrounding the Countess continued to grow until they reached the ears of King Matthias II, who had no other option but to investigate. He planned his raid to happen over the Christmas holiday while the Hungarian Parliament was not in session. On December 29, 1610, Count Thurzo's raid on Castle Csejthe began. When they entered the castle they found a beaten body of a servant girl before the door. Inside the house they found two other dead female victims, of which Elizabeth and her cohorts had not yet disposed of.
In 1611, a series of trials conducted by the King himself were set up and the servants, Darvula and Dorottya Szentes, along with Janos Ujvary, were all found guilty of witchcraft and murder, and were executed. Elizabeth herself was not found guilty of any crime—indeed her noble rank saved her from criminal proceedings—but she was commanded to remain in Csejthe at the pleasure of the Hungarian king. To this end, stonemasons were brought in and Elizabeth was walled up in the apartments where she had committed the majority of her atrocities. Only a small aperture was left through which food could be passed into her. All the windows of that section of the castle were also bricked up, leaving her alone in the darkness. There she was to remain until she died.

In 1610 and 1611 the notaries collected testimonies from more than 300 witness accounts. Trial records include testimonies of the four defendants, as well as 13 more witnesses. Priests, noblemen and commoners were questioned. Witnesses included the castellan and other personnel of Sárvár castle. According to these testimonies, her initial victims were local peasant girls, many of whom were lured to Cachtice by offers of well-paid work as maidservants in the castle. Later she is said to have begun to kill daughters of lower gentry, who were sent to her gynaeceum by their parents to learn courtly etiquette. Abductions were said to have occurred as well.

At the trial there were accusations of pagan practices and witchcraft. The trial did not follow modern judicial standards, but as was common at that time, the processes included torture and intimidation. The descriptions of torture that emerged during the trials were often based on hearsay. The atrocities described most consistently included:

  • severe beatings over extended periods of time, often leading to death.
  • burning or mutilation of hands, sometimes also of faces and genitalia.
  • biting the flesh off the faces, arms and other bodily parts.
  • freezing to on victims, often fatal.
  • starving of victims.
  • sexual abuse.

The use of needles was also mentioned by the collaborators in court. Some witnesses named relatives who died while at the gynaeceum. Others reported having seen traces of torture on dead bodies, some of which were buried in graveyards, and others in unmarked locations.

According to testimonies by the defendants, Elizabeth Báthory tortured and killed her victims not only at Cachtice but also on her properties in Sárvár, Sopronkeresztúr, Bratislava, (then Pozsony, Pressburg), and Vienna, and even between these locations. In addition to the defendants, several people were named for supplying Elizabeth Báthory with young women. The girls had been procured either by deception or by force. A little-known figure named Anna Darvulia was rumored to have influenced Báthory but Darvulia died long before the trial.
The exact number of young women supposedly tortured and killed by Elizabeth Báthory is unknown, though it is often speculated to be as high as 650, between the years 1585 and 1610. The estimates differ greatly. During the trial and before their execution, Szentes and Ficko reported 36 and 37 respectively, during their periods of service. The other defendants estimated a number of 50 or higher. Many Sárvár castle personnel estimated the number of bodies removed from the castle at between 100 to 200. One witness who spoke at the trial mentioned a book in which a total of over 650 victims was supposed to have been listed by Báthory herself. This number became part of the legend surrounding Báthory. Reportedly, diaries in Báthory's hand are kept in the state archives in Budapest. Supposedly the diaries are difficult to read due to the condition of the material, the old language, the hand-writing and the horrific content. However, supposing such diaries exist, none of the many successive regimes which took power at Budapest during the following centuries had seen fit to publish them.

On 31st July 1614, Elizabeth (then reputedly age fifty-four) dictated her last will and testament to two priests from the Estergom bishopric. What remained of her family holdings were to be divided between her children, with her son Paul and his descendants receiving the main portion. Shortly afterwards, two of her guards decided that they would try to look at her through the aperture through which she was fed—she was supposedly still the most beautiful woman in all of Hungary. When they looked through, however, they saw only the body of the Countess, lying face down on the floor.

The bloody Countess was dead in her lonely, lightless world. The records concerning Elizabeth Bathory were sealed for one hundred years and her name was forbidden to be mentioned throughout Hungary. The name “Csejthe” became a swear word in the Hungarian tongue and the Slovaks within the borders of the country referred to the Countess obliquely as “the Hungarian whore.” The shadow of Elizabeth Bathory fell darkly across her lands for many centuries after her death. Although there is no real evidence that Bram Stoker used the idea of the “Countess Dracula” in his vampire novel, there is no reason why he should not have known about her.

In fact, she may well have served as the template for another Irish writer’s vampiric tale. This was Carmilla written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, originally published in 1871 in the magazine The Dark Blue. In this tale, a vampiric older girl subtly and evilly influences the impressionable mind of her younger companion. There are, of course, undertones of lesbianism and bloodlust in the story that provide a tangible link with the “Blood Countess.” In her own way, Elizabeth Bathory was as influential to the vampire myth as Vlad Tepes. The dark and sinister figure of the vampire has proved to be one of the most enduring motifs of horror across the centuries. And this most enduring of monsters looks set to continue its haunting of the minds of men and women for many years to come.

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