The Blood Countess: 10 Facts About Elizabeth Báthory

Léonie Chao-Fong

6 mins

05 Feb 2020

Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614) was a Hungarian noblewoman and reputed serial killer of hundreds of young women in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Stories of her sadism and brutality quickly became part of national folklore, her infamy earning her the nickname “The Blood Countess” or “Countess Dracula”.

Here are 10 facts about the Countess.

1. She was born into prominent nobility

Elizabeth Báthory (born Ecsedi Báthory Erzsébet in Hungarian) came from the noble Protestant family Báthory, who owned land in the Kingdom of Hungary.

Her father was Baron George VI Báthory, brother of the voivode of Transylvania, Andrew Bonaventura Báthory. Her mother was Baroness Anna Báthory, daughter of another voivode of Transylvania. She was also the niece of Stephen Báthory, the king of Poland and the grand duke of Lithuania and the prince of Transylvania.

Ecsed

Báthory spent her childhood at Ecsed castle, pictured here in 1688 (Credit: Gottfried Prixner).

Elizabeth was born on a family estate in Nyírbátor and spent her childhood at Ecsed Castle. As a child, Báthory suffered from multiple seizures that may have been caused by epilepsy.

2. She was married for 29 years

In 1575, Báthory married Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of a baron and another member of the aristocracy. Approximately 4,500 guests were invited to their wedding.

Before marrying Nádasdy, Báthory had given birth to a baby by a lower-order man. Nádasdy is said to have had the lover castrated and torn to pieces by dogs. The child was hidden from view.

Ferenc Nadasdy

Báthory married Ferenc Nadasdy when she was 15 (Credit: Hungarian National Museum).

The young couple lived in the Nádasdy castles in Hungary at Sárvár and Csetje (in present-day Slovakia). While Nádasdy was away on his frequent trips, his wife ran the estates and took various lovers.

Nádasdy died in 1604 after developing a debilitating pain in his legs eventually becoming permanently disabled. The couple had 4 children.

3. More than 300 witnesses gave testimony against her

After her husband’s death, rumours of Báthory’s cruelty began to surface.

There had been earlier accounts of peasant women being murdered, but it was not until 1609 that rumours that she had killed noblewomen attracted attention.

In 1610, King Matthias assigned György Thurzó, count palatine of Hungary (and coincidentally Báthory’s cousin) to investigate the claims.

Between 1610 and 1611, Thurzó took depositions from people living in the area surrounding her estate, including the testimony of more than 300 witnesses and survivors.

The stories of Báthory’s murders were further verified by physical evidence of mutilated, dying or dead victims at the time of her arrest.

4. Her victims were mainly young girls

According to the testimonies, Báthory’s initial targets were servant girls aged between 10 and 14.

The daughters of local peasants, these victims had been lured to the estate by offers of work as maids or servants in the castle.

Čachtice Castle

Báthory was said to have tortured and killed hundreds of young women at Čachtice Castle ‎(Credit: Jacomoman78 / CC).

Two court officials claimed that they personally witnessed Báthory torture and kill young servant girls.

Later, Báthory was said to have killed the daughters of the lesser gentry sent by their parents to learn courtly etiquette and social advancement.

Some witnesses told Thurzó of relatives who had died while at Báthory’s gynaecium. Abductions were said to have also taken place.

In all, Báthory was accused of having killed between a couple of dozen and over 600 young women. Almost all were of noble birth and had been sent to the gynaecium.

5. She tortured her victims before killing them

Báthory was suspected of having committed many forms of torture on her victims.

Survivors and witnesses reported victims experiencing severe beatings, burning or mutilation of hands, freezing or starving to death.

According to the Budapest City Archives, victims would be covered in honey and live ants, or burned with hot tongs and then placed in freezing water.

Báthory was said to have stuck needles into her victims’ lips or body parts, stabbing at them with scissors or biting off their breasts, faces, and limbs.

6. She was rumoured to have vampiric tendencies

Elizabeth Bathory

A late 16th century copy of an original portrait of the Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Credit: Public domain).

Báthory was said to have enjoyed drinking the blood of virgins, believing that it would preserve her beauty and youthfulness.

She was also rumoured to bathe in the blood of her young victims. The story goes that she developed this penchant after slapping a female servant in rage, and discovered her skin looked younger where the servant’s blood has splashed on.

However stories attesting to her vampiric tendencies were recorded years after her death, and are considered unreliable.

Modern historians have claimed that these stories originated from the widespread disbelief that women were not capable of violence for its own sake.

7. She was arrested but spared from execution

On 30 December 1609, Báthory and her servants were arrested under orders by Thurzó. The servants were put on trial in 1611, and three were executed for being Báthory’s accomplices.

Georg Thurzo

Báthory’s cousin György Thurzó was assigned to investigate the claims against her (Credit: Public domain).

Báthory herself was never tried, despite King Matthias’ wishes. Thurzó convinced the king that such an act would damage the nobility.

A trial and execution would have caused a public scandal, and led to the disgrace of a prominent and influential family that ruled Transylvania.

And so despite the overwhelming evidence and testimony against her, Báthory was saved from execution. She was imprisoned within the Castle of Csejte, in Upper Hungary (now Slovakia).

Báthory would stay in the castle until her death in 1614 at the age of 54. She was initially buried in the castle church, however an uproar among local villagers meant her body was moved to her birth home at Ecsed.

8. She was named the most prolific female murderer

According to the Guinness World Records, Báthory is the most prolific female murderer and the most prolific murderer of the western world. This is despite the precise number of her victims remaining unknown and debated.

Upon collecting testimony from 300 witnesses, Thurzó determined that Báthory had tortured and killed more than 600 victims – the highest number cited was 650.

However this number came from a claim by a servant girl that Báthory’s court official had seen the figure in one of her private books. The book never came to light.

Báthory’s victims were said to have been hidden a variety of places, but the most common method was to have the bodies secretly buried in church graveyards at night.

9. She was often compared to Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler

Báthory has often been compared to Vlad the Impaler (Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie).

Since her death, Báthory has become a prominent figure in folklore, literature and music, often compared to Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia.

The two were separated by more than a century, but had a common reputation for cruelty, brutality and bloodthirstiness across Eastern Europe.

1817 saw the publishing of witness accounts for the first time, showing that the stories of Báthory’s blood-drinking or bathing were legend rather than fact.

Báthory’s bloodthirsty reputation coincided with the vampire scares that haunted Europe in the early 18th century.

It was said that in writing his 1897 book, Dracula, the novelist Bram Stoker was inspired by the legends of both Báthory and Vlad the Impaler.

10. Her brutality has been questioned by historians

Several historians have argued that far from being a cruel and barbaric killer, Báthory was in fact merely a victim of a conspiracy.

Elizabeth Báthory

Portrait of Elizabeth Báthory, c. 1630 (Credit: Public domain).

The Hungarian professor László Nagy claimed the accusations and proceedings against Báthory were politically motivated, due to her extensive wealth and ownership of large lands in Hungary.

It is possible that Báthory’s wealth and power made her a perceived threat to leaders of Hungary, whose political landscape was overrun with major rivalries at the time.

Báthory appeared to have supported her nephew, Gabor Báthory, ruler of Translyvania and rival to Hungary. It was not uncommon to accuse a wealthy widow or murder, witchcraft, or sexual misconduct to seize her lands.