With a possible 650 kills to her name, the 16th century Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed of Hungary is considered to be the most prolific female serial killer of all time.
But does the real story of the Countess hold up to the urban legend of her bloody infamy? Or is this one of history's most high profile conspiracies against a woman in power?
The Young ErzsébetWikimedia Commons/Unknown/Public Domain
We know her as Elizabeth. But her actual name was the more old school Erzsébet. And in 1570 when she was engaged to the son of a Baron and shipped off to live with the bridegroom's family, she was only 10 years old.
But before the wedding could take place, Erzsébet was molested by one of the servants at her new home. The servant was punished by her bridegroom, the young Erzsébet possibly had a baby girl (which was probably killed), and the whole affair was covered up as much as possible so that the original wedding could take place. It wasn't until Erzsébet was 15 and her groom Ferenc Nasdasdy was 20, that they were wed in a lavish ceremony attended by over 4,500 guests—including most of the then royalty of central Europe.
Minding Her Husband's BusinessWikmedia Commons/MNM Budapest/Public Domain
Like any good bridegroom, Ferenc (pictured) gave Erzsébet her own castle and then wandered off to Vienna to go to college. Erzsébet was left alone to mind his estates, shuttling back and forth between his family's lands and her newly gifted personal domain at Čachtice Castle.
Erzsébet and Ferenc were actually a rather good couple. They were both well educated in classical studies (Erzsébet could read German, Latin, and Greek as well as her native tongue) and well placed at court as the heirs to wealthy high-ranking families that strongly supported and bankrolled the monarchy. Together they had five or six kids, most of whom grew to adulthood and were married off before disappearing into the depths of forgotten history.
Enter The Real Villain?Wikimedia Commons/Lightbearer/Public Domain
For most of their marriage, Ferenc was the commander of the local Hungarian forces of the Holy Roman Emperor. And not only were they at war with the Turks, their lands were on the invasion route. Ferenc came and went often, leaving Erzsébet to watch over their land and people. And records indicate she took rather good care of them. She was apparently a decent novice physician, and there are several known instances where she stood up for local women's rights: she lead an etiquette school for other aristocratic ladies, provided a haven for destitute war widows and once even intervened in a rape case reputedly much like her very own childhood incident.
But 27 years into their marriage, Ferenc came down with a debilitating disease and lost the use of his legs. Three years later, he died, leaving Erzsébet and his affairs in the case of the Palatine of Hungary, György Thurzó (pictured). And that's when all the trouble started.
Rumors Run RampantWikimedia Commons/Lucas van Valckenborch/Public Domain
Not long after Ferenc became ill in 1601, bizarre rumors started being spread about Erzsébet and her lands. A Lutheran minister with no known connection to the similarly Protestant Erzsébet began denouncing her from town to town as a villainess, filing reports with every secular and ecclesiastical courts that would hear him.
And finally by 1610, the rumors were so strong, that the royal court stepped in and Holy Roman Emperor Matthias II (pictured) ordered an investigation to take place, led by none other than her "caretaker" György Thurzó.
The Initial InvestigationEtsy/Hecatesopium
Thurzó and his investigators reputedly quickly collected the eyewitness account of some 300 people among the nobility, priests, and commoners— all claiming they had encountered Erzsébet and her servants kidnapping and torturing young girls—including the daughters of the less wealthy aristocracy who were attending her etiquette academy. Even the staff at her in-laws castle claimed they had witnessed Erzsébet murdering innocents.
Many claimed that they had lost relatives to her. And some of the earlier witnesses even maintained that they themselves were responsible for selling people to Erzsébet for her torturous entertainments.
Caught Red-Handed?Peopleimages.com/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Somehow most of this investigation happened over the course of a single winter in 1610 (which, given that everyone was moving round on horseback is a teensy bit implausible). They arrested Erzsébet and her four closest servants on December 30th of that year.
Legend has it that Thurzó caught her red-handed while she was bathing in the blood of the young maidens she'd just been torturing. But actually, they quietly arrested Erzsébet and her friends, and then the next day they happened to find one dead girl, one sick, dying girl, and one woman tied up among the war prisoners kept at Erzsébet's castle.
Matthias II was all for executing everybody and then claiming all of Erzsébet's land for his own, especially since he owed her and Ferenc money from the war.
But Thurzó made a deal with Erzsébet's oldest son instead. Erzsébet would be put under house arrest and only her servants tried for her crimes. And the son, Paul would therefore acquire all of her assets (obviously some of which he'd give to Thurzó, along with forgiving Matthias' debts).
The Odd TrialTumblr/Salvador Larroca
Rather swiftly, a massive 20 judge court was convened starting January 2, 1611 (do note how quickly this is all happening). And all of those witnesses were somehow rapidly gathered back together as well and presented their accounts to the court.
Though the body count differed from tale to tale, nearly everyone's story entailed Erzsébet and her four servants doing a lot of dastardly deeds, often ones involving needles. The one servant that refused to tell the same story was tortured in front of the others (by having her breasts and eyes removed). The infamous 650 death toll is attributed to another servant girl who, despite most likely being illiterate, claims she saw the number in the ledger Erzsébet kept for tallying her dead. A ledger no one has ever found and which wasn't presented as evidence in the trial.
The PunishmentBoris Jaroscak/Hemera/Getty Images
Needless to say, it didn't go well for Erzsébet's four servants: Katarína Benická, Ilona Jó, Dorotya Semtész, and the one dude—János Újváry (known as Fickó). They all suffered ghastly public deaths. The women's fingers were pulled off with pincers before they were burned at the stake. And Fickó was beheaded.
Erzsébet herself was bricked up alive in a suite of rooms at Čachtice Castle. Slits were left to send in food. But she only lasted four years in her extreme confinement before dying in her sleep. The locals refused to have her buried nearby, and so her remains were interred in the Bathory family tomb farther south in her home region of Ecséd.
Living On In Infamy
The rumors of such a dark countess stuck a chord with all levels of society: the aristocrats she lived amongst, the peasants she reputedly tortured, and the priests she was taunting by purportedly practicing satanic dark arts. Men used the tale of her supposed abuse of local power was used as a morality tale of what happened when women were put in charge. And her legend spread and grew even more evil with each version of the tale told round the campfire until finally she was the personification of evil, the female Dracula, and the ultimate serial killer.
But scholars are conflicted on the truth of the legend. And slowly pop culture is responding with films like the most recent film about Erzsébet starring Anna Friel—which treads the line between the two opposing theories of the Bathory legend: was she a mass murderer? Or was she the victim of a political conspiracy.
The Real Erzsébet?EvilLadies.com
Only so much evidence survives to tell the tale. We know there had always been a lot of angst from other nobles over her and Ferenc's wealth and autonomy. We do know that even she and her servants were willing to confess to a specific 36 or 37 deaths—albeit not as part of crazy sadistic rites, but as part of medical care over the 30+ years Erzsébet was the closest thing to a doctor her and Ferenc's lands had during wartime (which is actually a decent statistic given medical care at the time and her lack of formal training).
Rumor has it that there's a stash of Erzsébet's letters in a locked archive in Budapest that haven't been properly added into her history. But then again, most people prefer the story about the bathtubs of blood—why would they actually want to hear the real story from the woman who stars in it?