Whenever you hear this story, you’ll find plenty more questions than answers. Was Elizabeth Báthory really the most prolific female killer of all time? Was she framed, a victim of being a powerful woman in a time when that alone was enough to ruin her reputation?
Or was she as bad as they say, a woman who had her henchmen gather virgins (up to 650!) from neighboring villages in order to bathe in their blood, a practice she believed would keep her young?
As with the majority of history (especially history about women and other underrepresented categories of people), you’ll just have to read what we know and make up your own mind, because there will never be a black-and-white truth.
By all accounts, Elizabeth’s early life was fairly commonplace (for royalty, at any rate). She was engaged and sent to live with her fiancée’s family at the age of 10, and they married when she was 15 and he was 20. In the intervening years it seems she was molested by a servant (and may have even borne his child), but the fact that her husband, Ferenc, married her anyway seems to be a testament to his devotion, if not his love, to her.
After their marriage, which was well-matched – both were educated and smart about financial and military matters – her husband set her up with a castle and land while he went off to college in Vienna. Even though he must have been home enough to get Elizabeth pregnant with their 5 surviving children, Ferenc left the day-to-day management of their holdings, land, and people up to his young, but capable, bride. By all accounts, she was a benevolent and engaged ruler, standing up for local women’s rights, leading an etiquette school for aristocratic ladies, providing a haven for poor war widows, and even intervening in a rape case that must have reminded her of her own childhood incident.
But the Hungarians were at war with the Turks, and Ferenc was off commanding the local forces for the Holy Roman Emperor, so things were bound to take a wrong turn sooner or later. About 27 years after their marriage, he came down with a disease that caused the loss of both of his legs, then resulted in his death at age 48.
And that’s when the trouble began.
Not long after Ferenc fell ill, a Lutheran minister (with no known ties to the family) began filing reports about Elizabeth around the kingdom with every ecclesiastical and secular court that would accept them. The minister painted her as a villainess, one who had her assistants kidnap young girls who were never seen or heard from again. By 1610, the rumors had grown so far-reaching that Holy Roman Emperor Matthais II intervened and requested a full investigation.
The catch? The investigator would be György Thurzó, the man left in charge of Elizabeth and her holdings after her husband’s death…and surely someone who had a lot to gain from taking her down.
There seemed to be something to the claims, though, when over 300 witnesses came forward – some commoners, some aristocracy, and even some of the staff at her castle – who claimed to have witnessed her kidnapping, torturing, and murdering young girls. For what purpose? Well, no one could say for sure until they went to arrest her (after a month-long investigation, which isn’t very long considering the ground they would have had to cover on horseback to gather the “witness” statements) and found her bathing in a pool of blood.
That was the rumor, at least, and it started to get around that Elizabeth believed the blood of innocents would keep her young.
There’s no truth to the bloody, sensational story though – Elizabeth and her four closest servants were actually arrested quietly. Authorities found only 3 women among the prisoners of war held at the castle. Emperor Matthais wanted to execute everyone involved (probably because he owed Elizabeth and Ferenc money after the war), but Thurzó made a deal with her eldest son, Paul.
Only the servants would be tried for murder, while Elizabeth would remain under house arrest while her son took over her holdings (after forgiving the Emperor’s debts and paying off Thurzó, presumably).
And so began what really sounds like a farce of a trial (and I’m an expert after listening to Serial and watching Making a Murderer, right?). A court was assembled by the beginning of 1611 (again, pretty speedy), and all of the witnesses were gathered back together. If you’re wondering how they convinced everyone to tell more or less the same story, here’s how:
They tortured the lone dissenting servant girl in front of the court by removing her breasts and eyes.
I mean, I would have been like…what’s the story you want me to tell, now?
Among the many other oddities at trial, one of the (most likely) illiterate servant girls told of seeing a ledger where Elizabeth kept a tally of her kills (struggling not to roll my eyes, here), and seeing the number 650 recorded there. The ledger was never presented in court although it was used as evidence to convict the girls who supposedly helped her commit her dastardly acts.
Needless to say, the outcome of the trial was not favorable for the servants/cohorts. All four of them were sentenced to public (and painful) deaths for their parts in the supposed crimes. For her part, Elizabeth was bricked up in a suite of rooms in her castle, her only contact with people a slit through which food was delivered. She died after 4 years of the extreme confinement and was buried back home on her family land, since the locals didn’t want her body anywhere nearby.
But what’s the truth?
We know that the local aristocracy had some angst over the amount of autonomy given to Elizabeth by her husband, as it wasn’t considered right to give a woman so much power. Elizabeth was willing to admit to specific deaths (36-37 of them), but not as part of a sadistic quest to stay young. Though untrained, she served as a doctor for many injured war victims and other ill people in her territories, and of course lost a few patients along the way.
She never confessed, and she never gave a real motive for committing the acts of which she was accused. There are no historical accounts or proof of anything untoward – no ledger, no bodies, no confessions that couldn’t reasonably be described as coerced.
So, you’ll have to make up your own mind. Was Elizabeth Báthory a secretly sadistic woman who killed indiscriminately in order to keep herself young? Was she the female equivalent of Vlad the Impaler, a woman from whom vampire legends have sprung?
Or was she a smart, successful, wealthy, motivated young woman who simply intimidated the men around her? Men who saw their chance to remove their discomfort in her presence after the death of her husband and protector?
It’s a question for the ages, certainly, and one to which we’ll likely never have an answer. If you’re curious about others opinions on the matter, her life has been chronicled in books and movies over the years – most recently as Lady Gaga’s character in the last season of American Horror Story and the 2015 UK film Lady of Csejte.
h/t: All Day
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