Shelved Dolls: Elizabeth Bathory – The Most Prolific Female Serial Killer In History

In 1961, a Yale University psychologist named Stanley Milgram was trying to understand the atrocities of the holocaust. It seemed inconceivable to him that so many Germans could violate what they knew to be right in favor of obedience to authority. Why would they do that? Was the whole country corrupt? He wondered whether or not the same shift could happen, to any degree, with well educated people in America.

To that end, he staged an experiment. Yale students and men from the surrounding New Haven area were offered $4 (and 50 cents carfare) to participate in a “memory test.” For reference, that would be about $32 by today’s standards. They were seated behind a partition and told that they would be playing the role of “teacher.” They would pose a question to the subject. If the subject (an actor) – who was on the other side of the partition – answered incorrectly, they would push a button to give him an electric shock. The layout looked like this:

The electric shocks would increase in intensity with each question the subject answered incorrectly. The shocks went up to 450 volts, which is enough to kill someone, and was labeled as such.

An authority figure would encourage the “teachers” to continue. If they did not stop, the experiment ended after the 450 volt shock had been administered three times, enough to certainly kill the subject.

Throughout the experiment, the subjects increasingly protested, banged against the partition and begged to be released.

Predictions prior to the experiment were that, perhaps, 4% of people would reach 3oo volts.

Wrong.

Want to know how many people will flip the kill switch not once, but three times?

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    • Maggie

      She sounds like a psychopath to me! Also Ron Ridenhour looks like Adam from “Girls.”

    • Ashley Cardiff

      “try to be like Ron Ridenhour” is the perfect conclusion to this otherwise deeply disturbing Shelved Dolls.

    • MadameDakar

      Radiolab did an interesting piece on an alternate reading of the Milgram experiment. http://www.radiolab.org/2012/jan/09/

    • Melissa

      I played her in a gothic opera adaptation of her story. Let me tell you, research into this role was a TRIP. Here’s a taste…

      http://youtu.be/vOgNWrXOK1I?hd=1

    • Melissa

      I played her in a gothic opera adaptation of her story. Let me tell you, research into this role was a TRIP. Here’s a taste…

      http://youtu.be/vOgNWrXOK1I?hd=1

    • Hannah

      Please do Beatrice Cenci next!

    • Kj

      Well, I think that the Milgram experiment results say more about people’s inherent trust in authority, and the assumptions that we make about institutions and such, then it does about people’s inherent badness. If the same participants had been in a different situation where they were offered $32 to outright kill someone, I would argue that the # of people who would agree would be lower.

      People who took part in the study did so in good faith, assuming that it would be a productive exercise that would go towards improving scientific understanding of learning processes. It was reasonable to assume that the experimenters would not actually let the subjects die. I’m sure this was exacerbated by a certain cultural masochism of the time (learning should hurt!)

      The Milgram study has been widely criticized for being extremely unethical, and the “bad faith” issue is part of that. However, I do agree with the general conclusion that people will do almost anything if someone in a lab coat or uniform tells them to, without thinking about what exactly they are doing, and that truly is an issue.

      But I don’t think it’s right to imply that just about anyone could be Elizabeth Bathory. It’s one thing to go along with your sick husband’s torture just to survive, and it’s another thing to like it and participate. People did inhuman things to their servants, but it’s one thing to do it as a way of asserting power/dominance, and another to do it purely for enjoyment.

      Anyways, …good article! I will be buying your book fo’ sho’. Because you had better make these into a book.

      • Jenny

        You are right on about the Milgram experiments. They were inspired by the Nuremberg Trials where Nazis would say they committed the atrocities because they were told to.

        Milgram set out to disprove their arguments with his experiments. He thought his experiment would prove that ordinary people would not inflict pain and possibly murder others simply because they were told to by an authority figure. He was wrong and his experiment famously proved the exact opposite.

    • Fabel

      I love the way you write this series as a whole, but I was especially fond of this one. So good.

    • Lerie

      I have been waiting all week for a new Shelved Doll, and I actually yelled out loud, “Yes!” when I saw this one was about Elizabeth Bathory. I haven’t even read your post yet, but she is one of my favorite people in history. Reading now….

    • Leah

      This series is so fascinating! Maybe you can write a book someday, like an expanded version of Shelved Dolls?

      • Jennifer Wright

        Oh, God, ALL I WANT IS A BOOK DEAL. Seriously. As soon as someone offers me one, I will get cracking on this.

    • Larissa

      I’m pretty sure I’m going to have nightmares from this. I’m going to have to go watch YouTube videos of kittens to make myself feel better. Terror aside, this was another great “Shelved Dolls”, get started on that book!

    • Kerry @ Kerry Cooks

      I almost don’t want to ask this, but if she killed like 650 people isn’t that THE most prolific serial killer ever? Was there a male one who’s killed more?

      • Jennifer Wright

        Yes.

        Gilles de Rais’s number is estimated to be around 800. But honestly, it gets tricky to determine exactly. But at least 200 of them were children in his case.

        OH GOD THE WORLD IS AWFUL.

      • Matzukado

        Sweet Jesus, I just googled him and now I wish my brain had a factory reset button. You’re right: the world is awful

      • Kerry @ Kerry Cooks

        Wow…. Not even gonna google him!

      • Sam

        Vlad the Impaler, too. There are some crazy motherfuckers in history.

    • Kate

      I was just talking to my bf about Elizabeth, so when this popped up, I may have done a happy dance. Then I read it, and it’s more like a repulsed dance. God, you are good. So… do you think we could petition a publisher for a book deal here? Cause I would buy that book, and clearly I am not the only one.

    • Penelope

      I love the Shelved Dolls series -

      But please, Gloss editors, please stop dragging these articles out to to so many pages! It’s really annoying.

      • Kj

        Seconded!!

    • Sam

      Not to sound like a total nerd (and about serial killers, no less…), but I think some of this is a bit off. I originally wanted to be a criminologist when I was younger and so I used to read a ton of books about people like Elizabeth Bathory, and from what I recall, there’s no evidence or trusted testimonial that she actually bathed in anybody’s blood; that was more of a creepy, crazy legend as opposed to something historians believe she did. And I feel like I remember her being the one who d id the insect thing with the girl, but I could have that wrong. Most of what I’ve read has said that she was more of the sadistic one than her husband (especially in the long run, as you mentioned) so I don’t feel like she was just going along with his, er, hobbies.

      Also: I didn’t know that that journalist had been in the Milgram experiment! How fascinating.

      I enjoy this series a lot, and I think it’s a good history lesson on strange people, which is always awesome.

    • Tend Skin 4 oz

      Such a useful information sharing and its helpful for everyone.

    • MaeZ

      I’d love to see you feature Anne Boleyn or one or two of Henry VIII’s less famous, but equally ill-treated wives, like Anne of Cleves. Oh! How about Katherine Howard? She’d be an interesting one.

    • Courtney

      Wow! This lady was seriously bat-shit-crazy! Your Shelved Dolls series are just amazing to read and actually very educational…thank you for that!