• Wed, Aug 22 2012

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

65%. 65% of educated people will absolutely kill a man for roughly $32 if someone tells them to. The experiment has been repeated numerous times, with people from a great many walks of life, and that number stays remarkably consistent.

Though perhaps what’s more upsetting is when they repeated the study at Princeton they had an 80% success rate. So. Eli Yale, bulldog! Bulldog! Bow, wow, wow, our team can never fail, I suppose.

God, that’s awful. 65%.

There is one action that always makes me feel better when reading about this experiment. It has nothing to do with Elizabeth Bathory. There was one guy- only one guy – who refused to even pull the first switch during the Milgram experiment. He just said that it was wrong and walked out. He was Ronald Ridenhour. He became a journalist, and he later went on to expose the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.  Today, the Ridenhour Prize is named for him, to “recognize those who persevere in acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society.”

Team Ridenhour

But most of us are no Ronald Ridenhours.

Look, it’s easy to say that Judas was not the only one willing to sell his soul for 30 gold pieces. But I think the Milgram experiment does speak to our tendency to associate, relate to, and obey people we perceive as strong, survivor-types rather than those we see as victims, lest we be dragged down with them. And Elizabeth Bathory wasn’t a Yale educated student. Or a Princeton student. She was a 15 year old girl in the 16th century. It was very much in her interest to follow her husband’s lead.

Still. The oddest part of this may be the realization that, while Elizabeth was tying down servant girls and watching them be eaten alive by bugs, she apparently had a very tender, caring relationship with her husband.

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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!