How does someone kill 650 women and then bathe in their blood? I mean, I understand how Elizabeth Bathory did it, though accounts vary. But I am baffled as to how – psychologically – one becomes the most prolific female serial killer in history.
Sometimes friends ask me how I decide which Shelved Dolls to do, and generally I say, “I roll how I want to roll, just like an armadillo.” Coincidentally, that is how armadillos escape tricky situations! By rolling!
But, if pressed, I’d say that it has to be a woman who is dead, who has an interesting life story, and was known for her fashion sense of beauty during her time. We stretch it sometimes, like with Dorothy Parker. Still. Weird fashion or beauty treatments are a plus.
“So,” they say, “are you going to do Elizabeth Bathory?”
I guess bathing in virgin blood was one of those beauty treatments that everyone remembers.
And so, since I started this series, I’ve been saying, “No, I have very little interest in profiling what I regard to be the evilest woman in history.”
But then I thought: how can you resist studying the evilest woman in history?
My main hesitation is that no reader would be able to relate to someone who seems to go so far beyond the realm of your garden variety psychopath.
However, I think it’s actually really interesting to understand the circumstances that, in part, caused her to commit such atrocities. Basically, I think we should try to do the – if not impossible – at least very, very difficult thing, here. We should see if we can even begin to understand where Elizabeth Bathory was coming from. And I promise I don’t mean that in a glib “who isn’t afraid of wrinkles!?” kind of way.
So. What do we know? Well, we know that Elizabeth was born at the base of the Carpathian Mountains in 1560 or ’61. She was the heir of a very powerful family – her cousin was the Prince of Transylvania – and she was raised there. (Today she is one of the reasons vampires are associated with Transylvania, but we’ll come to that.)
In addition to suffering from violent seizures, Elizabeth was known to be a very angry child. She had uncontrollable outbursts of rage, which causes some historians to think that she had early traits of psychopathy. She was also wildly inbred, which does not always produce people of the best mental states. Or maybe it’s possible that she was just bored and angry. She was known to be unusually intelligent; she read in three languages at a time when many princes didn’t know how to read. She was known to be a quick study. Honestly, if we decided that every young girl who read too much and was angry at the world was a monster I suspect half of us would be reading this article in padded cells.
Wait. I’m not sure why in God’s green earth I am trying to make a case for a woman who killed hundreds of people not being a psychopath. I think, even if you do not throw the word “psychopath” around lightly, we can agree that “being an unrepentant serial killer” is a pretty telling sign.
I guess I just don’t think you should pigeon-hole her too early. Some kids are just angry.
But yes, future actions do indicate that Elizabeth was not the most mentally stable person.
To be fair, almost no one in her family was.
One uncle was a noted devil worshiper. Her brother was a notorious lecher. Pretty much all of her family was insane. What do I mean by insane? I mean they once found a gypsy and sewed him up in the belly of a horse with only his head exposed. He died. That was the point. To make him die. They were the kind of insane that makes you consistently wonder what the fuck was wrong with those people?
When Elizabeth was 9, some farmers on the estate rebelled and raped and killed Elizabeth’s two sisters. Elizabeth was present and watched them die while hiding behind a tree. The rebellion was quashed a few days later, and the farmers drawn and quartered. Elizabeth watched this as well. She was apparently so happy she peed herself. Which, I guess, is understandable.
At the age of 15, after already secretly having borne one child, Elizabeth was engaged to Count Ferencz Nadasdy. He wasn’t known for being much of an intellectual, but he was very good looking! And athletic! And he had hobbies.
His favorite hobby was taking servant girls, strapping them down, covering them with honey, and then pouring insects over their bodies which devoured them.
That was a summer pastime, though. During the winter he took servant girls outside, tied them up, and poured cold water over their bodies until they froze in place.
He shared both of these passions with Elizabeth as soon as he married her, and she soon began taking turns with him. She loved that “dragging them outside and freezing them” tussle. Loved it.
Now, there was no technical law against killing your servants at that time, in that place. People could be very brutal to their servants and Elizabeth and her husband were often described only as “harsh masters.” But I do want to stress that this is not a normal thing that people do.
But then, maybe, even if she wasn’t a born psychopath, such activities did seem normal to her. She came from a family who stuck gypsies in horse bellies. And I think we sometimes forget that it is not really the job of your brain to make you good. It is the job of your brain to make circumstances seem normal, so you will be able to continue to function. I suspect that Elizabeth Bathory was, very quickly, able to reconcile all these pastimes as being the norm.
Look, here’s the thing. I think we all want to believe that, if confronted with a stranger telling us it would be super fun to freeze servant girls to death – just to literally turn them into ice statues – we would say “no.”
But scientific research indicates that, barring the possibility that you’re an exceptional person, you would not say “no”. The odds are not in favor of that. You would go along with the plan very politely. Seriously. Let’s take a moment to talk about the Milgram experiment.
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.
Want to know how many people will flip the kill switch not once, but three times?
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.”
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.
The two were devoted to each other, which I guess is proof that all you really need to do is find someone who likes the same stuff you do! Like watching people be disemboweled!
No, really, this is a bit weird, because we do a lot of Shelved Dolls who have terrible marriages. And literally every single one we’ve profiled is a better person than Elizabeth Bathory. At least, they’re better in terms of not torturing and killing people. Yet, Elizabeth and Ferencz had a really happy marriage. He was often away at war, but the two wrote each other constant letters. In them, he talked a lot about her beauty, she talked a lot about how worried she was about him being away, and then they exchanged black magic witchcraft spells they’d heard. Here’s an example from one of her letters:
“Thurko has taught me a lovely new one! Catch a black hen and beat it to death with a white cane. Keep the blood and smear some on your enemy. If you get no chance to smear it on his body, obtain one of his garments and smear it.”
They traded these incantations back and forth like scone recipes.
Thurko was her devil worshiping manservant, but that’s obvious, right?
At one point, while Ferencz was away at war, Elizabeth had an affair, but she returned to her husband almost immediately. He took her back. I keep looking for the account where he tortures her terribly as a result of her affair (something along the lines of “and it is around that time that portraits reveal Elizabeth had all her fingernails ripped off”) but no, it seems he just took her back in a pretty normal, non-torture-y way.
Elizabeth had four children with him – she was also, supposedly, a tender and caring mother – before he died in 1604, leaving Elizabeth a widow at the age of 44. A lot of accounts say that she poisoned him. Weirdly, this is the only atrocity that I don’t really believe she committed.
It seems more likely to me that, as some accounts report, he was stabbed by a tavern wench that he had abused or refused to pay. (Even accounts of accounts vary). I think, given their letters, there is no impression that Elizabeth and her husband weren’t . . . happy and well-matched.
I’m not saying this in an attempt to humanize her. I think it’s really hard to humanize people who kill other people for recreation. But I am saying this because – if you’re single, I want you to remember this the next time someone tells you that you have to become the kind of person that someone would want to love. The next time he suggests that you don’t deserve a relationship until you do charity work or find inner peace through yoga, I want you to stare him straight in the eye and say, “Elizabeth Bathory had a very happy, 30 year long marriage.”
Seriously. Terrible people can have happy relationships. It all comes down to finding someone who likes the same terrible stuff you do.
But perhaps my description gives the impression that Elizabeth was just the kind of devoted wife who went along with her husband’s hobbies, the way someone might take up golf or video games to please their spouse. She was not. That would be incorrect. She was not just killing serving girls because her husband was hovering over her whispering “kill all the virgins!” like some approximation of a mad king in every medieval drama you’ve ever seen. In fact, it was only after her husband’s death that Elizabeth’s reign of terror began in earnest.
She moved from her estate to Vienna, where she was quickly taken up by society. She was very popular. She began having a lesbian affair with a woman named Anna Darvula. Periodically, scholars try to make a case for Elizabeth’s crimes being blown out of proportion because she was a lesbian and an independent woman. Scholars make cases like that. To which we say: no. You still don’t get to kill people. Mary Tyler Moore did not run around tying her co-workers to the desks and letting bugs eat them.
In any case, Anna was said to be a witch and was known for her sadistic tendencies. So, that sounds like another good match.
But all was not well! Elizabeth was concerned about her looks. At 44 she no longer considered herself to be as beautiful as she once was. So, legend has it, one day, as she was beating a servant girl to death with a comb, some of the blood splattered onto Elizabeth’s face. Elizabeth noted that it seemed to diminish her own signs of aging.
People think this is a vampire thing, but, good god, of course it did. She was essentially using liquid cheek stain. So, yes, she figured out that blush makes you look rosy and healthy.
However, by that point, Elizabeth had almost exhausted her supply of servant girls. None of the village girls would come to work for her because they’d heard rumors of the killing. So Elizabeth returned to her manor and offered to take in daughters of lesser nobility to teach them “social graces.” Like a charm school. Except there would be no teaching, only killing.
It is around this time that she is rumored to have begun bathing in the blood of virgins. It’s certainly the most famous rumor about Bathory, though there are few eye witness accounts of this. Do you want to know some of the atrocities people did witness?
Girls having pieces of paper tied between their legs and set on fire
Girls’ body parts being ripped off and fed to male servants
Girls having their fingers cut off with scissors
Girls being whipped over 200 times until their skin was entirely black
Dogs running around with severed human body parts in their mouths
Girls having red hot pokers shoved up their noses
Elizabeth reaching into girls’ mouths and ripping the sides apart
Girls shoved into cages full of spikes
This catalog of horrors just goes on, and on, and on. None of this, incidentally, seems like hearsay. These atrocities line up with the state of the bodies that were found. It certainly lines up with the fact that the area around Elizabeth’s bed had to be covered in cinders because so much blood was apparently spilled there. And with Elizabeth’s own diary, in which she rather matter-of-factly recounts events, recording observations like the fact that girls who died too quickly were “too small”.
Why? Why was this a thing that happened? Why could Elizabeth not just have her lesbian love affair and be okay?
It’s bizarre to think that she seemed relatively normal up until that point, as though her utterly sadistic husband was somehow a stabilizing influence.
It is said that in this comparatively brief period she amassed over 300 victims.
However, while killing peasants was fine, killing noble girls was not. Because their families began to worry about them. Thank goodness.
Elizabeth attempted to explain the girls’ disappearances by saying that one had killed all the other ones for jewelry. She then said that criminal had committed suicide. I really get the feeling that, by this point, Elizabeth was just not thinking statements through.
Rumor of Elizabeth’s horrifying ways reached the King of Hungary who ordered her arrest. Elizabeth’s relative, Count Thurzo, tried to capture her castle on his own terms to save her any disgrace. His army arrived on Christmas day and were horrified by what they saw – girls tied up in shrouds, barely alive but unable to move, and dead bodies everywhere.
Elizabeth’s accomplices underwent swift show trials before being executed. Testimony at the trial shocked everyone in attendance. I mean, it should. One piece of testimony ran:
“a 12-year-old girl named Pola somehow managed to escape from the castle. But Dorka, aided by Helena Jo, caught the frightened girl by surprise and brought her forcibly back to Cachtice Castle. Clad only in a long white robe, Countess Elizabeth greeted the girl upon her return. The countess was in another of her rages. She advanced on the 12-year-old child and forced her into a kind of cage. This particular cage was built like a huge ball, too narrow to sit in, too low to stand in. Once the girl was inside, the cage was suddenly hauled up by a pulley and dozens of short spikes jutted into the cage. Pola tried to avoid being caught on the spikes, but Ficzko manoeuvered the ropes so that the cage shifted from side to side. Pola’s flesh was torn to pieces.”
Elizabeth Bathory was so sick that she could not move from her bed and could not find the strength to torture her miscreant servant girls . . . She demanded that one of her female servants be brought before her. Dorothea Szentes, a burly, strong peasant woman, dragged one of Elizabeth’s girls to her bedside and held her there. Elizabeth rose up on her bed, and, like a bulldog, the Countess opened her mouth and bit the girl first on the cheek. Then she went for the girl’s shoulders where she ripped out a piece of flesh with her teeth. After that, Elizabeth proceeded to bite the girl’s breasts.’
Common consensus was that Elizabeth should be executed as well as her accomplices, but it was impossible, because she was a royal. Accordingly, she was locked up in a castle with only one window. She was found dead, facedown, with a spell calling upon 99 cats to kill and devour her enemies. I’m going to include this picture:
Today, she has left her legend in every story you read about the eternal youth and beauty of vampires. She’s probably the reason Transylvania is considered a scary place. As easy as it would be to say “better Elizabeth Bathory had never been born” ,without her, we wouldn’t have this:
Oh, you can do without that? Okay. Me too. What about this?
Though, honestly, I’m not sure knowing that legacy would have made the families of any of the girls Elizabeth killed feel much better. And even if we can identify circumstances that caused Elizabeth to behave the way she did – she had a rough childhood, her family and husband were all sadists – I think the message to take away from this story is simply:
Try to be like Ron Ridenhour.