Christmas and Hanukkah are all about light. Fortified, I go back to puzzling over the darkness.
What, for example, reduces an intelligent, wealthy aristocrat to torturing servant girls, sometimes tearing off chunks of their flesh with her own teeth? We fuss over Dahmer and Bundy, but Erzsebet Báthory’s murder count is estimated—based on a list of names she allegedly recorded—at six hundred fifty. Which would make her the most prolific serial killer the world has ever known.
She is called the Blood Countess of Hungary, but the bloodiest part of her reputation is probably apocryphal; it emerged two hundred years after her death, during the vampire craze. Dark haired and beautiful, Báthory was notoriously vain, quick to smash mirrors if her reflection displeased her. It is said that when she was beating a servant girl, blood splashed on her creamy skin and undid the ravages of age. The countess developed an obsession with the stuff and—so goes the lore—insisted on bathing in it. But she would have needed thirty bodies at a time to fill that big tub, impractical even for her.
We do know that Báthory’s early, occasional practice of torture “slowly turned into an ever-increasing stream of dead bodies,” as Kimberly Craft puts it in Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory. Perhaps worse than the slaughter was what preceded it: hot irons inserted into the girls’ vaginas, needles under their fingernails, pieces of their bodies pried off with tongs, chunks of their flesh thrown from her carriage window as she tortured en route. In winter, she might have a girl stripped naked, doused with water, and placed in the garden as an ice statue.
Bodies soon piled up around Čachtice Castle. Disposal became a problem.
Finally, on December 29, 1611 (did they, too, wait for Christmas to be over?) “integrity” and blueblooded self-interest prevailed. Báthory had switched from peasant Slovak girls to young Hungarian noblewomen, and one of her cousins, a high-ranking court official, had been ordered by the king to investigate. Armed officers of the law went to the castle. Outside, near the door, they found the shredded, beaten body of a young girl. Inside, they found two more girls lying helpless, one near death and the other maimed.
From there, they followed the sounds of the screams.
The countess was stunned by her captors’ audacity. She and her husband had inherited their parents’ fortune, meaning they controlled thousands of acres of land and possessed more wealth than the king of Hungary. Her uncle was the king of Poland; her brother the prince of Transylvania. And so, despite all the rumors, the authorities had allowed her to continue gratifying her impulses.
Surely good Christians would have objected? When her pastor confronted her about mysterious deaths, her husband made a generous donation to the Lutheran Church. When a young assistant pastor asked the pious countess why there were three bodies in a single casket, she coolly insisted that there were only two, doubled to avoid panic and gossip. Then the belfry master took him aside and whispered, “Father, it’s best not to say anything or question the Lady about these things. It will go badly for the servants if you do.”
It is said that the monks across from the family’s second home in Vienna, agonized by what they heard and could not stop, threw pots and pans at the barred windows to drown the screams. I picture them tossing and turning on their hard, narrow cots, wondering how the devil had so thoroughly possessed this woman’s soul.
Today, it is more tempting to posit mental illness—but hard to be sure. Certainly for two near contemporaries, Vlad the Impaler and Ivan the Terrible, a traumatic childhood can be seen as a catalyst. But young Erzsebet suffered no obvious trauma. She was taught mathematics and the classics and could read and write in Hungarian, Greek, Latin, German, and Slovak. Her prose was clear and concise, wasting no words. She ordered books throughout her life, as we do on Amazon, and was as interested in astronomy, botany, biology, and anatomy as she was in religion and the occult.
Here is a possible clue: she suffered seizures and fits of rage as a child. Years later, she would still give way to temper tantrums, and she would suffer from what we would probably diagnose as migraines and epilepsy. But many do—without adding sadism to the symptoms.
Early signs of cruelty? At age six, it is said, Erzsebet witnessed a Roma man punished by being stitched into the belly of a horse. She giggled.
Genetics? Her father suffered the same seizures and tantrums as a boy. Her aunt Klara was said to know witchcraft and be adept at torture. “Mental illness may, indeed, have run in the family, particularly from inbreeding,” notes Craft, “but some of the alleged insanities—temper tantrums, swordplay in the house, or an unusual allegiance to a favorite chair—were also typical of aristocratic eccentricities.”
Ideology? She was raised a Calvinist, which gives permission for a harsh condemnation of any who are not the elect. She was known to be highly controlled and disciplined—was she punished or abused as a child? She was betrothed, as was the custom, at age eleven, to marry the future Count Ferenc II Nádasdy de Nádasd et Fogarasföld four years later, and it is said that she grew bored and slept with a peasant boy in the interim. When she bore his child, the baby was whisked away so the marriage of two powerful families could proceed.
Was she ashamed, did she grieve the loss? I ask because years later, when it was customary for young virgins to serve at a particular festival, Báthory ran out of virgins (we can speculate why) and asked an older woman to dress herself as a young virgin. When the older woman tactfully tried to refuse, Báthory furiously thrust a small log at her and demanded that she diaper it and carry it around the castle: “Suckle your child, you whore. Don’t let it cry!”
It took ten years and some forest magic for her to become pregnant again. While he waited for her to bear him five children, did her husband witness any craziness? A legendary warrior, he was often off fighting the Turks. Erzsebet Báthory spent a lot of time alone in that castle.
Ferenc was not the gentlest of men, in any case. The Black Knight of Hungary was known to dance with the bodies of his slain enemies or play catch or kickball with their heads. And while he never killed servants, he did show his wife how to inspire obedience with a little “star kicking.” Soak paper in oil, slide it between the girl’s toes, and light it on fire; she will kick and see stars from the pain.
By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one.
“She attended official functions with her husband, publicly practiced religion, gave money to the poor, protected widows,” writes Craft. Mornings, she managed staff, looked after the estate, checked in with her children’s nannies, dictated or wrote letters, paid bills, reviewed documents, received visitors. In her leisure hours, she liked horseback riding, picnics, hunts, drives into town, reading, going to the spa, shopping, and attending concerts in Vienna.
After her husband’s mysterious death (in the middle of a battle in 1604—some say he was poisoned) the countess upped the ante, adding murder to torture. She carefully picked only Slovak peasant girls as her victims, preferring them plump and buxom because they would last longer, when tortured, than the frail, skinny ones.
“A pattern clearly emerges,” Craft writes. “While Erzsebet made high-profile, public appearances typical of the nobility, they were unusually taxing on her psychologically, particularly in her later years. Accounts of her torturing and murdering are frequently linked to the times when either she had to make a trip or receive visitors socially; the more uncomfortable the visit or social engagement, the worse the fate inflicted upon her victims.” A sort of hydraulics, then, with pressure building until it demanded release? Modern serial killers talk about a similar feeling, a relief of internal pressure or tension. If your brain tips easily into mania, and you lack the neural ability to calm yourself and inhibit your behavior…is that enough to explain atrocity?
Surely you must also love causing pain—and crave the power of taking life.
Báthory was aided by four servants: a sadistic housekeeper who had taught her the fine art of torture (and was lucky enough to die before the jig was up), two other older women, and a young male dwarf. Their confessions would be, in dark symmetry, extracted by torture. The young man was decapitated, drained of blood, and burned. The two women were sentenced to have all their fingers torn out by the public executioner with a pair of red-hot pincers; once that had been seen to, their bodies were thrown alive onto a fire.
As for Báthory, she was never put to trial, lest the scandal bring shame to her many noble relatives. Instead, she was declared legally dead, and stonemasons walled her into her cell, leaving only a small opening for food to be passed through. One of her daughters—her favorite, who had assisted with at least one of the torture sessions—brought her food and supplies. She died four years later, at age fifty-four.
Some contemporary scholars have suggested that even the extensive, persuasive trial evidence was fabricated in a plot against a wealthy and powerful female. But there is a hell of a lot of smoke to explain without a fire. Any of the tales could easily have been exaggerated; her exploits are made for gossipy folk horror and modern cinema. But it is not always possible to lay a softening filter over evil—or insanity that wears its garb—and blur the cause into systemic oppression.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.