The Story in a Nutshell
A 16th century middle aged and rich widow, Elizabeth Báthory, worried about her waning beauty, strikes her chamber maid on the face. A drip of blood accidentally lands on her skin and as she wipes it away, she notices that her skin looks younger and smoother on that spot.
She concludes that blood could be her rejuvenating beauty product. But from where to get fresh blood? Her own maids and servants, of course, young girls from the villages she owns.
She takes up the bad habit of bathing in blood, but not before torturing the victims first -solely for entertainment purposes. The more the better! 600 of them, no less.
Over time, rumours start circulating, eventually reaching the royal palace. The palatine orders an investigation. Elizabeth’s servants are tortured, and the extracted confessions serve as evidence of guilt against the countess.
The servants are quickly executed and Elizabeth is imprisoned in her own castle. She dies before getting a trial. Ashes to ashes, case closed. Or is it?
This painting is from 1656 but it is said to represent Elizabeth’s actual likeness
A Good Horror Story’s Effect on One’s Imagination
The pop culture’s persisting fascination with the blood-thirsty Báthory Erzsébet, known in the English-speaking world as Elizabeth Bathory is a curious phenomenon for a fellow Hungarian like me, considering that there was never a huge interest or even awareness of this she-monster in my birth country. Her bad reputation was briefly mentioned in school, but nobody cared enough to read up on it. Thus, it was very surprising to me that here in the new world there was a large body of work dedicated to this woman, including literature, music, visual arts and film. At the intersection of fact and fiction there is fertile ground for imagination and fantasy, especially when it comes to horror and dark passions. Along with the infamous Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula, already associated with Transylvania (in spite of him barely spending any time there), now I had to deal with the fact that the most infamous female serial killer that ever walked this earth, the so-called “Blood Countess”, was my compatriot too!
It was shocking at first to encounter this dark and seemingly collectively sick vision of Elizabeth, but as time went by I found myself looking at it from the flip side, as cheap and childish entertainment. After that phase wore off, I became interested in the real person. Was she really that cruel? Were the accusations of torture, murder and vampirism brought against her well-founded? As I got more and more entangled in the ever widening web of distortions, speculations fuelled by the scarcity of historical facts and evidence, it became clear to me that it was impossible to uncover the truth. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to share the STORY. Stories don’t care about the truth. They are born in some unknown recesses of the human brain. The horror variety seems to satisfy an essential need to marvel and fret simultaneously. Stories embody elements of fact and fiction, as experienced by our conscious and unconscious, and merge into a slurry of magic realism that thrills and scares, entertains and teaches at the same time. Regurgitated over and over, stories seem to be just as essential to the human psyche as food, water and shelter are to the body.
Copy of an original painting of Elizabeth from 1585
How to Create Your Own Monster
To illustrate the above point, my own Bathory portrait can serve as an example. I took a known portrait of the countess, and after a basic rendering of her features, I let my imagination run with it. The face soon underwent a radical transformation and suddenly the Blood Countess stared back at me from her paper prison. The small white specks in her eyes even made me shiver a bit…
Biography and facts
Elizabeth Báthory was born in 1560 into one of the richest, most powerful families in Hungary. Her uncle, István Báthory, was the prince of Transylvania and elected king of Poland. Elizabeth grew up in Ecsed and was well educated. She was able to read, write and speak fluently in four languages (Hungarian, Greek, Latin and German). This was very rare for a woman at the time. She was also considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Betrothed to Ferenc Nádasdy at age eleven, she married him in 1575 at age fifteen. He was four years older. Elizabeth had six children but only three survived to adulthood. She received the now infamous Csejte castle, the place where the alleged killings took place, as a wedding gift from her husband.
Nádasdy was a very talented military man and was appointed Commander in Chief of the Hungarian army soon after getting married. He was frequently away at war for long periods of time, battling the Ottoman Empire. The enemy was so terrified of him that dubbed him the Black Bey (Fekete Bég). It is worth noting here that some of the rumours incriminated Ferenc as well.
Whenever her husband was away, Elizabeth took care of his business affairs, the children and the household. Ferenc died in 1604 and the widow was left to fend for herself and the children. There were some predatory attempts from various noblemen trying to appropriate lands inherited from her husband. They simply occupied some of the neighboring Bathory-Nadasdy lands, claiming them to be their own, but Elizabeth successfully drove them out of her properties.
It is unclear how and when the rumours started but they seemed to worsen after her husband’s death, when she spent most of her time in isolation in Csejte castle. It appears as though she was an introvert, preferring a quiet, withdrawn life. According to some sources a local Lutheran priest was one of the people spreading the rumours. He told palatine Thurzó that Elizabeth appeared in his dream as a black cat, which was considered a sign of witchcraft. It seems that the priest held some animosity towards Elizabeth. Perhaps he did not trust the converted protestant Elizabeth. A hundred years later the Jesuit Turoczi was still holding grudges against her abandoning her faith! – as we will see later.
Baron György Kereskényi, Elizabeth’s relative, who was castellan for many years at Csejte castle, also added to the supply of rumours, hoping that if she was convicted, he could lay his hands on some of her properties. Some suspect that palatine Thurzó himself had interest in taking Báthory properties. The joint Nádasdy and Báthory estates were larger than the king’s.
In 1610 Thurzó ordered an investigation against Elizabeth citing “serious complaints”.
The curious thing about Thurzó is that he was actually related to Elizabeth, and he was a close friend of Ferenc Nádasdy. So close that whenever Ferenc went to war, he entrusted Thurzó with taking care of his wife and family. There are a few letters in which Elizabeth asks for the palatine’s advice in her business dealings. The role of palatine Thurzó is very puzzling as it is not known what were his motives.
Palatine György Thurzó
Following up on complaints, Thurzó paid a visit to the countess in Csejte castle in December 1610. He found everything in order and left the castle. However, on December 29 he sent back some soldiers to the castle. According to the transcript Elizabeth was “caught in the act”. She was having dinner, while a girl locked in a cage was getting readied to be tortured later. The soldiers dug up the the castle yard and found one or more bodies that bore some wounds. Elizabeth was put in house arrest, and hearings of her chamber maids and a man servant started immediately. They were accused with complicity in murder. In a matter of days confessions were extracted by torture and the servants were executed in a hurry.
Csejte castle, the scene of the alleged murders
Elizabeth, as a noblewoman could not be tortured, as it would have been against the law. She was never questioned, no testimony was obtained from her. There was no evidence other than the transcript of the eyewitness accounts extracted through torture. Thurzó did not have a strong case, and he knew it, so he never held a trial, even though the king kept pressing him about it. Without a conviction, Thurzó hastily ordered Elizabeth’s house arrest. She was locked-up in a room without a window (some say it was the actual torture chamber), only leaving a small opening for passing food and water. Thurzó’s sentence letter said that she should be left to “rot alive”.
A page from the transcript of the witness testimonies
Elizabeth lived for four years in complete isolation, hoping to get a trial, but lost her mind at one point. The guards would hear her sing and talk to herself. Apparently the day before she died she was singing hymns all day. The next morning the guards found her face down on the floor. They were surprised to see that she did not age at all during those four years. At 54 she still looked beautiful and younger than her age. They found her signed will in the room in which she left everything she owned to her children. Decades later her children fell from grace as well. Accused of treason, the king confiscated their properties and they were exiled. With this last blow the once powerful family had weakened beyond recovery and vanished from the records of history.
Detail from Elizabeth’s will
Experts suspect that perhaps there were political reasons behind Thurzó’s motives, such as to destroy the rival Báthory family’s good name. At this time another Báthory, Elizabeth’s cousin was the reining prince of Transylvania, so there were political implications involved.
A Most Unusual Investigation
Over 300 witnesses were brought forward to testify from March 1610 to July 1611, some as far as Sárvár, the family’s main property. Interestingly, the most damaging accusations came from there, not Csejte where she lived. At first, the Csejte witnesses only mentioned the severity of the physical punishments, but only in a handful of cases. As the rumours from Sárvár spread all over the country, the hysteria grew, and the number of casualties increased exponentially. The testimonies were based on word of mouth that could not be confirmed. The actual eyewitnesses could only give account of corporal punishments.
Another page from the transcript of witness testimonies. I was able to read some of the text and noticed that this single page mentions at least 4 times what had been HEARD FROM OTHERS, not what had been witnessed!
Enlisted ways of of torture included poking the skin with pins, ripping out pieces of flesh, burning the flesh with hot iron, flogging the girls and pouring cold water on them and then making them stand outside for extended periods. Curiously, the last form of punishment, tossing cold water on servants, was routinely used as an effective “treatment” for laziness! Cleansing wounds with heated iron was a common medical treatment at the time and some of the medical tools used looked similar to torture devices. Historians think that Elizabeth established a hospital on the grounds, and some of the accusations depicted as torture were actually medical treatments, inflated and distorted to satisfy the expectations of the investigators who threatened and tortured the witnesses. Experts found evidence that medicine orders were placed by the castle, and that Elizabeth may have worked with doctors. It was the custom at the time that nobility took care of the health issues of their subjects. The presence of a hospital would also explain the dead bodies dug up by the soldiers.
There were disappearances reported as well, but no relatives ever came forward to confirm that. According to historians, there is some data suggesting that many girls from surrounding villages volunteered to go into Elizabeth’s service, with the approval of their parents. Would any mother send her daughter to such dangerous place?, we might ask.
Another damaging fact for the credibility of the accusors is that a girl that was found alive at the scene, a crown witness, was let go without a testimony!
The more infamous acts were first mentioned about a hundred years later. As the legend grew, so did the atrocities and the body count. The horror story first appeared in a book (“Tragica historia”) published in 1729 by a Jesuit monk, László Turóczi. The story starts with he aging countess ordering all her mirrors to be destroyed. She doesn’t want to see her wrinkles. One day a maid pulls Elizabeth’s hair by accident while combing it. The angry countess strikes the girl on her face so violently that blood squirts from her mouth. A drop of blood lands on the countess’ hand and as she wipes it off, the skin seems to look younger on that spot.
After this incident she starts torturing and killing young girls, and bathes in their blood to rejuvenate her body. Turóczi is the first person to come up with the high number of victims, over 600! Later stories mention drinking blood and homosexual acts as well.
István Csók, Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed -detail
What emerges from these accounts as probability is that perhaps even by XVIth century standards, Elizabeth was extremely strict with her maids and did not refrain from administering severe punishments such as lashes and pins under the nails. Was it a way of showing that she was tough as a man and in charge? Or she indeed possessed tyrannical tendencies? We don’t know. What we do know is that records were found indicating that on two occasions she had offered help for pure altruistic reasons. In one instance she took care of an out-of-wedlock pregnant woman, and in another she helped the widow of a soldier. These facts are a clear indication that Elizabeth was not lacking empathy and compassion for those in need or distress.
Special interest has been paid to two surviving personal letters (1596) written to her husband in which she shares details about their children’s illnesses. Although they don’t reveal much about her personality, they have allowed for a handwriting analysis. Her will also survives. A graphologist analyzed the letters and found nothing indicating any abnormal tendencies. She appeared to be a rational and clear thinking person.
A Hungarian legal expert examined the testimonies and circumstances of the accusations and concluded that they were fabrications. Someone wanted the downfall of the widow and perhaps the entire family, which indeed was destroyed decades later.
Another indication that she may have been framed was a similar case of another female relative of palatine Thurzó. She was also accused of extreme punishments of her servants, but was never imprisoned – although she ended up in exile and all her properties were confiscated.
Popular Culture Fame
The story may yet change, as more research is done, but popular culture loves the horror story of the Blood Countess as it is. For those interested in such things, here are a few examples from literature, film and the visual arts. There is even a death metal band with the name Bathory!
I am on Etsy and will periodically list small scale sculpture.
Check out my shop here and perhaps you decide to have your own original piece by me:
This is the most recent purchase, as seen on the photos sent by one of my artist collectors. There is usually a personal story that connects with the piece and it is fascinating to me as an artist to hear those stories.
I love how the collector played with different background ideas in order to find the best place for this fun piece.
But three of the nine muses.
Her name was Caira and she was 82 years old. She had just been told she had cancer and she only had a few months to live. She wanted to see her son one last time, so she traveled to Paris from Italy. Her son was a model to sculptor Jules Desbois, who expressed interest in modelling her. The model persuaded his mother to pose for Desbois.
That is all the information I could find on the model. And her name. She must have been a very courageous woman to pose in the nude – at her age – more than a century ago. Was it love for her child that made her take the clothes off her weathered body? Whatever the reason, she inspired three wonderful sculptors to work with her: Desbois, friend and assistant to Auguste Rodin, Rodin himself, and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s assistant, model and lover.
Desbois was the first sculptor to model her in terra cotta (Rodin had started working with her around the same time). His work is titled “La Misere” (Misery).
How could “Misery” leave anyone unmoved? One feels inclined to throw away those rags, cover her in a blanket and tell her she will be alright. Desbois’ approach provokes a strong emotional response.
Rodin’s version, “She Who Was The Helmetmaker’s Once-Beautiful Wife” later became part of his monument, The Gates of Hell. His focus is on the physical appearance of the model. The work bluntly shows her exposed and aware of the ravages of time. And time is more cruel to women than men. “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth”, said Rodin. He finds inner beauty in this woman – in her vulnerability and dignity even as she resigns herself to fate.
The most shocking, and the most original of the tree sculptures is Camille Claudel’s version of the model. Somewhat surprisingly for that era, this groundbreaking sculpture was well received at the Paris Salon.
Claudel envisions Caira as Clotho, one of the Fates, who spins the thread of destiny. Clotho is usually depicted as a young girl in the visual arts, but Camille chooses to show her as an old woman entangled in her thread. Her relationship with Rodin was falling apart around the same time she was working on Clotho, which explains her preoccupation with destiny.
The old woman resurfaced later as death in her most important work, The Age of Maturity.
Photo by Ch.Baraja
What a wonderful gesture from this old woman, Caira, to trigger such powerful response by not one, but three great sculptors!