Archival Mix: Yes, We Can Now Talk About Elizabeth Báthory -The Toast

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220px-Elizabeth_Bathory_PortraitAlexis Coe’s past essays on history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Ellen and William CraftThis, and all subsequent editions of Alexis’ columnn (!) are brought to you courtesy of a sweet and generous sponsor who wishes to be known as The Ghost of Jane Addams.

Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory was a sixteenth century sadist. When the life drained out of her victims’ bodies (over six hundred of them), she did the same to their blood, so that she could ingest it. If they were virgins, she bathed in it. She ate their flesh. She was motivated by lesbian lust, driven mad by sexual perversion.

At least, that’s how the “Blood Countess” is usually described, the result of an echo chamber that began in 1729. The first written account of her case was penned 119 years after her death. Before we knew that, for example, the human blood she purportedly (though unconfirmed by eyewitnesses) loved to soak in coagulates quickly, making virgin bloodbaths challenging, and that same-sex love is not, in the least, a threat to mortality (or marriage, for that matter).

Witnesses did say, however, that Elizabeth tortured and killed around thirty to thirty-five people. She had affairs with women. But we’ll get to all that in a minute.

I’m going to take advantage of having my own history column, editors willing, with an inappropriately lengthy aside on the topic of “murderous lesbians in history.” This is an issue I find myself increasingly preoccupied with, which is to say, super fucking annoyed about. Toasties may remember this article I wrote; in October, it will be a book. This is my basic, cocktail party description of it: “I’m writing a nonfiction book about a turn-of-the century, same-sex murder in Memphis. A heartbroken, alienated, and desperate nineteen-year-old killed her seventeen-year-old ex-fiancé, and the case proved to have far reaching consequences, influencing erroneous definitions of same-sex love and lunacy.” This is how I consistently hear it retold: “She’s writing a book about a lesbian who killed her girlfriend. I don’t think it’s true, but it’s really morbid and weird.” (This is sometimes followed by super fun judgments about my research interests and speculation about my years at Sarah Lawrence.)

First of all, it is anachronistic to call my ladies, or Elizabeth, lesbians; in 1892, sexologists in Europe were just beginning to define the word, and it wouldn’t emerge in America for another forty years. If my emphasis on historically accurate labels seem like a moot point, consider that none of these women ever claimed to exclusively love women, and had, to varying degrees, relations with men. Elizabeth took a male lover before she was married, and that affair produced a child; her marital relations produced four more. We have an obligation, if we’re actually seeking out truth here, to consider their voices, and reconcile that with the dominant, obviously sensational narrative. But here’s the kicker, and my final point on this matter (for now): the emphasis on “murderous lesbians” is dangerous because it suggests, or explicitly states, that women who engage in same-sex relationships are almost tempting fate, a kind of underlying instability that could lead to violence. And that’s no exaggeration; that reasoning was accepted by insane asylums throughout the United States at the turn-of-the-century. So, if we’re going to understanding same-sex love through fear, or any other lens at odds with study or reason, then we’re just a short leap from “perverse.” Strange. Weird.

Thanks for indulging me. And now, without further interruptions, we return to the Bloody Countess!

Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Báthory was born into a noble line of Protestants in 1560, the product of inbreeding between Baron George Báthory and Baroness Anna Báthory. Stephen, her indiscriminate brother, was primarily a lush, but the rest of her family wielded exceptional power in Hungary and Transylvania. They were clerics, politicians, and warlords. During Elizabeth’s lifetime, her cousin, also named Stephen, was elected the King of Poland.

It was said she was a great beauty, but in truth, few would dare slander an eligible young woman from such a noble family. Indeed, it was Ursula, mother of Count Ferenc Nadasdy, who sought to wed her son to an eleven-year-old Elizabeth. The count was anywhere from five to fifteen years older than her, and while he showed great skill on the field, whether it be in sport or war, his mother warned he was “no scholar.” In an age of illiteracy, this was far more common than Elizabeth’s extensive education; she was fluent in Greek, Hungarian, and Latin, and said to be very bright.

Elizabeth seemed unconcerned about her education or noble birth when it came to her husband, or her peasant lover. They had been engaged for about three years when her paramour impregnated her, and Elizabeth spent much of 1574 in reclusion, awaiting the birth of her daughter. By the time she married Ferenc in a lavish festival, replete with a delegation sent by Maximillian II, the Holy Roman Emperor, her baby was being raised by a peasant family.

The Nasadys were known as harsh masters, but historians are in disagreement as to whether Elizabeth became a sadist after she married, or if it had developed during her childhood. At her family’s estate in Ecsel, she was rumored to have witnessed her family’s officers dole out every form of cruelty in the name of justice. At the age of ten, Elizabeth watched them sew a gypsy, accused of larceny, into the belly of a dying horse; his head was exposed, and he was left to die. She was also said to be epileptic, and that, possibly from inbreeding, rendered her prone to fits of rage.

Still, Ferenc was adept at inflicting excoriating pain on offending servants. In the sixteenth century, it was not uncommon for nobles to torture peasants, essentially considered chattel – to varying degrees. Witnesses would later testify that Ferenc encouraged Elizabeth to explore different forms of punishment, expected she would need to discipline the staff while he was away. She began by jabbing pins under servant’s fingernails. When they were in season, Elizabeth supposedly favored stinging nettles; with every lash, the hairs on the leaves and stems of the flowering plant, akin to a hypodermic needle, would pierce the skin with histamines and chemicals. During the summer, they doused servants in honey and watched as bees swarmed. Torture supposedly became a common interest for the couple, and they sought out instruction from occultists and Satanists. Whether this was true or not, few have ever suggested Ferenc was unaware of Elizabeth’s proclivities.

Of course, his military campaigns kept his away from the castle for long stretches of time, so it is hard to say how much Ferenc really knew about the mistress of his estate.  She sought out lovers in his absence, even fleeing with one young man, but soon returned home. After that, she began frequently visiting an openly bisexual aunt, a relationship that would be regarded as proof of sexual deviation, understood to be a part of her immorality and perversion by contemporaries.

It would be ten years before Elizabeth and Ferenc had children, quickly producing three daughters and a son. She was said to be a good and caring mother, though her childrens’ wet nurse, Helena, would become one of Elizabeth’s greatest accomplices. Helena, along with other servants, including Fzko, a man described as a dwarf, aided Elizabeth in punishing her maidservants. She had given up seasonal stinging nettles for the year-round, manmade instruments, favoring the cudgel, a heavy, short staff, and anything barbed. During the long winter months, she ordered their naked, broken, and bleeding bodies to be dragged through the snow. If that didn’t end their lives, a large bucket of cold water ensured their demise.

Ferenc was dealt a final wound as well, but not by Elizabeth’s hands. He refused to pay a harlot for her services in 1604, who, in lieu of payment, punctured his body. After the deep laceration became infected, he was not long for this world.

Just as soon as she was widowed, Elizabeth, now in charge of her financial affairs, promptly quit his family’s estate for the royal court in Vienna. She took several of her trusted accomplices with her, included Dorka, a strong peasant and alleged witch. Her coven grew in Cachtice, the castle she owned in northwest Hungary (now Slovakia), with the notable addition of Anna Darvula, an active sadist of rank.

Had she stuck to peasants, Elizabeth’s reign of terror may have gone undetected, but after Ferenc died, she became insatiable, and careless. Her cousin, the Lord Palatine of Hungary, Count Cuyorgy Thurzo, no doubt knew about the murders, but probably considered the family’s honor to be far more important than the life of laborers. But things changed after Anna died, and Elizabeth found comfort in the arms of Erszi Majorova, the widow of one of her tenant farmers. Together, they pursued young women who claimed a noble birth, but whose families lacked great wealth.

But they didn’t lack connections to the King of Hungary, who was supposedly eager to claim Elizabeth’s valuable land holdings. Ferenc owed Mathias II money, a debt the king was loathe to forgive, even upon death. Seeing opportunity, he ordered her arrest, and her cousin, the Count Thruzo, still fearing for his family’s reputation, volunteered to lead the night raid. When they reached the castle on a blustery, winter night, they found the front door slightly ajar. They were greeted not by a servant, but by a corpse splayed on the cold, stone floor. Pale from bloodletting and partially clothed from torture, the young woman in the entryway was just the first body they found in the Castle Cachtice; others were half-dead, awaiting their fate in the dungeon.  Elizabeth, along with her accomplices and servants, were allegedly found upstairs, in the throes of holiday orgy. She watched as all around her were arrested, but she was spared such an indignity.

By the time they stood in court for two speedy trials, the torturers had become the tortured, and they were ready to talk. Elizabeth did not attend the January 1611 proceedings, and would never be convicted of a crime, but she was certainly the proceeding’s focus, which made for exciting show trials. Zusanna, a servant, indicated her mistress had personally maintained a ledger of her victims, number 650, over the years. It was never produced, but testimony saved Zusanna’s life. Helena Jo, the wet nurse, and Dorka, the peasant servant, believed to be witches and primary agents of torture, received a formal sentence of torture, followed by death. First, their fingers, which had “dipped in the blood of Christians,” were to torn out, one by one, with red-hot pinchers. After they were all removed, Helena and Dorka were to be burned alive. Ficzko, the “dwarf,” charred alongside them. Erszi Majorova, the peasant widow Elizabeth turned to after Anna’s death, was also executed.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth was confined to her castle, but not by the King of Hungary, who desperately wanted her on the stand. Her family boldly denied his demands, exerting as much influence as they could. If they handed Elizabeth over, the king would seize her land, but if she remained and died naturally, it would stay in the family.

220px-Hrad_CachticeElizabeth attempted to flee, but her attempt was thwarted, and she was never given another chance. Her family declared her a menace, and made it known they were personally confining her to the Castle Cachtice. She spent three years walled up in her bedchamber, receiving food through a small passage, and air through thin slits. In August of 1614, a guard found her dead, lying facedown on the floor.

So, was Elizabeth “history’s most prolific serial killer,” as the press release for Lady of Csejte, a forthcoming film based on her life, recently announced? When it comes to the countess, distinguishing between fact and fiction with any certainty is difficult. The evidence presented at court was very likely procured through torture, and it painted a sensational picture – amplified by generations of writers and the entertainment industry, who happily recycle the image of a murderous lesbian bathing in virgin blood. Hungarian scholars, many of whom have actually mined the well-preserved archives in Budapest, have long called foul. Elizabeth was an intelligent woman of great wealth, a landowner with property that not only generated income, but sat along strategic borders. And yet, their narrative is presented as a kind of defense, one that is quickly drowned out or rejected in favor of the regurgitated horror story. And that’s what we have to remember – what we’ll see in the film Lady of Csejte is a story inspired by history. It has become entertainment, embellished to fit the genre, but let’s remember that horror isn’t the only category we can file Elizabeth’s story under – mystery and politics seem pretty apt as well.

Works Consulted:

Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Werewolves. London: Smith, Elder, 1865.

Codrescu, Andrei. The Blood Countess. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

McNally, Raymond. Dracula was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Melton, Gordon. The Vampire Book. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1994.

Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.

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