Warning: The Real Demons series is a collection of explicit stories about some of the most extreme crimes I’ve come across. These stories involve highly taboo subjects, and after much consideration, I’ve decided to keep details I initially felt were too severe to include. Thus, the stories are deeply disturbing – and, of course, all true. If you’re not fully comfortable with this, avoid the whole series.
Today I’m going to take you back to 16th century Hungary, where legend has it that hundreds of young girls fell victim to a vampire noblewoman; Countess Erzsébet (or Elizabeth) Báthory de Ecsed – aka the Blood Countess. Unlike nowadays, back then it was easy for people to believe in the existence of vampires, witches and other supernatural phenomena (just think of Salem.) So it comes as no surprise that Erzsébet’s abnormal habits had the simple-minded local populace, powered by their fevered imaginations, spreading various rumours that painted her as some evil, supernatural entity. Even now, over 400 years later, the stories of Erzsébet Báthory’s exploits live on.
For most people who know of Erzsébet today, the limited information they have is the stuff of myths, legends and fabricated tales of her life, which label her a vampire, a witch, a werewolf or a serial killer who’d bathe in the blood of her victims to retain her youth and beauty. One thing is certain; Erzsébet Báthory was a unique woman, quite ahead of her time.
EARLY LIFE & MARRIAGE
One of four siblings, Erzsébet was born in the Kingdom of Hungary some time in 1560 to the old and highly distinguished noble family of Báthory, who owned vast lands and property in the kingdom, and had a lineage that included royals, cardinals, knights and judges. At 15 years old Erzsébet was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of another influential noble family. During their marriage, Erzsébet had proven herself to be a powerful, intelligent and capable woman with the traits of an early feminist; her war hero husband had mostly been away fighting the Ottoman Turks, sometimes for years at a time, leaving her to take charge and manage their vast wealth and estates, which she did as well as any man.
Before we delve into the stories about Erzsébet’s exploits, I have to address an important detail of the Báthorys’ genealogy. The family had been inbreeding for centuries, marrying with their own kin to keep their bloodline pure and family traits unaltered. Because inbreeding often results in genetic issues – a common one being disorders of the mind – the Báthory family was plagued with various mental issues. Erzsébet is believed to have been affected since childhood by these issues, including seizures and fits of rage.
THE LEGEND BEGINS
If Erzsébet’s contemporaries are to be believed, her fascination with human blood and cruelty began after she moved into Nádasdy Castle. One evening, a servant girl was combing her hair when she accidentally pulled on it, and although the countess didn’t react then and there, she later stung the girl with a needle, and licked the wound when it bled.
Then again, there are other sources that indicate Erzsébet’s fascination with cruelty began earlier, in childhood. She allegedly tormented the girls who served her, and enjoyed watching servants and peasants being physically punished, and animals being butchered. Other Báthory family members, including her aunt Klara, are said to have introduced Erzsébet to practises like witchcraft and Satanism.
At Nádasdy Castle, the countess was reportedly ruthless in the punishment of her servants, subjecting them to various torture-killings. There were witnesses who claimed that Erzsébet was doing the same deeds in several of her other estates. For example, on one occasion, a bunch of students who’d been visiting one of her castles in Keresztúr (modern-day Slovakia) were asked to help bury a group of dead girls. They were told the girls had died of a violent illness, even though the bodies had clearly been butchered.
Although she’d started with piercing or biting her servants, Erzsébet later used a range of techniques and devices that were common forms of punishment in the 16th century, and some even say she had a torture chamber. One such punishment involved tying a naked victim to a pole and covering them in honey, and then leaving them exposed to be swarmed by bees and other insects. You can imagine how that went. Another punishment involved taking her naked victims outside in the freezing cold and having water poured on them until they froze to death.
Other methods of torture included burning and branding her victims, sewing their lips shut, butchering their body parts, biting chunks of flesh off their faces and breasts, using scissors to cut off their hands, noses and genitals, setting fire to paper wedged between their toes, and slicing open the skin between their fingers. It’s unclear whether Erzsébet’s husband knew of her cruelty, seeing as he was mostly away at war, though I think it’s doubtful that he was completely unaware.
Erzsébet believed that blood was a source of power, likely due to the occult teachings of her family members like her aunt Klara. Over time, Erzsébet’s interest in witchcraft, Satanism and blood grew, consuming much of her attention and time, and this growth also intensified her sadistic tendencies. Her servant, Darvulia, was heavily involved with witchcraft, and Erzsébet would frequently ask her for potions that would allow her to indulge in supernatural experiences. These potions would trigger the hallucinations that put Erzsébet in touch with the monster within.
It’s possible that the countess was simply a product of her time, even if she deviated from the traditional role of 16th century women. She was born and bred in a difficult, brutal era when wars ravaged Europe. Punishments, even for minor offences, were severe, and barbarity was a daily norm. It’s also entirely possible that the worsening of Erzsébet’s cruelty was because the potions that Darvulia supplied her with had exacerbated her inherent, genetic insanity. Some historians believe that by torturing her victims, Erzsébet would alleviate the seizures and fits of rage that plagued her, while also finding sexual gratification from these acts.
The majority of Erzsébet’s victims were procured outside the castle by persons designated for that specific job. According to her household staff, as well as various locals, Erzsébet’s victims were initially only peasant girls – the teenage daughters of villagers – who were kidnapped or lured to Nádasdy Castle under the ruse of being employed by the countess. Their parents were easier to appease with money, and anyone who asked about their daughter was told that she was working in the countess’s service or had died of an illness.
However, eventually Erzsébet grew unsatisfied, and began selecting girls among the local nobility. This may have started after her husband’s death in 1604, as she became more careless then, especially in covering up her crimes. On one occasion, Erzsébet asked one of the launderers to remove the flooring of the room to bury a group of dead girls. Apparently, the launderer left them under a bed instead, and the smell of rotting bodies soon spread through the castle. The bodies were ultimately taken to a field and buried. The same launderer would frequently be the one directing the clean-up of the scene after another episode of Erzsébet’s murderous frenzies.
Targeting girls from noble families was a huge mistake as they had the resources to investigate what happened to their daughter, unlike the poor peasantry. This carelessness set in motion the chain of events leading to Erzsébet’s arrest.
INVESTIGATION & TRIAL
By 1610, rumours of Erzsébet’s evil practices and barbarity – which had surrounded Nádasdy Castle for years – were now swirling around the kingdom, prompting authorities to take action (albeit belated.) The king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus II, gave the task of investigating the case to György Thurzó, the Hungarian Palatine (a position similar to that of prime minister.) Thurzó also happened to be a family friend to the Báthory’s through Erzsébet’s late husband.
Thurzó ordered the widespread collection of evidence, and by Decembr 1610, he had hundreds of signed testimonies made by locals against the countess. She was arrested on 30th December 1610, along with four of her servants who were accused of being her accomplices. The men who went to arrest them claimed to have found a dead girl in the castle, and another one close to death in the cellars.
The trial began next month, although Erzsébet was never present. Between January and May 1611, over two hundred new testimonies came from more witnesses in other communities, which strengthened the claims of others. One witness, a magistrate, accused Erzsébet of shoving hot iron bars into girls’ genitals, and this claim was strengthened by another man, an administrator of one of Erzsébet’s castles, who further added that she would also whip the girls.
Elsewhere, a village priest claimed that he saw several girls at Erzsébet’s properties who were sporting all sorts of injuries, while another man confessed to obtaining a large amount of antimony for her, which could be used to poison many people. Erzsébet was also accused of cannibalism, with witnesses saying that she had sausages made out of the meat of the dead girls.
The general consensus among historians is that Erzsébet was responsible for the death of 600 – 650 girls, though it's doubtful that there were no boys in the mix. Ultimately, around eighty people were found guilty of aiding Erzsébet, and of the four servants that were arrested with her, three were executed. King Matthias II wanted the countess executed too but thanks to her high status as a Báthory, she was never even tried. She was apparently confined to a tower at Csejte Castle until her death around three years later, in August 1614, aged 54.
ERZSÉBET: THE REAL VICTIM?
It’s important I mention that there are historians who believe that Erzsébet’s story went very differently, and that she’d essentially been set up by the men of her time, with the accusations against her greatly exaggerated. If we take some time to consider the historical background, it’s possible that they’re right.
I mentioned King Matthias II wanted Erzsébet executed, though it wasn’t because of the accusations against her. There appears to be three reasons for this; firstly, Erzsébet was a powerful woman, confident and outspoken, with a family wealth that even rivalled the king’s, and this intimidated him; secondly, the king owed Erzsébet’s late husband a lot of money, which she repeatedly demanded but he didn’t want to pay; and thirdly, by having Erzsébet criminally executed, the king would lawfully be able to seize her vast lands and properties for himself. We know Europe, including Hungary, was in turmoil, having been the battleground for endless wars for decades. War has always been expensive, so the addition of Erzsébet’s wealth and lands (which were strategically important) would have been advantageous to the king.
Another point to consider is the contents of Erzsébet’s surviving letters; rather than confirming the horror stories surrounding her, they indicate that she was a woman – stuck in a time of complicated, volatile politics – trying her best to run the family businesses and estates, as well as care for her people.
As is the case with much of history, we’ll never know the complete, accurate version of events. Still though, the legend of the Blood Countess certainly makes an interesting story.