The Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory was beautiful, wealthy and mighty: she had everything every woman could dream in the 16th century. But despite this, her needs were always new and urgent, including one, among the many, more strange (and creepy) than others: the desire for blood.
Before going into what was her violent nature (so much to make Mary Tudor pale, called “the Bloody Mary”, but this is another story), it is necessary to clarify her story and its context. Erzsébet was born in Nyírbátor, in the north-eastern part of Hungary on 7 August 1560, in one of the most affluent noble families of Transylvania, the region of Romania where she grew up, precisely at Ecsed.
From an early age, the girl showed symptoms of a strong psychic imbalance, which first appeared with strong headaches followed by bursts of anger or hysteria. Some historians believe that this is due to the custom of the Báthory family to marry among blood relatives, and in fact, other relatives of Erzsébet were suffering from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or epilepsy.
Although her health was not optimal, at the age of ten, in 1571 the girl was promised, through a political agreement, to Count Ferenc Nádasdy, seven years older. Because of her social status higher than that of her future husband, Erzsébet was able to keep her now legendary surname. When she was fifteen, in 1575, she married in Vranov, Slovakia, with a banquet and regal celebrations. Fernec’s wedding present for her was the Čachtice Castle, where they would live after the wedding.
The girl’s crazy attitudes quickly revealed themselves to her husband, who, however, did not intervene or tried to decrease its effects. Three years later, in 1578, Ferenc Nádasdy went, as commander of the Hungarian troops, to war against the Ottomans, and left alone among the endless rooms of the castle, Erzsebét surrounded herself with servants, valets and ladies in company, in order to escape the boredom of court life.
Among her loyal servants there were Ilona Jò, the future nurse of her sons, Dorottya Szentes, Kateline Beniezky, ladies of the company, and a dwarf valet, the perfidious Ficzkó. During the years spent in their company, Erzsébet developed a sense of uncontrollable anger and sadism.
Both for her position and for the fear she struck her subordinates: no one ever tried to prevent these attitudes, which became real disturbing episodes of violence, but often encouraged by the servants themselves.
Erzsébet, in fact, developed a particular interest for occultism, it is seems thanks to the teachings imparted by an aunt, the Countess Karla, who initiated her to the most grueling and bloody practices of magic and torture.
From that moment on, a real hell developed between the walls of the castle. The Countess decided to attract young girls, preferably virgins, within the walls of Čachtice, promising paid work and housing. In many, from villages bordering the fortress, responded to the call, unaware of their fate. At every moment, especially during her headaches, the Countess was having fun and she felt satisfied in beating and wounding the poor girls. Among the practices most appreciated by her, there was that of immobilizing the girls, and place between their fingers pieces of paper soaked with oil, which would then set it on fire. The harrowing screams of pain were like a melody for her, and more she listened it, more she wanted it. The young women came to her and to her servants, and were tortured in every way: sometimes they were brought under the windows of the Countess, at night and in frost, and stripped. From her rooms, Erzsébet would have flooded them with cold water, which would have brought them to death by frostbite. Other times, they used real tools of torture: cages too low to stand up and too narrow to sit, with sharp spikes of iron on the bottom, or hot and pointed irons were just some of the diabolical devices designed to enjoy the agony of the young girls. The culmination of the Countess Báthory’s sadism would still take place in 1604, at the death of her husband Ferenc Nádasdy (with whom she had four children, Anna, Orsolya, Katà and Pàl), when she remained alone to rule Čachtice. No one could have stop her sadism.
It seems that just after 1604, even if no chronicle or documents attests it, the incident occurred that led to what was a real, slow, slaughter of girls. During one of his sessions of beatings, Erzsébet struck hard one of her servants: she lost blood, which splashed on the hand of the Countess which, noting that the skin bathed by the scarlet liquid was smoother and uniform, was convinced that she had found an elixir of youth, for years desperately searched among ointments and essential oils. So it was that in 1609, the Countess wanted to establish a sort of training academy for the young people of the villages within Čachtice. Once again, the young people ran in large numbers, despite the disappearances of those who had enter in the fortress had begun to arouse suspicion. In the dungeons of the castle were imprisoned dozens of poor victims, closed in dark and small cells: the most fortunate were cut or even amputations, in order to collect the blood. But to other the throat was severed, after being hung upside down by the ankles. In this way, Erzsébet Báthory, for a long time, obtained the blood necessary for her rejuvenating baths, which, it seems, she also drunk.
Over time, many in the castle have realised the horrors perpetrated in the dungeoms, and decided to break the silence behind these horrible events. Together with the depositions made by peasants to the ecclesiastical authorities of the area, to tarnish the name of the Countess were also added numerous debts and problems of bad governance, the result of neglected management of family assets. In 1610, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Matthias II, began investigations at Čachtice. What was discovered inside the castle, during the surprise inspections ordered by the emperor, led to mutism more than one man. The walls of the dungeons and whatever was there was literally soaked in blood. Corpse and pieces of these were piled up in dark corners, surrounded by torture instruments, ropes and cages. In 1611, the Countess and her faithful servants were immediately sent to trial and subsequently incarcerated. During the depositions, it emerged that the favourite victims of the woman, were girls between the ages of ten and fourteen, mostly peasants and aspiring ladies. Beyond that, according to what is present in the Budapest city archives, other methods of torture were discovered. The girls were sprinkled from head to toe of honey and covered with insects, or kept imprisoned and undernourished. There was also the suspicion, never confirmed, that the Countess had feasted with the meat of the girls on more than one occasion, offering them as a dish during official dinners to other nobles. Finally, it seems that tortures and orgies were practiced on various occasions such as celebrations, birthdays and even during the marriage of one of her daughters.
Countess Erzsébet Báthory was sentenced to life imprisonment, she was walled up alive in a room in Čachtice, with only one hole to allow her contact with the guards, who brought her food and drink. She remained there until August 21st 1614, when she died, perhaps from illness, perhaps committing suicide by letting herself die of hunger. It was the end of a trail of blood that was too long, and too horrible to be forgotten. For hundreds of years, the number of young people who died in the castle walls was discussed: somebody said more than six hundred, or between one hundred and two hundred, but today more cautious historians speak of about eighty girls, even if the estimates of hundreds of girls killed can not be considered incorrect. The stories of Erzsébet Báthory were for centuries tells the courts of Europe, and continue to inspire restlessness and horror even today, four hundred years later. And the Countess will remain a blood stain in the genealogical tree of the Báthory family, riddled with nobles, churchmen and kings.