The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed

Alexander Meddings - November 4, 2017

As most of us know, standing alone in a darkened room, quietly muttering Bloody Mary into a mirror isn’t just something adults do when they’ve had one too many vodka tomato juices the night before. Since at least the second century AD, scare-seekers and the superstitious have been dabbling in catoptromancy (the act of divination using a mirror) for any number of divinatory reasons.

In Ancient Greece, sick people would visit temples where they would look into a mirror. If a healthy-looking apparition stared back at them, they were expected to recover; if the apparition was terrifying, their days were numbered. In Edwardian Britain, young women would look for visions of their future husbands in candlelit mirrors. If he appeared, all was well and good. If a grim spectre appeared, it was divined she would die before she married.

Mirroring “Bloody Mary” is the Japanese legend of Hanako-san (or “Hanako of the Toilet). It involves a young girl, killed either during WWII air raids or by a parent or stranger, who appears in the mirrors of school bathrooms when you shout her name. But the invocation of Bloody Mary—a blood-soaked spectre just as likely to be benign and scare you as to end up strangling you—is relatively recent. Who exactly do scare-seekers in the West expect to come face-to-face with when they summon Bloody Mary? Here are three historical contenders.

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
“Bloody” Mary I.

Bloody Mary 1) Queen Mary I (1516 – 1558)

Mary I of England could have had historical laurels to her name. She was the only offspring of Henry VIII and his first wife, the Spanish queen Catherine of Aragon, to survive childhood. She was also England’s first queen regnant—that is the first queen to rule in her own right rather than as the wife of a king. But what Mary I is instead most (in)famous is for being ardent Catholic, whose burning devotion to her faith earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary”.

As the blood queen of the English Reformation, Mary had at least 280 people burned at the stake for resisting her re-Catholicisation of England. These purges, known to history as the “Marian Persecutions”, were aimed at those who remained loyal to Protestantism—a religious sect embraced by Mary’s father, Henry VIII, and his son and brief successor, Edward VI, but rejected by the Catholically-raised Mary. And not only did Mary execute those who refused to renounce their Protestantism, she also burned people who did.

Her most famous victim was Thomas Cramner, the Archbishop of Canterbury. After his trial, Cramner renounced his faith and re-embraced Catholicism. However, Mary had a score to settle. As an advisor to her father, Cramner had been responsible for annulling Henry’s marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine, so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn. He’d also been a passionate promoter of Protestantism under Mary’s predecessor, Edward VI. So Mary ignored the law of repentance—which should have absolved him—and condemned Cramner to the flames anyway in 1556.

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
This illustration, taken from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, shows the execution of John Rogers: the first Protestant martyr of Mary I’s reign. History Answers

Even for the standards of the time, the burnings were seen as being gratuitously nasty. They were met with hostility among the English population, serving only to fan the flames of anti-Spanish sentiment. Worse still for Mary and her Catholic supporters, it was all in vain. For upon Mary’s death, and the accession of her successor, Elizabeth I, England was steered back towards Protestantism. Rather than a turning point in England’s sectarian history, Mary’s persecutions were a minor—though no less bloody—blip.

Mary was betrothed at the age of just two and married a series of powerful royals across Europe. But she was never able to produce an heir. Aged 37 she seemingly became pregnant, displaying all of the symptoms, but never gave birth. Medical experts now suggest she may have suffered from pseudocyesis: a condition that essentially ghosts a pregnancy by producing all the symptoms. She fell pregnant again but died, aged 42, during an influenza epidemic in 1558. It wasn’t influenza that got “Bloody” Mary I, though, but ovarian cysts or uterine cancer.

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots. New York Times

Bloody Mary 2) Mary Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587)

As the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French queen, Mary of Guis, Mary Queen of Scots had both a legitimate claim to the Scottish and English thrones. She also enjoyed the support of Scotland’s long-time allies against the English: the French. The only problem was that the queen to the south happened to be the formidable Elizabeth I. Many refused to recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy as queen because they didn’t think Henry VIII’s marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been valid.

Mary had a terribly unlucky marriage to her cousin, Henry Stewart, the Earl of Darnley. Along with a group of renegade Protestant nobles, Stewart once set upon Mary’s Catholic secretary, stabbing him 56 times as the startled, heavily pregnant Mary looked helplessly on. It wouldn’t be long before Stewart met his own sticky end, murdered in mysterious circumstances in February 1567. Mary was believed to have been involved, in no small part because she went on to marry one of the main suspects, James Hepburn, Earl of Boswell.

Her marriage to Boswell was—believe it or not—worse than her marriage to Stewart. He essentially abducted her, holding her prisoner in Dumbar Castle as he waited to gather the support needed to lay his claim to kingship. The support never came, however. Instead, Boswell was arrested and Mary forced to abdicate the throne to her infant son, James. She raised an army and tried to take back power, but it was in vain. In 1568, Mary fled south to England, seeking sanctuary with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Rather than offer her hospitality, Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for 18 years. Her failure to kill her, however, provided Catholics with a figurehead around which to rally, and an alternative queen should the Protestant Elizabeth meet an unfortunate end. In 1586, letters were discovered implicating Mary in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth. She was tried for treason and sentenced to death.

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
Woodcut drawing of Mary’s execution. Luminarium

On February 8, 1586, the 44-year-old Mary was beheaded in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire. Mary went to her death in a dignified, cheery manner, even making a joke about never having had such grooms to disrobe her in public. But her executioner completely botched the job. When she stretched her head on the block, he failed to kill her with his first axe swing, digging it into the back of her head. The second struck her neck but failed to sever her head. In the end, he was forced to slice away at the sinew attaching it to her body.

He then held her head aloft and cried “God save the Queen”. But at that moment Mary’s short, grey-haired head dropped to the floor, and the shocked executioner was left holding on only her ginger wig. Nor was this even the end of the farcical execution. Mary’s small Skye terrier, which had been hiding behind its owner’s dress the whole time, refused to part with its recently deceased master. Soaked in blood, it remained beside her headless corpse until it was pulled away and washed.

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
Erzsébet Báthory. Wikimedia Commons

Bloody Mary 3) Elizabeth Bathory (1560 – 1614)

She might not be called Mary, but the violent deeds of Countess Erzébet Báthory (Elizabeth Bathory when anglicanized) make her a strong contender for the figure of Bloody Mary. From her base in the now very-ruined castle of Čachtice in Slovakia, she sadistically tortured and brutally murdered anywhere between 100 and 650 young girls. Owing to the nature of our evidence, we’ll never know the exact number. If the figures are even conservatively accurate, however, this would make her the most prolific female serial killer in history.

Elizabeth Bathory was better known as the “Blood Countess” because she used to bathe in the blood of her victims. She did this, we’re told, from the belief that their blood would preserve her youthful appearance. It’s likely that she was already embarked upon such cruelty while her husband was still around. She was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, a Hungarian war hero who fought with distinction against the Ottomans and gifted her his family estate of Čachtice Castle for their wedding.

However, Nádasdy’s death in 1604 gave way to six years of unabated killings. After exhausting the nearby village’s supply of adolescent peasant girls, she started searching further afield. Bathory began inviting the wealthy daughters of minor aristocrats to Čachtice to be instructed in the arts of court etiquette. Rather than receive a courtly education, however, they were instead ritually slaughtered.

An investigation launched by the King of Hungary (but requested by concerned, recently daughterless aristocrats) found that, for years, Bathory had been committing the kind of atrocities that make “Game of Thrones” torture scenes look like child’s play. Some victims would be scalded with white-hot tongs before being dunked in freezing water. Others would be covered in honey and slowly devoured by ants. Some would be burned, mutilated, and even cannibalized. The luckier ones would merely be beaten to death.

The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
Statue of Elizabeth Bathory in the center of Cachtice. John Malathrona

On December 30, 1610, Bathory was finally arrested along with four female accomplices. They were put on trial, during which dozens of witnesses came forward to testify. Elizabeth’s accomplices were tortured and burned at the stake. But it was decided that the countess shouldn’t be put to death; doing so would only be detrimental to the reputation of the nobility.

Instead Elizabeth it was decided that Elizabeth be walled up in Čachtice Castle, consigned to solitary confinement in a windowless cell where she would stay for four years until her death. Her macabre story has been cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula”. And it still brings a fair bit of tourism to the area of Čachtice. Amongst the souvenirs available are bottles of “Bathory Blood” from the local winery. Ruby red, naturally.

So which of our three contenders has the strongest claim as Bloody Mary? Ultimately it comes down to what kind of apparition you expect to find staring back at you: a pallid figure bathed in the blood of burned protestants, a headless, sinewy queen, or a serial killer countess. Just one thing’s for sure: none are the kind you’d like to meet in a dark alley, nevermind a candle-lit bathroom mirror.