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

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.