The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory

Natasha sheldon - September 1, 2017

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory was the most murderous woman in history. She is reputed to have tortured and murdered young women in her charge during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Over time, the facts of Bathory’s life have mingled with myth.

History remembers her unsubstantiated lust for the blood of virgins, which Bathory reputedly believed would preserve her youth, earning her the epithets ‘Bloody Countess’ and ‘Countess Dracula.’ The truth is, however, Countess Bathory was much more than a blood-crazed maniac. It also seems that the authorities who ‘brought her to justice’ were motivated by something more than disgust for her crimes.

The Bathory family was a powerful clan

Elizabeth Bathory came from an illustrious family whose lineage, wealth and power rivaled even that of the kings they served. The Bathory dated their origins to around 900AD. According to legend, a warrior called Vitus was asked to tackle a dragon that was terrorizing the swamplands of Ecsed, in the Heves County of Hungary. Vitus killed the beast with just three thrusts of his lance. His reward was Ecsed and its castle. He also earned himself a surname: Bathory or ‘good hero.’

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Esced Castle, Hungary- the seat of the Bathory family. Google Images

From these small beginnings, the Bathory began to dominate the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1325, the Hungarian crown granted the family their coat of arms. The Bathory chose a design of three horizontal, white, teeth on a red background. This motif represented the mythical dragon killed by Vitus. Sometimes, it is portrayed surrounded by a dragon, biting its tail. The simple design also conveyed a powerful message: from small beginnings, the Bathory had achieved great things.

By the time of Elizabeth Bathory’s birth on August 7, 1560, the Bathory family could boast members who had served as Palatines (Prime Ministers) of Hungary. They also numbered a Duke of Lithuania and Princes of Transylvania among their ranks. By 1576, one of Elizabeth’s uncles, Stephen Bathory had become King of Poland. The family’s holdings spanned lands covering modern Hungary, Transylvania, parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria- making them even bigger landowners than the Hungarian crown.

The marriage of Elizabeth’s parents Gyorgy and Anna Bathory unified two opposing branches of the Bathory family. It also consolidated Bathory’s power and influence – and the family’s increasingly uneasy relationship with the Hungarian crown. The Bathory tended to switch their allegiance to whichever power suited them best: the Hapsburgs one minute, the Hungarian Crown the next. It was a tension that remained throughout Elizabeth Bathory’s life.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
The Nadasdy Castle, Sarvar. Google Images

Elizabeth Bathory may have had a secret love child

At the age of 11, Elizabeth’s family betrothed her to 15-year-old Ferenc Nadasdy, the son of the then Palatine of Hungary. As was the custom, the young bride to be left her own home once the betrothal was official and the family of her fiance took over her education. By this time, Tamas Nadasdy, Ferenc’s father was dead. His mother, Orsolya died just before or after Elizabeth arrived at the Nadasdy estate of Sarvar. Ferenc himself was also absent at school. So, the Nadasdy family retainers became responsible for their future mistress.

Elizabeth Bathory’s life at this time is not well documented. However, it seems the Nadasdy servants did not attend to her particularly well. There is a rumor that she became pregnant at 13, while at the Nadasdy estate of Trnava, on the River Danube by a servant or minor noble named Ladislav Bende. Local records confirm Bende’s existence and his name. Some sources claim that once Ferenc Nadasdy discovered the indiscretion, he had Bende castrated and torn apart by dogs. Meanwhile, the child, a girl reputedly named Anastasia was sent away and brought up in Transylvania.

The Bathory- Nadasdy wedding went ahead when Elizabeth was 15 and Ferenc 19. Whatever may have occurred, the marriage had to take place to save face and preserve the alliance between the two families. However, there is the possibility that Bende raped Elizabeth Bathory. A document exists, signed in front of church officials, were the Countess claims she was abducted and drugged- and forced by Bende. The trouble is, the document is dated to 1609 when the Countess was 50 years old- 37 years after the event.

Whatever the truth, Elizabeth Bathory’s pride and confidence were unabated. She insisted on keeping her maiden name after her marriage, signing all her correspondence as ‘Lady Bathory.’ Her reasoning was hers was the older, more distinguished family. This degree of self-assurance is a testament to the strong will of the Countess. However, it was not respected by all around her. Many nobles insisted on referring to Elizabeth as ‘Lady Nadasdy’ despite her noted name preference. Even at a young age, Elizabeth Bathory was flouting convention- and ruffling the feathers of the establishment.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Elizabeth Bathory’s Signature. Google Images

Lady Bathory was a Capable Ruler

History remembers Elizabeth Bathory as a sadist. She was, however, also a real renaissance woman. Unlike many men and most women of her class, she could read and write. She was educated in mathematics and could speak and write in Latin and German as well as her native Hungarian. The Countess often wrote to other nobles with requests to borrow books. Her favorite subjects included biology, botany, anatomy, religion and the occult. She had a keen and inquisitive mind.

Elizabeth’s intellect and strength were to prove essential as she was left alone to run the Bathory- Nadasdy estates. Ferenc Nadasdy was away much of the time, carving out a military career. The Kingdom of Hungary was a war zone. Turkish satraps held northern portions of the country- and continued to attack the rest. Ferenc carved out quite a name for himself fighting the Turks. In 1578, he became chief commander of the Hungarian forces, ‘The Black Hero’ or ‘Black Bey’ of Hungary.

Elizabeth’s letters to the couple’s estate managers show the Countess kept a close eye on their affairs. Between them, she and Ferenc owned thousands of acres of land. On that land were farms, dozens of towns and 20 castles. It was, in effect, a mini kingdom- and Elizabeth ruled it capably. She issued directives on the most profitable sales of crops and livestock- and defense. For with Ferenc away, it fell to his wife to protect their lands from Turkish incursions-and after his death from unscrupulous neighbors.

When some of her lands were invaded by a neighboring noble, the recently widowed Lady Bathory wrote to him to warn him off in no uncertain terms: “so my good sir, you have done this thing. You have occupied my small possessions because you are poor, but I do not think that we will leave you to enjoy them in peace. You will find in me a man.”

The Countess also concerned herself with the well-being of her people. Her letters express concern for the hardships her serfs endured. There are also recorded instances when she intervened on behalf of destitute women- such as the wife of a Turkish captive whose daughter was left pregnant by rape. These could simply have been the dutiful actions of a noble landowner. But they provide a curious contrast with the woman later reviled for acts of cruelty.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Gyorgy Dozsa’s execution. Google Images

Elizabeth Bathory grew up with cruelty

Elizabeth Bathory grew up in a society where violence and cruelty were commonplace. In 1514, the Hungarian peasants rose up against the nobility, under the leadership of Gyorgy Dozsa. The crown quashed the revolt, and Dozsa was executed horribly. Contemporary illustrations show gleeful aristocrats roasting the defeated rebel leader alive. The executioner seated Dozsa on an iron throne heated by glowing coals, while his assistants placed a red-hot crown on his head. As a result of the failed rebellion, in 1517, the peasants were reduced to the level of serfs. The only person they could now appeal to for justice was their Lord.

The Countess would have become accustomed to such scenes from a young age. As a child on the Bathory estates, she witnessed the execution of a man accused of selling his child to the Turks. The executioner sewed him alive into the belly of a horse. As Elizabeth watched, she reputedly giggled at the man’s head poking out of the horse’s belly for one last time, before disappearing completely into his grisly tomb.

These lessons in cruelty continued under the tutelage of Ferenc Nadasdy. Nadasdy saw his young bride infrequently, probably only at Christmas and Easter, and briefly, in the summer-which may explain why the couple did not have children for ten years. He was known for his ‘uncompromising’ treatment of the Turks. Nadasdy was reputed to dance with their dead bodies and play catch and football with their severed heads. He corresponded with his wife regularly and happily dispensed advice on the disciplining of servants.

When at home, he offered practical demonstrations. In one account, Ferenc had a recalcitrant serving girl taken outside, stripped and smeared in honey. Ferenc ordered the girl to stand in this manner for a day and night. It being summer, she was bitten and stung by bees and insects. When she dropped to the ground from exhaustion, Ferenc put pieces of oiled paper between her toes and lit them to ‘revive’ her. Elizabeth apparently watched and participated in this incident.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
The depiction of Countess Bathory and her hidden rooms. Google Images

Investigations into the Countess’s activities only began when nobles died

No one called into question Elizabeth Bathory’s alleged activities until 1602, when the Lutheran minister of Sarvar, Istvan Magyari began to question the unusual number of bodies of young female servants coming from the castle for burial. The Countess claimed they were the victims of cholera but the sheer numbers were making the clergyman suspicious. So were the rumors of sealed chambers, out of bounds to all but the Countess’s most trusted servants.

The rumors also whispered that Lady Bathory was torturing and killing her serving girls in these rooms- in the cruelest ways. She reputedly whipped them, beat them, burned them, gouged out their flesh and even bit them. Tales of many of the incidents seem to suggest they were a combination of chastisement and irrational rage.

The ‘punishments’ were initially designed to fit the ‘crime.’ Girls the Countess accused of theft, for instance, had a heated coin pressed into their flesh. The violence then escalated as the Countess became carried away by her rage.

Magyari complained to the authorities. Nothing, however, was done as the girls were only serfs. If they wished to raise a complaint, they or their families needed to bring it to the attention of Ferenc Nadasdy- or his wife. They were hardly likely to do so considering the Countess was the alleged abuser. So nothing was done. However, the authorities started to take notice in 1610, when Lady Bathory opened a Gynaeceum or finishing school for noblewomen. Suddenly, young, noble girls were dying in alarming numbers. So their families took the matter to Matthias II, King of Hungary.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
A woodcut Illustration of an old woman. Google Images

The Countess did not work alone

The Countess had a close network of servants who were privy to the activities of the secret inner chambers at Sarvar and her other castles. The first of those servants was Anna Darvolya, known as Darvulia. Darvulia had been a servant of the Nadasdy family for years but became a permanent part of the Countess’s inner circle from 1601 onwards. It is Darvulia who supposedly honed the Countess’s torture skills and instructed her other servants. These pupils later claimed that when Darvulia arrived ‘the lady herself became crueler and crueler.”

The other servants consisted of three older women- and one young man. They were: Ilona Jo, the Countess’s children’s former wet nurse; Dorottya Szentes a friend of Jo; an elderly washerwoman called Katalin Beneczky and a boy named Janos Ujvary or Ficzko (‘kid’). The women supervised (and terrorized) the young girls in the Countess’s employ. All admitted to participating in Lady Bathory’s torture sessions. However, when Thurzo finally accused her, the Lady herself laid the blame squarely at her servant’s door, claiming she allowed them to do such things because: “even I myself was afraid of them.”

But it was not just servants implicated in the Countess’s crimes. Nobles such as Lady Anna Welyker, Lady Judith Pogan, Lady Szell and others were supposed to have acted as ‘girl catchers’ for the countess, traveling to find her new female servants when local supplies ‘dried up.” Even her youngest, favorite daughter Katalin had allegedly taken part in at least one torture session with her mother at Csejthe, the Countess’s favored residence. The event occurred before Katalin’s wedding.Two young girls were tortured and burnt so badly they later died during the marriage festivities.

All of the servants (except for Darvulia who was dead by 1609) were tried and executed. Jo and Szentes had their fingers torn out before the executioner burnt their bodies. Because of his relative youth, the same executioner beheaded Ficzko while guards removed Beneczky to prison. A local Csejthe forest witch, Erzsi Majorova was implicated in abetting the Countess’s attempts to kill King Matthias and Gyorgy Thurzo by magic. Thurzo had her burnt. But the nobles who acted as procurers and the Countess’s daughter were never brought to book.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Gyorgy Thurzo. Google Images

Much of the initial evidence against the Countess was unsound

In 1610, Matthias II ordered Gyorgy Thurzo, to investigate the allegations. Thurzo was Palatine of Hungary- and ironically had been charged by the dying Ferenc Nadasdy with his wife’s protection. Between March and July 1610, Thurzo’s men interviewed 52 witnesses. 34 were servants of the Countess’s neighbors. These witnesses told lurid tales of bruised and beaten young women, stripped and left to die of exposure. But aside from a clerk, Andreas Somogy, who had seen a girl with badly burnt hands, they were repeating hearsay.

Things were little better amongst the Countess’s servants at Sarvar. The castle warden, Benedict Bicserdy, claimed to know of the secret torture rooms. However, although he had heard cries of pain and the sounds of a whip, he too had seen no evidence of torture. Anyone who was allowed into these secret rooms also reported there were no signs of anything untoward. Doctor’s called to the castle to tend to sick girls said they too had not seen any marks on their patients- although admittedly they were only allowed to see their faces.

When Thurzo arrested the Countess at Csejthe Castle on December 30, 1610, he claimed to have ‘caught her in the act.’ But there is little evidence to substantiate this. What was discovered was the body of one dead girl and another who was severely injured, but alive. The injured girl, named Anna stated at the scene that the Countess did indeed beat and hit her- but that Beneczky ripped her flesh. But once in Ujhely, Anna changed her account. Now she claimed that it was the Countess herself who had destroyed her right hand and arm. Anna was later awarded 50 guilders, 15 pounds of wheat and a small farm in Csejthe as free property- all courtesy of Thurzo.

Now she claimed that it was the Countess herself who had destroyed her right hand and arm. Anna was later awarded 50 guilders, 15 pounds of wheat and a small farm in Csejthe as free property- all courtesy of Thurzo.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Castle Csejthe. Google Images

Thurzo tortured the Countess’s henchman. Other servants testified freely

While the Countess was locked in the castle dungeons as Csejthe, the notaries began to collect 300 witness testimonies against her. These were from servants at Sarvar and Csejthe, who came forward to testify- or who Jo et al. named under torture. During the initial stages of this torture, the Countess’s henchmen attempted to mitigate their involvement by laying the blame at the deceased Darvulia’s door- and at each other. But as the pain increased, they began to implicate the Countess. According to their accounts, Lady Bathoryonly occasionally killed when her husband was alive. But on Ferenc’s death, her murders became more numerous. They placed the numbers of deaths between 30-50.

The figure of 650 deaths, on which the Countess’s reputation as a mass murderer was based, came from a servant girl known simply as ‘Suzannah.’ It is unlikely Suzannah was literate. Somehow, however, she knew of a ledger kept by the official Jacob Szilvassey, which apparently recorded the names of every one of the Countess’s victims. In his testimony, although Szilvassey admitted he had seen the Countess torture some of her victims, he never mentioned any such ledger. Nor was one ever found and presented to the court as evidence.

One other senior official testified against the Countess. Benedek Deseo was the Countess’s court master and a man she held in the highest trust. Deseo was named during the torture and admitted to seeing his mistress at work. He described how the Countess ‘disciplined’ a young maid called Illonka for clumsiness. Lady Bathory stripped the girl and then began stabbing her in the fingers. The violence increased as the lady became more agitated, moving from fingers to arms, before the by now frenzied Countess whipped Illonka violently and burned her hands with a candle. The Countess did not cease until the girl was dead.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Reenactment of Elizabeth Bathory bathing in blood. Google Images

Bathing in blood is a myth

One crime associated with Countess Bathory that witnesses at the trial of her servants never accused her of, was a penchant for bathing in blood. Today, the Countess is believed to have murdered her victims so that she could immerse herself in their virgin blood, to preserve her youth and beauty. However, this never happened.

The story became part of the myth of the Countess just over a hundred years after her death. In 1729, a Jesuit scholar called Laszlo Turoczi was researching what was to be the first-ever account of the Bathory case. In the course of his travels around the Countess’s former territories, he heard stories from the local villagers of the vampire countess who bathed in blood to look beautiful. So he added it to his book.

Readers believed Turoczi’s account because there was no evidence to contradict it. However, in 1817, the records of the trials of the Countess’s servants were rediscovered. Out of the 300 witness statements, not one mentions blood bathing. Indeed, the reports of the Countess’s servants reveal blood was of no concern to Lady Bathory. It was merely a by product of the violence itself.

Ilona Jo reported that the Countess did indeed beat girls until they bled, so hard that the blood pooled on the floor and splattered the Countess’s clothes. But when this happened, Elizabeth Bathory would change immediately. The servants would also wash away any blood on the floor-they did not collect it for bathing or any other purpose. Author Kimberly L Craft in her analysis of the Bathory case, “Infamous lady’, suggests that release of pent-up rage and stress was more likely to be the motivation for the Countess’s torturous attacks as they can all be linked to periods when the Countess felt particularly under pressure. Blood was of no consequence.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Gabor Bathory, Prince of Transylvania. Google Images

The Countess Prepared for her Fall

Elizabeth Bathory knew she was in trouble in the latter half of 1610 when she heard of the investigations into her affairs. So she began to take measures to protect herself. Her first step was to try to counter the charges Thurzo was forging against her. In August 1610, the Countess appeared unexpectedly at a court in Eisenberg- with the mother of one of the dead girls from her finishing school in tow. The bereaved lady willingly took the stand to testify that her daughter had died of natural causes. It did little good as Thurzo, the King and the judges ignored this statement.

The Countess also spoke to Thurzo himself. While serving him tea at Cjesthe castle, she told him the somewhat unconvincing story that one of the finishing school girls had in fact, murdered all the others because she was greedy for their jewels. But by this time, the Countess knew she was living on borrowed time.

In September 1610, she made her will. This document was not merely a statement about the disposal of her goods after death- but a transferal of all her estates and possessions during her lifetime. The Will bequeathed everything to her three surviving children, Anna, Katalin, and Pal. The only thing the Countess would keep was her wedding dress which she intended to “wear until my death.” Not only would this mean the Bathory-Nadasdy holdings would avoid confiscation if Elizabeth were found guilty in court, but she probably also hoped it would satisfy both her son in-laws, who were already plotting with Thurzo to have her put away so they could take over the administration of her estates.

Finally, in October 1610, Elizabeth Bathory withdrew from the Nadasdy family seat of Sarvar. She made one last spa trip with her daughter and then stopped off at the castle to collect her jewels and personal effects. Then she high-tailed it to Csejthe. No doubt she hoped by the time anyone moved to arrest her, the roads would be unpassable because of severe winter weather. Elizabeth was already corresponding with her cousin Gabor Bathory, prince of Transylvania, in the hope that he would rescue her if all went wrong.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
King Matthias II. Google Images

King Matthias had an interest in the Countess’s Fall

Besides greedy sons-in-law after her money, there were others who had a vested interest in seeing Elizabeth Bathory fall. It was this, rather than any sense of horror or belief in justice that was the real motivation behind the investigation against her. The King of Hungary had the most compelling reason of all.

For years, Ferenc Nadasdy had been lending money to the Hungarian crown- and the Crown had made no effort to pay that debt back. Elizabeth, as a widow had made herself extremely unpopular with her frequent trips to court to press for repayment. King Matthias knew if he could convict Elizabeth of a capital crime, he would not only wipe out his debt to her but he could also claim her vast estates. His money problems would be solved- and a troublesome, headstrong woman removed to boot.

Not only that, he would be one step closer to diminishing the powerful Bathory clan. When not fighting the Turks, the Kingdom of Hungary was busy fighting itself. The Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants loomed as the Catholic crown began to attempt to erode the rights of its Protestant subjects- before they could move to restrict its power. Most nobles were Catholic. However, the Bathory and Nadasdy were Protestant. Based on their combined power and wealth, they were best placed to lead any Protestant revolt against the king.

Worse yet, Elizabeth’s cousin, Gabor Bathory, the Prince of Transylvania had his eye on expanding his territory by uniting Transylvania and Royal Hungary under his rule. He and Elizabeth were known to correspond, and it seemed she had been financing him, as well as pledging troops to his cause (so long as he came to her aid as required). At the same time as he was investigating Elizabeth, Thurzo was attempting to negotiate a treaty with Gabor (who referred to the Palatine of Hungary as ‘a Lord’s serf) to stave off a potential war. However, the Countess’s support was vital to Gabor’s cause. If Matthias could remove her as a player, Gabor’s plans would be confounded.

The Real Countess Dracula: 12 Facts about the Life and Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory
Statue of Elizabeth Bathory in modern Cachtice. The church of St Ladislav where she was initially buried is in the background. Google Images

There was no trial for the Countess

Both Elizabeth Bathory and King Matthias wanted a trial: Matthias so he could secure her execution and Elizabeth because she believed, if she put her case in person, she could absolve herself. However, Thurzo determined that the Countess should not have her day in court. He initially intended to commit Lady Bathory to a convent, changing his mind because of the gravity of her crimes. However, the Countess seems to have provoked him with her refusal to give up.

Thurzo had joined Lady Bathory’s relatives on a visit to her prison cell where the Countess once again demanded a trial and was once again refused. Elizabeth furiously rounded on Thurzo, threatening him with Gabor Bathory as a ‘dire consequences of his illegal actions’ The furious Thurzo responded: “You Erzsebet are like a wild animal…you do not deserve to breathe the air on earth or see the light of the Lord. You shall disappear from this world and shall never reappear in it again.’

Some suggest Thurzo was trying to fulfill his promise to Ferenc Nadasdy or to spare her children the shame of a public trial and execution. However, he was ultimately protecting himself. An act of parliament would have been required to bring someone of Elizabeth Bathory’s status to trial-and that would have set a precedent Thurzo was anxious to avoid. It could have opened the floodgates, allowing the monarchy to dispose of other inconvenient nobles. Thurzo, as a Protestant, was well aware of his tenuous situation.

So he talked King Matthias out of the trial, selling it to the King as a form of damage limitation. A public trial would not only discredit the Bathory and Ferenc Nadasdy, a revered national hero but the wider nobility and so ultimately the crown. Thurzo persuaded the anxious nobles linked to the Bathory affair to petition the King. The ruse worked. The Bathory Nadasdy family agreed to cancel Matthias’s debts- and Matthias decided that Elizabeth Bathory would disappear behind the walls of her castle.

The exact circumstances of Elizabeth’s final imprisonment are unknown. However, Thurzo ordered her bricked into a windowless room in Cjsethe Castle. A small space was left to allow the passage of items to and from the chamber. Her daughter Katalin visited for a time, bringing candles, ink, and parchment- and Thurzo’s wife to steal her jewels, but other than a guard, Elizabeth Bathory was alone. She died on August 14, 1614.


Sources For Further Reading:

Biography – Elizabeth Bathory

ZEE News – Why Elizabeth Bathory Is Called the Most Prolific Female Murderer in History

Ozy – Elizabeth Báthory: History’s Most Prolific Female Serial Killer

History Hit – The Blood Countess: 10 Facts About Elizabeth Báthory

The Culture Trip – The Terrible Secrets of the Čachtice Castle Ruins

Roman the Human – The truth about Elizabeth Bathory and Anna Darvulia