split image of Elizabeth bathory and a bloody mouth

Countess Elizabeth Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman and niece to Stephen Báthory, the King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Prince of Transylvania from 1576 to 1586.

She was also allegedly a serial killer and a vampire - there is even a theory that she could have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Count Dracula.

Elizabeth was said to have killed more than 600 girls and young women in order to drink and bathe in their blood, supposedly to preserve her youth.

This would make her the world’s most prolific female murderer, however, there remains some doubt as to whether Elizabeth truly was guilty of these crimes, with some historians claiming that she was the victim of a witch-hunt.

Born into nobility in 1560, Elizabeth's family ruled Transylvania, a place long associated with vampire mythology.

As a child, Elizabeth suffered from epileptic seizures and fits. One of the treatments for this at the time was to rub the blood of a non-sufferer on your face, as well as drinking some of it.

It is unknown whether Elizabeth was given this treatment as a child or not. Regardless, it’s possible that it played into her young mind as she grew into adulthood.

Elizabeth was married in 1575 to Count Ferenc Nádasdy. It was a political arrangement, thus Elizabeth had no qualms about engaging in extramarital affairs.

However, she didn’t kill any of her male lovers. Rather, she allegedly exclusively targeted young virgin girls and women, believing that their blood would provide her with eternal youth.

Her reported reign of terror was, at first, confined to young peasant women, whom she captured and tortured with the help of her servants, before killing them and consuming their blood.

Elizabeth supposedly then moved on to more aristocratic targets who’d been sent to her to learn good manners. However, instead of acquiring genteel ways, they ended up as victims of Elizbeth’s depravity.

A copy of a lost 1585 portrait of Elizabeth Báthory

In 1604, Elizabeth’s husband died due to an unknown illness. After this, the rumours regarding Elizabeth’s bloodlust ramped up.

Stories swirled for several years until 1610 when the King of Hungary, Matthias II, ordered György Thurzó, the Palantine of Hungary, to investigate.

By the next year, Thurzó’s team had collected over 300 witness statements which seemingly corroborated the rumours.

Some witnesses named relatives who died while at the gynaeceum (the part of the castle set aside for women), whilst others said that they’d seen traces of torture on dead bodies buried in graveyards and other unmarked locations.

On New Year’s Eve 1612, Thurzó paid a visit to Čachtice Castle to arrest Elizabeth and four of her servants.

As per a letter he wrote to his wife, Thurzó found one dead girl in the castle along with another living girl, presumed to be a future victim.

Two of the female servants were tortured and burned alive, whilst the lone male servant was given a quick death by beheading. The other female servant avoided death, instead receiving a life sentence due to the fact that she’d been abused by the other women. A fifth servant, who had initially evaded capture at the castle, was later caught and burned alive.

As for Elizabeth, she was spared from imprisonment or execution. Her punishment was to be placed under strict house arrest.

She was confined to her castle for the remainder of her life, where she died in 1614, aged 54.

But did she actually commit the crimes she was convicted of?

Elizabeth bathory portrait

The initial accusations against her were based on rumours which gained momentum after being frequently repeated.

However, there are no documents which prove that anyone in the local area lodged any complaints against Elizabeth, and this was in a time when letters of complaint were written whenever any transgression – no matter how minor – was perceived to have been committed.

In fact, many of the witnesses testified that they had not actually seen any first-hand evidence of Elizabeth’s crimes; they had merely heard the accusations from others.

Moreover, Elizabeth’s servants did not confess to their alleged crimes until they were subjected to extreme torture methods, such as having their fingers torn out with red-hot pincers. Today, confessions given under such circumstances would not be considered credible.

The number of victims was likely exaggerated or completely made up too. During the trial of Elizabeth’s servants, the highest number of victims mentioned was 650, however, this number was cited by a servant girl who said she’d heard one of Elizabeth’s courtiers say that he’d seen the number in one of Elizabeth’s private books.

However, the courtier in question, Jakab Szilvássy, never mentioned it in his testimony, and the book was never procured.

Some historians argue that Elizabeth was framed because she had immense wealth and owned large swathes of Hungarian land, which multiplied after her husband died.

Furthermore, Matthias II, who ordered the investigation into Elizabeth, owed her a large debt, which was conveniently cancelled when she was arrested and charged.

Of course, to truly prove Elizabeth’s innocence, the hundreds of witness statements would have to be discredited, along with the physical evidence found at the castle. To this end, it has been suggested that Thurzó misrepresented medical patients housed in the castle as victims of Elizabeth, in an effort to further his own political ambitions and gain favour with the king.

What’s more is that there is no real evidence that Elizabeth actually drank or bathed in blood – the legends describing these vampiric tendencies were recorded years after she died, thus cannot be considered reliable.

Sadly, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know whether Elizabeth Báthory truly was the world’s most prolific female murderer or just an unfortunate victim of the patriarchy.

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