Bathory, Elizabeth

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Ingrid Pitt played Elizabeth Bathory in the film Countess Dracula.
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Elizabeth Bathory, who was known as the “female Dracula.”

Bathory, Elizabeth (1560–1614)

(pop culture)

Elizabeth Bathory, a Slovakian countess who was said to have tortured and murdered numerous young women, became known as one of the “true” vampires in history. Bathory was born in 1560, the daughter of George and Anna Bathory. Though frequently cited as Hungarian, due in large part to the shifting borders of the Hungarian Empire, she actually lived most of her life in what is now the Slovak Republic. Her adult life was spent largely at Castle Cachtrice, near the town of Vishine, northeast of present-day Bratslava, where Austria, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic come together. (The castle was mistakenly cited by Raymond T. McNally as being in Transylvania.) Bathory grew up in an era when much of Hungary had been overrun by the Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire and was a battleground between Turkish and Austrian (Hapsburg) armies. The area was also split by religious differences. Her family sided with the new wave of Protestantism that had attempted to reform the traditional Roman Catholicism. She was raised on the Bathory family estate at Ecsed in Transylvania. As a child she was subject to seizures accompanied by intense rage and uncontrollable behavior. In 1571, her cousin Stephen became Prince of Transylvania and, later in the decade, additionally assumed the throne of Poland. He was one of the most effective rulers of his day, though his plans for uniting Europe against the Turks were somewhat foiled by having to turn his attention toward fighting Russia, whose Czar Ivan the Terrible desired Stephen’s territory.

In 1574, Elizabeth became pregnant as a result of a brief affair with a peasant man. When her condition became evident, she was sequestered until the baby arrived because she was engaged to marry Count Ferenc Nadasdy. The marriage took place in May 1575. Count Nadasdy was a soldier and frequently away from home for long periods. Meanwhile, Elizabeth assumed the duties of managing the affairs at Castle Sarvar, the Nadasdy family estate. It was here that her career of evil supposedly really began—with the disciplining of the large household staff, particularly the young girls.

According to the story that would be repeated many times, Elizabeth’s level of cruelty was noteworthy even in light of the relatively high level of cruel and arbitrary behavior directed by those in power toward those who were servants. It was said that she went out of her way to find excuses to inflict punishments and delighted in the torture and death of her victims far beyond what her contemporaries could accept. She would stick pins in various sensitive body parts, such as under the fingernails. In the winter she would execute victims by having them stripped, led out into the snow, and doused with water until they were frozen.

Elizabeth’s husband was also accused of joining in on some of the sadistic behavior and actually teaching his wife some new varieties of punishment. For example, he is credited with showing her a summertime version of her freezing exercise—he had a woman stripped, covered with honey, then left outside to be bitten by numerous insects. Following his death in 1604, Elizabeth moved to Vienna, and also began to spend time at her estate at Beckov and at a manor house at Cachtice, both located in the present-day country of Slovakia. These were the scenes of the most famous and vicious acts associated with Elizabeth.

In these years, Elizabeth’s main confidant was a woman named Anna Darvulia, about whom little is known. When Darvulia’s health failed in 1609, Elizabeth turned to Erzsi Majorova, the widow of a local tenant farmer. Majorova is credited with Elizabeth’s eventual downfall by encouraging her to include a few women of noble birth among her victims. Because she was having trouble procuring more young servant girls as rumors of her activities spread through the countryside, Elizabeth followed Majorova’s advice. At some point in 1609, Elizabeth was accused of killing a a young noble woman and attempting to cover it by claiming her death to be a suicide.

As early as the summer of 1610, an initial inquiry had begun into Elizabeth’s affairs. Underlying the inquiry, quite apart from the steadily increasing number of victims, were political concerns. The crown hoped to confiscate Elizabeth’s large landholdings and escape payment of an extensive loan received from her husband. With these things in mind, Elizabeth was arrested on December 29, 1610.

Elizabeth was placed on trial a few days later. It was conducted by Count Thurzo as an agent of the king. As noted, the trial (rightly characterized as a show trial by Bathory’s biographer Raymond T. McNally) was initiated to not only obtain a conviction, but to also confiscate her lands. A week after the first trial, a second trial was convened on January 7, 1611. At this trial, a register found in Elizabeth’s living quarters was introduced as evidence. It noted the names of 650 victims, all recorded in her handwriting.

The trials included testimonies of both those who witnessed deaths and some who had survived. The latter recounted how they had been pierced, pinched, beaten, and burned, and they identified Elizabeth as their torturer. In the end, the court received evidence of recovered skeletons and cadaver parts, the reports of the witnesses, and a letter from the Hungarian King Mathias II (r. 1608–1619) indicating that he knew of at least three hundred victims. They convicted the countess and her co-conspirators of only eighty counts of murder, still a hefty number. Her accomplices were sentenced to be executed, the manner determined by their roles in the tortures. Elizabeth was sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement. She was placed in a room in her castle at Cachtice without windows or doors and only a small opening for food and a few slits for air. There she remained for the next three years until her death on August 21, 1614. She was buried in the Bathory land at Ecsed.

At least two basic questions have arisen out of Elizabeth’s trial and conviction. The first regards the actual extent of her crimes. She claimed innocence on all counts, a view largely supported by Laszlo Nagy. Writing in the early 1980s, he suggested that she was the victim of a pro-Hapsburg, anti-Protestant conspiracy. However, Nagy is in the minority. Most researchers have suggested that she killed at least fifty to sixty victims, with some accepting the higher numbers of three hundred, six hundred, or 650. Contemporary forensic psychologist Katherine Ramland concluded, “Even disregarding tales gained through torture, the evidence from the many missing girls, testimony from damaged survivors, and the discovery of human remains all serve to underscore the charge of extreme torture and serial murder.”

Elizabeth as Vampire: But, above and beyond Elizabeth’s reputation as a sadistic killer with at least eighty victims, she has also been accused of being both a werewolf and a vampire. During her trials, testimony was presented that on occasion, she bit the flesh of the girls while torturing them. These accusations became the basis of her connection with werewolfism. The connection between Elizabeth and vampirism is somewhat more tenuous. Of course, it was a popular belief in Slavic lands that people who were werewolves in life became vampires in death, but that was not the accusation leveled at Elizabeth. Rather, she was accused of draining the blood of her victims and bathing in it to retain her youthful beauty: she was by all accounts a most attractive woman.

No testimony to this activity was offered at her trial, and in fact, there was no contemporary testimony that she engaged in such a practice. Following her death, the records of the trials were sealed because the revelations of her activities were quite scandalous for the Hungarian ruling community. King Matthias forbade the mention of her name in polite society. It was not until one hundred years later that a Jesuit priest, Laszlo Turoczy, located copies of some of the original trial documents and gathered stories circulating among the people of Cachtice, the site of Elizabeth’s castle. Turoczy included an account of her life in a book he wrote on Hungarian history. His book initially suggested the possibility that she bathed in blood. Published in the 1720s, it appeared during the wave of vampirism in Eastern Europe that excited the interest of the continent. Later writers would pick up and embellish the story. Two stories illustrate the legends that had gathered around Elizabeth in the absence of the court records of her life and the attempts to remove any mention of her from Hungarian history:

It was said that one day, the aging countess was having her hair combed by a young servant girl. The girl accidently pulled her hair, and Elizabeth turned and slapped the servant. Blood was drawn, and some of it spurted onto Elizabeth’s hands. As she rubbed it on her hands, they seemed to take on the girl’s youthful appearance. It was from this incident that Elizabeth developed her reputation for desiring the blood of young virgins.

The second story involves Elizabeth’s behavior after her husband’s death, when it was said she associated herself with younger men. On one occasion when she was with one of those men, she saw an old woman. She remarked, “What would you do if you had to kiss that old hag?” He responded with expected words of distaste. The old woman, however, on hearing the exchange, accused Elizabeth of excessive vanity and noted that such an aged appearance was inescapable, even for the countess. Several historians have tied the death of Bathory’s husband and this story into the hypothesized concern with her own aging, and thus, the bathing in blood.

Elizabeth has not been accused of being a traditional blood-drinking or bloodsucking vampire, though her attempts to take and use the blood to make herself more youthful would certainly qualify her as at least a vampire by metaphor. Previously a little known historical figure, she was rediscovered when interest in vampires rose sharply in the 1970s; since that time she has repeatedly been tied to vampirism in popular culture. Noticeable interest in Elizabeth was evident in the publication of a series of books in the early 1970s beginning with Valentine Penrose’s Erzsebet Bathory, La Comtesse Sanglante, a 1962 French volume whose English translation, The Bloody Countess, was published in 1970. Bathory was also mentioned in later books; Donald Glut‘s True Vampires of History (1971) and Gabriel Ronay’s The Truth about Dracula (1972). Penrose’s book inspired the first of the Bathory films; the movie in turn, inspired a novel based on its screenplay, Countess Dracula by Michael Parry. The celebration of the mythical countess in the 1970s motivated Dracula scholar Raymond McNally (1931–2002) to produce by far the most authoritative book on Elizabeth to date—Dracula was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania—which appeared in 1984. Based on a new search through the original court documents, and a broad understanding of Eastern European history and folklore, McNally thoroughly demythologized the legend and explained many of the problems that had baffled previous researchers.

Bathory on Film: The first movie inspired by the stories connecting Bathory to vampires was the now largely forgotten I Vampiri (released in the United States as The Devil’s Commandment), notable today because of the work of future director Mario Bava as the film’s cameraman. A decade later, as part of its vampire cycle, Hammer Films released what is possibly the best of the several movies based on Elizabeth’s life, Countess Dracula (1970). Ingrid Pitt starred in the title role. The film was built around the mythical blood baths and portrayed her as going increasingly crazy as she continued her murderous career. Daughters of Darkness (1971), one of the most artistic of all vampire films, brought the countess into the twentieth century in a tale with strong lesbian overtones. In the movie, Elizabeth and her companion Iona check into an almost empty hotel where they meet a newlywed couple. When it is revealed that the husband has a violent streak, the stage is set for Elizabeth and Iona to move in and “help” the new bride. A series of vampiric encounters ensues, and in the end, the wife (the newest vampire) emerges as the only survivor. Jesus Franco’s 1973 erotic film with Bathory, Las avaleuses, is remembered more for its challenge to censorship standards of the day and appeared in a variety of cuts under almost a dozen different names such as the Bare Breasted Countess, Female Vampire, Jacula, La comtesse noire, and The Loves of Irina.

Elizabeth, (or a character modeled on her) also appeared in Legend of Blood Castle (1972), Curse of the Devil (1973), Immoral Tales (1974), and Mama Dracula (1979), all films of lesser note. In 1981, a full-length animated version of Elizabeth’s story was released in Czechoslovakia. More recent films featuring the Countess include Thirst (1980), The Mysterious Death of Nina Chereau (1987), Vampire Ecstasy (1999), Mistress of Seduction (2000), Metamorphosis (2004), Tomb of the Werewolf (2004), Night Fangs (2005), Stay Alive (2006), Demons Claw (2006), Blood Countess (2008), Blood Scarab (2008), and Bathory (2008). In addition, filmmaker Don Glut has recently completed a film trilogy in which a contemporary Bathory (now assuming the title Countess Dracula as the widow of the infamous Transylvanian count) who goes in search of a formula that will allow her to walk in the daylight without harm: The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula (2003), Countess Dracula’s Orgy of Blood (2004), and Blood Scarab (2008).

Bathory and Dracula: Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (1897), possibly read of Elizabeth in The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865) where the first lengthy English-language account of Elizabeth’s life appeared. In his book on Bathory Raymond McNally suggests that the description of Elizabeth might have influenced Stoker to shift the site of his novel from Austria (Styria), where he initially seemed to have set it, to Transylvania. In like measure, McNally noted that Dracula became younger and younger as the novel proceeded, an obvious allusion to the stories of Elizabeth bathing in blood to retain her youth. He made a strong case that the legends about her “played a major role in the creation of the character of Count Dracula in the midst of Bram Stoker.” In her survey of problems in Dracula research, however, Elizabeth Miller calls McNally’s suggestion into question. She argues that the real connection between Bathory and Dracula do not go back to Baring-Gould, or Stoker, but rather are of more recent origin, namely Donald Glut’s True Vampires of History (1971) and Gabriel Ronay’s The Dracula Myth (1972). Miller bases her case primarily on her study of Stoker’s notes for Dracula in which there is no mention of Bathory anywhere. More recently, in the annotated edition of the notes, she added that “there is no proof that her story influenced the creation of Dracula.” (Eighteen-Bisang & Miller 2008).

Sources:

Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Werewolves. London: Smith, Elder, 1865. Rept. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.
Bathory, Gia. The Trouble with the Pears: An Intimate Portrait of Erzsebet Bathory. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006.
Eighteen-Bisang, Robert, and Elizabeth Miller. Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition. Jeffersonville, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008.
Glut, Donald F. True Vampires of History. New York: HC Publishers, 1971.
McNally, Raymond T. Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983. Rept. London: Robert Hale, 1984. Rept. London: Hamlyn, 1984.
Miller, Elizabeth. Dracula: Sense and Nonsense. UK; Desert Island Books, 2000.
Mordeaux, A. Bathory: Memoir of a Countess. Charleston, SC: Book Surge, 2000.
Nagy, László;. A rossz hirü Báthoryak. Budapest: Kossuth Könyvkiadó, 1984
Parry, Michel. Countess Dracula. London: Sphere Books, 1971. Rept. New York: Beagle Books, 1971.
Penrose, Valentine. Erzsebet Bathory, La Comtesse Sanglante. Paris: Mercure du Paris, 1962. English translation as: The Bloody Countess. London: Calder & Boyars, 1970. Rept.: London: Creation Books, 1996. 157 pp.
Ramsland, Katherine. “Lady of Blood: Countess Bathory.” Tru TV Crime Library. Posted at http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/predators/bathory/countess_1.html. Accessed May 15, 2009.
Ronay, Gabriel. The Truth about Dracula. London: Gallancz, 1972. Rept. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
Thorne, Tony. Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. 274 pp.

Bathory Palace see: Vampire Fandom: United States