Sunday 3 May 2009

Erzsébet Báthory, The Blood Countess

For the most part I have very little interest in serial killers, most of whom are tiresome, inadequate bores. However, Erzsébet Báthory, the Blood Countess, is an altogether different phenomenon, a serial killer, yes, but one I find horribly fascinating, not just for the Gothic intensity, the sheer awfulness of her crimes, but because of what they reveal about the times, the culture and the place in which she lived. She was brought down in the end not because of a demand for justice-she and others of her class were beyond conventional notions of justice-but because of a conflict over money.

It's difficult now to imagine what life was like for ordinary people in sixteenth century Hungary, the century that saw Erzsébet Báthory enter the world. Serfs, those tied to the estates of the nobility, counted as nothing; they could be disposed of in any manner their overlord chose. Protection in law was non existent. Such was the background to Erzsébet's crimes.

She was born into one of the best connected families in Hungary. Her uncle, Stephan Báthory was King of Poland and other members of her family held positions of power in the extensive province of Transylvania. In 1575, when she was fifteen years old, she married Count Ferenc Nádasdy, later to be known as Hungary's 'Black Hero' for his exploits as a soldier in the wars against the Ottoman Turks.

Much of what we know about Erzsébet's crimes come from the records of the trial of 1610-11, a trial to which she was never summoned, in which testimony was taken from her principle accomplices. It was during this time that aspects of the black history of the Báthory family acquired a retrospective significance. Erzsébet's aunt was reputed to be a lesbian and a witch. An uncle was said to be an alchemist and a devil worshipper. Ilona Joo, her nurse, and one of those arrested in 1610, allegedly practiced a form of black magic that required the blood and bones of children. It is possible that Erzsébet herself practiced a form of witchcraft, though the evidence is not conclusive.

Her initial cruelties were learned by example, with her husband encouraging her to beat servants close to death for trivial errors. But it was only after Nádasdy's death in 1604 that she really came into her own.

Throughout the early years of the seventeenth century young women and girls began to disappear from the villages on the Báthory estate. The Nádasdy carriage, drawn by black horses, was seen at night with girls inside, girls who were never to be seen again. But no complaint could be made; the Countess was above the law.

Once under her power these girls were subject to a variety of tortures, many carried out by Erzsébet in person. I don't want to dwell at length over these, but in one case she forced a victim to eat strips of her own flesh. Most were whipped, burned or cut to death. Often the Countess's clothes were so heavy with blood that she was obliged to change before continuing with her pleasures.

It's impossible to establish a motive for her actions beyond that of simple sadism; even the alleged witchcraft seems incidental, and there is no real evidence that she performed black magick. Why her animus was directed at her own sex is also impossible to establish. But she had an all consuming taste for torture and murder that moved in ever expanding circles.

As the supply of peasant girls ran short Erzsébet turned her attention to the daughters of the lesser nobility, who were invited to Čachtice Castle, allegedly on the pretext of completing their education, and then subject to the same grim tortures. It was after the murder of one of these girls in 1609, which the Countess tried to pass off as a suicide, that the authorities decided to act. But it needed one additional spur.

Rumours of Erzsébet's crimes had been circulating for years. Even the murder of the noble girls might conceivably have been passed off on some pretext or other. But fatally for the Countess King Matthias owed her money, and she was pressing for repayment. These debts would be cancelled once she was imprisoned, so the process was initiated by royal demand.

This, coupled with the fact that their was conflict between the Protestant Transylvanian nobility, to which Erzsébet belonged, and the Catholic Habsburgs, led to later speculation that the whole thing was a conspiracy engineered by the crown. This theory is further aided by the fact that Erzsébet was never called to speak in her own defence, and that she maintained her innocence to the end. But the evidence against her is simply too compelling to allow for such an explanation.

Over three hundred witness statements were examined in the trial of her principle accomplices, Ilona Joo, Dorottya Szentes, also known as Dorka, Katarína Benická, and a male dwarf by the name of János Újváry, better known as Ibis or Ficzko. During the search of Čachtice Castle officials discovered bones and other remains, including mutilated corpses, many with no arms or eyes.

The accused were also quick to confess to numerous crimes, not under threat of torture, but in the hope of gaining clemency through cooperation. Ficzko alone confessed to the killing of thirty-seven girls. He could not remember just how many women he had helped to kill. Ilona Joo, who admitted to killing fifty, said that she had inserted red-hot pokers into the mouths or up the noses of her victims. All described that how the Countess, even during illness, did not lose her lust for blood, having girls brought to her bed, on occasions biting them to death.

Inevitably stories of sorcery and witchcraft made an appearance. Erzsébet was claimed to have had sexual relations with Satan. Many of the kidnapped girls were said to have been chained to the walls of her dungeons and fattened up because this was believed to increase the blood in their bodies, and blood was needed for her moonlit sorcery.

At the end of the trial Erzsébet and her accomplices were convicted, on the basis of the remains discovered and the witness statements, of eighty counts of murder, though the number of victims is likely to have been considerably more, possibly as many as 650, going on the basis of a register of names supposedly in the Countess' own handwriting. Dorka, Ilona Joo and Ficzko were all thrown into a pit of fire. Katarína Benická was sentenced to life imprisonment, the evidence suggesting that she only acted under the bullying and the domination of the other women.

The problem then remained what to do with the principle culprit. The King favoured execution, but that meant enacting a special statute, stripping her of royal immunity. In the end she was imprisoned for life in her own castle of Čachtice, the scene of many of her crimes, with the doors and windows of her chambers bricked up, save for small slits for food and air. It was there that she died in 1614.

Like Vlad the Impaler and the myth of Dracula Erzsébet began to attract her own mythology, including the story that she bathed in the blood of her victims, believing it to be a way of preserving her youth, a tale that goes no further back than 1729. Such a suggestion is, of course, horrible, but it at least supplied both a dark rationale and a motive. The real horror of Erzsébet's life is that she simply had a taste for suffering and blood as ends in themselves. A vampire of a kind, yes, but infinitely more terrifying than any of the monster's of fiction.

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