Erzsébet Báthory: the Cruellest Mistress

In the launch issue of Bloodstone, I looked at the political reasons for the arrest and imprisonment of Erzsébet Báthory in early 17th century Hungary. However, since much of what we understand of her life and crimes stems from the transcripts of the trial of her servants, it seems appropriate to detail just exactly what degrees of cruelty she was accused of.

Despite the relative barbarism of the time, her alleged crimes still stand out as horrific and excessive. Whether she indeed committed all these acts, or allowed them to be committed by her closest servants for her benefit and enjoyment, is perhaps irrelevant now. She is dead and the legends attached to her name will never be cleaned away.

If she was guilty of all the claims made about her, then why did she do it? In the 16th century the nature of blood was little understood, and it was not uncommon for bathing in blood to be suggested by the medical profession to cure all kinds of things from leprosy to hysteria and epilepsy. There is even a story that it was used to cure a sufferer of elephantiasis! But if Báthory was hysterical or epileptic, why are there no clues to this in the testimony of her servants? Nowhere do they try to mitigate the evil by suggesting it was done as a result of madness, or as an attempt at curing madness. Despite other members of the Báthory family being judged insane, lunatic or hysterical, this is not a point made much of in Erzsébet's case. So what exactly was it that she is reputed to have done?

The catalogue of crimes revolves around four main areas of torture: beating; cutting; freezing; and burning. In some cases the servants of Erzsébet did most of the work, in other the Countess herself took a major role. I present the details under these headings as taken from books written about the trial and testimony directly from it. Some later details were added by new 'witnesses' – these are also listed. If you are weak of stomach, I suggest you do not read further.

Beating: the most common form of beating seems to have been beating on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, sometimes up to 500 times. Girls were also tied up and whipped. One account states that their hands were tied so tightly that they turned blue and began to bleed. Sometimes their mouths were pulled apart by fingers or pincers and torn until they bled.

Cutting: the most commonly reported form of torture was cutting, piercing or otherwise using needles, knives etc to inflict pain. Lips were sometimes pierced with needles, sometimes even sewn together. One girl's tongue was stitched and her lips sewn up. Needles were forced under fingernails, into faces, shoulders and arms. Noses and lips were cut open so wide they could not be sewn up again. One girl had her belly pierced with a rusty needle. Many had lumps bitten from their faces and shoulders by the Countess, as she lay 'ill' in her bed. One girl was lashed with stinging nettles; others were put into a bath full of them. Two girls were taken together: one had flesh cut from her bottom; the other was forced to eat it raw. One was reputed to have had a breast slashed away. Sometimes the girls were forced to eat their own flesh which had been fried in front of them. It is even rumoured that the girls' flesh was cooked and fed to guests on occasion.

Freezing: the most frequent use of freezing was to stand a girl naked in a bucket of freezing water and pour ice cold water over her repeatedly until she died. Others were buried in frost and snow and left to die. Some suffered this exposure and were brought back inside the castle, where they were forced to work. If they could not they were beaten and starved. Some were deprived of food and water until they were on the verge of collapse: if they complained they were forced to drink their own urine.

Burning: this could take the form of being burned with hot instruments or being forced to consume very hot food. Iron rods were heated and applied to the hands, feet, nose, lips and breasts. Hot keys were pressed into their flesh. A heated iron bar was inserted into one girl's vagina. One girl was found having stolen a cake – the remainder of it was heated up and she was forced to swallow it. It is reported that the Countess stood on the girl's throat as she could not vomit it back up. Candles were used to burn the genitals of some girls and to burn their hair and faces.

In addition to all these horrors, it is also suggested that Erzsébet tried to poison the Palatine of Hungary when he came to investigate the rumours about her. She is also claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft, and to have tried repeatedly to dispatch her enemies by using black magick.

Although the numbers of the dead are still a subject of controversy – ranging from the 35 to 50 suggested by her accused servants at their trial, to the 650 concocted by a later 'witness' who had found a diary with this many names listed by the Countess – it is reported that sometimes as many as five girls were buried at any one time. Three girls were buried in one coffin, and when the local priests asked why, were told by the Countess that it was to avoid suspicion of an epidemic. Sometimes the bodies were left under beds and taken food regularly to dispel the suspicion that they had died. They were usually buried eventually in local cemeteries close to the Báthory estates. Local priests were sometimes, though not always, called in to help.

Five to ten deaths a year from a household of 100 was not unusual for the time owing to illness, poor living conditions etc, and efforts were sometimes made to disguise the number of dead by burying them in stages. Ash and earth were put on the floors of some rooms to soak up the blood; some visitors to the Countess' castles reported seeing bloodstained walls.

A relation of the Countess' was said to have been stripped and covered in honey, then left outside for a day and a night to be bitten and stung by ants, wasps and bees. This was a rare occurrence of violence committed whilst the Countess' husband still lived – all the other stories relate to the time after he died. It is rumoured in some quarters that it was from her husband that Erzsébet developed her tastes for torture and bloodshed, though the most convincing argument for this seems to be that he taught her a way to revive someone who had fainted – by dipping paper in oil, putting it between the victim's fingers or toes, and setting it alight.

If these were indeed all Erzsébet's crimes, her imprisonment should be seen as a light sentence. Her servants who also indulged in the violence and torture were punished far more vigorously. One whose guilt seemed unproven was imprisoned for life, another was beheaded and his corpse burnt in a fire, whilst the two most active torturers had their fingers ripped from them by pincers and then were burned alive. But for Erzsébet's title and position, perhaps she too would have been subjected to such a barbaric death.

The verdict will probably forever be out on Countess Erzsébet Báthory, but the sheer possibility that she can have committed even half of the cruelties attributed to her name must surely rank her as one of history's most prolific and sadistic mistresses.

see also on this site: Bathory John Polidori Gilles de Rais Catherine de' Medici Mozart Aleister Crowley

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