Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There Will be Blood: Erzsébet Bathory’s Depraved World

Investigating the rumors of bodies of mutilated young girls discarded at the church near Castle Csejte, the Reverend Janó Ponikenusz surreptitiously crept through the tunnel connecting his church to the castle.  The year was 1610, and Ponikenusz was replacing the outgoing pastor, who had been documenting the unusually high number of bodies carted from the castle, home of the Hungarian aristocrat Countess Báthory. 

An example of a secret passageway
in Bran Castle, Romania.

As he drew nearer to the castle itself, the pungent smell of human decay began to invade Ponikenusz’s senses.  Following the stench, the reverend discovered boxes containing the corpses of young adolescent girls.  Horrified, he hurried back to his church and penned the following letter: “Oh such terrible deeds…such unheard of cruelties!  In my opinion there had never existed a worse killer under the sun.  But I must not go on, for my heart is bleeding and I cannot speak anymore.”[1]

Although something went awry and the reverend’s letter was intercepted by the Báthory household – an event that must have terrified Ponikenusz since he was in such direct danger of losing his own life – the churchman’s report eventually made its way into the hands of the local authorizes, and then to King Mathias II of Hungary.  The king had ignored previous rumors of strange occurrences at Castle Csejte, but the stories had always involved peasant girls, and in seventeenth-century eastern Europe, there wasn’t much concern for the lower classes. Now, however, aristocratic girls began to disappear into the castle, and their distressed families, augmented by Ponikenusz’s report, forced the king to take notice.[2]

Miniature of Erzsébet Báthory,
The Blood Countess 1560-1614

By the time the investigation and trial ended, the Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory was implicated in the murder of 80 young girls and women, though the true number could be much higher.  If the numbers are correct, Báthory could be one of the most prolific serial killers in history.[3]  

Báthory was born into a powerful Protestant Hungarian noble family.  She received an exemplary education and “enjoyed dressing up like a boy, studying like a boy, and playing boy’s games, including fencing and horsemanship.”[4]  There are stories that she was troubled from a young age, demonstrating fits of aggression and promiscuity, getting pregnant at age fourteen after a liaison with a peasant boy.  Her pregnancy was covered by a hasty marriage to an aristocrat and war hero, Ferenc Nádasky, in 1575.   By some accounts, her relationship with Nádasky fueled her sadism; in others, he is absolved in the charges leveled against his wife, and it wasn’t until after his death in 1604 that the murders were uncovered.

Báthory family crest

Báthory’s family was also marred by charges of violence and of dabbling in black magic; Báthory seemed to focus on bloodletting, saying at one point that “Thurko [the witch] has taught me a lovely new one.  Catch a black hen and beat it to death with a white cane.  Keep the blood and smear some on your enemy.  If you get no chance to smear it on his body, obtain one of his garments and smear it.”  Numerous cats wandered around her properties, leading to rumors that the animals were her familiars, bewitched to carry out her nefarious deeds.  Several witnesses at the trial said she had a grey “cake” with a communion wafer in the center that she used as a looking glass.

When peasant girls hired as servants disappeared at Csejte castle, the local villagers likely suspected witchcraft.  What the investigative team of December 1610 found was the work of all-too-human sadists.  Palatine (Prime Minister) Thurzó detailed what the unannounced company discovered in the house of horrors: in the entryway, a dead girl who appeared drained of blood.  Not far from the first victim, another girl whose life was ebbing away.  As they walked further into the estate, the men discovered another victim, a dead girl tied to a pillar, likely beaten to death.  In the castle’s prison cells, abused young girls and women cried for help.  Thurzó, a local parliamentarian and distant relative of the countess, could not make sense of what unfolded in front of him.  He would later say of Erzsébet that she was a “wild animal,” “bestial,”  “damned,” “bloody,” “godless,” and “cursed.”

Oldest known portrait of the Blood Countess

Had the Countess only been accused of killing servants, her case would likely have gone unnoticed.  Aristocrats “owned” their servants in the early modern age, and Hungary clung to this feudal system and its laws until 1848.  Báthory’s opening of a gynaeceum, a sort of etiquette school for young aristocratic girls, would be her downfall.

While the countess was confined to a room in her castle, four of her servants – three women and a young man or youth named Ficzko faced trial for their involvement in the torture and death of 80 girls.  Trial documents survived and are the major source of information.  And while Báthory herself would ultimately escape trial and death, her co-conspirators’ and victims’ testimony are a sort of trial in absentia.  Three hundred witnesses gave depositions in front of a panel of twenty-one judges.  The four servants facing charges were tortured to extract confessions.  The transcripts of what transpired at Castle Csejte are shocking, even by modern standards in an age of torture films such as Saw or Hostel.  

According to the testimony, numerous girls were beaten to death.  Some were deliberately exposed to the elements and died from the bitter cold.  Some were starved to death.  Most faced prolonged torture prior to death, included genital mutilation, extraction of pieces of flesh with pliers, removal of eyes or fingers, needles inserted under fingernails.  One body the investigators found at the crime scene had bite marks on the breasts.  One witness escaped and ran back to the village with a knife “still stuck in her foot.”[5]  Another victim displayed her mangled hand and scars where the tormentors had torn flesh from her body.  Accomplice Ilona Jó testified that Báthory “beat and murdered the girls such that it drenched her clothes in blood; she often had to change her shirt after administering such a beating.”[6]

In addition to the testimony, investigators had forensic evidence.  They displayed torture devices during the hearing.  They found articles of clothing identified as belonging to the missing girls.  Bones.  And of course, bodies, including a partially burned body in the castle fireplace.  

The three female accomplices were convicted in the murders, tortured by having their fingers torn from their hands, and burned to death.  Ficzko, perhaps because of his young age or disability, was beheaded before his corpse was burned.  

One of Bathory's letters, in her hand

Báthory’s status spared her life.  Despite King Mathias’s desire that she face trial and execution, the Blood Countess was confined to a small room in Csejte castle, fed through a small slit in the door.  Báthory maintained her innocence, saying that her servants were responsible for the murders, and that she herself was afraid of their actions.  Palatine Thurzó believed that she was mad and ordered that her name never be spoken again in “polite society.”[7]  After four years of solitary confinement, the Countess died, likely in her wedding gown, which she had promised to wear “until my death” in her will.[8]  The local villagers refused to allow her body to be interred in the church cemetery, where so many of her young victims were buried.  Her remains were buried in the family crypt at the castle.

The ruins of Castle Csejte, site of the murders

Where early modern Hungarians were convinced of Báthory’s alignment with the demonic, modern forensic psychology suggests that the Blood Countess and her conspirators were sexual sadists.  Many of the surviving victims testified that they were punished while naked, with much of the torture directed at their breasts and genitals.  Others testified that they were forced to engage in lesbian sex with Erzsébet and punished if they displayed any distaste in the act.  She never injured any young boys, preferring pre-adolescent or young adolescent girls.  Her business venture of a school for young girls would appear to the modern reader to be the mark of a skilled pedophile since it put her in direct contact, unhindered, with her victims.  There was also testimony indicating that she used these torture sessions as a form of release, that “In some cases, she could not contain her murderous rage for even minutes after the conclusion of a stressful event.”[9]  All of these indicate a sexual deviant who gained  gratification out of the torture and abuse of young girls.  

The Countess’s notoriety grew after her death, and several elements contributed to her association with the vampire myth.  Her fascination with the blood of her victims was exaggerated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with lurid stories surfacing that she drained her victims of blood so she could bathe in it as a beauty treatment for her skin.

Artist Todd McFarlane's conception of
the Blood Countess' notorious blood bath

Several victims testified that when Báthory was ill and confined to bed, she would have girls brought to her and would bite them.  One of her convicted servants said that the cinders used to soak up the blood around her bed was sometimes ineffective because there was so much of it.  And finally, there is the mystery of her remains.  In 1938, there was an attempt to excavate the ruins of Csejte castle.  As in the case of Vlad Dracula, the legendary Romanian proto-vampire, Báthory’s crypt was empty.[10]

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Next time: The forensics behind the Renaissance vampire

[1] See Kimberly L. Craft’s Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Bathory, 2009: 117.
[2] Although some historians mention the enormous debt Mathias owed the Báthory family – a debt the widowed Erzsébet had tried to collect – the sheer amount of witnesses across all class levels and the eyewitness testimony of the prime minister of the investigation indicate that the king’s bias likely did not influence the trial, though his debt was erased when she was confined to Csejte.
[3] It is difficult to find accurate records of murder in the early modern period.  Lack of an FBI or centralized police system make modern reconstruction of such events difficult, especially when testimony of the period tends toward exaggeration.  One persistent rumor in the Blood Countess myth involves a missing journal of hers that allegedly details some 650 victims.  Since we don’t have access to this diary, we can only turn to the court records.  
[4] See The Private Letters of Elizabeth Bathory. Ed. Craft, Kimberly, 2011: 3.  
[5] See Infamous Lady, 111.  
[6] Ibid, 82.
[7] Ibid, 9.
[8] See Letters, 103.  
[9] See Infamous Lady, 126.
[10] You can read about Vlad’s case at http://medieval-csi.blogspot.com/2011/10/i-am-master-vlad-impaler-and-medieval.html

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