Beautiful. Royal. Deadly.
Serial killers are the monsters of the modern world. They haunt the cities and countryside of America, preying upon the most vulnerable among us to fulfill their sick and twisted needs. Most often, serial killers are men who kill to derive pleasure of some sort be it sexual, psychological, or both. They are men with names like John Wayne Gacy (“The Clown Killer”), Albert Fish (“The Werewolf of Wysteria”), Dennis Rader (“The BTK Killer), and Gary Ridgeway (“The Green River Killer”).
Many believe the man who began this trend, the first serial killer in history, was Jack the Ripper, that mysterious madman who terrorized Whitechapel in 1888. However, as often turns out to be the case, popular opinion is wrong on this count. The first recorded serial killer in history (although I’m certain there have been serial killers as long as there have been people) lived about three hundred years before Jack the Ripper stalked his first victim that chilly London night. Her name was Elizabeth Bathory, and she stands as the queen of serial killers with a body count that is said to dwarf that of even the most vicious modern madman.
Elizabeth was born August of 1560 to a powerful branch of the royal family in Hungary. She was brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of 16th century elites – her every whim was satisfied, and people from all walks of life (some forced) fawned over the beautiful aristocrat. And she was a beauty by the standards of the day, with her porcelain white skin and hair the color of raven’s feathers. In addition to beauty, she had brains too – she could speak four languages, ran her husband’s estate while he was off fighting the Ottoman Empire (a pretty much constant gig), and even defended said estates when the Ottomans invaded Hungary and struck out toward Vienna.
Beauty and brains could not compensate for the ugliness that lay deep inside her, though. Elizabeth was a narcissist who changed her clothes six times a day and was known to spend hours admiring her own beauty in the mirror. She was impulsive and had a violent temper, and was known to lash out at her servants in a fit of rage, beating them senseless for the most minor of offenses. She was not the good, faithful wife her husband (who was a brutal, unsavory fellow himself) would have liked and expected her to be – she was rumored to participate in sadomasochistic orgies, often forcing her victims to participate on the threat of severe beatings and other torture. Beside that, she took many lovers both male and female.
Oh and did I mention that black magic? She participated in satanic rituals and other dark rites, which often involved the torture or death of her hapless servant girls.
Like any serial killer, Elizabeth Bathory had a modus operandi, or a distinct way of going about her crimes. Often in this sort of case the MO involves some kind of ritual, and victims with similar attributes are targeted each time. Most of the time the victims are vulnerable people who won’t be missed by the larger society – the homeless, runaways, and people in poverty stricken areas.
Bathory acted in a similar manner, but with one fundamental difference – in her world, she ruled. Her primary home was Cseltje Castle, which lay in the Little Carpathians. It was a fairly isolated area, and she had complete control over the lives of the peasants living in the seventeen villages on her estates. There literally was no risk of punishment – in that time, the nobles could basically do as they pleased and mistreatment of their social inferiors was commonplace and even accepted. However, the horrors to come would be appalling even for their day.
Cachtice Castle, one of the castles Elizabeth Bathory owned during her lifetime. She spent her last days here, walled away in her room.
The killer aristocrat targeted lovely peasant girls and women, who she lured to the castle with promises of jobs and decent pay. Sometimes though she eschewed this formality and simply had the girls abducted and brought back to her chambers of death. When they were brought back to the castle, Bathory and four of her collaborators subjected the girls to terrible torture. She would beat them senseless then cut them with razors. She also enjoyed sticking them with pins and scissors, and burning with candles and hot pokers were two other favorites.
In addition to the torture and humiliation, she sexually assaulted her victims, often by forcing them to take part in the aforementioned orgies, and at least once by performing genital mutilation with a hot poker.
Many of her victims were found covered in bite marks, some having even been bitten to death. This, coupled with the tremendous vanity that marked her personality, leads many to believe that Bathory was a vampiress. The story goes that once a servant girl was braiding Bathory’s hair when she pulled too hard. The enraged aristocrat walloped her unfortunate servant upside the head, so hard the girl’s nose gushed blood that spattered spots on Bathory’s face. One of her later collaborators noted that the skin where the blood had been seemed whiter and more fair than the surrounding skin. From this incident, so it goes, Bathory became convinced that bathing in the blood of slaughtered servant girls would keep her young forever.
It’s also widely believed that hearing this story, along with the story of that other alleged blood sucker, Vlad Dracula, inspired Bram Stoker to write his iconic vampire story. These stories, both of them, are nothing more than stories. There is no evidence from the earliest sources documenting the Bathory case that she bathed in or drank the blood of her victims, or that she believed doing so would make her younger. These stories are embellishments added by later authors.
This guy. Probably not inspired by Bathory…although it’s possible.
COULD she have done either one? It’s possible. She was involved in black magic rituals, so it could be possible she used the blood for ritual purposes. It seems more likely that she had a fetish for violence and blood, and the sadistic cruelty she subjected her poor victims to fulfilled that need, rather than any need for eternal youth. And as for Bram Stoker being inspired by her story, it’s likely he was aware of it but just because he was doesn’t mean it was the one causative idea that lead to “Dracula”. He was well versed in the folklore of East Europe, and it seems most of the attributes of Dracula were taken from the nosferatu legends endemic to that area. And on a side note, Dracula was only loosely based on Vlad Dracula…basically, Stoker liked the name Dracula and lifted it for his own use.
Now that I’ve cleared up some misconceptions regarding this case (I’m something of an amateur mythbuster), let’s get back to the Blood Countess before she decides to off us shall we? After all, she loved her some attention, and my little segue lead us away from her for a bit, something I’m sure her massive Ego couldn’t stand. Speaking of her massive Ego, it led her to reach too far. She committed a crime the consequences of which even her position among Hungarian royalty couldn’t protect her from.
See, killing commoners got to be a bit boring, so Bathory decided it would be entertaining to go after a bit…tougher…prey. She decided she would open a school for the children of nobility, where they could come to her castle and learn etiquette. Once the first of her students arrived, Bathory almost immediately began to abuse them. However, when a daughter of a lesser noble died, the jig was up. There was a half baked attempt at a coverup, but soon the evidence mounted against the Blood Countess and her collaborators and they were outed for what they were – cold blooded killers.
The crime was horrendous, even by the standards of the day (remember, this a time when a plague could come through and wipe out half a city in a matter of weeks, when torture was an accepted part of the legal system and when nobles still had the power of life and death over their serfs). Two of Bathory’s collaborators were brutally executed, tortured then burned alive, while another was beheaded and the fourth jailed for fifteen years. The Blood Countess herself, being royalty,w as immune from execution. Instead, she was walled into her apartments in her own castle, where she lived out the last four years of her life. The legend goes that she couldn’t live without the blood of servant girls to sustain her youth.
I’m skeptical of this notion, as the whole bit about her being a vampire was tacked on later. Then again, in her own way she WAS a vampire – her Ego fed off of the praise and the suffering of others. Maybe being walled away, cut off from all the praise and power she’d grown accustomed to, unable to indulge her sick fantasies, was too much for her. Maybe she just gave up living. No matter how it happened, we do know she died in 1614.
At the end of the day, Bathory stands alone amongst the ranks of the most depraved people in history. Her body count is the highest of all the known serial killers. The tallies vary wildly, and there is a lot of debate over what the right number is, but she and her collaborators were indicted on 80 counts of murder. The records from the time though put the count at upwards of 650, a number so huge as to be mind boggling. Some reject the number as too large, accepting the smaller (but still mind bogglingly huge) count of 300 victims. One source at the time counted “only” 37, but with the caveat that those where only the ones he was aware of.
I personally think the highest count is the most accurate. You have to take into account the facts that A) she lived in a world where she could kill with impunity, which would make her more likely to be prolific and B) she killed for the better part of 30 years. It was entirely plausible that she could have reached such an astronomical number, given those circumstances.
Elizabeth Bathory stands alone among the evil. The sheer scale and brutality of her crimes are stunning, and stand as a dark testament to what can happen when broken people are given absolute power over others. It also goes to show that the serial killer club isn’t just a boys club. The impulse to violence and mayhem isn’t exclusive to the male sex (although admittedly men are more likely to use violence to achieve their goals). Women can be killers too. And sometimes, they’re better at it.