It is a grim tale stained by blood, haunted by torture, sensationalized by sex, and increasingly disputed by scholars. Depending on the account, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614) was either a murderous maniac or a pawn incriminated by family and foes keen to seize her holdings.
Báthory is often proclaimed the most prolific female serial killer of all time, accused of slaying more than 600 young women inside her lavish castles. According to legend, she believed bathing in their virginal blood would grant her eternal youth. Instead, it assured she lived long in infamy. Báthory’s alleged sadism has inspired films, plays, operas, television shows, even video games.
Now, however, this longstanding narrative is being questioned by researchers who believe Báthory’s crimes were likely exaggerated as part of a conspiracy against her. Nevertheless tourists intrigued by Báthory’s gory legend continue to follow her tale across Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria, visiting castles, crypts, and museums.
Trail of blood
Visitors to the Hungarian town of Nyírbátor, about 170 miles east of Hungary’s capital Budapest, can stare the countess in the eye at the Báthory Castle and Wax Museum, which displays wax effigies of Báthory and her relatives. The museum occupies the renovated castle where, in 1560, she was born into a wealthy dynasty that controlled Transylvania, now a region of Romania.
But Báthory’s privileged upbringing was tainted by violence and health problems, according to Aleksandra Bartosiewicz, of Poland’s University of Łódź, who in 2018 published a research paper on the countess. “Already at the age of four or five, she suffered from epileptic seizures, violent mood swings, as well as painful migraines,” Bartosiewicz says.
Báthory was also exposed to brutality. Servants were routinely beaten in this era and, at age six, she watched a public execution. At 13 Báthory was engaged to 18-year-old Count Ferenc Nádasdy, from another influential Hungarian family, and they married two years later. They eventually had four children.
As newlyweds they moved to Sárvár, in western Hungary, where Nádasdy schooled his wife in torture. Nádasdy Castle became the site of a number of atrocities, Bartosiewicz says. For Báthory’s pleasure, Nádasdy had a girl restrained, lathered in honey, and ravaged by insects. He gifted the countess gloves spiked by claws, with which to thrash her servants for their mistakes. Further corruption came from Báthory’s aunt Clara, who introduced her to orgies and a shadowy circle of people considered sorcerers, witches, and alchemists.
Báthory’s violence peaked within another grand fortress. The crumbled remains of Čachtice Castle are now an eerie tourist attraction, looming above the town of Čachtice in western Slovakia, 50 miles northeast of the capital, Bratislava. Visitors can roam this lofty site, from which startling rumors tumbled down the hillside in the early 1600s.
Báthory moved to Čachtice in 1604 after her husband died. Tales of her malice toward staff became so widespread that local families hid their daughters from her service, says Tony Thorne, a linguist at King’s College London and author of the 1998 book Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Bathory.
What finally undid the widow countess was extending her abuse to victims of a higher class, says Rachael Bledsaw, adjunct faculty in the history department at Washington State’s Highline College. “Killing serfs and servants, who indeed had fewer rights, was gauche but not really illegal for a noble,” says Bledsaw, who wrote a thesis on Báthory. “Killing your fellow nobles, even ones of lower rank, was a far more serious problem, and not one that could be ignored.”
Finally, in 1610, an investigation began into dozens of suspicious deaths and disappearances in Čachtice, launched by Matthias II, King of Hungary. With the testimony of dozens of witnesses, Báthory was arrested and imprisoned in Čachtice Castle for the murder of 80 young women, Bledsaw says. Some witnesses estimated her body count at more than 600. Yet the countess was never convicted, and her husband could not be prosecuted from his grave. Instead, four of Báthory’s servants were convicted of violence against young women in her castles. The countess, meanwhile, remained locked in her spacious jail until she died in 1614, at the age of 54.
This castle continued to be occupied by nobility for almost a century after. Nowadays, visitors can join guided tours of the infamous site and browse the “Elizabeth Báthory—Cruelty Hidden in Lace” exhibition inside Drakovich Mansion in Čachtice, where a wooden statue of her dominates the town square.
While Báthory’s tale haunted Čachtice for generations after her death, it didn’t gain a wider audience until 1744 when it was retold in lurid detail in a book on Hungary’s history by Jesuit priest László Túróczi, Thorne says. The countess’ enduring legend is inspired largely by this one sensational account.
A lurid legend reconsidered
In the 1980s that narrative began to be challenged, Thorne says. A 1982 book by Slovakian archivist Josef Kocis detailed new aspects of Báthory’s life, which several researchers since have used as evidence of a probable conspiracy against her. Some have gone as far as to portray Báthory as a “defenceless widow.” That is how renowned Slovakian filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko, on his official website, says he depicted her in his 2008 movie, Báthory: Countess of Blood, which “diametrically opposes the established legend.”
Others, like Bartosiewicz and Thorne, are more restrained in their views. They say Báthory’s crimes were likely exaggerated to discredit her—a conspiracy by relatives and the Habsburgs, a dynasty which at that time ruled a swath of Europe, including Austria and western Hungary.
Habsburg ruler King Matthias II owed a large debt to Báthory and so benefited from her demise, Bartosiewicz argues. The king also viewed her as a political threat, who might support her cousin Gabriel Báthory’s efforts to challenge Matthias II’s control of Western Hungary.
The countess’ imprisonment helped not just rivals, but also those close to her, Thorne says. Once Báthory was jailed, one of her daughters took valuables from her property, while her sons-in-law were keen to gain their inheritance without having to wait for her to die.
Bledsaw, however, is unconvinced Báthory was the target of a conspiracy. She says when the countess’ husband died, it was her son who inherited his domain and their debts.
Regardless of growing doubts about its veracity, the macabre legend of the serial killer countess is destined to persist, says Thorne.
“Humans have a need for symbols, icons, and personifications of the dramatic forces that shape our lives, and we, guiltily or not, thrill at the excesses of those who go too far,” Thorne says. “There are plenty of male representations of spectacular evil. But few very well-known evil females. Báthory fills a gap in the iconography of horror.”
Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.