Inside the Ruined Castle of a Medieval Serial Killer
In the 17th century, Countess Elizabeth Bathory was accused of murdering some 650 women in modern-day Slovakia. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, that's a record.
In the early part of the 17th century, a Hungarian countess named Elizabeth Bathory was accused of murdering some 650 women across what is today known as Slovakia. Legend has it that Bathory's servants lured young women to the countess' castles with the promise of work and education, only to help butcher them. In 1610, these servants were eventually trailed and executed. Bathory, an untouchable member of the royal family, was spared and instead placed under house arrest. She died five years later.
Or so the story goes. For most of its history, Slovakia has been under the rule of oligarchs and dictators who buried and discredited the tale. It's only been since the fall of the USSR in 1989 that historians have had a chance to figure out what really happened all those years ago.
Tony Thorne is a linguist from King's College in London. In the late 90s he was one of the first to pore through trial records, written in medieval Hungarian, trying to piece the story together. Did Bathory really bathe in virgin's blood to maintain her youthful looks? Was she really walled into her castle as punishment? Was she even guilty at all?
After visiting Bathory's ruined castle in northern Slovakia, I called Tony to get some answers.
VICE: Hey Tony, let's start with Elizabeth Bathory. Who was she?
Tony Thorne: Elizabeth Bathory was a fabulously wealthy, powerful countess born in the 16th century. She was one of the most powerful of the Hungarian aristocrats and she had possessed a string of castles—very impressive castles—in present day Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. But the castle in Čachtice, that was her favourite because it was a wedding gift to her from her late husband. She lived there almost permanently after his death, and it was there she was accused of committing a lot of her crimes.
So I visited the castle in Čachtice recently. It's in the middle of nowhere and it's pretty rough, as far as tourist attractions go. All the information was in Slovak. Can you run me through what allegedly happened there?
Apparently, once her husband died, Bathory inherited his property and wealth, and then possibly went insane. Between 1604 and 1610 she is said to have murdered up to 650 (some say 800) young girls and maidservants. Although these numbers are almost certainly nonsense. There were hundreds of depositions at her trial talking about her torturing teenage girls with iron tongs, bathing girls in boiling baths, rolling them in stinging nettles, lighting pieces of paper under their fingernails. Two people also claimed she'd made sausages from their flesh and ate them. And all were young women. There was a sexual element to it and maybe a hint of witchcraft. In those days witchcraft was a real thing.
And these women were lured to her castle on the promise of getting an education?
She would recruit women, really just teenagers, into the household to serve her and work in the castle. But parents in the local villages would also offer their daughters to be given an education. In all the great houses and aristocratic castles the wives were responsible for medical attention. That was their role, apart from supervising the preparation of food. Bathory was teaching these sorts of skills, which at the time would have involved herbal potions and rituals.
No one noticed that their daughters didn't come back?
They did notice but she was too powerful for them to do anything. You can imagine the people living below the castle talking about it. And there were stories from people living in her other castles, hundreds of miles away in Austria, who say they witnessed some of these atrocities. One of the first pieces of damning evidence came from her son-in-law. He visited her castle with his hunting dogs and they were digging body parts out of the castle grounds. Finally György Thurzó, the Palatine of Hungary, was sent to arrest her and allegedly found the castle filled with horribly mutilated victims—many of whom were barely alive.
Can you tell me about Bathory's trial?
This is where things get interesting because it was, basically, a show trial. The people who testified against her were the servants and family of her late husband. These were people who would be in power if she hadn't been running the family empire. They resented the fact that a woman was in power. This is crucial. Powerful women were seen as unnatural and this is true all over Europe at that time. And she was a widow, no less. I'll tell you, lots of people identify with Bathory as a strong woman who was simply betrayed and conspired against. I've read her letters, and she was a very intelligent woman who often bullied men who tried to threaten her. There were plenty of people with reasons to frame her. It's very possible she was tough and possibly cruel, but essentially innocent.
So what happened to her after the trial?
Well, you just couldn't put someone who was second only to the royal family on public trial. So instead her closest servants were put in the dock. And the evidence was read out and they were condemned and executed. Then Bathory was imprisoned in her castle. She probably wasn't walled up in her tower, which some people claim, but she was imprisoned in the castle for the last years of her life. She died a few years later, at the age of 54.
Do you think she was guilty?
What's frustrating is that there's no absolute evidence that she committed these crimes. The claim she was bathing in the blood of virgins only appeared in the records 100 years after her death, and that was from a Catholic priest who revived the story to discredit her. There were no personal letters written between aristocrats talking about her. They all talk about each other, but not her! The more I look into it, the more uncertain it all seems.
In your mind, what's the most compelling evidence of her guilt?
The one thing that raises doubts for me is if they wanted to frame her, why did they choose mass murder? That's the key question. Why not frame her for witchcraft? That was a far more common accusation in those days.
Were serial killers, as a concept, as understood back then?
Yes, but we use completely different language. We use forensic language and police terms. In those days they would've called her a she-demon. The idea of murder and cruelty was an everyday fact for them. People were killing each other in taverns with swords, there were mutilated soldiers wandering starving all over the country side. It was a goddamn horror show, but accusing a woman of sadistic murder was still quite unusual.
I think Slovakia has only just realised the tourist potential for this castle. How do you feel about that?
You can't blame them. Slovakia doesn't have much of an internationally known history so why not exploit the one really spectacular character you have got—like Romania has with Dracula. Also if this happened in the UK scholars would have combed through all the evidence years ago. But in Hungary and Slovakia there are libraries full of letters and records which haven't even been looked at. So I think any attention is good attention.
Follow Julian on Twitter
Tony Thorne has a book on the subject, Countess Dracula: Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.