Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth Bathory was a strange woman.  She lived in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, in Hungary, in a castle called Csejte, with her husband.  Elizabeth, or Erzsébet in Hungarian, was nobility, the cousin of the King of Poland, which will come into play later in her life.  Erzsébet was married at the tender age of 14 to Ferenc Nádasdy, who was only two years older than her, and her father-in-law gave the castle Erzsébet later died in to the couple as a wedding present.  It has also been widely rumored that Erzsébet had a child out of wedlock by a local peasant in her childhood home village of Nyírbátor.

The weirdness began after she was married and living in Csejte.  Erzsébet had many, many servants, and many of those were adolescent girls.  As the lady of the house it was Erzsébet’s job to discipline her servants, and it’s been theorized that this is where her fascination with torture and all things bloody began, with disciplining one servant.  The story goes that one young woman was brushing her hair and pulled too hard, causing Erzsébet pain.  As the noblewoman that she was Erzsébet would not tolerate this, and she struck the girl.  The blow was hard enough to draw blood, and when Erzsébet wiped the blood from her hand, the skin appeared more youthful.  

She became convinced that this was clear evidence of a cure for aging - blood.  The first servant whose blood had instigated the obsession was killed and bled out.  Erzsébet began bathing in the blood of young women, especially young virgins, in order to maintain a youthful appearance. Many of her victims were peasant women lured with the promise of employment in the castle’s household, some women were abducted as well, so that their families couldn’t follow them directly.  

After a while Erzsébet also began torturing these women.  These tortures included severe beatings, burning, starvation, freezing by throwing cold water on the victims outside in the cold Hungarian winter, biting and tearing of flesh, mutilation, shoving needles beneath their fingernails, amputating fingers, and amateur surgery.  
Aside from the peasant women lured to the castle, or in some cases abducted, there were other victims.  Erzsébet Bathory was an extremely well educated, well mannered, woman.  Lower class nobles, gentry, sent their daughters to Erzsébet to be educated in proper courtly etiquette.  She could also speak, read, and write in Hungarian, as well as Latin, German, Slovak, and Greek, so nobles of her own status sent their daughters to her as well.  Many of these daughters never returned home to their families.  
The total number of her kills hovers around 650.  

The tortures began around 1602, and seem to have escalated after her husband died in 1604.  Erzsébet was likely even more scared of aging after her husband’s death.  Between 1602 and 1604 a Lutheran minister told stories of atrocities happening near Csejte to authorities in Vienna.  However, it took until 1610 for any investigations to begin, likely due to Erzsébet’s noble status.  

Erzsébet also had at least four accomplices, some sources cite five accomplices.  The four include three women: Ilona Jó, Dorotya Semtész, and Katarína Benická, and a young man named János Újváry who may have been disfigured.  The fifth accomplice was likely Anna Darvulia, a long time servant who had died before the investigation.

When investigators finally came to Csejte they found at least one dead body, one injured enough to be considered dying, another wounded, and others locked up awaiting torture.  The accomplices stood trial in 1610; three of them were sentenced to death, while one, Katarína Benická, was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Testimony indicated that Benická was bullied and forced by the other women to participate.  The other two women however were sentenced to be burned alive, but before they were burned their fingers were ripped off with hot pokers.  János Újváry was beheaded before being thrown into the flames, because he was deemed less culpable, perhaps due to young age or disfigurement.  

Erzsébet herself, being of noble blood, was not legally able to stand trial.  However, her crimes were such that the law was repealed.  Her trial was postponed indefinitely due to the fact that her family was very powerful, and in fact her relatives ruled Transylvania in its entirety.  The potential for shame to that family, not to mention creating political enemies of them, kept the king from making Erzsébet stand trial.  Instead, she was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of her life.  

Erzsébet was forced into a very small, bricked off, room in a tower of Csejte castle.  She was never allowed to leave that room, and there were only a few small openings for air, and one slightly larger one for food and water.  

Parliament decreed that her name would never again be said in polite society, and all records of her were sealed for at least a century.  

Four years later, in 1614, Erzsébet died in the night, at the age of 54.  She was supposedly buried near Csejte, then reburied in 1617 near her family estate.  However, in the centuries since her interment both crypts have been opened.  Neither contained her remains.  Bram Stoker, in creating the character of Dracula, was partially inspired by Vlad Tepes, but also by Erzsébet Bathory.  Erzsébet Bathory’s bloodline can also be loosely traced to Vlad Tepes.

Erzsébet Bathory was a strange woman, but she was also an unusual figure in history.  She was a well-educated woman, far more educated than her husband Ferenc.  Ferenc could barely read and write in his own native Hungarian, while his wife was fluent in five languages, including Latin and Greek.  Even the ruling prince of Transylvania, a relative, was nearly illiterate.  She was well-mannered and charismatic enough that other nobles sent their daughters to her to be educated in courtly etiquette rather than hiring a tutor.  There was a lot of violence and possible mental illness in her family as well: Erzsébet’s aunt Klara is said to have killed her first two husbands, one uncle claimed to have been possessed by the devil, another committed incest and was assassinated, her father and brothers tortured political enemies and traitors.  Many members of her family were quite eccentric, and Erzsébet herself suffered from seizures and migraine headaches.  She was also reputedly an extremely beautiful woman.  You be the judge.

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