ERZSEBET BATHORY – PORTRAIT OF A KILLER?

ERZSEBET BATHORY - PORTRAIT OK A KILLER?

Of the alleged portraits of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the above is most likely to be the authentic one. It was completed some time in the 1590s, when Bathory was in her forties. The painting itself is no masterpiece, but it fulfills the criteria of official pictures – it expresses both a somber formality and a sense of intimacy when looked at closely. Although it far from certainly portrays the Countess, the large nose, awkward ears and high forehead were typical tracts of the Bathory family, and the period in which it was painted suggests it is, indeed, the ‘Bloody Countess’. The symbolism deployed by the artist was common in late Renaissance art. In this case, the barely visible key that Elizabeth holds in her right hand may point to her accomplishments in the domestic organization of the family’s estates. The ring on her finger suggests her generosity, and the pearls that decorate her neck are an emblem for the wealth and nobility of character of the Countess. The clock that she rests her hand on may denote her knowledge of medicine or healing. Still, the meaning of the painting is open to subjective interpretation.
The enigmatic symbolism in the painting above reflects the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s life and her deeds. The notoriety and legend surrounding Bathory’s case has induced many people in recent times to condemn her as a ruthless serial killer. However, the contradictions in witness accounts and the sheer lack of evidence that emerges in the judicial proceedings relevant to the Bathory case may suggest otherwise. In the following paragraphs we will attempt to broadly outline the main areas of debate between those who condemn her and those who proclaim her innocence. The complexity of the case is such that it will not be possible to reach a conclusion on the matter in such a short space.

Elizabeth Bathory was born into a prominent Transylvanian family that possessed countless properties throughout Hungary, making them the richest landowners in the Kingdom.

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The Ecsed Castle in Nyirbator, where Elizabeth spent her childhood

By the time the Countess was born, in 1560, her family had been holding the highest offices in Hungary and Transylvania for the most part of three centuries. In May 1575, she married Ferenc Nadasdy, a member of the Hungarian aristocracy’s most wealthy families after the Bathorys, in what was a typical pre-arranged marriage with political connotations. Due to the prolonged battle against the Turks, Nadasdy was frequently at the war front (he was made chief commander of the Hungarian troops in 1578) and Elizabeth thus effectively ran the family’s estates herself. Her husband ultimately died in 1604 due to a mysterious disease, after having had limb problems for more than two years. According to confessions and testimonies, it was during the period between Nadasdy’s death and Elizabeth’s imprisonment in 1610 that Elizabeth’s tortures and murders started or intensified. Although her alleged crimes ensued in all her various properties, including the one at the seat of the Habsburg Empire in Vienna, a major fraction of the tortures she inflicted on people occurred at Cachtice Castle, her principal residence, in what is now Slovakia.

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A modern reconstruction showing how Cachtice Castle (might have) looked in the seventeenth century. Above is a photo of what remains the castle today.

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GUILTY?

 

Nearly three hundred depositions were made between Elizabeth’s imprisonment in the Cachtice Castle tower in 1610 (pictured below) and her subsequent death in early 1614. Most of the witnesses who testified against her were from the lower classes that inhabited the lands surrounding the Countess’ properties, but some members of the lower nobility were also questioned by the prosecutor. If we are to believe their testimonies, Bathory comes across as a Dracula-type monster who killed virgin young women for pleasure. Many argued that she viciously tortured the girls before killing them: sticking needles in their fingernails, over their body, and in their eyes; tearing out flesh with hot tongs, which she also inserted in their genitals; cutting them into pieces, etc. One witness named ‘Susannah’ on the records claimed that Szilvassy, the administrator of two of the Bathory castles, had found, in a chest that belonged to Elizabeth, the names of 650 women (written by the Countess herself) thought to be Bathory’s victims. People who accuse her cite this piece of evidence as the ultimate proof of her guilt.

Susannah’s deposition far surpasses that of others who usually estimated the number of deaths to be around thirty to eighty.

Another piece of evidence often cited by those who proclaim the Countess’ guilt is that Zavdosky, the Palatine’s secretary acting as prosecutor in the Bathory case, caught the Lady ‘in flagrante’ when he paid visit to the castle following Emperor Matthias’ order to investigate her after he heard of the rumours going round in Hungary, where countless families accused the Countess of their childrens’ disappearance or death. As soon as the prosecutor denounced his findings, Elisabeth was imprisoned.

Four of Elizabeth’s servants confessed under torture that they had been accomplices in their mistress’ crimes. Three of them were sentenced to death after being put to trial. Elisabeth was never given a trial, as she died before it could start.

The surviving records of depositions suggest that Bathory was guilty of committing heinous crimes against innocent young women. However, some digging around the context and the circumstance in which the events supposedly took place raises serious questions about the authenticity of said depositions and confessions.

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Cachtice Tower, where Elizabeth was imprisoned and where she died in 1614.
She was kept locked at the top of the tower in a small sealed room with a window and a hole in the wall that the guards used to give her food. According to the testimony of one of the ‘prison’ guards, she was found dead lying face down on the ground of her cell an early morning in January 1614.

INNOCENT?

Laszlo Nagy is among the most fervent defenders of Elizabeth Bathory, claiming that the widespread accusations made against her were part of an ingenious machination of the Palatine, Thurzò, to imprison a bothersome political rival. Several observations have been made by those who proclaim the Countess’ innocence:

–       Thurzò initiated motions to imprison Bathory as soon as he became Palatine of Hungary. Was he working toward a pre-planned objective?

–       In the early 1610s, Emperor Matthias was attempting to extend his control over senior Hungarian nobles with the assistance of the Palatine. Their first priority was to deal with anti-Habsburg elements. As powerful Protestants, the Bathory family certainly met the criteria for their investigation.

–       The Imperial Family owed the Countess a substantial amount of cash, which they had trouble paying due to the lack of cash flow in their coffers.  This may explain their supposed plot to eliminate her.

–       Thurzò’s correspondence, according to Tony Thorne, clearly portrays that his stumbling upon Elizabeth ‘in flagrante’ was premeditated.

–       There is evidence that suggests that Thurzò was after Bathory’s significant wealth. As soon as she was imprisoned, in fact, his wife plundered Bathory’s castle in search of the Countess’ famed precious jewelry.

–       The confessions of Bathory’s alleged accomplices was obtained through torture.

–       Witnesses from different counties adopted similar words to denounce Elisabeth’s deeds – a matter that raises suspicions of orchestration.

–       Bathory was never put to trial

–       Much of the information that points to the Countess’ supposed malignant character – namely the notion that she had no friends and lived as a social outcast, and that she was repeatedly unfaithful toward her husband and neglected her children – is unfounded.

–       As a widow after her husband died in 1604, Bathory was particularly susceptible to rumours that she was involved in the dark arts and was thus (possibly) made a scapegoat for many premature deaths that occurred during her widowhood. In fact, scapegoating widows and accusing them of consorting with the Devil was common in Central Europe during the Countess’ times.

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Overall, it is impossible to be completely confident in either proclaiming Bathory’s innocence or her guilt. Should no further evidence from the case arise, her figure will forever remain wrapped by the veil of enigma, legend, and historical speculation.

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The emblem of the Bathory family – an inconvenient political force?

FURTHER READING……

Below is a list of books – both historical and fictional – that might be of interest to whomever wishes to find out more about the ‘Bloody Countess’

Craft, Kimberly, 2009: INFAMOUS LADY: THE TRUE STORY OF COUNTESS ERZSEBET BATHORY. Self-published (historical)

Craft, Kimberly, 2011: THE PRIVATE LETTERS OF COUNTESS ERZSEBET BATHORY. Self-published. (historical – primary documents)

Johns, Rebecca, 2011: THE COUNTESS: A NOVEL OF ELIZABETH BATHORY. Broadway Paperbacks. (fiction)

McNally, Raymond, 1983: DRACULA WAS A WOMAN: IN SEARCH OF THE BLOOD COUNTESS OF TRANSYLVANIA. McGraw-Hill. (historical)

Penrose, Valentine, 2000: THE BLOODY COUNTESS: THE ATROCITIES OF ERZSEBET BATHORY. Creation Books. (semi-historical)

Thorne, Tony, 1997: COUNTESS DRACULA: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ELISABETH BATHORY. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. — (historical)

A number of films that dramatize Bathory’s life have also been made in recent years. Following are the two most famous ones:

COUNTESS DRACULA (1971, starring Ingrid Pitt) — trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iL_iBfkyyj0

THE COUNTESS (2009, starring Julie Delpy) — trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNiRcgp75l0

For a full list please consult the relevant Wikipedia page at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_B%C3%A1thory_in_popular_culture#Film