An All Hallows’ Eve Tale of Crime and Horror

Copy of lost 1585 original portrait of Elizabeth Bathory.

Few women are more infamous than the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a famous noble from the Kingdom of Hungary who lived from the mid-16th century to the early 17th century. Labelled the most prolific female serial killer in history, she is known as the “Bloody Countess,” whose lust for violence has been attributed to sadistic sexual pleasure and craving for eternal youth. Cruelty, barbarism, and creative torture are often seen as the province of men, but the Bloody Countess is an Absolute of Evil if the tales about her are to be believed.

Tales about Elizabeth Bathory require a trigger warning for gore, graphic descriptions, and disturbing situations. I’ve adapted excerpts from stories translated by Alejandra Pizarnik, the Argentinian poet, whose source was the work of the French poet Valentine Penrose, whose work was loosely based on transcripts of Bathory’s trial, including statements by her servants. The tale is not for the faint of heart. Read on to judge for yourself.

I. The Iron Maiden

There was once in Nuremberg a famous and lifelike machine known as the Iron Maiden. The Countess Elizabeth Bathory bought a copy for her torture chamber in (CHAY-tay) Csejthe Castle. This clockwork doll was the size and color of a human creature. Naked, painted, covered in glittering jewels—rubies, sapphires, emeralds—with blond hair that reached down to the ground, it had a mechanical devise that allowed it to curve its lips into a smile, and to move its eyes.

The Countess, sitting on her throne, watches.

For the Maiden to spring into action, one must touch the precious jewels of its necklace. It responds immediately and lifts its white arms to embrace whatever is next to it: in this case, a girl. The Maiden holds the girl in her mechanical arms, and no one can take them apart, both equally beautiful. Suddenly, the painted breasts of the Iron Maiden open, and five daggers appear that pierce her struggling companion, whose hair is almost as long as its own.

Once the sacrifice is over, the jewels in the necklace are touched again and the Maiden’s eyes and smile close as if it is sleeping peacefully.

An artist’s rendering of an Iron Maiden.

II. Death by Water

The road is covered in snow and, inside the coach, the Countess who is wrapped in furs feels bored. Suddenly she calls out the name of the one of the girls on the train. The girl is brought to her; the Countess bites her frantically and sticks pins in her flesh. A while later, the wounded girl is left in the snow, where she tries to run away. She is pursued, captured, and brought back. Now the girl is standing naked in the snow. The Countess orders cold water. Night falls and torches surround the naked girl. The footmen pour water over her body and the water turns to ice. The girl moves to get closer to the torches, but more water is poured over her. There she remains, for ever standing, upright, dead.

The frozen maiden.

III. Classical Torture

Except for a few modern refinements—like the Iron Maiden or death by water—the Countess restricted herself to a monotonously classic style of torture that can be summed up as follows:

Several tall, beautiful girls were selected—their ages had to be between 12 and 18—and dragged into the torture chamber where the Countess, dressed in white, sat upon a throne. After binding their hands, servants whipped the girls until their skin ripped, burned them with red-hot pokers, cut their fingers with shears, pierced their wounds, and stabbed them with daggers. If they screamed too much, their mouths were sewn shut. The blood spurted like fountains and the white dress of the Countess turned red.

The Countess did not always sit quietly and watch. Sometimes she would lend a hand, tearing at the flesh with silver pincers, or she would stick needles in the most sensitive places, press red-hot spoons to the tender feet, or merely have the girls brought near her so she could bite them.

This was not always done at night. The day was also guilty. When new dresses were brought for the Countess to try on, innumerable scenes of cruelty happened. Dorko, the Countess’s maid, would find fault with the sewing and would select two or three guilty victims. The punishment would vary. Sometimes Dorko would simply strip the victims naked and force them to continue to work before the Countess’s eyes. They must have felt terribly humiliated because their nakedness forced them into a kind of animal world. This scene leads us to think of Death, as in the Dance of Death. To strip naked is a prerogative of Death, the incessant watching over of the creatures it has dispossessed. But there is more: sexual climax forces us into death-like gestures and expressions, gasping and writhing in agony, cries and moans of release. If the sexual act implies a sort of death, the Countess Bathory needed the visible, elementary, coarse death, to succeed with that other phantom death that we call orgasm.

But, who is Death? A figure that takes and wastes wherever and however it pleases. This is also a description of the Countess Bathory. Never did anyone wish so hard not to get old; I mean, to die. That is why she acted and played the role of Death. Because, how can Death possibly die?

VI. A Warrior Bridegroom

In 1575, at the age of fifteen, Elizabeth married Frederick Nazasdy, a soldier of great courage. This simple soul never discovered that his lady love was a monster. He would come to her briefly between battles, drenched in horse sweat and blood, the norms of hygiene had not yet been firmly established—and this probably stirred the emotions of the delicate Elizabeth.

One day, walking through the castle gardens, Frederick saw a naked girl tied to a tree. She was covered in honey: flies and ants crawled all over her and she was sobbing. The Countess explained that the girl was being punished for stealing fruit. Frederick laughed, as if he had heard a joke.

The soldier would not listen to an unkind word about his wife.

But all this was child’s play—a young girl’s play. During her husband’s life, the Countess never committed murder.

VIII. Black Magic

Elizabeth’s greatest obsession was always to keep old age at bay, at any cost. Her total devotion to the arts of black magic was aimed at preserving—for all of eternity—the ‘sweet bird’ of her youth. The magical herbs, the incantations, the amulets, even the baths she took in the blood of her victims, had a medicinal function: to immobilize her beauty in order to become, forever and ever, a dream of stone. Her favorite amulet was an old, dirty parchment, containing a prayer:

Help me, oh Isten; and you also, all-powerful cloud. Protect me, Elizabeth, and grant me long life. Oh cloud, I am in danger. Send me ninety cats, for you are the supreme mistress of cats. Tell them to come quickly and bite the heart of _____ and also the heart of _____ and of _____. And to also bite and rip the heart of Margery, the Red. And keep Elizabeth from all evil.    

The blanks were to be filled with the names of those she wished bitten.

In 1604, Elizabeth became a widow and met Darvulia. Darvulia was exactly like a witch in children’s fairytales, old, irritable, and surrounded by black cats. Darvulia’s black magic encouraged the Countess. She iniated her to even crueller games; she taught her to look upon death, and the meaning of looking upon death. She taught her to love them for their own sake, without fear.

IX. Blood Baths

This rumor existed: since the arrival of the witch Darvulia, the Countess took baths in human blood to preserve her beauty. True: Darvulia believed in the invigorating merits of young girls’ blood, especially if they were virgins. In the torture chamber, the blood was collected. Dorko poured the red warm liquid over the waiting Countess, ever so quiet, ever so watchful.

But in spite of this, the Countess aged. When she complained to the witch, Darvulia assured that changing the color of the blood—from red to blue, to the daughters of gentlemen—would cause a retreat of old age. To attract the daughters of aristocracy, it was broadcast that the Countess was lonely and would like young girls of fine families to live with her in the castle in order to receive lessons in fine manners, music, and to learn how to behave exquisitely in society. Two weeks after twenty-five “pupils” arrived, there were only two left: one died soon after, drained of blood, and the other managed to commit suicide.

Darvulia, the witch.

XI. Severe Measures

For six years, the Countess carried out her murderous plots. During those years there were countless rumors about her. Finally, by 1610, the King had heard the sinister reports, together with proof. He appointed the powerful Thurzo, Count Palatine, to investigate and punish any guilty parties.

In the middle of the night, Thurzo arrived unannounced at the castle. In the cellar, cluttered with the remains of the previous night’s bloody ceremony, he found a beautiful, mangled corpse and two young girls who lay dying. But that was not all. He could smell the dead, saw the walls splattered with blood, saw the Iron Maiden and other instruments of torture, and discovered a cell full of peasant girls waiting their turn to die.

The Countess, without denying the accusations, declared that her acts were within the rights of a noble woman of ancient lineage. To which Thurzo replied, “Countess, I condemn you to life imprisonment within your castle walls.”

Deep in his heart, Thurzo knew the Countess should be beheaded, but that punishment would be been frowned upon because it would affect not only the Bathory family, but also the nobility in general.

Around the Countess, her prison grew. The doors and windows of her rooms were walled up, with only a small opening left to pass her food. In this way she lived for three years without showing any sign of repentance. She understood why she had been condemned. She was never afraid, she never trembled. And no compassion or sympathy or admiration can be felt for her. Only a certain astonishment at the enormity of the horror, the fascination with a white dress that turns red. She is yet another proof of the terror of absolute human freedom.

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