The Bloody Countess?

An Examination of the Life and Trial of Erzsébet Báthory

by Dr. Irma Szádeczky-Kardoss

English translation by Lujza Nehrebeczky

Originally published in the September 2, 2005 and September 9, 2005, issues of the Hungarian science periodical Élet és Tudomány  (Life and Science).

Based on the author’s monograph:

Szádeczky-Kardoss, Irma. Báthory Erzsébet igazsága (Erzsébet Báthory’s Truth). Budapest: Nesztor Kiadó, 1993.

Part I – Historical Background

On a TV channel showing scientific documentaries, I recently saw a supposed American descendant of the Báthory family guiding a worldwide audience to Castle Csejte, the site of Erzsébet Báthory’s arrest and imprisonment. He proceeded to issue a spectacular apology after explaining at length how his sadist ancestor had spilled the blood of young girls in order to preserve her youth. However, by the 1980s, thorough research by legal and historical scholars had already established that the proceedings against Erzsébet Báthory had, in fact, been a show trial. In an era when Hungary had been torn into three pieces, Erzsébet Báthory’s persecution was used in Transylvanian politics as a means to ruin the national reputation of the Báthory family and to legitimize Palatine György Thurzó’s quest for power.

The Báthory family, which had played an important part in Hungarian history since the 13th and 14th centuries, had several distinct branches, including those of Somlya and Ecsed. One of these branches had given Transylvania its princes, including István Báthory who would later become one of the most highly respected monarchs of Poland. István’s sister Anna Báthory of Somlya would marry György Báthory of Ecsed; their children were Erzsébet and her brother, hymn writer and judge István. Erzsébet’s cousin Zsigmond and nephew Gábor would also become Princes of Transylvania and play important parts in the case surrounding her.

Those who would explain Erzsébet Báthory’s supposed sadism as a symptom of mental illness resulting from genetic defects due to inbreeding are contradicted by the Báthory family tree itself. The Ecsed and Somlya branches of the Báthory family had separated many generations before the marriage of Erzsébet’s parents. Anna Báthory of Somlya and György Báthory of Ecsed were separated by seven generations from their last common ancestor, which comes to a two-hundred-year distance and six intervening ancestors on each side.

It is interesting to note the religious involvement of Erzsébet and her mother Anna. In 1545, almost uniquely among European women, Anna Báthory called a religious council of all Calvinist ministers serving on her lands. Erzsébet would also be raised in the Calvinist faith, which she would not renounce at her marriage to her Lutheran husband Ferenc Nádasdy. As a lifelong Calvinist, Erzsébet had never hindered the free religious expression of the Lutherans living on her lands, either in marriage or widowhood. In fact, she supported her Lutheran tenants by financing the construction of schools and the education of ministers.

Erzsébet’s religious tolerance had also been documented. Although the Nádasdy property in Csejte – the castle, the fortress and the surrounding lands – were likely her engagement gifts and remained her sole properties in widowhood, she had never obstructed the religious freedom of her tenants. Despite this, one of Erzsébet’s most sinister opponents turned out to be János Ponikénusz, the Lutheran pastor of Csejte who would accuse her of witchcraft and cannibalism. (In a letter to György Thurzó, the minister would claim she could turn herself into a black cat and stalk him at night.) And although Ponikénusz had long worked to undermine Erzsébet’s authority as landowner, she had never interfered with his position as minister.

Erzsébet’s husband Ferenc Nádasdy was popularly known as the “strong black bey,” a formidable warrior fighting the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of Hungary. The only child and heir of Palatine Tamás Nádasdy and Orsolya Kanizsay, Ferenc would become one of the most powerful Hungarian noblemen of his time. He married Erzsébet in 1575, when she was only fifteen, and their surviving correspondence suggests that their marriage was reasonably happy. They had five children that we know of, but only two daughters and one son would live to adulthood. Ferenc died at the hands of the Turkish invaders in 1604 when Erzsébet was 44. One daughter, Anna, would marry a grandson of Miklós Zrínyi, known as the Hero of Szigetvár; the other, Kata, became the wife of György Drugeth of Homonna. History remembers little about their son Pál who, due to his young age at the time, suffered the direst consequences of his mother’s persecution. Pál is best known for his work on translating and publishing the Bible in the Hungarian language. His son, Ferenc Nádasdy III, became involved in the anti-Habsburg Wesselényi conspiracy and died at the hands of an executioner.

Contrary to popular but erroneous Western beliefs, Hungary had never been a territory of the Holy Roman Empire. Hungary belonged to the dominion of those Holy Roman Emperors who had also held the title of King of Hungary, but always as a separate kingdom with independent statehood. However, during this time period not every Holy Roman Emperor was also King of Hungary. Emperor Rudolf II – who had held court in Prague between 1608 and 1613 – had initially claimed both titles, but was deeply affected by the anti-Habsburg uprising led by Transylvanian prince István Bocskai. Rudolf abdicated the Hungarian throne in favor of his brother Matthias, who would only become Holy Roman Emperor upon Rudolf’s death in 1613. The persecution and imprisonment of Erzsébet Báthory occurred during this brief period of Matthias II’s reign as King of Hungary.

At this time, Transylvania was a separate principality within the Kingdom of Hungary, ruled by Erzsébet’s nephew Prince Gábor Báthory. The principality clung to its separate status both in the shadow of the Turkish invasion and against the Habsburgs’ ever-increasing hunger for dominance. Transylvania’s political independence not only irritated the Habsburgs in their quest for absolute power but also limited the scope and methods of their royal sovereignty over Hungary. In fact, as Transylvania held strong support for the Hungarian kingdom’s efforts toward independence from Habsburg rule, it was considered explicitly dangerous. Due to these factors, Transylvania was viewed as an important problem and watched closely by the Viennese court.

At this time, former Transylvanian Prince Zsigmond Báthory – Erzsébet’s cousin – was held virtually captive by Emperor Rudolf II in the principalities of Oppeln and Ratibor of Silesia, given to him in exchange for his rulership of Transylvania. Zsigmond, whose politics were considered too unpredictable by Rudolf, had been forced to abdicate his position as Prince of Transylvania twice. In the spring of 1610, Zsigmond was charged with conspiracy and imprisoned in the Prague Castle. In light of the ongoing conflict with the Ottoman Empire, Rudolf II considered it in his best interest to silence the former prince by any means possible. Following Rudolf’s abdication of the Hungarian throne in 1608, the emperor was determined to keep Zsigmond isolated from the Hungarian and Transylvanian political scenes. Matthias II – Rudolf’s brother who became King of Hungary after the abdication – followed a nearly identical approach toward the Turkish situation and Transylvanian politics. In an ironic twist of Hungarian national politics, the initially royalist and pro-Habsburg István Bocskai was promoted to succeed Zsigmond as Prince of Transylvania. In fact, Bocskai would become one of the most independent rulers of Transylvania, not only preserving the principality’s independence but annexing Hungarian territories to it as well.

Following such politically charged events, Prince Bocskai’s death in 1606 strengthened the Habsburgs’ desire to acquire dominion over Transylvania and multiplied their attacks on the Báthory family. Upon Bocskai’s passing, Rudolf II – who had not yet given up the Hungarian throne – was determined to prevent another Báthory from becoming Prince of Transylvania. Rudolf’s aim was to knock the much-supported Gábor Báthory out of the line of succession because the Báthory dynasty had owned the largest family estate in all of Transylvania, independent from Habsburg oversight. The ideal replacement candidate for Transylvanian rulership would have been a nobleman whose estates were in the Kingdom of Hungary, and could therefore be easily controlled by the Habsburgs. Despite the Habsburgs’ best efforts to the contrary, Gábor Báthory became Prince of Transylvania in 1608, the same year that King Matthias II ascended the Hungarian throne. Like his uncle István before him, Gábor also expressed ambition to acquire the Polish and Hungarian thrones. Gábor’s aspirations placed Matthias II in an immediate conflict of interest with the Báthory family.

As Transylvania was an independent principality, most members of the Báthory family were outside the Habsburgs’ scope of influence – except for those living in Habsburg-controlled jurisdictions. Zsigmond, former Prince of Transylvania, lived in Silesia, a territory under Emperor Rudolf II. Erzsébet, widow of Ferenc Nádasdy, lived in the Kingdom of Hungary, a territory under King Matthias II. Based on her rank, wealth, and authority, Erzsébet had become a target through whom the Habsburgs could reach the Báthory family. However, it was not merely her close family ties to the Princes of Transylvania that destined Erzsébet for this role. Upon her husband’s death, Erzsébet’s own wealth and property was combined with the Nádasdy family’s wealth and property that she now had the right to manage. In her widowhood, Erzsébet became the owner of one of the largest estates in all of Hungary. Her lands and fortresses had stretched all the way from the east to the southwest of the Hungarian kingdom.

Erzsébet’s ownership of these strategically located fortresses could have assisted her cousin, Prince Gábor Báthory, in a possible quest for the Hungarian throne. Had Gábor sent the Transylvanian army and its allies – some of which had recently intimidated Rudolf II – to Hungary, Erzsébet’s fortresses could have secured their passage. The Báthory properties located in eastern Hungary could have provided similar support for Gábor’s campaign into Poland. Naturally, both of these scenarios would have violated Habsburg interests in these two countries. Erzsébet had thus become the pawn and, ultimately, victim of a political strategy aimed to secure power over the Transylvanian principality. However, Rudolf II, Matthias II, Zsigmond Báthory and Gábor Báthory were only background players in this political drama. The most significant role would belong to a man who, under the guise of protecting the nation’s interests, deftly satisfied his own ambitions – Palatine György Thurzó.

György Thurzó had become Palatine of Hungary in late 1609. The title of Palatine gave its bearer nearly absolute power over national affairs; when applied to legal issues, this power often manifested itself as unfettered autocracy. In March of 1610, shortly after assuming power, Thurzó became involved in a failed conspiracy attempt on the life of Prince Gábor Báthory. Remarkably, three important events occurred around the same time: Gábor Báthory’s assassination attempt in Transylvania, Zsigmond Báthory’s imprisonment in Prague, and Erzsébet Báthory’s show trial in Hungary. The latter two were accused with capital crimes: conspiracy against the Habsburg rule and mass murder of young noblewomen, respectively. From this point on, all significant episodes in Erzsébet’s case would closely coincide with Palatine Thurzó’s various actions taken against Gábor Báthory.

In the early 17th century, the Thurzó family was a relatively recent addition to the Hungarian aristocratic dynasties traditionally entrusted with national offices. György Thurzó himself was a second-generation nobleman full of tremendous ambition and a boundless desire for the quick acquisition of wealth and power. Thurzó’s hunger for prominence was sharpened by the fact that his mother, Kata Zrínyi, had been the daughter of the legendary Hero of Szigetvár, Miklós Zrínyi. Although the majority of Thurzó’s own estates had been located in Upper Hungary, he had also acquired property in Moravia through his second wife, Erzsébet Czobor. Having married into the Czobor family of Moravia, Thurzó became a frequent visitor in the Habsburg court in Prague. Due to these family connections, Thurzó’s loyalty was extended both to Emperor Rudolf II and King Matthias II. Although the title of Palatine was conferred by Parliament, not the king, Thurzó’s position provided him with considerable personal and financial security. As Palatine, he was therefore committed to Matthias II’s political strategy against Gábor Báthory.

In the meantime, Thurzó took numerous bold steps to increase his wealth, power, and authority. Naturally, his master plan to empower his dynasty would include his only son and heir, the talented but sickly Imre. In order to join his family with one of the most powerful families of Transylvania, the Palatine arranged his son’s marriage to Krisztina, daughter of Pál Nyáry who had once aspired to become Prince of Transylvania. As Krisztina was related to the Báthorys on her mother’s side, she would eventually inherit some part of the tremendous Báthory wealth as well. By acquiring several major properties for Imre – even going as far as to eye the Báthory family estate in Ecsed – the Palatine seemed to pave his son’s way into Transylvanian politics; perhaps even toward Transylvanian rulership. Thurzó was confident that this idea would receive strong support from Vienna, as the Habsburgs wanted a Hungarian nobleman to become Prince of Transylvania. By owning property in the Kingdom of Hungary, under Habsburg jurisdiction, such a ruler could never become truly independent from Habsburg interests.

In the Thurzós’ pursuit of Transylvanian rulership, the Báthorys emerged as their greatest and most successful rivals. Specifically, Imre Thurzó’s most dangerous opponent would be Pál Nádasdy, son of Ferenc Nádasdy and Erzsébet Báthory. Only a few years Imre’s senior, Pál was also viewed as a potential rival in aspiring to national positions conferred to noblemen in the Kingdom of Hungary. Pitted against the Báthory scion, Imre Thurzó – reputedly of a much gentler nature than his father – had dim prospects for Transylvanian rulership. By arresting Pál’s mother Erzsébet Báthory on trumped-up charges, the Palatine could compromise the reputation of two powerful rival families – the Báthorys of Transylvania and the Nádasdys of Hungary. This strategy would enable Thurzó to kill three birds with one stone, serving Rudolf’s, Matthias’s, and his own interests at the same time. However, the younger Thurzó would never benefit from his father’s nefarious plan: Imre met his untimely end only a few years after the Palatine’s death.

 

Part II – A Show Trial

In 1729, at the height of the Counter-Reformation, Hungarian Jesuit priest László Túróczy penned a cautionary fable about Erzsébet Báthory with the purpose of exposing the horrors of the Protestant Reformation. As Protestant aristocrats in a largely Roman Catholic country, members of the Báthory family were prime targets for Counter-Reformation propaganda. Túróczy was mistaken about Báthory’s religion, describing her as a renegade Catholic who had become a murderess following her conversion to Lutheranism. In fact, Erzsébet – like the rest of her family – was a lifelong Calvinist and never adopted her husband’s Lutheran faith. Based on 130 years of widespread gossip and folk mythology, this piece of religious propaganda was to become the basis for the ever-popular Báthory horror stories.

According to Túróczy’s story, Countess Báthory not only bathed in the blood of lovely young women in order to preserve her youth, but also succumbed to her evil, sadistic nature to take pleasure in the murder and torture of her servants. Túróczy asserts that Palatine Thurzó caught the countess in the act of murder and sentenced her to life imprisonment in the castle of Csejte. Even though the investigation was painstakingly extensive, it failed to turn up any concrete evidence to prove Countess Báthory’s guilt in shedding the blood and snuffing out the lives of hundreds of victims. It did, however, contain numerous signs of a show trial: the construction of forged evidence, the dissemination of false rumors, and the use of horror stories to intimidate and manipulate witnesses. The events of Erzsébet Báthory’s trial in Hungary would coincide with the attacks on Prince Gábor Báthory in Transylvania.

The proceedings against Erzsébet Báthory can be deemed a show trial because they were riddled with serious violations of the justice process of the time. Erzsébet was arrested and imprisoned without any formal charges, summons, trial, or sentencing. In order to avoid a proper trial, Palatine Thurzó refused to comply with the requests of the Báthory family, the public position of the Hungarian aristocracy, and even with King Matthias II’s writ urging him to follow formal legal procedures. Thurzó would later explain his numerous violations of the justice system as an effort to save the Báthory family’s reputation, wealth, and Erzsébet’s life by preempting a death sentence. However, these motives are called into question by Thurzó’s well-documented efforts to organize a nationwide rumor campaign, to create trumped-up charges, and to construct forged evidence against Erzsébet. It would be difficult to interpret these classic elements of a politically motivated show trial as signs of the Palatine’s intent to protect the Báthory family. Quite the contrary, these efforts had led to an uncritical assumption of Erzsébet’s guilt and the sullying of her family’s name.

Thurzó’s investigation into the alleged murders was highly selective. According to his nationwide rumor campaign, Countess Báthory had maintained torture chambers in every one of her estates, and even took some girls on her travels in order to torture and kill them. However, the investigation had been contained within Western Hungary, the area under the Palatine’s unlimited jurisdiction. Even within this area, only those properties were investigated that were within Thurzó’s personal sphere of influence through his friends and relatives, and those he had been interested in removing from the Nádasdy family’s ownership (mostly in the vicinity of Sárvár, Pozsony and Csejte).

Each location where witnesses were recruited would first be inundated with rumors of the alleged crimes so that by the time they would testify, the witnesses would be thoroughly familiar with the stories of murder and torture. Among the 300 who would testify, there were no victims who had been hurt, and no eyewitnesses who had seen the actual events. If the charges had been real, eyewitness and victim testimony would have been invaluable for the prosecution. But these witnesses – who had learned about the crimes by word of mouth – testified about several hundred victims, each citing a different number. By contrast, Erzsébet’s alleged partners in crime, who had all been tortured several times before testifying against her, could only come up with a total of 36 victims.

In Countess Báthory’s time, it was a common duty – as well as a security and economic measure – for landowners to provide health care to their tenants and servants. The care of men, who were often wounded at war, fell to the lord, the officers and the barbers of the court, while the care of women and children was part of the lady’s duties, sometimes aided by the local midwife or barber. Erzsébet Báthory’s surviving letters describe the intelligent and reasonable manner in which she managed the business affairs of her household and numerous estates; in several instances, she would even petition the king on behalf of her tenants in legal or financial trouble. She had organized the healing activity at her court in a similarly rational and compassionate way: each of her estates had resident herbalists and healers who cared for the local tenants and servants. The countess had a small personal staff of servants well-versed in the healing arts; they were highly trained, as they had originally cared for her children. She had also hired healers who were trained to diagnose illness and injury, so that while traveling in the villages, they could bring back to the castle those in need of more serious treatment than household remedies.

Young noblewomen of Erzsébet Báthory’s generation had to be familiar with basic healing techniques, so that they could manage the health care of the people living on their estates. Erzsébet’s knowledge of healing methods, patient care, and medicinal herbs was based on the Transylvanian healing practices learned from her mother and the flora of her parents’ estate in Ecsed. Some of these methods, practices, and herbs were unique to Transylvania and eastern Hungary, and would not be recognized elsewhere in the country. When Countess Báthory had brought her “foreign” medicinal practices to western Hungary, some people inevitably found them strange, mysterious, and suspicious. If one of these healing methods would not succeed in curing the patient, its unfamiliarity was seen as the reason for its failure.

The healing activity conducted at Erzsébet’s castle of Sárvár was met with particularly strong suspicion, as it involved a Croatian midwife-healer named Anna Darbúlia: an outsider whose healing culture was completely alien to the locals. The midwife had likely joined Erzsébet’s personal staff so that women patients would not have to be treated by male barbers who had commonly assisted doctors at the time. Anna’s specialty was surgical intervention, which required the kind of physical skills – such as bloodletting – that could easily be distorted into tales of butchery and torture. The idea of a midwife performing surgery – an activity reserved for male doctors and barbers at the time – was more than the wary locals could tolerate; in fact, it aroused a suspicion of black magic in them.

It is no coincidence that the witnesses later testifying against Erzsébet would refer to midwife-healers as witches. These superstitious beliefs had originated the rumors labeling Anna Darbúlia’s surgical practices as torture, and made the locals receptive to Thurzó’s smear campaign accusing Erzsébet of murder. The villagers were terrified they would meet with divine punishment, should they accept the “witch’s” foreign healing practices. Cultural and religious conflict had played a major role in Erzsébet’s persecution as well, led by Ponikénusz, the Lutheran pastor whose sectarian hatred of the Calvinist lady would become a powerful weapon in Thurzó’s hands.

There is no question that Erzsébet Báthory’s healing methods were foreign to the people of Sárvár and could stir up ample controversy. The surviving witness testimony against the countess describes as torture several procedures that were identified as legitimate by medical authors of the time. One such author was Ferenc Pápai Páriz, a renowned Transylvanian doctor whose medical recommendations would be seen as radical and merciless by today’s standards.

There are numerous signs pointing to healing activity in Erzsébet Báthory’s letters containing instructions for managing the daily life and finances of her estates. The medical service provided by the countess and her staff was particularly important and useful during times of epidemics. In many ways, the service was better organized and used more sensible methods than the common health care practices of the day. Erzsébet’s assertive and rational methods of organizing these activities across her estates were considered masculine and alien compared with the customs of her time. It is highly likely that Palatine Thurzó used these unfamiliar medical practices to create trumped-up charges and construct false evidence against Countess Báthory.

The practices described as torture in witness testimonies can be recognized as painful surgical and medical procedures identified in medical books at the time. The condition of the alleged victims corresponds with symptoms of various diseases; the recorded deaths coincide with documented epidemics. Medical texts of the time describe extremely painful procedures for the treatment of boils and abscesses as well as the removal of necrotic tissue and maggots from wounds. Open wounds would be cauterized, the infected tissue torn out with red-hot tongs or excised with a sharp knife, treated with cupping and blister plasters, and cleaned with salt water. High fevers were treated with induced sweating and alternating cold and hot baths. Applying tourniquets to the limbs, another extremely painful practice, was believed to remove the “poisons” that were thought to cause some illnesses.

Rheumatism and arthritis were often treated with rolling the patient’s whole body in stinging nettle. “Fingernail poison” – a common problem for seamstresses – was treated by lancing, excising and cleansing the boils that had developed in an infected nail bed. “Frog of the tongue” – an infected abscess under the tongue – could often be treated only by piercing a hole in the tongue itself. Certain diseases were treated with a specialized form of bloodletting: opening the vein found on the underside of the tongue. Smallpox, typhus and bubonic plague were treated by lancing the boils and blisters covering the body, and using heated bricks as steam compresses. For bubonic plague victims, medical treatment was particularly torturous. Although one of the symptoms of plague was overwhelming drowsiness, doctors would not allow patients to fall asleep. Another symptom, constant diarrhea, necessitated frequent cleaning of the weak, feverish body with cold water. Transylvanian medic Pápai Páriz prohibited the “pampering” of plague victims; probably hoping to reactivate the patients’ immune systems in this manner.

16th century medical texts such as Ars MedicaHerbarium by Peter Melius Juhász, and Pax Corporisa by Ferenc Pápai Páriz recommend many of these treatments that laypersons could easily mistake for torture. The witness testimonies against Countess Báthory contain detailed descriptions of medical procedures labeled as sadistic torment. If we examine the testimonies side by side with contemporary medical texts, the descriptions of alleged torture by Erzsébet’s servants will show a remarkable correspondence with medical and surgical instructions for specific diseases. According to the testimonies, the countess herself was not even present at most of these procedures performed by her servants, as she frequently traveled among her numerous castles and estates.

It is worth noting that the recorded deaths occurring on Erzsébet’s estates or journeys coincided with well-documented local outbreaks of bubonic plague and typhus. In October 1610, eight young women at Castle Csejte died in the course of one week, all showing symptoms of an epidemic disease. Their deaths would later be used by Thurzó as an excuse to arrest the countess without formal charges. As Erzsébet was traveling with her daughter and personal staff during this week, she was nowhere near Csejte when the deaths occurred. The sick girls had been quarantined to prevent the spread of their disease, and cared for by a midwife-healer named Dóra Szentes and a manservant named János Ficzkó. (These two had been among Erzsébet’s personal servants who would later be tortured and executed as her partners in crime.) Upon the countess’ return to Csejte, Dóra – possibly influenced by Thurzó’s fast-traveling rumors – refused to notify her of the deaths. She concealed the bodies in different spots around the estate, hiding some in the grottos of the castle garden and burying others in the earth of the castle yard. Later that month, Erzsébet found out the midwife’s gruesome secret in a horrifying and scandalous manner when her dogs found one of the bodies buried in the castle yard.

The news of the deaths reached Palatine Thurzó soon enough, and provided an excellent opportunity for his plan to get Countess Báthory arrested. Several surviving letters and witness accounts describe the planning and organization that preceded the arrest. One of these missives, written by Thurzó’s wife Erzsébet Czobor, gives an account of the recruiting and selection of false witnesses to testify against the countess. In another letter, Erzsébet Báthory’s own son-in-law Miklós Zrínyi agrees to send his servants to Csejte to help orchestrate Thurzó’s “surprise” visit there. Zrínyi’s servants would let the Palatine and his men into the castle on the day that Thurzó supposedly caught the countess in the act of murder. According to the records of Thurzó’s own clerk, however, Erzsébet Báthory was arrested “while partaking of her supper” and not in flagrante delicto, as the Palatine would later allege.

On the day of Erzsébet’s arrest, a young woman severely injured by a wild animal was being cared for at her castle. (Her treatment was later completed by a local doctor and she recovered from her injuries.) Had she really been the victim of Countess Báthory’s cruelty, her testimony would have been the best evidence to prove Erzsébet’s guilt. Curiously, this young lady’s testimony is not included in the massive stack of witness accounts related to the case. Most likely, her testimony was omitted because her account would have described Erzsébet’s healing services, not torture and murder.

Following their arrest, Erzsébet and her personal servants were interrogated with a set of prewritten questions. The servants – János Ficzkó, Dóra Szentes, Ilona Jó and Kata Beniczky – were subjected to torture as well as a standard interrogation. Records of the interrogation show that – contrary to later allegations – no one was caught in the act of murder or torture, nor were there any fresh bodies found in the castle. The arrest and interrogation were based solely on the eight disease-related deaths at Csejte in October 1610, upon which Thurzó had intended to build a case of mass murder against the countess and her servants. Since such a case would have necessitated actual physical evidence to stand up in court, the interrogation’s main purpose was to find these eight bodies on the estate. While Erzsébet’s servants were tortured, the only information asked of them was the location of the corpses. One body was found buried in the castle yard in fairly good condition, as the cold autumn weather had more or less conserved it in the damp earth. This body would later be presented by Thurzó as the fresh corpse of a victim killed on the day he had supposedly caught the countess in the act of murder.

On the following day, the Palatine invited noblemen of neighboring estates to view the body and the injured patient as the newest victims of Countess Báthory and her servants. By then two months old, the corpse was not in suitable condition to be moved or inspected up close. Thurzó’s men had laid the body and the injured girl on a makeshift platform and carried them to the castle yard, where onlookers were allowed to view them from a distance. Seen from a distance, it was easy for untrained eyes to mistake livor mortis on the body and partially healed injuries on the patient for signs of torture. Next, Erzsébet was forced to view them in front of everyone else and informed that these had been her “victims.” The countess was publicly humiliated in this manner primarily to shock her tenants and servants into believing she had really committed these crimes. This initial belief was then nurtured for several months by means of Thurzó’s rumor campaign in order to manipulate witnesses into thinking they had really seen Countess Báthory caught in the act of murder. The witnesses, who had only seen a theatrical viewing of a body and heard of the crimes by word of mouth, would nevertheless testify of torture and murder.

The charges of bloodshed, slaughter, torture, and mass murder were well-suited to create mass hysteria and ruin the reputation of the Báthorys of Transylvania, in particular Prince Gábor Báthory. Palatine Thurzó had alleged that Erzsébet’s victims were young noblewomen; in effect, that a Báthory had blatantly violated the rights of other noble families. Upon a guilty verdict, the weight of such capital crimes and the manipulation of Hungarian nobility would cause widespread outrage and suspicion against Gábor Báthory, isolating him from his supporters. This was the real purpose of Thurzó’s nationwide propaganda campaign that would make Erzsébet’s assumed guilt “common knowledge.” In 17th century legal practice, “common knowledge” was frequently accepted as evidence equal to or even substituting witness testimony. By his rumor campaign, the Palatine manipulated public opinion to construct “evidence” admissible in court. By succeeding, he would also create distrust and suspicion against Gábor Báthory among his political supporters in particular and the Hungarian nobility in general.

During her trial, the countess was never permitted to speak for herself, nor was anyone else allowed to testify on her behalf. Following their torture and interrogation, all but one of Erzsébet’s personal servants were executed. Imprisoned for life, Erzsébet Báthory would survive the day of her arrest only by four years; she died on 21 August 1614. According to contemporary records, “she was found dead in the morn. They say she had been praying with diligence and singing hymns to the Lord.”

Advertisements