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Few personages in the darker realms of history have so completely ascended to legend as that of Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (1560 - 1614). She is popularly deemed the "Blood Countess" and cited as history's first known female serial killer. Yet the precise details of her crimes are hard to nail down; in their absence, the imaginations of storytellers supply their own.
Elizabeth was born into great wealth and privilege as a member of the powerful Bathory family, who had long been rulers of Transylvania. Her uncle, Stephen Bathory, had even been the King/Grand Duke of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet, even this illustrious childhood was troubled. At age thirteen, Elizabeth allegedly gave birth to an illegitimate son, fathered by a peasant boy. The child was spirited away to Wallachia, where he disappeared from history.
Then, Elizabeth married Ferenc Nadasdy, a Hungarian nobleman from a family that, while powerful, was of lesser social standing than the Bathorys; this fact led Elizabeth to keep her own name. She moved into his home at Cachtice Castle, and Ferenc, for all intents and purposes, moved out - first to study in Vienna, and then to lead the Hungarian army against the Ottoman Turks. He died of illness in 1604. Elizabeth was usually left to govern the castle and surrounding villages on her own - a challenging role, but one that, well-educated and intelligent as she was, she appeared to have been well-suited to.
Rumors of darker happenings within the castle walls began circulating around 1603. By 1610, the King of Hungary had assigned Gyorgy Thurzo, Palatine of Hungary, and the man that Elizabeth's late husband had entrusted to look after her, to investigate. The inquiry collected testimony from over 300 witnesses who alleged that Elizabeth tortured adolescent young girls, from both the peasantry and the nobility, by such diverse means as branding, burning, freezing, cutting, beating and biting. Numerous corpses showing evidence of severe wounds were recovered from Cachtice Castle.
While Elizabeth's accomplices were put on trial and, for the most part, suffered horrible death sentences, Elizabeth was never given her day in court. Thurzo evidently feared the effect such a trial would have upon the legitimacy of the nobility. Instead, she was quietly walled up into a set of rooms in her home, though she was provided daily with food. She languished for four years, dying at last in 1614.
It is difficult to know the extent of Bathory's crimes. Various witnesses estimated body counts from as low as 36 to as high as 650. Some recent scholars believe she may never have killed anyone at all, but was instead a victim of a vast conspiracy. Whatever the truth may be, one thing is almost certainly a later invention: the most well-known detail associated with the Bathory legend, that of her bathing in blood in hopes of retaining youth, is completely unattested-to in the original witness statements. Elizabeth Bathory may, indeed, be the longest-suffering victim of her own legend.