Elizabeth Bathory was an unfortunately easy target to create a vampire narrative around. Sure, Vlad the Impaler gets all the credit for being the OG Dracula these days, but the legends of Bathory paint her as the prototypical vampire. And the cruelest twist in this tale of cruelty? She may have been innocent.

Bathory was a Transylvanian countess who lived between 1560 and 1614. Her castle was supposedly used as a house of torture and sadistic murder, and her body count is often thought to be the highest of a single person in history. Guinness World Records recognizes her as history’s deadliest woman with 600 kills. 

The popular narrative around Elizabeth Bathory states that she had torture chambers in her castle, and she would torment peasant girls and even nobles. Her methods were painful and involved creatively brutal acts like shoving things under her victims’ fingernails. There was a ritualistic element to her violence, and it was believed that she bathed in the blood of young women as a way of maintaining youth.

Her reign of terror came to an end in either 1609 or 1610 when an investigation conducted by Gyorgy Thurzo, Palatine of Hungary, found that Bathory’s Castle of Csejte was the site of a multitude of murders. Bathory’s servants were interrogated about alleged murders, and the trial concluded that Bathory was guilty. All of her servants believed to have conspired with her were executed, and Bathory was imprisoned in her castle. Apparently, nobles weren’t executed and were just allowed to be confined in their own estates. After only a few years of imprisonment, Elizabeth Bathory died, but the legends of her murders continued to spread.

In this traditional narrative of Bathory’s life, she was horrific, and Gyorgy Thurzo was a hero that saved the day. However, according to scholars on Hungarian history, such as Dr. Irma Szadeczky-Kardoss, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the vampiric depiction of Elizabeth Bathory was an outright lie. 

If you’re a fan of complicated European political structures and conflicts that would even leave Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones bamboozled, Transylvania during this time period is a goldmine. Transylvania was in a strange, semi-independent purgatory where it was sort of its own independent state, but also a part of Hungary, but sometimes part of the Holy Roman Empire, and also the Ottoman Empire was always trying to conquer it. Having power in Transylvania was important to achieving greater political authority, and the Bathory family owned one of the largest estates in Transylvania. 

For someone trying to gain power in Transylvania, reducing the influence of the Bathorys would be a natural step. And one person who was looking to advance his political significance of the time was Gyorgy Thurzo, the man who investigated Elizabeth Bathory. It is a major possibility that the entire legal process was a show trial orchestrated by Thurzo. Rumors were created and spread to depict Bathory as a sadistic murderer. Witnesses could never provide any concrete evidence that she was guilty of anything. But the public had an image of Bathory as a bloodthirsty (literally) killer, and that was all it took to lead to her ruined reputation.

Public Domain/Wiki Commons

Gyorgy Thurzo was probably angry that portraits of Bathory did not include blood rituals and other torture.

The years that followed her death only saw the legends grow. As part of the Counter-Reformation, Jesuits spread stories of Bathory as propaganda. Elizabeth Bathory was a Calvinist, so if someone wanted to show how terrible the Protestants were, using the stories of the sadistic killer was an easy way to do it.

Today, it is not uncommon to find bloggers and others writing about the crazed killings carried out by Elizabeth Bathory. Maybe she really was this IRL vampire. But maybe, and likely, she was the victim of a successful lie in a wildly complex political game.

Top Image: Wiki Commons

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