First off: trigger warnings. All of the trigger warnings. No trigger unwarned. (okay, fine, it’s actually just triggers for gore, violence, rape, incest, and murder. I think that’s it. but, um, tread lightly regardless.)
Now then, let’s take a step into the life of one of the most vilified women in history. On December 29, 1610, a garrison of soldiers stormed the Hungarian castle of Cachtice and arrested Elisabeth (Erzsebet) Bathory. They accused her of roughly a hundredSaw movies worth of torture, and took her into custody. As the story goes (and please keep in mind, absolutely NONE of this should be taken at face value), they caught her in the act, finding a freshly-buried corpse and a cowering servant, badly beaten but still alive.
There were literally so many charges levied against her that when I typed them all out, it took up 10 single-spaced pages.
So let’s make a drinking game of it. The rules are simple: every time you’re grossed out, take a shot. I hope you have a full bottle or a strong stomach. Here we go, then!
According to the surviving testimonials, she and/or her closest servant/confidants:
- Kept her servants chained up every night so tight their hands turned blue and they spurted blood.
- Beat them to the point where there was so much blood on the walls and beds that they had to use ashes and cinders to soak it up.
- Beat a servant in Vienna so loudly that her neighbors (some monks) threw clay pots at the walls in protest.
- Strangled a servant to death with a silk scarf (a harem technique known as “the Turkish way”, a euphemism I now endeavour to work into my daily life).
- Burned her servants with metal sticks, red-hot keys, and coins; ironed the soles of their feet; and stuck burning iron rods into their vaginas.
- Stabbed them, pricked them in their mouths and fingernails with needles, and cut their hands, lips, and noses with scissors.
- Used needles, knives, candles, and her own freaking teeth to lacerate servants’ genitals.
- Stitched their lips and tongues together.
- Made servants sit on stinging nettles, then bathe with said stinging nettles. During the bath, she’d pushed the nettles into their shoulders and breasts.
- Had them stand in tubs of ice water up to their necks outside until they died.
- Smeared a naked girl with honey and left her outside to be bitten by ants, wasps, bees, and flies.
- Kept them from eating for a week at a time, and, if they got thirsty, made them drink their own urine.
- Forced them to cook and eat their own flesh (usually from the buttocks), or make sausages and serve it to guests.
- Heated up a cake to red-hot temperatures and made a servant eat it.
- Baked a magical poisonous cake in order to kill a rival magistrate, George Thurzo (who was also the guy who arrested her — more on him in a bit).
- Cast a magic spell to summon a cloud filled with ninety cats to torment her enemies. Okay, that’s actually kind of awesome.
- Had an ongoing affair with some guy named “Ironhead Steve” (no, really).
- Stuffed five servants’ corpses underneath a bed and continued to feed them as if they were still alive.
- Buried them in gardens, grain pits, orchards, and occasionally cemeteries. Sometimes with rites, often without.
She was accused of casting a magic spell to summon a cloud filled with ninety cats to torment her enemies.
- She bathed in virgins’ blood! (a lie dreamed up centuries afterward. also would’ve been impossible due to coagulation. I checked.)
- She was syphilitic from centuries of inbreeding! (maaaaybe? seems perfectly with-it in her letters though)
- She was epileptic! (well, she did once mention her eye hurt in a letter…?)
- She was raped when she was young. (possible, but given scant evidence for it, unlikely. Her powerful position in the world, practically since birth, further complicates this theory.)
- Her aunt Klara was a bisexual or lesbian (possible!). The two had an incestuous relationship! (uh… reaallly doubt it…) After having numerous affairs, Klara was raped by an entire Turkish garrison before having her throat cut! (augh, no! what the fuck!?)
- She was menopausal, and thus crazy! (sounds like someone is afraid of lady bits)
- Her cousin Gabor (whom I will talk about below) slept around a lot (true), was bisexual (maybe?), had an incestuous relationship with his sister Anna (not true), who was herself accused of sleeping with a silversmith (super not true) and being a witch (super ultra not true).
So after all this went down, the sentences went into effect almost immediately. Her female “accomplices,” all old ladies, first had their fingers torn off with iron tongs, and, once fingerless, were bodily tossed into a large fire. Her one male “accomplice”, being less of a participant to the supposed crimes, was shown a tremendous amount of mercy: he was decapitated *before* they tossed his body into a fire. And Elisabeth Bathory herself was “immured” — which is to say, bricked up into a room in her own castle, where she died four years later.
In conclusion: the aristocrats!
Elisabeth Bathory is innocent.
You heard me.
Now, this is not to say she was a nice person. The overwhelming impression one gets from reading all these documents (an act I do not recommend you do in one sitting — learn from my mistakes) is that she was a take-no-crap kind of lady. Her husband was off at war, and she had to manage an INCREDIBLE amount of stuff in his absence, even before he died – thousands of servants, governing the local populace, and handling an amount of property second to none.
And so, Elisabeth Bathory needed everyone around her to know one thing, and one thing only: she was Head Bitch in Charge, and she had no time for your shit.
Her surviving letters illustrate this beautifully with their overwhelming curtness (even to her husband!). My favorite thing she ever wrote was to an encroaching squatter: she ended it by saying “do not think I shall leave you to enjoy it [settling illegally on my land]. You will find a man in me.” — a saying that translates roughly to “I will crush you.”
So no, she was not warm and cuddly. I absolutely believe she made life shitty for misbehaving servants (or, more likely, had her head servants do it for her). It is beyond questioning that she beat the hell out of them, and some undoubtedly died from it – I mean, she had thousands of servants in an age before penicillin. In fact, one scholar claims that the more outlandish tortures (stinging nettles, metal rods, amateur acupuncture) were contemporary folk remedies. Tough, mean lady? Yes. Cartoon supervillain? Hell no.
So what happened? George Thurzo – Palatine of Hungary and dickass extraordinaire – did.
Now, I already said Elisabeth was powerful, but you need to get the magnitude of the target she was: the Bathorys were like the Hungarian Kennedys and had been for centuries. By the time all this went down, Elisabeth’s cousin Gabor (earlier mentioned) was gunning for the throne (literally was starting a war), and Elisabeth was widowed, with more money than god. So Thurzo was like, “oh hell no, I am not letting those two partner up,” and decided to take Elisabeth down.
Now, the details of the plot are a bit murky. Thurzo was a known schemer who’d made a career out of backstabbing people, so a plot wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There’s evidence in correspondence with his wife (who kept forgetting to write in code) that Thurzo was moving against Elisabeth over a year earlier. He’d been in contact with the local church leaders, who were whipping up the general populace against the Bathorys by telling them stories – stories that would, with minor variations, be repeated over and over in the proceedings against Elisabeth, passed off as “I heard this” but with very few saying they’d actually seen it.
And that’s just the cooperating witnesses. In all likelihood – it was standard operating procedure at the time – the members of Elisabeth’s household were tortured before testifying. Their testimonials, which are confused and contradictory, lend credence to that.
The only way to get rid of such an entrenched power as Elisabeth was to catch her committing a horrific act red-handed – which Thurzo said he did, although it took him 24 hours to produce said evidence. Afterwards, they never had a trial (despite the king demanding one for three years straight). Elisabeth never got to speak in her defense and her family records were mostly destroyed. There is very little to go on in determining what sort of a person she actually was.
So, even if she did commit said acts (which is possible, although nowhere near the scale of the accusations), ask yourself what is more likely: an incredibly outlandish list of violence perpetrated by a cadre of old women over decades; or, an orchestrated persecution against a powerful, harsh, and independent woman – in the age of actual witch hunts, no less!
It is a bit sad to think of Elisabeth’s last several years, imprisoned in her own castle (she was not literally bricked up, Amontillado-style). I imagine her looking out the window, confident that history would clear her name — blithely unaware of the centuries of mudslinging to come after her death. She deserved better. It feels odd to come to her defense, since, best-case scenario, she was occasionally abusive to the point where she would have been arrested nowadays, but I can’t help it. Call it sympathy for the devil.
Oh boy, I spent a lot of time figuring out just how to represent Lady Bathory. I am happy with how it turned out. Here’s the thought processes and callbacks:
- I wanted to have the viewer see through her eyes, as best as possible.
- We never see her, just a reflection in a dusty mirror. Her expression is meant to be somewhat inscrutable, without you being able to tell what’s on her mind. She’s purposely stiff and posed.
- She’s got her back turned to Thurzo (in background, with feathered cap in silhouette) bricking her up, with her image caught in her own shadow – sort of symbolizing how her true story’s been locked away and obscured.
- The whole composition is meant to feel claustrophobic, with her not only caught inside the mirror, but surrounded by the shadows cast from the bricked-up wall.
- Her outfit is from one of the two surviving portraits of her, and all the furniture and whatnot are period-accurate.
- The mirror is a Venetian glass mirror (one of the only types of mirror at the time – each one was as expensive as a battleship!), and the scratches and cloudiness are actually characteristic of that type of mirror.
- She’s washing her hair, a reference to the blood-bathing legends. Is that water reflecting the red candlelight and her dress, or…?
- The symbol at the top of the mirror (the dragon) is the actual Bathory family crest, believe it or not. The candle holders are callbacks to that dragon.
- Everything on the desk (and the bleeding candles) are related to a different torture rumor. The chest with the small mirror is a scrying box that witches were said to use.
- Very barely visible in the darkness of the reflected room, up above a balcony, are a bunch of cats, a reference to the 90-cat curse.
Next Week on Rejected Princesses
Stepping away from violent women for a while, and heading back 7 decades before Rosa Parks.