94% of serial killers worldwide are men, according to the Radford University Serial Killer Information Center, which sounds like a delightful place to work. But beneath that blood-spattered glass ceiling, a spunky six percent of spree killers stand by, waiting patiently for their chance in the media limelight. At the fore, a European noblewoman: Elizabeth Báthory holds the title of “most prolific female serial killer in history”. We love a girlboss.
Báthory was a Hungarian countess born in 1560, a member of Hungary’s upper class and the heiress to a pretty substantial estate whose wealth included considerable political power. Her grandfather and uncle served as voivodes, or warlords of Transylvania, making them super important. Another uncle, Stephen, was king of Poland, which is even more important.
Much of Bathory’s early history is unknown, because she lived before computers. We know she was betrothed at ten years old, set to be married to a local noble boy, which was the trend among her peers, that weird cadre of incestuous dandies who ruled Europe at the time. Don’t worry — the wedding didn’t happen until a few years later. They’re not uncivilized.
Báthory and her husband lived in harmony, him spending his days off at army and her investing her free time in upgrading their castle with new torture chambers, assisted by a team of loyal servants.
Socially acceptable hobbies for most of Europe’s noblewomen included having babies and doing nothing, so at the time being a murderer was looked down upon.
Again, history is pretty unclear on how Báthory got into the habit of brutal murder, but it’s pretty clear she engaged in it frequently. Testimony from her eventual court case claimed she may have been involved in the deaths of as many as 650 women and girls in Hungary.
Other sources include more details on her torture methods, so I’ll link those serial killer tips and tricks below for all you freaks. The most famous story about Báthory claims that she regularly bathed in the blood of her victims, believing its chemical properties would keep her young.
Unfortunately, it’s probably not true. The first source to host that claim was published in 1720, a hundred years after the countess’s death. Alternatively, the blood worked, and a still-alive, still-youthful Countess Báthory had made it a full hundred years without being caught. The vampire fanfiction writes itself.
More importantly, according to the Red Cross, the average human body contains somewhere between one and one and a half gallons of blood, and the internet tells me the average modern bathtub can support at least 40 gallons of water. With a (potential) kill count of over 600 people, it’s not impossible, assuming blood stays liquid at room temperature, but
unfortunately, blood that escapes the body starts clotting and congealing pretty rapidly, making it less of a bath and more of a gelatinous rub. Cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. Unless she’s offing busloads of peasants and bleeding them faster than the speed of clot, the bathing isn’t gonna happen.
At least one source suggests the bath story has its roots in the countess’s real practice of rubbing blood on her skin to achieve a more youthful appearance, which is certainly more possible, and in a world where celebrity skin treatments that utilize the magical powers of Korean baby foreskin exist, it’s not outside the realm of believability, even if we take into account that prolific serial murderers are known for their sound judgment.
So maybe she kinda bathed in blood. It’s hard to tell.
Báthory may have started her murder spree as early as 1590, and it wasn’t cut short until 1610 when her cousin waltzed into her castle and caught her murderin‘. It’s likely this wasn’t the first time she’d been caught red-bodied, given the whole six hundred victims thing, but the countess had become extra daring in the final years of her campaign, electing to capture and slaughter upper-class girls rather than her standard peasant murder-fodder. It’s not hard to understand; who among the Hungarian aristocracy hasn’t slain a serf or two? But killing one of their own? That’s gauche. Don’t do that.
Even then, the killing wasn’t really tackled or investigated until the King caught word of it. The thing about feudalism is that, in the absence of kings and the aristocrats above them, nobles ruled absolutely. So if someone in Báthory’s domain wanted to report a murder or a missing girl, they’d be reporting it to her. Not a great system. Luckily, we don’t have conflicts of interest in law enforcement anymore.
With Báthory’s penchant for peasant pilfering uncovered, a few of her servants were put on trial and executed. Báthory herself was never officially tried. Instead, her family agreed to lock her in her room forever. She died there in 1614.
In the centuries since, Báthory gained notability both as the world’s most prolific female serial killer and as the supposed inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s no solid evidence for that last one beyond her Transylvanian upbringing and a potential taste for the skincare properties of blood. Still, that lack of evidence hasn’t stopped her from being labeled a vampire.
It’s tempting to engage in myths of bloodbaths and hematophagy to explain the insane amount of pain and death spawned by one bored castle-dweller. It’s easy to want to strip the most vile humans of their humanity, or at least to locate a simple explanation for their commission of evil. Sometimes we grasp at straws. One article I read mused that Báthory’s preference for female victims may have meant she was bisexual. We all know about those bloodthirsty bis.
Regardless, I don’t think Báthory needs to be
Robert Pattinson Dracula for her story to be horrifying. Attending to my personal list of scariest things, a taste for blood doesn’t crack the top ten; if it did, overbearing steakhouse dads would keep me locked in for years past the end of the pandemic. What’s significantly scarier is that Báthory was (potentially) able to kill enough people to fill six Fortnite lobbies (ten Fall Guys lobbies, but that analogy’s less apt) without inspiring so much as an investigation. The political system that presided over the countess’s territory entrusted her with the power and authority to treat her subjects as she wished, and she indulged herself heartily.
The Blood Countess is dead. She died over 400 years ago, not a blood tub in sight. But the world has its share of power to distribute, and a lot of people with an idea of how they’d use it.
- ‘Blood Countess’ in Slovakia: Tourists on the trail of Elizabeth Bathory by John Malathronas for CNN
- Elizabeth Báthory by Richard Pallardy for Encyclopedia Britannica
- Hungarian countesses’ torturous escapades are exposed from History.com
- Was a Hungarian countess the world’s most prolific serial killer? by Josh Clark for How Stuff Works