The Modern Justice of Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth BathoryHere is a little bit of trivia that I didn’t know: when Billie Burke (who has a birthday today) played Glinda the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz, she was 55 years old. I suppose that little voice of hers makes her seem younger. And it isn’t like we get any closeups. Regardless, she was a huge star, especially on Broadway. She had quite a career. But I decided that I had to talk about a really vile person for today’s birthday.

On this day in 1560, Dick Cheney, I mean, Elizabeth Bathory was born. Between 1590 and 1610, she is thought to have tortured and murdered 650 girls. She was a countess in a very powerful family in the Kingdom of Hungary. She was married at the age of 15 but didn’t have any children until the age of 25, when she popped out 7 babies rather quickly. Maybe something snapped in her, because this was roughly the time that she started her killing spree.

With the help of at least four servants, young women were tricked or abducted to wherever Bathory was—she apparently did her torturing in various locations. According to testimony, initially the victims were peasant girls who were offered jobs at Bathory’s wedding home, Csejte Castle. But you know how it is: there are only so many peasant girls available. After a while, she started preying on “lesser gentry.” Think of police abuse: as long as it happens to the poor, it doesn’t matter. When it happens to the middle class, there is grumbling. When it happens to the rich, well, things change.

By 1602, it was already widely known what Bathory was doing. At that point, a Lutheran minister started publicly accusing her and also filing complaints in Vienna. At that point, the authorities took notice and sprang into action—eight years later. Bathory and four servants were arrested in 1610. After the trial, all the servants will executed. One, who had not cooperated had “her eyes gouged out and her breasts removed before being burned at the stake.” Two servants who did cooperate had “their fingers ripped off their hands with hot pincers” before being burned at the stake. And the last servant who was thought to have been bullied by the others was simply beheaded.

Bathory, of course, was never brought to trial. It was thought that it would look bad for the Hungarian aristocracy. So she was placed on house arrest until she died four years later. I think the whole story encapsulates human culture. The servants were largely powerless, so they were tortured and killed by the authority of the state. This is no different than Bathory’s torture and murder of her peasant and “lesser gentry” victims. At the same time, the state didn’t really care about the victims. What Bathory was doing was widely known for a decade before the authorities did anything. In the end, they pat themselves on the back, torture and kill the politically weak and ignore the crimes of the politically powerful. It would be one thing if anything had changed over the last 400 years. But the basic dynamics are the same.

Happy birthday Dick Cheney, I mean, Elizabeth Bathory!

3 thoughts on “The Modern Justice of Elizabeth Bathory

  1. While I totally agree with today’s parallels, I would like to suggest that Elizabeth Bathory’s case is not that clear. Here is a bit of reading: http://www.elizabethbathory

    It might be that she was actually innocent at best or that the claims of her evilness was largely exaggerated and that she killed a few people at worst.

    We do not know for sure and we will not know. I studied quite a bit Bathory’s case, even going to view the manuscripts of that day and there is nothing to suggest that she was a serial killer. However, people were cruel and a human life was valued less back then (or maybe it is not valued that much today either)

  2. @Diana – Thanks for adding that. I was aware that some have argued for her innocence. I try to keep the birthday posts as simple as possible, which was really hard today with Zapata. Bathory’s story is missing the critical element for a good narrative: a motive. Other than that she was a psychopath, what was the point of all that torture and murder? If she was innocent, it actually makes for a better narrative: an aristocratic power struggle where servants were tortured and murdered for the sake of someone gaining some marginal power benefit. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with what I know about the counterarguments. I’ll check out the link if I can bear it.

    Thanks again!

  3. I just read the article and it is quite good:

    [url=http://www.elizabethbathory…]Countess Bathory’s case-Alternate version[/i]

    It actually makes more the case that we just don’t know. It also dismisses a lot of the silliness that is often reported, such as the idea (not mentioned for a hundred years after) that she bathed in the blood of her victims. I didn’t include any of these kinds of things, because they are so clearly fiction.

    The article offers another possibility that Bathory was framed because she was a strong woman. But the basis of this is a bit of a problem because she was being publicly accused two years before her husband died. However, I don’t see why she can’t both have been a psychopath (I mean that in a clinical sense and not in the "crazed killer" sense.) who was finally brought to justice because the power elite didn’t like the "uppity woman." At that time throughout much of the world, the aristocracy could do anything they wanted to peasants.

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