The Ingrid Pitt column: never let facts get in the way of a good legend

Ingrid tries to find out what lies beneath the legend of Elizabeth Bathory...

The House That Dripped Blood

In the world of serial killers, Countess Erzsebet Bathori stands alone as undisputed Queen. With a reputed 650 bloody deaths of innocent virgin girls on her hands her reputation is secure. In books and films she is vaunted as the Blood Countess, Countess Dracula, The Lady of Gore and many more colourful and exploitative titles. Over the last 400 years her brutal exploits have become more graphic and colourful with each telling. The first time a scribe inked in her ill-famed accomplishments was in 1729. The book was called Tragica Historia and the writer Laszio Tuoczi. He took his account of the life and death of the Countess from the testaments recorded at her trial at Biccse which started in January 1611. Maybe describing it as the Countess’s trial is a bit misleading. She was never actually brought before the court to defend herself. Nor did she have anyone there to speak up for her. What her servants had to say, after being brutalised and tortured, was taken as God’s honest truth.

It all started so well for Erzsebet. She was born with a diamond-encrusted gold spoon in her mouth in Hungary on the 7th August 1560. After that things just got better. Her family was one of the richest and most powerful in Europe and she was on kissing cousin terms with most of the Royal families. She did blot her pristine copy book a little when she seduced a gardener and fell pregnant but she was just whisked off to one of the seven large estates the family owned and the whole sordid affair hushed up. So was the unfortunate gardener. Erzsebet grew up beautiful, intelligent and wilful. Like England’s own Elizabeth l she was well educated and ran her property in a manner unusual for a lady of high birth at that time. At the age of 11 she was betrothed to Count Ferenc Nadasdy and four years later married him. The marriage didn’t interfere with her life much. Ferenc was in it for the money and clout and spent most of his time away from home killing the Turkish invaders.

Life for the young and beautiful Countess was pretty routine and at first she whiled away the lonely hours by a little reading, petite pointe and servant bashing. What else could a lady of quality do? When her husband did appear they had some rumbustious connecting between his drunken bouts of mayhem with his fellow warriors. Everything seemed to be pretty normal until Nadasdy died in 1604 either by a bloody encounter in battle or with a prostitute. With her powerful husband gone, some of the less deferential cousins became a little full of themselves and move in on the grieving widow.

So far the life of the Countess seems to have a firm base in fact. It is from this time that the lurid tales which appear in folk lore, books and films get fertilised. Ferenc had been pretty liberal with Erzsebet’s money and favour and was owed a good deal by various cousins and hangers on. Now they felt that they no longer had the fearsome spouse to deal with they refused to pay their debts. One cousin in particular, Count Gregor Thurzo, a favourite of King Matthias, one of Countess Bathori’s debtors, whispered in a few ears and started the rumour that Erzsebet’s home castle at Csejthe wasn’t the Camelot it was cracked up to be. Matthias liked the sound of that and ordered Thurzo to investigate. It was just what Thurzo wanted to hear. He gathered together his man, practised a saintly demeanour and arrived at Csejthe with all the power of a council official searching dust bins.

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And that is where the legend of Countess Erzsebet Nadasdy-Bathori got kick-started and is still picked over and embroidered to this day. Last week I was asked to appear on a programme for ITV and give my two pennorth about the Bloody Countess. It seemed that because I had played her in a film called Countess Dracula in 1970 I was the nearest thing to an expert they could find ready and willing to work cheap. Luckily I had written a hagiography of her in a book I wrote a few years ago. It was the usual stuff based on Tuoczi’s 1729 book. I thought I had better bone up a bit so that I could get the occasional fact right. It soon struck me that what appeared to be ‘facts’ were anything but.

When cousin Thurzo turned up at the castle his first action was to round up the servants. After keeping them sequestered for a while at the mercy of his villainous men at arms and he had forced statements from them, a trial was arranged with the full co-operation of King Matthias. The trial was a farce. Servants were led into the dock one after the other and without much prompting, through toothless mouths and supported on broken limbs, they vied with each other to describe the heinous crime they had seen their Mistress commit. It was from that dock that the tales of bathing in the blood of virgins, standing naked girls in a freezing courtyard and dousing them with water until they froze to death, the random slitting of eye lids, lopping off of ears, pulling finger nails and every type of sadistic pleasure was generated.

And where was the Countess? Locked up in her castle and guarded by Thurzo’s men. She wasn’t even allowed a representative to speak for her. The verdict, when it came, held no surprises. Most of the witnesses were put to death so that they couldn’t rock the boat at a later date if a more open minded member of the Bathori clan turned up and started to ask awkward questions. The estates owned by the Countess were put under the administration of Count Thurzo by the grateful King Matthias and the Countess herself was locked up in a room in Csejthe castle where she died some months later.

The story is gory enough to have galvanised writers to play variations on the original theme and many new nuances have been added to the story. It is even said that when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula he based the king of the vampires originally on the Countess and Vlad Tepes was only introduced as a role model in later drafts of his manuscript. There have been films galore. Some sticking closely to the transcripts from the trial and many just making the story up as the director went along. In 2007 two films featuring Bathori were made and there are at least another couple due out this year.

The story may be four centuries old but it is as fresh as the next writer pens it and until another high born serial killer with a score topping the alleged 650 virgins Countess Bathori managed to notch up she will retain her tainted status.

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I’ve been invited to a RAF Bomber Command Day at the Heritage site in Purfleet, Essex on Sunday 25th May. I’m told there will be Pilots from WW2 there as well as special exhibitions. Sounds interesting.

And don’t forget to drop in on Those Were The Days.

Ingrid will be back next Tuesday; in the meantime, read her last column here.