Inevitably, a sociopath's character informs every aspect of his life. Sometimes, to the people who know them, that character becomes clear only in retrospect. But no sociopath can hide his true nature forever.
Elizabeth Bathory, 1560-1614, is at the top of virtually every list of prolific serial killers. She is generally said to have killed roughly 600 young girls. Many of us have heard the story about how she believed bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her skin young.
It had never occurred to me to doubt the story -- it was always just a bit of ancient history I had unthinkingly accepted at face value. But when I read about Bathory on Wikipedia before writing the previous post, I was struck by the fact that there was nothing about her, other than the horrific crimes she was accused of, which indicated sociopathy.
Bathory didn't show any of the usual signs of deceit and subterfuge and manipulation, nor did she have a trail of broken relationships. She gave birth to a child at age 13 (thanks to a local peasant boy), which must not have pleased her parents. But after that she was married to the same man for 29 years, until his death, and bore four more children, all of whom seemed to go on to live relatively normal lives. She was well educated, and fluent in four languages. While her husband was away at war, Elizabeth was responsible for managing the business affairs and running the estate.
None of this proves Bathory's innocence, of course, but it's a little surprising that she appears so stable and responsible.
More to the point, the methods of torture of young girls are both extremely sexual and extremely varied: some had needles poked into them, some were stripped naked and covered with honey and left outside so the ants and flies and bees would get to them. Some were frozen to death, and some were burned to death. A few supposed had red hot skewers put into their vaginas. Some were starved, some had limbs chopped off, some were forced to eat their own body parts, and some were supposedly cannibalized by Bathory herself.
All of this sounds much, much more like the work of a male serial killer. The fact is, female serial killers are extremely rare, and those who kill for sexual reasons are almost nonexistent. The few female serial killers there have been have either been in thrall to their male serial killer partner, or they are nurses who want to be able to subsequently "save" their patients in order to look heroic, or they do it for money, like Aileen Wuornos.
Also, bear in mind that serial killers who kill for sexual reasons always kill the objects of their desire. There has never been a male homosexual serial killer who went around killing women, or a heterosexual who went around killing men. Bathory bore a child to a local peasant boy when she was 13, was married to the same man for 29 years, and reportedly took male lovers during his long absences. There is no record of Bathory having been a lesbian. So it makes no sense that she would take a sexual pleasure in torturing young girls to death.
Also, the sheer number of methods of torture make one wonder. The reason FBI profilers are usually successful is precisely because these killers have a profile. And their killings almost always have a specific signature. Some serial killers prefer strangulation, others prefer to slowly knife their victims to death. Each has a specific technique he prefers. If Elizabeth Bathory was in fact guilty of all that she was accused of, she would have employed far, far more variety than any other known serial killer.
And many of the more sensational stories about her, such as the one about how she liked to bathe in the blood of virgins, didn't appear until a century after her death.
It's actually the enormity of the crimes, and the infinite variety of despicable acts she was accused of, which in a roundabout way point to her possible innocence.
Back then, people didn't know about serial killers. In Bathory's day, they believed in werewolves and that some women consorted with the Devil. When people misbehaved, it was often seen as the work of the Devil.
There were evidently some dead and mutilated bodies, however, so the question remains, if Elizabeth was innocent, who was guilty?
Bathory's husband died in 1604, when she was 44, and he entrusted her well-being to Gyorgy Thurzo. Thurzo also happened to be the man who prosecuted her for her supposed crimes.
I found this article, on a site called "Rejectedprincesses.com," whose author has actually read many of Bathory's letters. He, too, is convinced of her innocence. (He includes far more detail about the gory nature of the crimes she was accused of.) He also says that Thurzo was "a known schemer who’d made a career out of backstabbing people."
The article also makes the case, which some historians have made, that there were a number of people with both political and financial motivations to do away with Bathory. (Among these were the King Matthias I, who owed her estate a lot of money.)
Thurzo evidently tortured many of the 300 witnesses -- not just suspects, but witnesses -- who testified against Bathory. Among the more lurid accounts, several witnesses claimed that they had seen her having sex with the Devil.
There was never an official trial. And Bathory herself was never allowed to testify. It's all enough to make you doubt her guilt.
Knowing what we know about Thurzo, it seems possible that he was the serial killer. He obviously liked to torture people, and the fact that he was a "known schemer who'd made a career out of backstabbing people" makes him sound sociopathic. Thurzo himself was the one who "discovered" her victims upon entering the castle. And, he would have had two strong motives to convict Bathory: to please his king, and, possibly, to cover up his own crimes. (He had lived in the area for several years prior to the initial accusations against Elizabeth.)
And we now know that some serial killers get a big kick out of pretending to help "solve" their own crimes.
Add to all this the vicious religious conflict at the time between Catholics and Protestants. (Elizabeth was Protestant.)
Some historians have cast doubt on Bathory's guilt before, citing the many reasons various interested parties had in seeing her downfall. To their theories we can add what we've learned about sexual serial killers in the past century: they are almost exclusively male, they generally have one preferred method of killing, and they act like sociopaths all the time, not just when plying their deadly trade.
It's obviously far too late to uncover any further forensic evidence regarding Bathory, so we'll never know for sure. But it's my guess she was innocent.