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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Elizabeth Bathory

I've mentioned several times on this blog that one of the best ways to study sociopathy is to learn how serial killers behave when they're not committing murder. What were their relationships like? What was their non-murderous sex life like? What sort of reputation did they have in their community? Were they generally liked, or disliked? Were they charming? Manipulative? Did they commit other crimes? What else did they lie about? How did they use words? What quirks did they have? How surprised were people to find out that they were killers?

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 were 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 is also the question of how many victims there were. Some accounts said as few as 30, though over the years that has grown to 650. (The only "proof" of this latter number is a servant girl who claimed she had seen a diary listing that many, though the diary was never found.) How can there be such a huge discrepancy?

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 "," 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.


Shaun F said...

John - I found that a very interesting read so thanks. And I agree with your assessment - simply based on the fact that she bore four reasonably sound children. Not saying being a good mother is any metric to judge a woman's character by. I'm way too progressive for that.

And this Thurzo character fits the caricature of the conniving aristocracy portrayed by Rowan Atkinson in the 1980s show Black Adder.

Some of the comments on rejected princess were humourous.

John Craig said...

Shaun F --
Thank you.

Not familiar with Black Adder.

I hadn't even realized there were comments after that article, just read them, thanks. One of the commenters said that of Bathory's servants, the one who refused to testify against her had her eyes gouged out, her breasts chopped off, and was thrown into a fire. That would certainly provide a pretty good example to the other servants about which way they should testify.

europeasant said...

Amazon has a streaming movie available with Prime that's titled "Bathory Countess of blood". I put it on my watch list. It stars the beautiful Anna Friel in the lead role.
The Bathory's are a well known family in Slavic Europe.Stephan Bathory was king of Poland at one time.
There was even an ocean liner named after him.Many years ago my father used to talk about taking a trans-oceanic cruise aboard the MS Bathory.

John Craig said...

Europeasant --
I'm surprised that they'd name a boat after the Bathorys given that the most famous one is so infamous (though I don't think she deserves to be).

I get Amazon Prime so I'll have to check out that movie, maybe tonight. I'm sure it's quite lurid and sensationalized, though if she was in fact guilty, I guess it would already be incredibly "sensational."

arthur thurman said...

Off topic but Ozark on Netflix is pretty good as well. 👍

Anonymous said...

A prosecutor out to destroy someone..... that rings a bell.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Arthur --
Thanks, that one is actually already on my watchlist.

John Craig said...

Ed --
Ha, Thurzo was the Mueller of his day.

Anonymous said...

A funny thing about the word "psychopathy" some excerpts from wikipedia:

"In the first decades of the 20th century, "constitutional psychopathic inferiority" had become a commonly used term in the US, implying the issue was inherent to the genetics or makeup of the person, an organic disease. As a category it was used to target any and all dysfunctional or antisocial behavior, and in psychiatric categorization it labeled a broad range of alleged mental deviances, including homosexuality.

Some courts began to develop "psychopathic laboratories" for the classification and treatment of offenders; the term psychopathic was chosen to avoid the social stigma of "lunacy" or "insanity", while emphasizing variance from normality rather than simply a mental hygiene issue."

"After World War I German psychiatrists dropped the term inferiors/defectives (Minderwertigkeiten) and used psychopathic (psychopathisch) and its derivatives instead, at that time a more neutral term covering a wide range of conditions. Emil Kraepelin, Kurt Schneider and Karl Birnbaum developed categorisation schemes under the heading 'psychopathic personality', only some subtypes of which were thought to have particular links to antisocial behaviour."

The funniest thing is I wanted to share after looking at this, is the that "psychopath" itself was used as a politically correct term for "defective", "mindsick" or "lunatic"! Up till the 1940s even.
How it evolved to refer to what we know it as's just funny. Like what happened to the word "boner":
Were you old enough to know about this comic? Or are you not that old?


John Craig said...

Ga --
Hervey Cleckley was (in the 1940's, I think) the first to really define psychopathy, or sociopathy, for what it was. Before that it got mixed in with a whole lot of other irrelevant stuff, as you point out.

I'm 63, so Batman comics predate me, but I never read comics while growing up, so was unaware of that "boner" comic. I was aware of the wrod's other meaning, however.

Anonymous said...

What's the language rating on this blog? I got away with saying "boner", I have gotten away with shit and crap. What words do you prefer to keep unused?

It seems you never not posted one of my comments because of it's content. So I am following the rules.

Have you ever had to not post a comment because it want obscene, offensive (actually offensive), worth censoring, or so disgusting you can't even reply with an argument?


Anonymous said...

On topic: So it didn't evolve so gradually, I will look in Cleckley, maybe he specifically defined it with that term? I suspect not though, some evolution must have taken place from the old meaning into the new, but his defining must have had a hand. I still think the older meaning is found in "psychopathology" (which is not the study of psychopaths, there are no eggs in eggplants likewise).

I imagine the meaning of the word "boner" changed because there a thing that is embarrassing which could happen in public, and that would be real boner. Probably the biggest boner of them all a guy could pull, and it arrogated the term "boner". Shame, since the sound of "blunder" doesn't feel the same.


John Craig said...

Ga --
The only word I've ever asked people not to use on this blog is the n-word; I figure I'm in enough trouble as it is just for being honest about race. And the use of that word never adds to a discussion, but only creates a needless discussion of its own.

As a matter of fact I wrote a post at one point about how silly it is to type "f**k" rather than just say "fuck." (What's the difference?)

I don't think I've ever not posted a comment because it's offensive or obscene or disgusting or critical of me. (There's always an argument to make.) The only comments I don't post are spam from commercial entities. As a matter of fact i wrote another post one time about how silly it is to claim "offense" all the time, and how it's basically a tacit admission that one has lost the argument.

John Craig said...

Ga --
Cleckley is generally given credit as the father of the field. Before him, though, the phrase "moral insanity" had been used, and that's not a bad way of describing sociopathy. But for a long time people assumed that a multiple (read: serial) killer must just be crazy, or psychotic, and they would regularly get crazy and evil confused.

Anonymous said...

A serial killer needs to be sane to be able to plan and get away with it multiple times.
Someone truly psychotic like the greyhound bus guy wouldn't be eating multiple people's heads. He got caught the first time (obviously because he was in the middle of a whole ton of people!) If they are the sort who switch from sanity to insanity, they would still get caught pretty quickly as their would be a pattern to their delusions.

Why did Ted Bundy go uncaught for so long? Was he some masterful genius? Not necesarrily, it's because his victims had little connection to eachother or none, nor a grandiose pattern, he was just doing it for his own pleasure.


John Craig said...

Ga --
Yes, exactly, serial killers have to be sane. But a lot of people can't get their heads around what it means to be a sociopath, the utter lack of decency involved, and prefer to think that anybody who does that must be "out of his mind."