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On the trail of the 'Blood Countess' in Slovakia

By John Malathronas, for CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
August 21, 2014, is the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth Bathory's death. She died at Cachtice Castle while under house arrest as history's most prolific murderess. Bathory's life is said by some to have influenced Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula." August 21, 2014, is the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth Bathory's death. She died at Cachtice Castle while under house arrest as history's most prolific murderess. Bathory's life is said by some to have influenced Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula."
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Cachtice Castle: Historic horror house
Cue horror film music
Portrait of Countess Elizabeth Bathory
Torture house turned wine cellar
Bottles of 'Bathory blood'
Commemorating a murderer?
A glimpse into Bathory's life
Bloody past, bucolic present
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's unknown exactly how many girls the Blood Countess tortured and killed. Reports range from 100 to 650 victims
  • She was never convicted of her crimes but was kept under house arrest in Cachtice Castle
  • The Bathory name is now a brand of surprisingly excellent wines called "Bathory Blood"

(CNN) -- With a ruined centuries-old castle looming up on the hill above, the Slovakian village of Cachtice could easily take a starring role in a Gothic horror film.

However, exactly 400 years ago, on August 21, the horror was all too real, as the life of the most prolific female mass murderer of all time -- a noblewoman by the name of Countess Elizabeth Bathory -- came to a grim end.

It's not an anniversary they're likely to celebrate in Cachtice, where Bathory's reign of terror still haunts locals, but for some -- me included -- there's a strange fascination.

In the lovely Slovakian town of Trencin, my friend Martin and I are joined by two guides, Ivan Kralik and Peter Pastier, who work in the local tourism office.

They drive us to the town of Cachtice, 30 kilometers away, recounting the story of the Blood Countess.

The macabre name came from her apparent tendency to bathe in the blood of her victims.

She's said to have believed the blood of virgin girls would maintain her youthful-looking skin.

Bathory's life has been the subject of films, books and online websites -- and is thought by some to have influenced Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula" -- but seems to have been forgotten west of Vienna.

Highborn and unaccountable, she was the absolute ruler of a patch of what is now Slovakia, and with the help of three of her servants sadistically tortured to death between 100 and 650 girls.

We'll never know the exact number.

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Missing daughters

She was married to a nobleman, Ferenc Nadasdy, a Hungarian national hero of the wars against the Turks.

Although there were reported killings before his death in 1604, afterward she seems to have become totally unhinged.

She settled in Cachtice and more and more girls started disappearing from the surrounding villages.

It was said she eventually ran low of girls to satiate her habit and she began to lure victims of higher born families, who began to notice their missing daughters.

The face of a woman who killed more than 100 young girls.
The face of a woman who killed more than 100 young girls.

By 1610, rumors of her horrible deeds had reached the Hungarian king, who sent his second in command, Palatine Georgy Thurzo, to investigate.

In December 1610, Bathory was arrested along with three of her servants, who were tortured and burned at the stake.

She wasn't put on trial but walled-in at Cachtice Castle, where she died on August 21, 1614.

Castle restora