About a decade ago, in collaboration with a Romanian scholar, Radu Florescu, Raymond NcNally produced a series of books identifying elements of the Dracula legend in the life of Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476), who was nicknamed "Dracula" ("Little Dragon") and had decisive ways of dealing with his enemies--impaling them on sharpened stakes, or, on one occasion, inviting a large number of them to a banquet, locking the doors and setting the banquet hall on fire. It was colorful material, even in a scholarly treatment, and it associated the dread name with a historically documented member of Eastern European nobility, but something was still missing.
Could there be more than one source for the qualities embodied in the figure of Dracula? After a bit of searching, McNally has come up with an answer that is spectacularly appalling: Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a deep, red blot on one of the oldest and proudest names in Hungarian nobility, a figure as terrifying as any since Genghis Khan (who is listed among her ancestors) and a case study in unbridled sadism. Elizabeth has not been completely unknown until now; she was the subject of several novels in German, French and Czech that labeled her "the bloody countess" and "the lady who bathed in human blood." But never before has she been treated so thoroughly and factually in English.
Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) lived at a time when practices now considered sadistic were a standard part of judicial processes. As a child, she witnessed "cruel and unusual punishments" inflicted on gypsies and peasants who had broken the law, and apparently she developed a taste for such sights while also learning that members of her class could indulge in lethal cruelty with impunity. Torture of criminal suspects was a routine practice--used on Elizabeth's accomplices, for example, when she was brought to justice--and she seems to have tried to use such practices as a cover for her own aberrations. It is reported, for example, that she would punish a servant girl for stealing a coin "in a rather forceful way. The coin was taken from the girl, heated in a fire, and pressed glowing into her hand. She had to hold it until it sizzled a mark in her hand as a sign and warning against potential thievery among the other maids." But this was a fairly standard kind of punishment at the time, and if she had limited herself to such abuses, Elizabeth Bathory would never have passed from history into legend.
Where Elizabeth went beyond the harshness of a violent epoch and into the realm of abnormal psychology was in her routine disciplining of servant girls--the administering of punishments that included humiliation, mutilation and horrible death for real or imagined (in any case, insignificant) shortcomings on the job. Even the rather clinical descriptions used by McNally are horrifying. The punishments (reserved for young girls; Elizabeth seemed to have little interest in the opposite sex except for dynastic purposes) involved stripping them, often before a specially assembled group of male servants, the use of heated irons and pincers, beating them to death and cutting off their fingers. Several witnesses testified that in her frenzy Elizabeth would sometimes bite pieces from a victim's neck or shoulder, though the reports that she drank human blood or bathed in it to preserve her youth may be legendary, like the reports that she served human flesh to her servants.
Estimates on the number of her victims vary widely. The accomplice-witnesses at her two trials gave numbers ranging from 37 to about 50, but they were speaking only of crimes in which they were personally involved and may have deliberately underestimated. One source claims that there was a list in Elizabeth's handwriting that put the number of victims at 650. As time went by and rumors about the harsh conditions of employment in her ladyship's service spread through the countryside, Elizabeth began to have a servant problem. Her recruiters had to go farther and farther from home--and eventually she made her fatal mistake, beginning to select her victims among young women of the minor nobility. Discipline administered to peasants was one thing; molesting women of noble birth was another.
Elizabeth was finally tried in 1611 (without being allowed to appear at the trial in person) and sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of her life (which amounted to only a few years until her death in her prison cell in 1614) chiefly for political and economic reasons--the struggle for control of her vast estates. She left behind her the raw material for a legend--but in this case, the popular imagination could add only minor details to the reality soberly chronicled in legal documents.
McNally tells his horror tale with a fair degree of scholarly objectivity, illustrating it vividly with historic pictures and movie stills. He devotes more than half of his book to a rapid survey of the lore of vampires, werewolves, necrophiles and similar aberrants in legend, literature, psychology and cold history--complete with a lengthy bibliography and a transcript of some of the testimony from Elizabeth's trial. He demonstrates convincingly that she may have been unusual but she was by no means unique--except, perhaps, in the size of her perverted appetities and her unusual opportunity to satisfy them. Her story is extraordinarily repellent. I wish I could also say that it is not interesting.