Was a Hungarian countess the world's most prolific serial killer?

By: Josh Clark

Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in prison in Huntsville, Texas, in 1998.
Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in prison in Huntsville, Texas, in 1998.
Pam Francis/Liaison/Getty Images

When it comes to naming the world's most prolific serial killer, some boundaries must be established. As Soviet dictator from 1924 to 1953, Josef Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of citizens who died from starvation and internment in gulags (forced labor camps) [source: BBC]. Adolph Hitler's genocidal bent led to the murders of nearly 21 million people (not including those combatants who died fighting the German army) [source: University of Hawaii].

But these men, and others like them who've issued wholesale execution orders, did not directly murder the people who died under their authority. And to be considered a serial killer, one must have personally murdered three or more people [source: Princeton]. Even under the parameters of this definition, there have been some pretty prolific serial killers.


Henry Lee Lucas confessed to killing hundreds of people, but he was linked only to three to 12 victims (in addition to his mother, whom he beat to death). Lucas said he falsely confessed to other murders because he enjoyed toying with law enforcement [source: New York Times]. Canadian pig farmer Robert Pickton was accused of murdering 26 women. When he was caught, Pickton said that his goal was to kill 50 [source: BBC]. The most prolific serial killer in recent history, Colombian Pedro Lopez, murdered 300 people, mainly young girls. He was freed from prison in Ecuador in 1998 [source: The Telegraph].

Serial killers tend to be men by an overwhelming margin. In fact, there's no definitive profile for female serial killers [source: LSU]. But if history and evidential testimony are correct, a woman is the most prolific serial killer of all time. Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Bathory, a Hungarian countess, is believed to have killed as many as 650 people during the 54 years she lived. And exactly how the world's most prolific serial killer took the lives of her victims has proven grisly fodder for storytellers. Bram Stoker is believed to have been inspired by the countess: His Count Dracula is supposedly a hybrid of Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes and Bathory [source: NNDB].

Find out about some of the legends and facts surrounding Bathory, perhaps the most prolific serial killer, on the next page.

Elizabeth Bathory, the "Blood Countess"

Countess Elizabeth Bathory
Countess Elizabeth Bathory
Courtesy Dennis Bathroy-Kitsz

Elizabeth Bathory, the woman who came to be known as the "Blood Countess," was born into Hungarian nobility in 1560. She is said to have suffered from fits and outbursts of rage -- possibly even epilepsy. From an early age, she witnessed her father's officers torture the peasantry that lived near her family's estate. Most historical analysis of the countess includes young Elizabeth as witness to a captured thief being sewn into the stomach of a dying horse and left to perish [source: King's College].

­This story underscores two major aspects that may have influenced Bathory: exposure to incredible violence and her family's condoning attitude toward it. Accounts depict her penchant for inflicting pain on others and claim that she wo­rked with accomplices. One may have been her husband, Ferencz Nadasdy, and others were members of her court.


Nadasdy married Bathory when she was 15. A soldier, he spent much time away from home. There's speculation that Nadasdy may have taught his wife new torture methods, while other researchers believe he was ignorant of her actions. What's agreed upon is that Bathory practiced most of her crimes in his absence [source: King's College].

Bathory had a penchant for torturing young girls in particular -- historians posit that she was bisexual. The acts she committed ranged from driving needles through her servants' lips and fingernails, to leaving her victims naked in the snow, dousing them with water and letting them freeze to death. One servant girl was beaten by Bathory and an accomplice for stealing a pear. The clubbing was so bloody that Bathory had to change her shirt. The girl was beaten for hours and finally stabbed to death with a pair of scissors [source: McNally].

Bathory's acts have a way of engendering a hybrid of truth and legend. Perhaps the most notorious legend about Bathory is that she bathed in her victims' blood. Inevitably, this led to rumors that the countess was a vampire. This legend was first published in 1720 by a Hungarian priest who interviewed local peasants and read testimony from the trials of Bathory’s accomplices. She reportedly claimed to use blood to keep her skin young -- she wanted to remain beautiful for her husband [source: McNally].

The official testimony of Elizabeth Bathory's murders, which is still extant in Hungarian archives, is both questionable and convicting in nature. Late in 1610, Elizabeth's cousin conducted a raid on Bathory's castle. Inside, there were already dead victims and some imprisoned, supposedly awaiting death. Bathory's accomplices were arrested and put on trial -- she never was. These testimonies still survive.

These testimonies are questionable because they were most likely culled from acts of torture inflicted on Bathory's own accomplices. But the fact that there even were trials regarding Bathory's murders lends some credence to the stories surrounding the woman. From the testimonies, the number 650 was settled upon as her victim count. One witness testified that Bathory kept a registry of her crimes (numbering 650) [source: McNally].

None of this testimony amounted to a trial for Bathory. Instead, she was walled into her room, with just enough space for air and food to pass through. She spent the remaining four years of her life there, until she was found dead on the floor in 1614. Her bloody life, whether exaggerated or factual, had come to an end -- and Bathory entered the realm of legend.

For more information on crime and serial killers, follow the links on the next page.

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