To celebrate Halloween, and while we are in an in between period, I thought it would be fun to discuss some creepy topics from the Renaissance. Today, we will focus on what real humans terrorized the people of the era.
*Warning: This article will go over some graphic events and crimes that would be described as grotesque in any era. It is not for the faint of heart, with mentions of sexual assault (including those of minors) and other abuses. Proceed with extreme caution.*
If you were raised in the United States, you might know that our “first” serial killer was H.H Holmes with his house of horrors in Chicago during the 1900’s. I remember being told he could do so because people didn’t expect humans to behave in such a manner during that period, but how true can that be? Jack the Ripper was terrorizing England at the exact same time.
Well today we prove that theory is wrong with these serial killers who were active during the Renaissance. Due to the lack of criminal processing that aids modern authorities, these monsters slaughtered people in mass, and often inspired the thriller novels of the 19th century. The first on our list is the only woman, but she is infamous for her deadly beauty habits.
Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was born in 1560 to George VI, Baron of Báthory and Anna Báthory of Somlyó. Both were protestants and high members of Transylvania called a voivode, while her uncle was Stephen Báthory, King of Poland. Her life would have been easy and painless, had it not been for the chronic seizures she suffered from. It was likely epilepsy, but during this period they called it falling sickness. The treatments included rubbing blood of a non-suffer on the lips of the afflicted (it has been argued that this is where her motivation for her later atrocities stemmed from, but we will never truly know). Her family was also a dark presence in her life despite her privileged position. The Báthory’s were known for being cruel, which is a trait she herself inherited. While the claims were never substantiated, several of her close family members were rumored to be involved in witchcraft or satanism. Much of her life is surrounded by rumors, including that she had a child at the age of 13, well before her first marriage.
She married Count Ferenc Nádasdy in 1575 at the palace of Vranov nad Topl’ou. He was lower in rank than her, and she refused to take his name, forcing him to take hers. In 1578, he was named Chief Commander of Hungary and left to fight off the Ottomans. Ferenc chose to leave his wife in charge of his business affairs and the estate. During this, she defended their highly coveted estates and the people inside them. At this point, she intervened on behalf of destitute women who had been raped and attacked by the Ottomans.
Her reputation as a female savior would not last long though. In 1601, her husband became ill, and by 1604 he died. They had shared 29 years together, as well as several children together. He left his family in the care of a man named György Thurzó, who would turn out to be the beginning of her end. As a woman of her status, she was expected to host the daughters of noblewomen and gentry, and train them to become proper ladies of the court. A Lutheran Minister, István Magyari, was suspicious when these girls had a habit of not returning or returning beaten and bruised. He started pointing his finger at the Countess as publicly as possible in the courts of Vienna and Hungary. These accusations were hard to believe, mixed this with her status, and it took the Hungarian feet sometime to muster the courage to investigate her (He began accusing her around 1602). Finally, Matthais II, Holy Roman Emperor, assigned the Palatine of Hungary, who also happened to be György Thurzó, to investigate in 1610. Within a few months, they had 58 witness accounts, which grew to over 300 by 1611. These accounts described the most horrific treatment of her wards. The girls described beatings, mutilation, burning, as well as starving or freezing them to death. Some of the more elaborate tortures included hot tongs, biting their flesh off, or covering them in honey and ants. After they were dead, she was believed to have eaten the girls– some testimonies spoke of her bathing in their blood. We do not know why she did this, though curing her seizures has been a guess, but pop culture has latched onto the idea she did so to remain youthful.
In the end, her reason did not matter, the number of girls she slaughtered was in the hundreds. The highest estimate is around 600, but that has not been confirmed and likely never will be. When Thurzó arrived to arrest her and her four accomplices (Dorotya Semtész, Ilona Jó, Katarína Benická, János Újváry), a dead child greeted him and their current living victim. The trial was conducted in complete secrecy by himself, her son Paul, and her son in laws. Anything public would cause the intimidating house ruling Transylvania embarrassment, which was dangerous. They originally meant to send her to a nunnery, but their efforts to keep it secret were fruitless, and she was instead sentenced to strict house arrest for life where she died. The lack of documentation of her cruelty passed the witnesses who were tortured give pause to if she truly committed these acts or if it was stretched truth in a ploy to destroy her by Thurzó, who coveted her wealth and power. Only time will tell if we discover more evidence, but for now she remains a spine chilling, real world, monster.
Speaking of monsters, our next serial killer is a German known for slaughtering over 900 people: Christman Genipperteinga. Almost nothing is known about his life, but he was born before 1569 and believed to be near Kerpen. Disclaimer, there is a strong chance he didn’t even exist, but I honestly don’t know if that makes his tale more or less disturbing. He discovered a cave in the mountains outside Bergkessel with an excellent view of a well traveled room that was a challenge to find. The cave system was extensive and allowed him to live in relative secrecy as he murdered innocent passersby. He would rob them and keep their treasures in his cave, but unlike his counterparts, he was not rumored to be embowed supernatural powers or to have sold his soul to the devil. He was just an ordinary man capable of distressing cruelty. He would convince people to help him loot and then murder them, and in a 30 year period only one person ever survived him. He kept a woman he found traveling and kidnapped her. He would rape her for several years, murdering any child born of the arrangement. This brave woman would be his downfall. She eventually convinced him to let her go to town after swearing an oath of loyalty. Once in town, she became distressed by the sight of children playing, causing a scene and gallant men to come to her aid. She was reluctant to tell her story, but eventually she relented and confessed everything Christman had put her through and the crimes he committed. The men gave her peas to take back so she could leave a trail. 30 men ambushed him in his sleep, and his cave system was searched. They found his trophies worth over 70,000 Gulden, as well as his diary where he recorded his 964 murders. On trial, he readily admitted to a goal of 1000. He was sentenced to death by breaking wheel. A breaking wheel was a German execution method where the convicted had their bones broken so they could be hoisted onto a wheel where they would be left to die as animals scavenged them, usually while still alive. Genipperteinga was said to last for 9 days on the wheel, as they actively sought to keep him alive to extend his punishment. Did he exist? We will never know, but if he was a piece of fiction, it would be credited to Caspar Herber, who wrote a pamphlet shortly after his supposed death.
Our final serial killer is a man we know for fact to have truly lived, for he achieved fame through his contribution to the Hundred Year War. Not much is known about the birth of Gilles de Rais, other than he was born to Guy II de Montmorency-Laval and Marie de Craon, who both died in 1415. He and his younger brother, René de la Suze, were then raised by their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon. He attempted multiple engagements for his grandson that were much higher than his ranking, and in November 1420 he succeeded. Gilles married the heiress of La Vendée and Poitou, Catherine de Thouars of Brittany. His grandfather continued to push him towards greatness, and by 1425 he appeared in the entourage of King Charles VII of France.
Soon after, he began his military career, where he achieved fame around France. From 1427 to 1435, he served as a commander for the Royal army, often fighting alongside Joan of Arc, as France fought to remove the English from their lands. In 1429, after being chosen for an honored position in the King’s Consecration, he was made Marshal of France. After the Siege of Orleans, King Charles allowed him to add the fleur-de-lys to his own coat of arms. He retired around 1435 though to pursue his personal hobbies.
It was 3 years before he began producing a theatrical performance called Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans. This as well as his extravagant lifestyle led him to sell off his inherited land by his and his wife’s family to support himself, angering his family. It was also around here that he confessed to his murders beginning.
If it is possible to believe, Rais may be more of a monster than Genipperteinga. The Frenchman’s target of choice was children. He would dress them up, give them the meals of their lives, and then do unspeakable things to these children. For everyone’s sanities, I will not go into details, but Rais took pleasure in their absolute pain. He was tried and executed alongside his accomplices. All of them gave spine chilling testimonies to not only the atrocities they forced upon the children, but also the sheer joy he took upon committing the acts. It is also presumed he joined the occult in 1438, but either way he was caught in 1440. Eight years of slaughter and countless victims, Gilles de Rais was finally executed by hanging.
I hope you enjoyed learning some darker, and more twisted legends that arouse from the Renaissance. Our next post will look at some darker fairy tales that this period brought. Follow us on social media for updates on future articles!