Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stuff: Consider the bloodbath.

Because I'm a horror blogger, I don't feel weird saying that I've been pondering a bloodbath. Specifically, I've been pondering the claim that the Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Báthory Erzsébet in Hungarian) bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and beauty. I've just completed The Blood Countess, the Andrei Codrescu. This literary shot of, literally, blood-soaked Eastern European history has given me a curious appreciation of one of Eastern Europe iconic historical monsters. But let's just talk bloodbaths today.

From a historical standpoint, the reality of the countess's legendary bloodbaths are ill supported by the record. During the countess's semi-secret trial, which lasted from 1610 to 1611, Báthory's accusers compiled testimony from more than 300 witnesses. The court notaries were all-to-happy to record any scrap of evidence that Báthory was a psychopathic witch. Their records are full of descriptions of brutal torture and savage sexual abuse. And yet, despite the value such a story to prosecutors, the court records are entirely silent on the issue of bathing in blood.

The first written record of the famed Báthory bloodbaths appears in a 1729 tract titled Tragica Historica. This tract, written by a Jesuit scholar, is the earliest written account of the case. However, the scholar had no access to the court notaries' documentation (the witness testimony was not released until 1765 and was not published until 1817). Where this scholar heard these accusations is unclear. Perhaps, with their obvious themes of feminine vanity and blasphemy, the Jesuit simply made up the stories to make an instructive example to the faithful out of the Protestant countess's downfall.

From an anatomical standpoint, a bloodbath seems no more likely. First and foremost, there's simply not that much blood in the human body. The average human contains about 1.3 gallons of blood; that is just slightly more fluid than comes in a large jug of milk. That's plenty to splash over yourself, but hardly enough to fill a tub with. One could assume, of course, that Báthory used the blood of more than one victim per bath. (Claims of the total number of victims she claimed vary wildly, from the low 30s to more than 650. The latter number is unlikely, but, for our purposes, it the range allows the distinct possibility of multiple victims.) Let’s assume Báthory had a fairly small tub to bathe in and that she was trying to get away with using as little blood as possible, so we’ll say she needs 25 gallons.

By my way of thinking, the biggest hurdle Báthory would need to overcome to actually bathe in human blood is the conflict between the time it would take to desanguinate an entire human body and the speed with which blood congeals. Congeal-rates are hard to pin down because exposure to oxygen is a factor, so every specific container has a slightly different congeal-rate. But we can conduct a thought experiment. Just like breathing a fine red wine, the congealing of blood is a product of the surface area available for air/blood interaction. How much air touches the surface of the blood has an impact on how fast the blood congeals. In this case, we've got a scenario in which we have a deep reservoir of blood with a relatively small surface area exposed to the air. Unable to conduct any real experiment, I propose that an analogous scenario happens when people make blood pudding. To make blood pudding, you cook the blood in a large metal pot. Though the size is off, the proportion of surface are to depth isn't bad. According to a random selection of blood pudding recipes, cooks report that serious congealing begins in about 5 minutes. By 10 minutes, the blood congeals into solid lump. Again, a bath tub full of blood would be much larger and take more time, but even if we triple the congealing time, we're making a mess of this whole thing in about a quarter of an hour. Let's be generous and take an outside figure. Our hypothetical blood bath becomes a gooey, clumpy, gravy-like mess at the half hour mark.

So, how long does it take to desanguinate somebody? That's an interesting problem. First, desanguinating somebody is actually really, really hard to do. Even if you have a Hostel II scenario, in which a living victim is upside down and their heart is helping pump the blood out, only about four pints of human blood will leave the body before the person dies and the heart stops beating. With modern technology, you can pump the blood out yourself, but the process is not quick. With the tech Báthory would have had at her disposal, the time and effort increases greatly. And time is not on her side. Assuming you go low-tech, for each victim, you're only getting about half a gallon of blood every five minutes. Done serially, you'd have congealing problems before you got even three gallons. Theoretically, one could try to drain all the victims in parallel, but then you'd need an ever-larger draining pan, which would mean an increased congeal-rate as the surface are increased air/blood interactions.

Just taking into account these issues, we can see that truly bathing in blood would have been a massive undertaking. It would have involved at nine least victims, all extensively prepped. It would have required a pair of butchers that trained for the event. None of that would have been impossible, mind you. But it seems, given what an elaborate and not especially secret undertaking it would had to have been, unlikely that nobody in the voluminous court records would have mentioned it. Considerably less ornate and private instances of sadism made their way into the record.


Heather Santrous said...

Could it be that "bathing in blood" is taken to literally? Instead of being in a tub full of blood, maybe the simple act of rubbing blood over her body would have been considered bathing in it. Just a thought.

Ha! Wumbear as my word verification. Funny words at times.

Scrymarch said...

If she's willing to put that much time in to preparation, maybe she could find a natural anticoagulant to slow the glopping process down. Google says purple grapes have a bit. You could also bulk it out using that ingredient without interfering with, you know, the look of the thing. Might have interfered with the diabolical essence of the though. Please consult your alchemist before trying at home.

CRwM said...


So you're suggesting some sort blood spritz, rather than a bath proper. That's certainly a possibility. That's essentially what the Báthory-inspired character in Hostel II does.

It should be noted, however, that the written description of the countess's baths state that she filled a tub (size unknown) with blood in order to bathe her whole body.

CRwM said...


Anticoagulants are a novel idea. She was well educated and interested in science (mostly astronomy, but she may have learned some medicine.) Perhaps she used some of that medical knowledge to administer an anticoagulant.

Hungary used to be a major exporter of medicinal leeches. She could apply leeches to the victims. She'd lose no more than a teaspoon per leech, but the leeches would inject a thinning agent into the victim's blood.

zoe said...

that is definitely the strangest thought experiment i've ever taken part in...fascinating post, the accusation itself and the experiment that follows. thanks!

cattleworks said...

Really neat post!
Just wanted to say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays... and I'll have to, unfortunately, refer you to my comment in Heather's latest post for further explanations, because it's not only getting late, but I'm also typing with one hand, which translates further to typing with one finger.
But I'll be back! Probably after the weekend!
And I'll have to check out that book as well.

Sasquatchan said...

Leave it to science to debunk the myths.. Now aside from the technical challenges of actually getting that much blood, why would it actually keep you young ?

CRwM said...


I'm so sorry that you're on injured reserve, amigo.

If you send me an address, you can have my copy of Blood Countess. I know you sent it before, but I'm a lame. I have no excuse.

CRwM said...


Nobody says it kept her young. They just say that she thought it kept her young.

According to legend, she was beating a servant girl. She was smacking her so hard that she split the girl's skin and blood got on either her face or hand, depending on the version. The blood was absorbed by the skin and, where the blood had been, the countess's skin was white and soft. So she thought, hmmmm . . .

And the rest is, as they say, allegation and bad history.

cattleworks said...

I'll shamelessly take you up on your offer!
Tell you what: I have something I've been meaning to send YOU for over a year, so maybe this'll get me off my fat ass to do it!
I'm lamerier!
I'll send you my address that way, how's that?

PS: I got a little tired of listening to Christmas music during my last leg of wrapping presents tonight, so I popped SANTO AND BLUE DEMON VS. COUNT DRACULA AND THE WOLFMAN into the DVD player. Figured you'd appreciate that!

Feliz Navidad, stud!