Up a dark alley: 1500 to 1639 – Erzsébet, Clara and Breslau

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This work, like the others in this series, is an essay/article for history buffs and for that I make no apology, in fact it’s aimed at vampire history buffs in particular and, more widely, anyone who has an interest in the “modernity” of the aesthetic of the vampire. I offer to take you on a trip that will be at once both familiar and unknown. I don’t proclaim this to be “scientific”, I don’t proclaim it to be anything other than a fact, information gathering and data presentation thing but the one thing I have believed for my whole life, since as early as I could form a rational and inquisitive focus is that the whole of humankind, and yes I’m including us, has lost something vital and important; some piece of knowledge, some sort of key that opens the lock to “much more than is dreamed of in our philosophies”, our Vampire philosophies and the search for that key is as important and as integral to who and what we are and where we came from, how we came to be, as any of the accumulated information we currently have. Of course, finding a key is only the first part of the dilemma, the real cruncher comes in trying to find the lock it opens.

In pretty much every town in every country in the world there is a main street, our town is no exception. The vampire sub-culture has its place in the global society of the internet, we, the denizens of that sub-culture have our favourite places in the sub-culture kind of like having our favourite pubs, nightclubs and restaurants. We regularly travel “Main Street” to and fro between our destinations and along that route we pass by the main places, the main ‘points of interest and so forth but just like in any other society we sometimes venture into the side streets and we experience the “non mainstream”, we come across enclaves of “differences” and new experiences, we see and visit places that are not “on the beaten track” as it were. Then there are the alleys, the little, shadowy branches that; if Main Street is the artery, are the capillaries in the modern living vampire social body.

Some of these “capillaries” are amazing, some dark, some unsavoury but in essence they all form part of the tapestry of the Vampire today.

Imagine you’re in a strange town, my town and I am your guide.

It is often heard, “the past has nothing to do with the modern concept”, really? Then why are we called vampires? The very word was born to describe exactly what we do albeit singularly referring to blood in the initial instance, and if we are going to use the word then it is my deepest and strongest belief that every nuance of that adopted word is important to the validity of what we know today as the Modern Human Living Vampire.
This article, like the others of the series, is not going to be arguing any of the myriad points of the “why and wherefore” that have been dissected, stitched together, re-dissected, had the internal organs scrutinized before being re-sewn back together… you get my point I hope? No, this article series is to educate on some of the lesser known “lights” in the proverbial darkness.

Seriously, as an old high school history master of mine once remarked, “Open your eyes, history is rich and exciting and intoxicating and she makes a wild mistress.” (c.a. 1974)

Using that as a starting point the most sensible first step is to review the historical events of the time period we are considering.

Figure of Death 1530-1630 (Renaissance) by Unknown German Artist Source: unnaturalist.tumblr.com

Figure of Death 1530-1630 (Renaissance) by Unknown German Artist
Source: unnaturalist.tumblr.com

World (Vampcentric) Timeline 1500 – 1639

1506 Golden Age of Poland begins under Sigismund I and II
1509 Portuguese trading empire established at Goa, South India
1509 Henry VIII succeeds to English throne
1513 Juan Ponce de Leon claims Florida for Spain
1513 James IV of Scotland killed by English forces at Flodden
1513 Niccole Machiavelli writes “The Prince”
1515 Francis I of France takes Milan and much of Northern Italy
1516 Hapsburg Charles V now king over Germany, Netherlands and Spain
1516 Sir Thomas More writes “Utopia
1519 Death of Leonardo da Vinci (artist and scientist)
1521 Charles V divides Hapsburg Empire between Austria and Spain
1522 Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition for Spain first to circumnavigate the globe
1526 Turks under Suliman the Magnificent take Hungary
1527 Charles V retakes Northern Italy from France and sacks Rome
1529 Turks lay siege to Vienna
1533 Ivan IV (the Terrible) crowned Tsar of Russia
1534 Spaniard Ignatius Loyola founds Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
1535 Dissolution of English monasteries ordered by Henry VIII
1535 Hapsburg Charles V drives Turks back from Hungary
1540 Spaniard Franciso de Coronado explores North America
1541 Death of Paracelsus (physician and alchemist)
1549 “Book of Common Prayer” issued
1553 Lady Jane Grey briefly made Queen by the Earl of Northumberland
Mary succeeds to English throne and restores Catholicism and commences the systematic persecution of Protestants by “Bloody Mary
1555 Peace of Augsburg – allows choice of religious denomination
1560 Elizabeth (Erszebet) Bathory born
1562 Sir John Hawkins starts British slave trade in West Indies
1564 Death of Michelangelo (artist)
1575 Elizabeth Bathory marries Count Ferenc Nadasdy
1576 Plague runs rampant in Venice killing as many as 50,000 people, nearly a third of the city.
1577 Sir Francis Drake begins voyage around world
1582 Gregorian calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII
1584 Boris Godunov temporarily takes control of Russia
1585 Japan unified under dictator Hideyoshi
Leo Allatius (also known as Leone Allacci) generally acknowledged as the first modern author to write a book on vampires, was born on the Greek island of Chios

1589 Henry IV first Bourbon King of France
1590 In a famous Scotch witch trial it was proved that in the preceding year, on October 31 – ‘All Hallow E’en’, a group of more than two hundred persons had assembled to conduct ‘witchcraft rites’ at the old haunted church of North Berwick
1591 The tale of the Shoemaker of Breslau, a man who, after having committed suicide was buried in a hurry by his family after they concealed the manner of his death. A short time after burial it was reported that a “ghostly likeness” of the man was harassing people around the town. The alleged harassments grew worse and worse over the next few months.
1592 With the ‘visitations’ by the Shoemaker of Breslau reaching unparalleled heights, and allegedly resulting in actual injury to some witnesses, the decision was taken to exhume the body which exhibited no sign of decay but was reportedly found to be in excellent condition, even down to the growth of new skin on the feet. Neither exhumation, nor re-burying the corpse under a gallows, helped with the problem and so it was ordered that the corpse should have its head and feet cut off. (Barber, Paul: Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality )

1597 Clara Geisslerin was a 69-year-old widow in the town of Gelnhausen, Germany. Accused of witchcraft amongst other charges which included grave-robbing, murder, and consorting with demons. Under torture (by thumbscrews and the rack), she confessed to sexual relations with demons in the form of animals and to drinking the blood of sixty children that she had killed. She also named twenty other women who she said were guilty.

Also, in 1597 the treatise Demonologie by King James appeared. The treatise expressed the view that vampiric spectres were not the souls of the dead but demons masquerading as deceased persons.

1600 British East India Company founded
1603 Tokugawa period – feudal Japan finally unified and pacified. In England the Black Plague killed around 38,000 people in London.
1603 Scottish James VI made English James I – first Stuart king
1605 Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot against James’ anti-Catholic laws
1606 Dutch explorers land on Australian mainland
1607 First permanent British settlement founded in Virginia, North America
1608 Permanent French colony founded in Quebec by Samuel de Champlain
1610 Elizabeth Bathory arrested December 29th. Also, in this year, Leo Allatius finishes writing the first modern treatment of vampires, “De Graecorum hodie quirundam opinationabus”
1611 “Authorized Version” of Bible printed in Britain. Also, in 1611, Elizabeth Bathory sent to trial and convicted of 650 offences. Sentenced to life in prison. According to a member of the clergy, sent to observe the trial, in evidence given at her trial it was revealed she often “bit” her victims whilst torturing them. However, there was no direct testimony that she drained her victims’ blood to bathe in.
1613 Michael Romanov (first of dynasty) becomes Tsar of Russia
1614 Elizabeth Bathory dies in confinement.
1616 Death of William Shakespeare (dramatist and poet)
1620 Puritan Pilgrim Father establish colony in New England
1622 Ludovici Maria Sinistrari born in Pavia, Italy. (died 1701)
A Franciscan, Sinistrari included the matter of vampirism in a study of demonic phenomena entitled De Daemonialitate, et Incubis, et Succubis. He offered a theological interpretation of them that stood far from the contemporary rationalism and enlightenment that emerged in the following century. He considered vampyres as creatures that had not originated with the accepted Christian creationist theories. He surmised that while they, the vampyres, had a rational soul equal to humans their corporeal dimension was of a completely different and perfect nature. In saying this he enforced the idea that vampyres were creatures that paralleled human beings rather than being opposite, chthonious, underground beings.
1628 Petition of Rights establishes Parliament’s rights over King’s in England
1629 Charles I dismisses Parliament and rules alone. The “Italian Plague” (Black Death) breaks out and continues through to 1631.
1639 East India Company establishes city of Madras.

(Additional Timeline material courtesy http://www.lukemastin.com/history/ )

Indeed, this historical period provided a rich tapestry as a backdrop to the propagation of the vampire folklore and superstitions. Tales of horror, tales of gore, tales of sinister events accompanied by little understood natural occurrences were more than enough to have people of the day looking to the dark corners for whatever grim demons might lurk there.
Characters such as “The Shoemaker of Breslau”, Clara Geisslerin and the infamous Countess Erzebet (Elizabeth) Bathory created their own legends during their lifetime. The vampire was afforded a serious consideration in the pioneering researches of Sinistrari and, of course, the first large scale occurrences of “The Black Death”, or “The Plague”, all added together to foster and enforce the concepts of vampirism in the majority of minds.

Img source: http://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/plague.htm

Img source: http://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/plague.htm

For our immediate purposes, that is the following of the ‘vampire trail’, we will, primarily, concern ourselves with three events:

Copy of the original portrait of Erzsébet Báthory ca.1585 (disappeared in the 1990s).

Copy of the original portrait of Erzsébet Báthory ca.1585
(disappeared in the 1990s).

Firstly we can’t help but be looking into the many, and varied accounts and interpretations, of the life and times of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (Báthory Erzsébet in Hungarian; 7 August 1560 – 21 August 1614) She has been afforded, in contemporary times, the cognomen of “The Blood Countess” and, perhaps a little imaginatively, “Countess Dracula”. There is no doubt that over the course of her marriage to Count Ferenc Nadasdy, she was responsible for the death of a huge number of people. The speculation of the time of her trial placed the number of her victims at somewhere between 300 and 650 persons although she, and her co-defendants, were only actually tried on 80 counts of criminal conduct.

It was commonly reported that she was responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of young women, mainly young girls from the villages about her estates that were lured into her employ with promises of good wages. The problems began to become an embarrassment, however, when she extended her ‘hunting’ to include the daughters of well to do families who were sent to her, ostensibly, to learn matters of courtly etiquette. Also, according to author Katherine Ramsland,
“…and women in some of the villages actually conspired to provide girls for money or small gifts. If the girls did not come willingly, they were beaten into unconsciousness and carried off.” (Lady of Blood: Countess Bathory )

Eventually, Ramsland writes, in a move sanctioned by the King of Hungary,
After the murder of one of such young lady in 1609, which Erzsébet tried to stage as a suicide, the authorities finally decided to act. This suspicious incident, coupled with the many other rumors over the years, required action. The king supported it, because Erzsébet had been asking him to repay funds he had borrowed from her husband, and if the rumors proved true and she was arrested, he would be free of his debt. In other words, everyone would win…except the lady in question.
During the Christmas season in 1609 (or 1610), King Mathias II of Hungary, sent a party of men to the massive Castle Csejthe.”
The party had to be careful and stealthy in their approach for the Countess was related to Princes and former Kings, very well placed at Court and would make a seriously dangerous political enemy if the reports turned out to be false,” for, as Ramsland goes on to recount, “she was the cousin of Prime Minister Thurzoa member of the very party that approached her imposing domain that night with such stealth and trepidation.”

Unfortunately, during the subsequent searching of the dwelling, they found masses of evidence of her crimes from skeletal remains, mutilated corpses, severely injured and maimed captives and all manner of atrocities visited upon her innocent victims.

Sabine Baring-Gould, an English author and folklorist of considerable status during the 19th Century, used the tale of Erzsébet as an example of his own view of a certain psychological phenomenon. He wrote,
I have seen an accomplished young woman of considerable refinement and of a highly strung nervous temperament string flies with her needle on a piece of thread, and watch complacently their flutterings”, he wrote in 1865. “Cruelty may remain latent till, by some accident, it is aroused, and then it will break forth in a devouring flame. He says that the passion for blood follows the same pattern. We have no conception of the violence with which they can rage till circumstances occur which call them into action…
(The Book of Were-Wolves, being an account of a terrible superstition – 1865 – ?)

So, was Báthory actually a contemporary “vampire”? At the time of her trial it was the testimony of witnesses that she indulged in “biting” many of her victims but there was no direct evidence or testimony that she actually drank their blood, nor yet drained it to bathe herself in. It would seem that despite her popular reputation The Countess was actually a sadistic and, quite possibly, a psychotic murderer but not a contemporary practicing sanguine vampire. Indeed, it was only following her death, perhaps as long as one hundred years after that the tales of her “bathing” in blood actually surfaced and took hold. It would seem then that any such accounts must be held to be “suspect” at the very least.

American author and a professor of Russian and East European History at Boston College, a contemporary and colleague of Radu Florescu, Raymond T McNally was an American author and a professor of Russian and East European History at Boston College made a journey to the region to examine the accounts and, ostensibly, the court records and he discovered that although none made mention of bathing in blood, some did indeed recall her penchant for biting some of her victims. Father Laslo Turóczi had written about her in his historical account of Hungary, published in 1744, more than a century after she had died and probably because the Catholic Church benefited from dramatic tales of werewolves, witches, and vampires to aid in strengthening the doctrines about God and Satan, his account during an era when werewolves and witches were being discovered and executed, must also be suspect.

In her book “Murderesses in German Writing, 1720-1860: Heroines of Horror”,
Susanne Kord notes that;
One enduring legend is that Erzsėbet had slapped a servant girl one day, got blood on her hand, and after washing it off found that it made her skin look younger. Alchemists apparently assured her that this was a sign of her nobility, so to restore her waning beauty, she made a practice of bathing in virginal blood.”

This entire concept seems to have been introduced in 1795 by Wagener, when he (trans. by S. Baring-Gould) wrote: “Elizabeth was wont to dress well in order to please her husband, and she spent half the day over her toilet. On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in her head-dress, and as a recompense for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spurted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been.”
Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (7 August 1560 – 21 August 1614) Hungarian noblewoman, sadistic and psychotic mass murderer but contemporary vampire? No, not in any credible source of information I have been able to locate anyway.

Of greater interest to the student of Vampire matters must be the tale of “The Shoemaker of Breslau”. (Breslau, Poland, once the Capital of Lower Silesia)

In 1591 the strange tale of The Shoemaker of Breslau came to light. It was the tale of a man who, after having committed suicide by slitting his own throat was cleaned and prepared by his wife before being buried in a hurry by his family. Naturally, given the manner of his death at the time they were most anxious to conceal the manner of his death. However, it is alleged that a short time after the burial it was reported that a “ghostly likeness” of the shoemaker was harassing people around the town. The alleged harassments grew worse and worse over the next few months.
In the following year, with the ‘visitations’ by the shoemaker reaching great heights indeed, and supposedly resulting in actual injury to some witnesses, the not; at the time, unreasonable decision was taken to exhume the body which allegedly showed no signs of decay but was discovered to be in “excellent” condition, even down to the growth of new skin on the feet. Neither exhumation nor the subsequent re-burial of the corpse under a gallows, helped with the problem and thus it was that the remains of the shoemaker had its head and feet cut off before being interred once more. (Ref: Barber, Paul: Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality)

It would seem then that what we have here is a quite straightforward, classic and consistent case of a revenant coming back from the dead and, given the manner of the shoemaker’s death, a matter that was certainly proscribed as one sure way to create a vampire. However, what were the hallmarks of the actual “appearances”? What was the nature of the “actual injury” reported to have occurred? Were victims drained of blood? Beaten by phantom fists? How is it that The Shoemaker became an honest-to-goodness Vampire?
English Philosopher and rationalist theologian of the Cambridge Platonist school, Henry More detailed this ‘true’ story in his book, Antidote to Atheism. More was highly regarded in his field of study and his works carried a great deal of weight.

Vampiro atacando cristão – Século XV-2 “Vampire attacking a Christian” – reproduction of a 15th Century German wood carving

Vampiro atacando cristão – Século XV-2
“Vampire attacking a Christian” – reproduction of a 15th Century German wood carving

The possibility that the dead could rise from their graves was always present in the worldview at the time and the barely, if at all, understood process of decay – the physiological changes in the recently deceased was, without any doubt, a deciding factor in identifying buried remains as a revenant, or more probably, a vampire. ‘Revenant’, originated between 1820-30; and is a French noun which refers to a ghost.  [noun use of present participle of revenir to return, equivalent to re- re- + ven (ir) to come (< Latin venīre) + -ant –ant] a term which English-language scholarship appropriated from the French verb ‘to return’ and which describes a particular classification of ghost. These “revenants” are essentially the same, basic phenomenon: fleshy, pestilent corpses which harassed the living. The suicide of the Shoemaker of Breslau is a stereotypical example of a revenant/vampire attack and the various perceptions and reactions involved in the case of a so called ‘bad’ death. Suicide was considered especially polluting requiring further ritual and extra effort to keep the corpse contained as well as heal the social grief and damage thus restoring peace, both practical and spiritual, to the community.
In his book, The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved, Colin Wilson makes reference to both Barber’s account of this story (drawn from the 1868 Prussian folklore collection of Grasse) and More’s Antidote to Atheism. More details come to light in making such comparisons and we discover that the activities of the ‘revenant’, at their height, consisted of “climbing into bed with people and squeezing them so hard that it left the marks of its fingers on their flesh.” Nasty, mischievous and downright annoying I would imagine but how does this relate to a diagnosis of vampirism?

Nevertheless, following the handing down of the official order the exhumation went ahead on April 18, 1592 and several observations were apparently made that were remarkably consistent with other reports of vampire activity. It was noted that the body was both “complete and undamaged by decay but ‘blown up like a drum’.” Other points were noted, especially about the feet having peeled and a newer, purer and stronger skin having grown beneath the old. During subsequent attempts to quell the troublesome ‘ghost’ it was reported that when the second exhumation went ahead, and the body opened up, the heart was discovered to be, “as good as a freshly slaughtered calf.”
Following the proscribed removal of the head and feet, the immolation of the remains on a bonfire of wood and pitch and the casting of the ashes into the river, the ‘ghost’ troubled no one anymore. The thing that caught my attention here was the constant references to the “ghost”, a term which, in my mind can’t be translated easily into “vampire”. Nevertheless, an intriguing story that highlights the previously mentioned “worldview” of death, burial and beyond.


A much more striking tale, and one which undoubtedly bears the more expected hallmarks of vampirism, surfaced in the year 1597.

Clara Geisslerin was a 69-year-old widow in the town of Gelnhausen, Germany. Accused of witchcraft amongst other charges which included grave-robbing, murder, and consorting with demons. She also named twenty other women who she said were guilty.
In the volume “History of the German people at the close of the middle ages” (pp. 491-493), Johannes Janssen recounts;
Clara Geisslerin of Gelnhausen, widow of a day labourer and 69 years of age, had been denounced by a condemned witch as ‘a prostitute who was in league with three devils and who had dug up from their graves several hundreds of innocent children and murdered numbers of people.’ After the application of the thumbscrew all sorts of questions were asked her, but, ‘hardened by the devil she stubbornly persisted in her denials’. When, however, ‘her feet were crushed and her body stretched out to a greater length she screamed piteously and said all was true that they had asked her; she drank the blood of children whom she stole on her nightly excursions, and she had murdered as many as sixty;

This description and account of processes of “law” seem to be most consistent, in content, with the times and the accused’s actions can be held to be consistent with the concept of the Albanian shtriga (Latin: strix, Italian: strega; compare also Romanian: strigă and Polish: strzyga) which is ‘a vampiric witch’ in traditional Albanian folklore that sucks the blood of infants at night while they sleep, and then turns into a flying insect (traditionally a moth, fly or bee.) The shtriga is often pictured as a woman with a hateful stare (sometimes wearing a cape) and a horribly disfigured face. The male noun for shtriga is shtrigu or shtrigan.’

That is also assuming, of course, she was confessing to actual activities and not just seeking a way out of her torture and suffering. Obviously we can’t be absolutely certain but this particular story does provide insight into a more contemporary account that has definitive vampiric overtones and thus the elusive thread, that faint ‘trail of breadcrumbs’, is continued.



Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. Barber, Paul.
Lady of Blood: Countess Bathory. Katherine Ramsland
The Book of Were-Wolves, being an account of a terrible superstition – 1865. Sabine Baring-Gould
Murderesses in German Writing, 1720-1860: Heroines of Horror. Susanne Kord. May 2009, Cambridge Studies in German. Cambridge University Press. ISBN-10: 0521519772 ISBN-13: 978-0521519779.
Antidote against Atheism. Henry More. 1655, William Morden , Cambridge.
The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved, Colin Wilson
History of the German people at the close of the middle ages. Janssen, Johannes. (pp. 491-493)


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