There is no shortage of cruelty in history. From the birth of civilization to the 21st century, cruelty has been a staple of human society. When one thinks of torture, mass killings, rape, and genocide, one often thinks of war, and one’s mind is often drawn to images of men being the culprits. While this is undeniably the case in the vast majority of instances, there are exceptions where women have been the sociopathic murderers responsible for malicious savagery so awful that it beggars belief. Here are five of the most cold-blooded, ruthless and cruelest women in history, who have also been in positions of authoritative power.
1. Lady Elizabeth Báthory: One of the World’s Cruelest Women
Killing people is one thing. Reveling in blood and mutilation is another. It is what separates a simple murderer from a grotesque butcher who redefines our understanding of depravity.
Born in 1560 on a family estate in Royal Hungary, Elizabeth Báthory was of noble blood. She was the niece of Stephen Báthory, voivode and later prince of Transylvania, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the King of Poland. As such, she was born into nobility and was privileged with education, wealth, and a lofty social rank. Her first taste of the morbidly bizarre was introduced to her during childhood.
As a child, she suffered seizures which may have been epilepsy. Treatment for such bouts included feeding the patient blood and bits of skull from a non-sufferer. Although there is no hard evidence for it, tales of her childhood describe her being introduced to violence and cruelty by her own family. She witnessed brutal punishments and executions carried out by her father’s officers and was influenced by family members involved with Satanism and witchcraft.
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Between the ages of 10 and 12 (sources are unclear), Elizabeth was engaged to Count Ferenc Nádasdy. On 8 May 1575, the couple was married. She was 15 at the time, and he was 19. Before this, however, at the age of 13, Bathory bore a daughter with a peasant boy. The child was given away to a peasant woman whom the Báthory family trusted, and the affair was kept quiet.
Her husband spent much of his time away from home fighting the Ottomans, leaving Elizabeth to run the estate. Her sadism became more pronounced as time wore on. Upon the death of her husband in 1601, her vicious crimes escalated.
Most of her victims were girls between the ages of 10 and 14 and were usually the daughters of lesser gentry who sent their daughters to Bathory’s court to learn etiquette. Among Bathory’s torture methods were using pins to stick under her victims’ fingernails, and covering her victims in honey and leaving them out to be eaten by ants and other insects.
Other methods included whipping her victims with nettles and frequently burning body parts, especially the genitals. After burning her victims, she would dump them in icy water. Many of her victims were tortured to the point of death, some of whom were buried in unmarked locations. Some sources even claim she engaged in cannibalism.
Báthory was eventually arrested in 1610 and put on trial in 1611. With over 300 witness accounts and numerous testimonials, a guilty verdict was assured. A servant girl who claims to have seen evidence in Báthory’s private books stated that her victims numbered 650.
Elizabeth Báthory’s accomplices were executed, and she was confined to a bricked-up room with slits for air and the delivery of food. She was found dead a few years later.
2. Irma Grese: The Cruelest Woman of Nazi Germany
You won’t get much argument by saying those who served in concentration camps lacked a moral compass, but some of the staff in these camps could make the regular camp guards look like angels. Irma Grese was one of them.
Irma Grese was born on 7 October 1923 to Berta and Alfred Grese. 13 years later, upon discovering her husband’s infidelity, Irma’s mother committed suicide by drinking hydrochloric acid. Her sister, Helene, testified at Irma’s trial that she never got involved in fights at school and always ran away when there was danger. Perhaps the victim of bullying, Irma dropped out of school at the age of 14 and worked on a farm and in a shop before studying nursing at an SS convalescent hospital. Here, she was first exposed to brutality in the form of grotesquely agonizing experiments carried out on patients.
In 1942, she was employed as a guard at Ravensbrück, a camp exclusively for women prisoners.
In 1943, she was transferred to Auschwitz, where she rose to the rank of Senior SS Supervisor, the second-highest rank achievable for female members of the SS. This rank gave her almost unrestricted freedom to exercise extreme abuse upon the inmates. Before her transfer, however, she visited her father, who had a deep hatred for anything Nazi-related. She wore her SS uniform in a bid to provoke him, and after a heated argument, he beat her and told her never to return. This affected Irma deeply, and her hatred of her father fuelled her cruel disposition.
At Auschwitz, Grese was in charge of 30,000 women prisoners. All survivor accounts refer to her sadistic tools as her whip, pistol, and heavy boots. A common practice for Grese was to whip prisoners across their breasts. The braided wire at the end of her whip resulted in many prisoners contracting infections from their wounds. They would subsequently be operated on without anesthesia, and Grese would attend these operations, reveling in glee at the victim’s pain. Gisella Perl, an inmate physician, recounted how these episodes fuelled Grese with sexual excitement.
She also made use of two police dogs which she would order to attack victims, and other accounts state how she would tie the legs together of inmates about to give birth.
Grese’s sexual exploits were also noted. Accounts state that she had an affair with the infamous Josef Mengele and actively participated in selection processes with him over who lived and who died. She also had affairs with various female inmates, which prompted Mengele to break off his sexual relations with her. An inmate who witnessed one of her sexual acts relates how on one occasion, Grese tormented a Georgian man who refused her advances by making him watch as Grese dragged the man’s lover around by the hair and whipped her naked body. After the episode, Grese had the man shot and sent the woman to the camp brothel.
As the Soviets advanced westwards, Grese was transferred to Ravensbrück in January 1945, and two months later, she was transferred again to Bergen-Belsen. As the end neared for the Third Reich, her cruelty increased in frequency and intensity. Defeat for Germany was inevitable, however, and Grese was incarcerated after the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
Irma Grese was tried in front of a British military tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging. On December 13, 1945, Grese was executed, unrepentant to the very end. She was only 22 years old and was the youngest Nazi war criminal to be hanged. Grese is now infamous for her horrific war crimes, and is recognised as one of the cruelest women of all time.
3. Wu Zetian: The Cruelest Woman of Ancient China
Wu Zetian was born to a relatively wealthy family and had extremely progressive parents. In China, at the time, it was uncommon to value women enough to have them educated, but Wu’s father made sure that his daughter received a thorough education. Wu became well-versed in a wide range of subjects, including writing, music, literature, and perhaps most importantly, politics and governmental affairs.
At the age of 14, Wu was summoned to the imperial palace to become a concubine of Emperor Taizong. Although she was not his favorite concubine, Wu managed to command significant respect from the emperor. One of her duties was to tidy the emperor’s bedchambers, allowing her to engage in dialogue with the emperor. This was a rare honor for any concubine.
Wu Zetian did not bear Emperor Taizong any children, and so upon his death, as was the custom at the time, concubines without children were to be sent to a monastic order to live out their lives as Buddhist nuns. Wu, however, was visited by the newly anointed Emperor Li Zhi, the youngest son of the late Emperor Taizong. Li Zhi (who became named Emperor Gaozong) brought Wu back to the imperial court to be his own concubine, an act that may not have been surprising since Li and Wu had had an affair while Emperor Taizong was still alive.
At this point, the scheming and plotting began. The Emperor’s favorite consort, Xiao, was much hated by Empress Wang. Wang helped Wu become more desirable to the emperor. However, the effort proved to be too effective, and Wu became the emperor’s favorite, bearing him a son, Li Hong, in 652. Out of jealousy, Xiao and Wang joined forces to get rid of Wu.
In 654, Wu bore a daughter. Shortly after the birth, however, the child died, with evidence showing strangulation. Wu accused Wang of the murder, and Wang lost favor with the Emperor. The most popular theory is that Wu strangled her own daughter.
Thereafter, the Emperor conferred with his chancellors, and despite opposition, demoted both Wang and Xiao, having them imprisoned, and promoted Wu to Empress. Later on, the Emperor considered having them released, but Wu had them executed upon hearing this and fearing a reprisal.
Upon her accession to the throne, Wu Zetian began targeting officials who had opposed her rise to power. Many were arrested and imprisoned, exiled, forced to commit suicide, or executed. In 664, she accused several officials of witchcraft and had them executed. Their families became slaves within the imperial palace. In another incident, she murdered her niece with poison, accused two others of the death, and executed them.
In the years that followed, the emperor’s health began to fail, and Wu exercised even more power, exiling, executing, and poisoning close relations who she felt threatened her position. Upon the emperor’s death, Wu was effectively the de facto ruler, exercising her will over her subjects and the kingdom.
Throughout her reign, Wu used an elaborate spy network to mark potential threats for elimination, and those marked were executed by her secret police. This practice reached its peak in 684 when 12 branches of the imperial family were massacred.
Despite her bloody reign, Wu Zetian is also remembered for her effective administration and her popularity among the poorer classes for her “Acts of Grace,” which were edicts that helped satisfy the needs of the lower classes. Even so, her place in history as one of the world’s cruelest women is undisputed.
4. Mary I of England
Mary I could have reserved a place in common history as the first woman ever to be the queen of England. Instead, she is mostly remembered as “Bloody Mary” – a name she acquired because of her staunch and violent opposition to the Reformation. Her attempts to restore the Catholic faith to England comprised methods that were wholly brutal, cementing her place as one of the cruelest women in history.
Born on February 18, 1516, Mary Tudor was the only child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to survive into adulthood. Although Lady Jane Grey was selected by many politicians to succeed King Edward VI, who died at the age of 16, Mary Tudor enforced her own claim to the throne. While Lady Jane awaited her coronation, Mary gathered a force in East Anglia and deposed Jane, ultimately having her beheaded.
Mary I’s coronation was accompanied by much celebration and fanfare, and riding on the support that she had received, Mary didn’t realize the opposition she would quickly garner by her actions to restore Catholicism. Her announcement of her intention to marry Prince Philip of Spain sent ripples of panic across the nation, as Protestants feared England being reclaimed in the name of Catholicism. Lord Chancellor Gardiner and the House of Commons feared the marriage as it would lead to England’s reliance on the Spanish Habsburgs. An insurrection broke out upon her announcement that she would marry Prince Philip, and an attempted coup was put down. Mary had the conspirators executed.
The most contentious part of her reign was her religious policy. Despite promises a month into her accession to the throne that she would not pursue forced conversion of Protestants, Mary I had leading Protestant churchmen imprisoned. She sought to reaffirm papal jurisdiction over England, and when the deal with Rome succeeded, the Heresy Acts were reinstated, which allowed for the burning of heretics. This sent a wave of fear through England, and around 800 protestant nobles immediately fled the country in fear.
In February 1555, the executions began. Protestant Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was forced to watch the bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer being burned at the stake. Cranmer repented his Protestant faith, and under law, he should have been absolved as a Repentant, but Mary refused to accept Cranmer’s absolution and had him burned at the stake as well. Upon his death, Cranmer recanted his repentance.
Sources vary, but in total, Mary I had almost 300 people executed, most of them by burning at the stake, most of them simply for the crime of being Protestant. Her reign was relatively short, lasting a little over five years. She died in 1558 from either ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer and was succeeded by Elizabeth I.
5. Isabella of Castile
When Isabella was born on 22 April 1451, there was little chance that she would ever become monarch of Castile, as she was far removed from the direct royal lineage. War, politics, and subterfuge intervened, however, and for many years the Kingdom of Spain was in turmoil, suffering from civil wars and treasonous subterfuge.
To quell one of the rebellions, the hand of Isabella was promised to the commoner Pedro Girón Acuña Pacheco. Horrified at having to marry someone so far beneath her station, Isabella prayed for some kind of salvation. When Pacheco was traveling to meet her, he suddenly fell ill and died. This immensely fortuitous event for Isabella cemented her devotion to her faith.
Her marriage to Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon, cemented her future power. After the death of the King of Castile, the throne was given to Isabella. However, this was not without a counterclaim. There was another claimant: Joanna la Beltraneja, who was also the queen of Portugal. War soon broke out between the supporters of Isabella and the supporters of Joanna. After four years of fighting, the Treaty of Alvocaro was signed, and Isabella was recognized as the Queen of Castile.
Her cruelty is recognized in the treatment of non-Christians. Jews and Muslims were the victims of her ethnic cleansing. Her actions in this regard led to the formation of the Spanish Inquisition, known for its extreme brutality and torture of non-Catholics.
Isabella and Ferdinand then waged war on the Kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain and the last piece to fall in the Spanish Reconquista. While some may see it as the liberation of Spain, for many others, it was open genocide. By the time Granada was annexed, 100,000 Muslims were either dead or enslaved.
For many, Isabella represents a heroine of the Reconquista and an icon of Spanish patriotism; but for others, she represents a brutal oppressor guilty of genocide.
The Cruelest Women In Power: Their Legacy
The list of women leaders throughout history is minuscule when compared with the list of men who have been leaders, but what is clear is that the station of leadership doesn’t differentiate for gender when it comes to the propensity for violence. Although there has been no woman Hitler, Pol Pot, or Stalin, it is still clear that if true equality had existed, there very might well have been.
Whether man, woman, or anything else, leadership is a dangerous place with dangerous consequences for subjects under the rule of sociopaths and cruel tyrants.