I Have Tortured and Murdered: The Life and Imprisonment of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova
Human history can be a dark place, and it becomes even darker when we realize that wealth and breeding can hide the worst of crimes. There have been a fair number of killers whose deeds were passed over for extended periods of time due to their connections and their glamor, and one such killer was Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova. Saltykova was a rich Russian noblewoman, and thanks to her privilege, she may have been responsible for the deaths of more than 100 women and girls.
Saltykova was born to into wealth and luxury in 1730. She married even better when she secured a place with the Saltykov family. Before her noble husband’s death in 1755, she bore him two sons, ensuring her place in the succession. Though there is no mention of her cruelty or sadism before this point, she quickly grew into a tyrant.
Some state that the reason for her decline into madness was a love affair gone sour. She took a lover after her husband died, and when he betrayed her, she nearly killed him with her own hands. Her lover and his lover fled from the region, but the incident seemed to awaken a kind of bloodlust in Saltykova.
Russia at that point was still a feudalist state. People who belonged to the serf class were not free to go where they liked or to do the work that they wished to do. Instead, they were thought to belong to the land. While they could not be moved from place to place as slaves could be, they were chained to the land where they were born, and that land could be sold to a different master or mistress.
This was the system where Saltykova ruled supreme, and she took great advantage of her power. Though she was a woman of great refinement, she became famous for her tempers and her sudden mood swings. One moment, she would be speaking quite mildly to a servant, and the next, she would become violently enraged. Court records from her trial stated that she would grow incensed and suddenly throw logs at the girls who were trying to serve her. Sometimes this would quell her rage, but other times, she would simply begin to beat them violently.
Eventually, Saltykova’s violent outbursts became even more cruel. There were whispered reports of her casting young women and girls into the snow to die of cold, of beating them until their bones broke and of pouring boiling water over their bare bodies.
She continued with these terrible murders until 1762. That was the year when two serfs finally presented their case to Catherine II, the empress of Russia. One serf had lost three wives to Saltykova’s cruelty over the long years. Catherine II was invested in being seen as a just and fair ruler, and had Saltykova brought up on charges of murder.
It took the Russian court six years to convict Saltykova. She was convinced of the fact that she would be released until the very end. In the end, she was convicted of only 38 murders, even though the number she was accused of was almost 100 murders more.
Catherine II proclaimed a strange sentence on Saltykova. She was to be displayed for an hour in Moscow’s famous Red Square wearing a sign that said “I have tortured and murdered.”
Saltykova only escaped death due to the fact that Russia had abolished the death penalty just a few short years before. Instead, she spent the next 33 years of her life imprisoned. At first she was kept in a windowless cell in absolute darkness. A nun would come and offer her food and a candle, removing the candle when the food was done. In later years, she would be allowed to go to church, though she could only stand outside and hear the sermon, though not enter.
In the final years of her life, Saltykova was moved to a cell with windows, where she spat at the people passing by and tried to strike them with a stick. She died in 1800, still malevolent and still dangerous.