Note: The name of the founder of the notorious St Lucretia Club of Kikinda, Serbia – a name left out of most English language newspaper reports on the story – has finally been discovered. This name, Maria Vukitch, appears in the first of the articles below, which puts the St. Lucretia Club into historical context with respect top other poisoning conspiracies and also provides the fullest account of the case found so far.
FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 4): Hungary’s ghastly crop of “arsenic trials” in which 66 women [in Nagyrev and environs], some of whom have already been sentenced, were arraigned on charges of having poisoned their husbands, is a lurid instance of the awful harvest which secret poisoners have reaped throughout a civilised world during the six centuries which have passed since the slow, imperceptible action of arsenic first commended itself to the ghouls who sold death dealing potions to the murderously inclined.
Sydney [Australia] itself has not been free of cases of the kind. Probably many move fiends do their victims to death by slow arsenical poisoning than are ever brought to book, since it is in the highest degree difficult to detect the hand of the patient secret poisoner.
The case of Alister Clark, sentenced to life imprisonment last May for the poisoning if his wife by arsenic, is outstanding in Sydney criminal annals. Early this year Ernest Trapman and Mrs. Gow were acquitted of a charge of having murdered the Chinese, Gow, by arsenic, and in Victoria, April 1928, Ronald Griggs, a Methodist Minister was acquitted of a similar charge.
MARRIED YOUNGER MEN
For the Hungarian crimes the land-hunger of the peasant is said to have supplied the motive in almost every case. Young peasant women, tied for life to old men, have used arsenic to rid themselves of their husbands, leaving themselves free to marry younger men, better able to help in tilling the land.
It was in the Balkans that another great poisoning drama of recent years was unfolded. Wholesale killing, as in the Hungarian instance was done, by women – Jugo-Slavs and Hungarians of the small town of Velika Kikinda, far back in the provinces of the Serbian kingdom.
Here it was not necessary for newspaper writers, giving colour to the story of dreadful crime, to link up the memory of the ill-reputed family of the Borgias with the modern community of poisoners. For the women who were apprehended for this series of poisonings were members a society – the Saint Lucretia Society – named after Lucrezia Borgia, fifteenth century daughter of Pope Alexander VI., and about whose name, the death-smell lingers – still.
These Serbian women came to their grisly meetings with Bibles in their hands. Theirs is a ghastly story of religious perversion, more fit for the gloomy and terrible chronicles of Old Florence and Rome than for the twentieth century. Velika Kikinda is a tiny town most of the inhabitants of which are Hungarians and Serbian peasants. Here, in 1925 lived Maria Vukitch with her husband, old Dusan. Dusan was counted rather well to do. One day Maria came running to the priest to say that her husband had been drunk the evening before; when she came to waken him she found he was dead.
His wife inherited the farm, and in a few months married again.
It happened at this time that sudden deaths became common in the district about Velika Kikinda. Maria Vukitch had a young friend whose husband was much older than herself; the neighbours knew that she was in love with a peasant boy.
A few months after the death of Maria’s husband her young friend’s husband, too, died suddenly. A third death followed three weeks later. Again the dead man left a youthful widow – and a friend of Maria Vukitch. And again the young widow remarried.
BECAME PIOUS AGAIN
Natural enough, said the simple peasants, that a young widow should remarry again, and they attached no significance to the three deaths. But it began to cause comment that Maria Vukitch should suddenly become pious and invite women friends to her house to pray. Seven women would gather in the “day room” of her lonely home and remain there for hours behind locked doors.
Saint Lucretia was their patron saint. Such repute for saintliness did the children of Saint Lucretia win that many women made application for admission. But these the seven rejected as not pure enough for the blessed community of Lucretia.
Saint Lucretia, however, seemed to have a down on her devotees. Death came to their homes. Every two or three weeks some masculine relative of one of the seven would go to the cemetery as principal performer. Stalwart peasants would suddenly fall ill and die.
The peasants marvelled. Then strange stories gained currency. The ladies of Lucretia were in league with the devil, and the series of deaths was the result of their communings with the Evil One. The climax came when Maria Vukitch lost her second husband — suddenly — and inherited his property.
The surviving males among the peasants decided that enough was as good as a feast. They went to the gendarmerie, and Maria Vukitch was charged with having poisoned her husband. The bodies of all the suddenly deceased were exhumed, and analysis revealed that in every case death had resulted from the application of the same poison — arsenic mixed with opium.
The saintly members of the Lucretia Society confessed that they had gone to Maria with their marital troubles, and that she had sold them “the yellow powder” to insert in their husbands’ foods. Growing bolder as they found their poisonings undetected, they entered into business on their own account. Nine men died through the proceedings of the Society of Saint Lucretia. The seven who had brought about their death went to the gallows in 1927.
Thirty years ago Hungary was horrified by a similar sequence of poisonings, when more than eighty husbands were disposed of with arsenic. Now comes the third large scale orgy of poisonings. [Note: This author was unaware of numerous other similar cases.]
But though Hungary and Hungarians have in modern times seen the most frightful cases of the use of arsenic to remove the “troublesome,” thousands of instances of callous murders by arsenic have been recorded during the last few hundred years.
In the seventeenth century, the practice became almost fashionable, and a knowledge of the properties and application of arsenic was an indispensable part of the equipment of those who dabbled in magic and astrology.
Earlier in 1531, the Bishop of Rochester’s cook [Richard Roose (or Rouse)] had poisoned (deliberately!) seventeen persons, and a statute passed soon after made the employment of secret poisons high treason, punishable with boiling alive. Terrible retribution was exacted in the middle of the next century of Hieronyma Spara and thirteen of her fellow poisoners, who were whipped and hanged for the slow poisoning of Roman husbands. An other famous poisoner of a few years later, the arsenical preparation favored by all of these came to be known as Acqua Tofana or Acquadi Perugia.
SHOCKED THE WORLD
Notorious British poisoners of recent times were Crippen, whose atrocities shocked the world in 1910 and Mary Ann Cotton, who poisoned no fewer than 16 persons in 1872.
Some historians think that the Borgias hardly deserved the fearful judgment which posterity has passed, upon them so that Borgia has become synonymous with “poisoner.”
Lucrezia Borgia, we are told, merited no such infamous reputation as has attached itself to her name. Be that as it may, right through the history of the murderous use of arsenic, sure and secret poison, women have been the star actors in innumerable murders, wrought through its deadly qualities.
[“Arsenic Poisoners - Past and Present.” The Wellington Times (Australia), May 8, 1930, p. 5]
FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4): Belgrade, Jugoslavia — A club of women poisoners under the guise of a charitable organization with the significant name of “Lucretia” has been raided by the police.
Police asserted that at secret meetings the club members were taught the medieval art of mixing and administering poisons. Six women who were unhappily married were declared thus to have found means of ridding themselves of their husbands. The remains of these were exhumed and in two cases toxicologists have found traces of poison.
Five women of the club were charged with being the ringleaders of the organization and arrested.
[“Club Of Women Poisoners Is Unearthed In Belgrade,” syndicated (AP), The Galveston Daily News (Tx.), Oct. 20, 1926, p. 1]
FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 4): Everybody in the little Jugoslavian town of Nagy Kikinda thought the women’s club of Saint Lucretia was a very respectable society and above suspicion, until the number of deaths among the male population showed a striking increase which nobody could explain. Rumors arose. It was found that many of the men who died had been married to or were friends of women who were members of the Saint Lucretia club, that their deaths had been more or less unexpected and that there was a striking resemblance of the circumstances under which they took place.
Every one of the dead men had been wealthy and respected in the little community. Some of the widows spent more money than they had ever done before, purchased costly clothes, automobiles, and led the lives of grandes dames. When things had developed so far, somebody remembered that Saint Lucretia had a namesake who was one of the worst poisoners in history, namely Lucretia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI [note: the name “Lucretia Borgia” had been synonymous with “female serial killer” until research in the mid-20th century showed that her homicidal reputation was based on legend, not fact] This stirred the suspicion that the women’s club was not named after the saint, but after Lucretia Borgia, and that it really was a league of poisoners.
At first there was no absolute proof of these dreadful suspicions, but the police considered them sufficiently grave to arrest several of the members of the club, among them the ringleader, who disappeared when she smelled danger, but was so imprudent as to return to Nagy Kikinda because she believed her social position and that of her friends would be sufficient protection. Her husband was among the persons who died recently from a sudden illness.
The police had meanwhile found out that one of the women made frequent excursions abroad and supplied the necessary poison, which she obtained from chemists under some pretext or other. Naturally, the little town is in seething excitement and the scandal is great.
The unprecedented criminal affair had a tragic-comical result. The men of Nagy Kikinda have been caught by a general panic. None of them had ever thought of the faint possibility of an organization for the purpose of their removal by poison. Certainly not in their social circles. Who could still trust his wife or fiancée in such a depraved milieu? Thus it happened that numerous men left their families because they were not certain whether their wives were secret members of the Lucretia club. Engagements were dissolved, and new arrests are hourly expected. It will take women in Nagy Kikinda a long time to win back the confidence of the male part of the population.
[“Woman’s Murder Society Forces Husbands From Town in Terror – Police in Jugoslavian Village Hold Modern Borgias on Charge of poisoning Rich Mates; News Causes Men to Break Engagements and Leave Families,” New York Herald-Tribune (N. Y.), Oct. 17, 1926, part III, p. 2]
FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 4): Another reason for not yielding to the temptation of living in a Serbian town called Velik Kikinda [the region containing Nagy Kikinda] has been produced in the Italian press.
It seems that, instead of forming a sewing circle, the wives of this light-hearted community banded together in a secret association under the name of Santa Lucrezia, founded in honor of the redoubtable Lucrezia Borgia, with the worthy purpose of poisoning their husbands, fiances, and suitors.
From across the frontier – though which frontier the Italian paper does not say – they procure strong poisons, which are unobtrusively slipped into their husbands’ food or drink.
As soon as the existence of the secret society became public, many husbands and prospective husbands left town. The Italian paper advises them not to let civic pride from forming a Santo Bluebeard or Santo Landru lodge and going to it. – The Living Age.
[“A Poison Your Husband Club.” Springfield Republican (Mo.), Dec, 15, 1926, Editorial Page (p. 8)]
* “Henri Désiré Landru (born April 12, 1869; died February 25, 1922) was a notorious French serial killer and real-life Bluebeard.”
NOTE: Such organizations were common in eastern Europe (primarily in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) from the mid-1800s through the 1930s. They claimed many hundreds of victims. What was unusual about this one was its brazenness: it was publicly promoted as a charity.
Kikinda (Serbian Cyrillic: Кикинда, pronounced is a town and a municipality in Serbia, in the autonomous province of Vojvodina. It is the administrative centre of the North Bana District. The town has 38,065 inhabitants, while the municipality has 59,453 inhabitants.