Sunday, November 24, 2013

Murder by Wholesale: Female Serial Killer Syndicate: Nagyrev, Hungary: 1930


FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 2): Budapest – Thirty-four persons are being tried in the district court of Szolnok, Hungary, for the murder by poisoning of forty-two others, the victims in nearly every case being husbands or brothers, fathers or mothers of the defendants. All but three of the accused are woman, all the crimes took place in the two nearby villages of Nagyrev and Tiszakürt, the poison used was invariably and its source in at least twenty cases was the village midwife, Suzie Olah, locally known as “aunt Susie.”

This almost demoniac figure, who helped her fellow villagers with equal readiness into time and eternity, not only supplied the means of murder, but furthered its sale by indictment and advice. She seems from all accounts to have been a figure eminently fit to flit around the bubbling cauldron in “Macbeth,” or to discharge the duties of an African witch doctor.

But it was not only her sinister and super-dimensional personality that made the mass poisonings of Theiss valley one of the strangest instances in the world of crime. Most remarkable of all was that a series of such unsuspected poisonings could occur in two small villages, not sixty miles from Budapest, over a period of twenty years, that nearly all the victims should be men, the motive for the murders so apparent, and the beneficiaries invariably women.

The three men to be tried are accused only of complicity. The poisonings, in plan and execution, were entirely the work of women – surely the “monstrous regiment of women” John Knox must have had in mind. The boldness and utter callousness with which they carried on their criminal activities seems to have be equaled only by the stupidity of the men who were their victims, the husbands and fathers who saw friend after friend in the same sudden agonies without ever divining a secret which seems to have been known or suspected by nearly every woman in the two villages.

~ The Reckoning. ~

Of the thirty-four accused nine have already been tried, thee sentenced to death, four to life imprisonment, one to fifteen years and two freed for lack of sufficient evidence. Five women escaped trial by taking their own lives, among them the sinister “Aunt Susie” herself.

Nagyrev-Tissakürt lies in an angle formed by the bendings of the River Theiss, therefore in a little valley about fourteen miles square. It  boasts some 1,400 inhabitants and looks a quaint. Old World village where it sprawls by the river side, its low, white cottages encircled by gardens. It is twenty-five miles from the nearest railway station.

Budapest, which is puzzled and shamed by the discovery of this plague spot in the midst of a smiling countryside not sixty miles from its own doors, has sent many newspapers men and other investigators to discover the conditions which produced it. They found two villages inhabited by poor farmers, dependent for existence on farms and vineyards already small and ever newly divided as sons succeeded fathers; the whole ringed round as by an iron girdle with huge estates. Growth has been impossible, young people have been denied both land and opportunity, and by the same vicious process children have been transformed from a blessing into a curse.

One of the principal occupations of the villages is the growing of grapes and the manufacture of wine, and the men to have drunk deeply of their own products. The drunkenness and brutality as husbands have been advanced by many of the accused women as an excuse for getting rid of them.

~ The Main Motive. ~

If the men were brutish, the women seem to have been remarkable of the strength and persistence of their passions. The average age of their passions. The average age of those so far tried is over 55, yet lust played an even greater part than greed in their crimes. They killed husbands and lovers as they grew tired of them and took others. Shut off in Winter from the world around them, kept indoors during the Spring and Fall by the knee-deep mud of the streets, they had few opportunities for improvement. The village had neither doctor nor adequately trained teachers. Not only paucity of of land but unequal distribution of the gains of culture was at fault.

Nagyrev-Tissakürt was about as well supplied with the refinements, facilities and opportunities of civilization as an African krall. But this field which culture had allowed to lie fallow proved fruitful for Suzie Olah, who six years after her advent had become not only doctor and mid-wife to the village, but its evil genius. It is forty years since Aunt Suzie came to Nagyrev-Tissakürt. And though she is dead now, her unseemly ghost still wanders in and out at the trials in Szolnok.

Aunt Suzie was not unlettered farm woman. She had “studied” at least the rudiments of her profession in the big cities. She had keen powers of observation, sharp understanding and seems to have been a monster of energy of unscrupulousness. A fat, smiling, Buddha-like figure, she knew all the cares and troubles of the villagers and was liked by most of them. For one reason or other she exercised influence amounting to actual power over these simple-minded people. She was no fewer than nine times accused of abortion, but discharged. Finally the earlier midwife of the village, Aunt Suzie’s rival, disappeared without trace. Her son, suspecting foul play on Aunt Suzie’s part, fired several shots at her but missed and was sent to prison for two years. From this moment on the villagers believed that Aunt Susie had a charmed existence against all dangers and all judgments.

Not wishing to risk another trial, Aunt Suzie apparently decided to supplement her earnings in a new fashion. She began a series of child poisonings. There would be a discreet dosing, a little funeral, a tiny grave – and a mouth less to feed. Aunt Suzie worked exclusively with arsenic extracted from flypaper. It seemed effective. She decided to enlarge her sphere. She found wives who had grown tired of their husbands, children who coveted the property of their elders, mothers with ailing sons. Aunt Suzie would whisper that she knew a way.

~ The Business of Poisoning. ~

And then for twenty years long death strode month after month through the village streets, unnoticed by the law. A husband would be seized after he had eaten his mid-day lunch in the fields, a son on his birthday, an old mother after she had spent a day in her daughter’s house. The Messalinas of Nagyrev were able to change husbands and lovers at will. Aunt Suzie charged the equivalent of $25 to $80 for each lethal dose, according to the circumstances of the purchase. The business grew; rivals appeared who manufactured the poison and sold it at lower prices.

How did the murders go so long unpunished? Though the women of the village must have had at least some inkling of the dreadful dream being played before their eyes, they kept silent. Many of them were bound together by the dark threads of guilty knowledge; others, perhaps, by the reflection that the day might come when they, too, would be glad to avail themselves at the same means.

As for the outside world, there not only were no doctors, but the “halottkem,” or official whose duty it was to issue death certificates, was a bell-ringer and son-in-law of Aunt Suzie. His procedure, so he told the gendarmes, was to hold a feather before the mouth of the body to see whether life was extinct, then issue a certificate of death from pneumonia, heart disease or senile decay, which ever seemed most likely. These certificates were duly filed and served to appease early suspicions.

In 1924, however, a body taken from the river was found to be that of the 79-year-old mother of a Mrs. Bukenovenski. She had disappeared mysteriously eight months before. An autopsy showed that she had been poisoned, not drowned. It was established that the poison had been administered by her daughter, who had then, as an additional precaution, had wheeled her mother’s body to the river in a wheelbarrow and thrown it in. this added safeguard proved her ruin. She was sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

~ An Anonymous Letter. ~

This discovery apparently excited the suspicions of the authorities and aroused the alarm of the men of the village. There were tentative investigations, but nothing could be proved, and meanwhile the poisonings ceased. Then in July of last year the Calvinist cantor of Tiszakürt charged Mrs. Ladislaus Szabo with serving him poisoned wine. He had been saved by a doctor’s efforts with a stomach pump. Almost at the same time a war invalid accused Mrs. Szabo of a similar attempt. Other such charges had been made, which came to nothing. But State Prosecutor Kronberg received an anonymous letter which spurred him on to unusual lengths. “The authorities are doing nothing,” it read, “and the poisoners are carrying on their work undisturbed. This is my last attempt. If this also fails then there is no justice.” The Tiszakürt police were told to investigate.

A few weeks later, on SS. Peter and Paul’s day, the first day of the harvest, the streets of Tiszakürt were resounding with song and gypsy music when suddenly a rumor was born which took wings and flew through the village. “The Szabos have been arrested,” ran the report. “It’s already known that they poisoned Mrs. Szabo’s father and uncle.” the music stopped, the singers grew silent. Women whispered to each other and avoided the eyes of their menfolk. The gendarmes visited house after house and the number of arrested quickly mounted. Aunt Suzie was among them.

The interrogations began in the open air. The accused denied their guilt indignantly for a time. Then, under pressure, Ludwig Szabo gave way. “Yes,” he admitted, “we killed my father-in-law four years ago and last Autumn my wife’s uncle. All on account of land. My wife incited me to do it.”

Aunt Suzie stubbornly maintained her innocence. She had had nothing to do with the murders and knew nothing about them. But five other wpmen confessed, and on the following day were taken by boat down the Theiss to Skolnok and imprisoned. There they repeated their admissions. Aunt Suzie, however, still maintained her denials. The State Prosecutor had an idea. He let her go free, but told the police to follow her carefully.

The fat old woman, her Buddha-like face unsmiling now but still impassive, took boat to Nagyrev. Arrived, she waddled hastily from house to house with the gendarmes unnoticed at her heels. Those she warned were promptly arrested and taken to prison. At last Aunt Suzie noticed that she was under observation, and her judgment, acute as ever, told her that all was lost. She went straight to her own home, and when the bayonets of the pursuing gendarmes glittered over the garden hedge she drew a flask of poison from under her apron and emptied it. An hour later she was dead.

Now the dark history began to unroll itself. Investigations, confessions, exhumations and autopsies followed each other in rapid successions. Some of the women withdrew their confessions, and in the cemeteries unknown hands tore out crosses, defaced names and inscriptions on the tombstones. But it availed little. Grave after grave was opened, villagers were examined by hundreds, ands still the number of arrests grew.

The strain began to tell on innocent and guilty alike. Four other women followed Aunt Suzie’s example, among them one who was to all appearances innocent. Mrs. Marie Zsabai had been arrested but released. Her husband’s body was the first of thirty corpses examined which contained no traces of arsenic. Dr. Kovacs, Mrs. Zsabai’s lawyer, hastened to Nagyrev to tell her the welcome news. He arrived just as her body was being taken in turn to the cemetery. She had hanged herself out of fear of death.

Now that its crime has been laid bare to the astonished gaze of the world Nagyrev and Tiszakürt have lost even their appearance of rustic innocence. There are some streets every house in which has an occupant in prison. Some of the houses have long been bolted and left bare. There is a strange stillness in the streets. The villagers go about furtively, the innocent ashamed of the reputation their villages have acquitted, the guilty fearing each newcomer. For a time in the cemetery fifty graves lay open.

~ A Self-Questioning in Hungary. ~

The scandal stirred the conscience of all Hungary. Since the Theiss Valley is a Calvinistic neighborhood it has alarmed the Calvinist episcopate. Bishop Desiderius Balthhazar himself traveled through the whole district, suspended his clergymen and teachers and named proved men in their stead.

The trials of the thirty-four peasant Borgias began in December. Many of them had confessed their guilt in the preliminary examination but repudiated the confessions when they came to trial. The strangest part was the view they took, as shown in their stereotyped explanations. “We are not murderesses,” they said. “We neither stabbed nor drowned our husbands. They have simply died from poison. It was an easy death for them and no murder.” Murder seemed to them to involve bloodshed and they had shed no blood.

Their confessions, they alleged, had been extracted by third degree methods. According to the evidence of a gendarme the method was even more subtle. The witness hid under a bed in the police station and heard the 70-year-old Rosalie Sebastyen advise Rosa Holyba to confess their common crime, advice which Rosa Holyba refused. The gendarmes caught Mrs. Holyba by the ankle and emerged amid shrieks of fear. Both women were terrified and admitted their guilt. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The trials are held at intervals of two or three weeks and two or three prisoners are taken at a time. At the second trial Mrs. Julius Csaba was found guilty of murdering her husband but let off with a fifteen-year sentence, his drunkenness and brutality to her being accepted as extenuating circumstances.

The third trial was the high point. The woman who had previously appeared had seemed to be poor and stupid peasants. Maria Kardos, accused of the murder of her own son and husband and the attempted murder of the husband of a friend, was obviously of a different type. She had more intelligent features, more correct accents and fasionable garb, though these did not serve to moderate the crudity of the crimes of which she was accused.

~ Song Asked of a Victim. ~

This woman in her youth had been the belle of Tiszakürt. As portrayed by the State Prosecutor and his witnesses at her trial, she was an unrestrained creature who combined a taste for city refinements with a peasant coarseness in the indulgence of her desires. After marrying and divorcing two husbands she found herself at the age of forty with a 23-year-old son, whose health had made him a burden. Moreover, she had fast taken a young lover and did not wish to have this constant reminder of her own age. She consulted Aunt Suzie. The first dose of arsenic only made the boy ill. One fine Autumn day she had his bed moved outside in the courtyard.

“I gave him some more poison in his medicine,” she told the police. “And then, suddenly, I remembered how beautifully my boy used to sing in church and I thought I would like to hear him once more. So I said: ‘Sing, my boy. Sing me my favorite song.’ He sang it in his lovely, clear voice.”

The song ended in agony. The poison had done its work.

This Borgia figure then married once more. But she could not be faithful and her new husband threatened her with divorce. Again the arsenic. Aunt Suzie charged nothing for this dose. Mrs. Kardos’s husband had once been her own lover and she had never forgiven his defection.

Maria Kardos was sentenced to death. On her second day in court her composure gave way and she repeated the confession she had made to the police.

Hungary’s first soldier blinded in the war, once a handsome and popular young farmer, was one of the victims. He had been discharged from a military hospital for “home nursing.” His wife, furious at finding a blind man on her hands consulted Aunt Suzie. When the first self administered the second with practiced hand. He died that night in agony.

New trials bring new revelations. The names of the towns have spread through the whole world. The notoriety was made all Hungary uncomfortable. It has been bad propaganda abroad. It has been a shock at home to find, within sixty miles of the capital, a neighborhood which might better belong to the heart of Africa or back in the darkest period of the Middle Ages.  It makes a strange tale in 1930.

[John MacCormac, “Murder By Wholesale: A Tale From Hungary,” New York Times (N.Y.), Mar 16, 1930, p. XX3]

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An article dealing with an earlier stage of the investigation:

FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 2): Budapest, Friday, Sept. 13 – The wholesale poisoning of their husbands by women of Nagyrev District, in connection with which thirty widows are already charged with poisoning thirty-eight husbands, took a sensational turn yesterday.

Information reached the public prosecutor which caused an ardor for the exhumation of the bodies of the two children, Justin and Stephen Cher, in Nagyrev. An examination revealed that both bodies contained enormous quantities of arsenic.

One of the babies was born in 1916, the other in 1923. Each lived just three days. It was established that the mother, who was the wife of Ludwig Cher, gave Justin Stephen goats’ milk heavily doped with arsenic. Like the widow of Nagyrev, the woman obtained the arsenic from the famous wholesale poisoner, Mme. Fazekas, a midwife.

A fresh chapter of horrors is likely to be opened up by this discovery. The State Attorney is convinced that the murderess made a general practice of relieving mothers of unwanted children, as well as wives of unwanted husbands, and ordered a general exhumation of all infants who died within the last twenty years, where there was the slightest suspicion as to the cause of death.

In the whole country of Szolnok it is impossible to find any witnesses not directly or indirectly involved in the mass slaughter or superfluous relatives. Every one has some relatives. Every one has some relation who is connected with the affair.

Three more bodies of husbands were exhumed and examined yesterday, and in each case large quantities of arsenic were detected. Fifty more adult bodies are awaiting exhumation.

[“Two Nagyrev Babies Poisoned By Arsenic – Exhumation Gives New Turn to Series of Murders in Hungarian District.” New York Times (N.Y.), Sep. 13, 1929, p. 22]

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• Posts on INDIVIDUAL SERIAL KILLERS in the 1929 Tisza Valley (Nagyrev) case •


Maria Aszendi (3 murders)
Christine Chordas (3 murders) executed
Julia Dari (3 murders)
Julia Fazekas (scores of murders) suicide
Juliana Foeldvary (3 murders)
Maria Kardos (3 murders) executed
Julianne Lipka (scores of murders)
Suzi Olah (scores of murders) suicide
Mrs. Louis Oser (3 murders)
Frau Palinka (7 murders)
Julia Sijj (7 murders)
Esther Szabo (multiple murders, including 2 family members)
Maria Varga (3 murders)

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For more than two dozen similar cases, dating from 1658 to 2011, see the summary list with links see: The Husband-Killing Syndicates

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