Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ANGELS OF DEATH: THE FEMALE NURSES

Murder By Proxy

A map of Hungary, showing Budapest
A map of Hungary, showing Budapest

Nagyrev is a farming village on the River Tisza in Hungary, about sixty miles southeast of Budapest, near another town called Tiszakurt.  For a time, a community of killers flourished in these two places... thanks to the midwives.  Known as the "wise women", they inspired and assisted in the murders of an estimated three hundred people over a span of fifteen years.

It started during World War I, and since there was no hospital in Nagyrev, the prominent midwife, Julius Fazekas, took care of people's medical needs.  She'd only been in town for three years, but in that time had gained a reputation for helping women get rid of unwanted babies.  Her cohort in crime, reputed to be a witch, was Susanna Olah, a.k.a., "Auntie Susi".

Most of the men had gone to war in 1914, but soon there were other men around---the Allied prisoners of war in camps outside town.  They apparently had limited freedoms, because a number of women got involved with these men, and when spouses returned, the wives were unhappy.  They'd gotten used to their sexual freedom, it seems, and did not wish to have it curtailed.  Talk got back to the midwives about the general discontent.  Apparently they saw a way to capitalize.

Fazekas and Olah began boiling arsenic off strips of flypaper to sell to these women.  They dispensed poison to whoever wanted it, and there were plenty of takers.  It's estimated that around fifty poisoners went into action, calling themselves "The Angel Makers of Nagyrev," and because of the high death rate, the area eventually became known as "The Murder District".

In fact, some women decided to be rid of more than just an inconvenient spouse and began to poison other annoying relatives and even their own children.  Occasionally they poisoned one another.  Marie Kardos murdered her husband, her lover, and her twenty-three-year-old son.  Just before he died, she got him to sing for her.  Knowing he was poisoned, she listened to his sweet voice.  In the midst of his song, he clutched his stomach and was soon dead.  Giving testimony years later, she seemed to think this event rather delightful.  Maria Varga killed seven members of her family, considering the death of her husband in particular a Christmas present to herself.

Because Fazekas' cousin filed the death certificates, when officials poked their noses in to check on the sudden rise in the death rate, she showed them that everything was in order.  This one was a drowning (a poisoned woman tossed in the river), and that one was an illness.  There were no doctors around to make examinations, so who was to say differently? 

The first death was Peter Hegedus in 1914, and by some accounts, the poisonings stopped in 1929 only after a medical student from another town found high levels of arsenic in a body washed up on the riverbanks.  This event inspired officials to exhume two other bodies in the Nagyrev cemetery, and finding poison, arrested suspects.

By another account, the killings stopped because one woman, Mrs. Szabo, who was acting as a nurse, got caught poisoning a man's wine.  Then another patient complained of the same thing.  Under questioning, Szabo implicated a friend, who admitted that she'd poisoned her mother.  She also told on the midwife, and Fazekas was brought in for questioning.

She denied it and said they could prove nothing.  However, the authorities set a trap.  They let her go and she went about warning her customers that their game was over.  Her arsenic factory was closing down, and no one had better tell.  However, as she went from house to house, she all but pointed out to the police who the poisoners were. 

That day, they made thirty-eight arrests, with more to follow, and twenty-six women actually went to trial.  Eight received the death sentence, seven got life, and the others spent some time in jail.  Among those who died was "Auntie Susi," because it was she who had gone about town distributing the poison to various customers.  Her sister was also sentenced to death.  One account says that Fazekas was one of those hanged, but another describes her suicide by poison in her own home, surrounded by pots of boiled flypaper.  At any rate, the woman who'd come in to offer her "medical" services had inspired a shocking murder spree, and the final tally will never be known.

Authorities considered that theses women had been gripped by madness for fifteen years, brought on by their promiscuity.  They were at a loss to otherwise explain it.

Yet this isn't the only place where female caretakers have teamed up to kill people.

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