During World War I, death came in many forms. For some, it was the hellacious maelstrom of fighting erupting across faraway battlefields. For others it was sickness or disease. In still other cases it was a mixture of both. Yet for one small rural area death came not from illness or warfare, but rather from an insidious cabal of serial killers who blended in with the populace; the daughters and wives of the very ones who would die by their hand. It was here in this secluded village that death would come spread its wings, covering everything in the gray shadow of imminent doom, where anyone could be the next victim, and which would start a nightmare from which the people here would not escape for over a decade.
The time was World War I, in the small, quiet farming village of Nagyrév, Hungary, lying around 60 miles southeast of Budapest. It was to this quaint locale that a mysterious woman named Susanna Fazekas arrived in 1911 with a dark shadow following not far behind. Fazekas had come to this remote region in the capacity of a midwife, who were often called “wise women,” and who in the absence of any real hospital or medical facilities were tasked with all manner of duties related to caring for the injured or infirm. Fazekas brought with her a murky background, with no one really knowing where she came from and a husband, Julius Fazekas, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that she came with strong references from several doctors vouching for her nursing abilities, and the woman soon became the most prominent midwife of the village, accruing a rather solid reputation within a short time for her services.
These were hard times in the village of Nagyrév during and just after World War I. The poor village had become a major holding camp for Allied prisoner’s of war, partly due to its isolated location, and with most abled bodied men sent off to fight in the war many of the village women began to have romantic relations with these POWs. Some of these interludes produced unwanted pregnancies, and with no one else to help alleviate the situation, Fazekas stepped forward to offer her services to perform clandestine abortions. Women who became pregnant due to their infidelities were soon practically lining up at Fazekas’s door, and she would indeed eventually be arrested at least 10 times from 1911 to 1921 for performing these illegal abortions, each time acquitted and let go without punishment, no doubt in part because she was pretty much the sole medical care giver in the village. However, abortions were only the start.
When the exhausted husbands of the village women started trickling back into the village from the hellish battlefields of the war, many of the wives were far from happy. Not only were their freedoms in jeopardy, but they faced retribution from husbands who found out about their in discrepancies while they had been away. Further adding to the problem was that in World War I era Hungary most marriages had been arranged by the woman’s parents, and divorce was not allowed, no matter how unpleasant or abusive the husband may be. As a result, many of the women had been unhappy with their forced, often abusive marriages even before their spouses had gone off to fight, and when they returned it only exacerbated the situation. Rather than a joyous reunion with their husbands, many women of the village became miserable, missed their brief taste of independence and freedom, and wanted their significant others gone. This was where Frazekas would step in and graduate to full blown murder, in the process starting a festering spread of death that would spiral out of control.
It began quite simply. Frazekas was approached by a distraught woman by the name of Mrs. Takacs, who was fed up with her abrasive and alcoholic husband. The midwife explained that if the woman really wanted her husband gone, it could be theoretically be done quite easily with the use of arsenic slipped into a meal or drink, which she mistakenly believed to be untraceable. Although this may have very well started off as just murderous musing, when Frazekas saw that the woman was quite serious, she went about acquiring a deadly dose of arsenic by boiling flypaper and skimming off the distilled poison, which she in this case offered for free. Takacs would then go on to administer the poison in her husband’s meal and everything worked as planned, with the man dying and everyone thinking it had been of a heart attack.
This successful secret murder was soon being whispered about among other unhappy wives, who then began to come to Frazekas in order to also obtain the arsenic which they imagined would set them free of their cages of domestic oppression and unwanted drunken or violent husbands. The midwife Frazekas began selling bottles of the home brewed poison at whatever prices she thought her clients were able to pay, never divulging exactly how she had acquired it. Before long, normally robust, healthy men were dropping around the village left and right. At one point, there were an estimated 50 wives out poisoning their husbands, and the unusually high rate of death in the village began to cause murmurings among the superstitious populace that there were witches or evil spirits at work here. For all the deaths, there were nevertheless at first rules to the murders, a sort of code of honor among what would later be known as the “Widow Maker Syndicate,” or “The Angel Makers of Nagyrév.” For one, it was for married women only, and a single woman could not approach them for help in order to get rid of an unwanted lover. It was also prohibited to use the poison on women, for instance to rid a husband of a wife. Additionally, women who were happily married were not told about the service, and they were kept in the dark as the murderous Widow Makers did their grim work all around, extending their operations into the neighboring villages of Szolnok and Tiszakurt. In total, dozens of husbands dropped dead within just the first few months of the murderous cabal’s beginning.
Of course with so many unexplained deaths going on, there was a great deal of fear evoked among the village men and not a small amount of mounting suspicion from authorities. This was where Frazekas’ accomplice would come in; a woman by the name of Susi Olah, who at the tender age of 18 had poisoned her much older and disagreeable husband. Olah’s son-in-law just happened to be the village’s sole coroner, all death certificates were signed by him, and considering that there were no real doctors in the village and little medical supervision at all to begin with, his conclusions were all there was to officially go on. Every suspicious death was written off as a heart attack, drowning, a disease or illness, alcoholism, or some such, with no one really able to question the conclusions. The few other doctors that were present in the poverty stricken region were underpaid, overworked, and didn’t seem to pay much attention to what was going on. Indeed Olah’s presence began to overshadow even that of Fazekas, and she became a rather feared woman within the village, with whispers of her being a witch with potent supernatural powers whom the men of the village were terrified of.
It was not long before the mysterious deaths were spreading beyond the confines of unhappy marriages, and there were those who were willing to purchase the poison to kill for any number of reasons. Straying lovers, elderly parents who had become a burden on the family, abrasive or invalid relatives, the disabled, cripples, deadbeat sons, children that no one could care for, all became fair targets for the poisoning campaign, the original rules and code of honor fading away in the face of hardship and greed. Some murdered for money, carrying out their dark work to inherit estates or collect insurance money. One widow by the name of Juliana Janos Nagy first poisoned a woman so that she could marry the rich husband, but found that she could not stop as she also killed all five of their children before murdering the husband with a deadly dose so that she could ultimately claim for herself the inheritance she had been after all along. Another widow by the name of Palinka over a period of two years poisoned her husband, her parents, two brothers, and her sister-in-law and aunt, all so that she could inherit a house and two and a half acres of land. Many of these deaths that were raging out of control were in direct defiance of the Angel Maker code of honor, which stated that no women or children were to be killed.
Still others took it upon themselves to take vengeance on behalf of other suffering wives. One notorious Angel Maker was a woman who was known as “Smoking Peter”; a hulking, beastly brute of a woman who hated men in general and took to dressing as a man in order to go out undetected amongst them. She was known for teaching disgruntled wives how to poison their husbands, how to stun them with a bash to the back of the head, and how to hang them up with rope or bedsheets in order to make it all look like a suicide. She was eventually believed to have been at least indirectly responsible for around 20 deaths. Another widow, a Balint Czordas, who also happened to be one of the leaders of the Angel Makers, was also responsible for the deaths of around 20 husbands around the village, as well as a few children who were hard to feed and had become a burden in the rough years just after the war.
The poisoning became so rampant and the inexplicable deaths so numerous that by the mid 1920s the village of Nagyrév would eventually earn itself the sinister nickname of “The Murder District.” The mysterious deaths of so many husbands and the increasing number of widows also resulted in a complete lack of any new marriages in the village, as marriage was starting to be seen as akin to a death sentence. Yet for years their was nothing the authorities could do about it, since all of the death certificates showed deaths by natural causes or by means other than cold blooded murder. Although people of the villages of the area had some idea that death had taken more of a liking to them than was usual, there was no evidence to show that any foul play was involved, and so the killing was able to continue unabated for years. Yet there were some detectives who were suspicious of the inordinate number of “natural deaths” of healthy men in the region and went to investigate. When they arrived in the rural villages, they were met with a terrified populace whispering dark rumors of a shadow of death hanging over them and of witches operating in secrecy in the dark away from prying eyes, from which they spun their sinister web. Those who were on to the whole Widow Maker cabal were even able to name one of the ringleaders of it all; Olah herself. One priest who was interviewed by two visiting detectives explained the situation thus:
You’ll find her a formidable opponent, gentlemen. And if she discovers the reason for your visit you will be dead men. The superstitious peasants are terrified of her. They believe she has supernatural powers and as her official capacity as nurse and midwife gives her access to every family, she dominates the entire district. I believe that these murders were originally caused by the grinding poverty of our unfortunate peasantry. The aged, the crippled and unwanted children have sometimes proved too heavy a burden for our poor. Then there were men who drank and beat their wives. These men have gradually disappeared. And in their place the women, under Susi Olah, have gained the upper hand. These villages, gentlemen, are utterly dominated by women. And the men are all afraid for their lives!
Olah herself was questioned, but nothing suspicious at the time was found, and the woman adamantly and convincingly denied any wrongdoing. Indeed, these preliminary investigations were unable to uncover any concrete evidence of a murder syndicate of widows, and were only able to dig up rumors and hearsay. The first major suspicions backed up by some sort of evidence were not focused on the area until Hungary completed its ten-yearly census in 1929. It was then that officials first noticed that the death rate when compared to birth rate for the village of Nagyrév was far higher than usual. A major investigation was launched to look into it, villagers were intensely questioned, and several women were arrested. Some of those who were apprehended broke down and started naming names, including those of the two major ringleaders, Susi Olah and Susanna Fazekas. Authorities arrested Olah and Fazekas, and they were brought in for questioning, yet the two proved to be iron willed women who did not buckle under the interrogation and steadfastly maintained their innocence, and a complete search of the two women’s homes also turned up no evidence of foul play at the time. Making matters more complicated was the fact that one of the women who had pointed the finger at the two later retracted her confession, claiming that police had bullied it out of her, and another committed suicide right in the cell where she had been held. With no hard, physical evidence at hand yet and no real grounds to hold them, Olah and Fazekas were released and allowed to return home.
Their release had instilled within Olah, Fazekas, and the other widows a sense of invincibility, yet suspicion towards the two was still extremely high, and authorities decided to keep an eye on them, sending detectives to follow them wherever they went. They tracked the increasingly paranoid Fazekas and Olah as they made the rounds to others in the Angel Maker syndicate in order to tutor them on how to respond to questioning and also to weed out any who would potentially blab. They also made it a point to try and ease concerns by once again reassuring the widows that arsenic could not be detected in the corpses they had made. Authorities followed the women as they visited dozens of houses under the cover of night, and in the meantime found hidden under the floorboards of Fazekas’s home some solid evidence which had not been detected on previous searches; a huge hoard of flypaper, along with a dozen pint-bottles that had been carefully corked and in which flypaper was soaking in water. Still other bottles contained the resulting concoction of poison left after the flypaper had been removed. Despite finding this stash of poison, authorities decided to keep following the two syndicate leaders covertly and did not let on that they had found anything.
In the meantime, it came to the attention of Olah and Fazekas that despite what they had thought, it turned out that arsenic could indeed be detected in dead bodies through a simple test of the fingernails. This must surely have come as a shock to the two Angel Makers, and they came up with a plan to go to the cemetery with the purpose of removing the headstones of those who had died from poisoning and placing them over the bodies of those who hadn’t, in an effort to fool the authorities. 13 of the widows went to the cemetery to carry out their dark work, and some of the headstones were actually moved before police arrived and the culprits dispersed into the night. It was immediately decided to start exhuming bodies in order to check them for evidence of poisoning, and the next day the graveyard was turned into a temporary morgue as scores of bodies were dug up and tested for arsenic. The results were grim. Many of the bodies indeed tested positive for arsenic poisoning, not only husbands who had died, but some women and children as well, including even the body of a baby. 46 of the 50 bodies dug up at the time showed evidence of poisoning, and in several of the graves were found bottles containing the residue of the poison, as well as even bread or cake that had been saturated with arsenic. The evidence was incriminating to say the least. In the meantime, other villages too were found to harbor the bodies of those killed by arsenic, and it became clear that this had been an insidious crime spree that had spanned throughout the adjacent region.
In light of the findings made from the exhumed corpses, police began the wholesale arrest of around 100 women suspected of being part of the Angel Maker syndicate. Some of those accused were not willing to go quietly, and when police arrived at the house of Fazekas she chose to drink a bottle of her own poison rather than be taken into custody. Others followed suit, with at least four of the imprisoned women committing suicide as well, to the point that those accused were put under careful watch to make sure they did not kill themselves as well. Most of those who went to trial for the murders pleaded innocence, yet even so 26 went to trial, 8 were executed and the others given sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison. Susi Olah would go on to receive the death sentence as well, yet after offering a full confession of what had happened, she would hang herself in her cell before her execution date. With these arrests, the murderous cult of Angel Makers met its demise and some semblance of peace returned to this poverty-stricken rural region that had lived under the threat of death for far too long. It was as if they had finally woken from a vivid nightmare.
To this day there are many mysteries still surrounding the case of the Angel Makers of Nagyrév. It is unknown if those who were punished were even guilty or not, what the exact extent of the syndicate was, and even what their true motives were. It is also not known just how many people met their fate through the sinister actions of the cabal, or how many of the widows still remained at large after all of the arrests had been made. As for Fazekas herself, where she came from, who she really was, and exactly how she managed to keep the serial killings going on for so long are all incompletely understood. These are baffling questions the answers for which we may never know. What we do know is that for over a decade, the quaint village of Nagyrév was held in the grip of fear as this shocking murder spree rampaged through the region and a heart of evil pulsed within its community. The case of the Angel Makers of Nagyrév remains one of the most perplexing and mysterious cases of mass, wholesale murder in history.