In the early 1900s, the man known as Bela Kiss was to most people just a successful owner of a tinsmith business in the Hungarian village of Cinkota, but no one really knew much about him other than that he had a bit of a reputation as an unrepentant womanizer and liked to throw parties. His past before he had moved to the town in 1900 was murky and he did not have any family or real friends that anyone knew of. However, he was wealthy, handsome, and not too many people would have any idea of his secret life and the darkness lurking beneath his social veneer. So would begin an almost legendary tale of the occult, vampire killings, and a killer on the run who would become almost like a phantom.
Things would begin to get sinister after Bela Kiss got married in 1912 to a woman 15 years his junior. The new wife, Marie would apparently then not long after start a torrid love affair with a local artist by the name of Paul Bikari, and after that people just sort of stopped seeing her or her lover around town. It was odd because she had been such a social butterfly, but when asked about it, Bela just sort of shrugged his shoulders and claimed that she and Bikari had run off together to live in America. He then went back to entertaining lady visitors and conning widows out of money. This was all witnessed by Bela’s housekeeper, who would later say that he often brought these women home as well.
Although he said that his wife had run off, there were those in the neighborhood who weren’t so sure. In the years after Marie disappeared there had been a few things about Bela that for his housekeeper, the landlord of the cottage he rented, and many of his neighbors didn’t exactly sit right. For one he had apparently gotten deeply into the occult, often claimed to be carrying out arcane rituals in his house. This was creepy, but even creepier was that the housekeeper noticed that she would sometimes see women come over, but never saw them actually leave. There was also the fact that he had been seen stockpiling very large metal drums, which he claimed were for containing gasoline for preparing for the looming World War I, yet no one could really figure out why he needed so many. There were also at the time several missing persons in nearby Budapest who were being searched for by police without success, but this was not really seen at the time as being related to Bela Kiss.
While any of these things on their own might have escaped notice, some people were putting two and two together and coming up with red flags. Yet there was not much anyone could do, as Bela had done nothing overtly wrong and he was still well-liked. It would not be until World War I started in 1914 and Bela Kiss was sent off to fight that things would take a turn for the macabre. When Bela was rumored as having died in combat 2 years later, the landlord of the building, who had been quite suspicious of his tenant, decided to go into the property and take a look around, as well as clean it up for the next tenant. His search of the place turned up drawers full of letters from the lonely women he had ripped off, but nothing else suspicious would turn up until he began moving some of the drums of gasoline, thinking he would donate them to the military. However, these would not contain gasoline, but rather something from a nightmare
As soon as the first drum was cracked open it was apparent that something wasn’t right. The drum spewed forth a sickeningly vile stench, and it was soon apparent why, as it contained the corpse of a strangled woman, who seemed to have been pickled and suspended within the drum in some sort of fetid wood alcohol concoction. The authorities were immediately notified, after which a total of 24 bodies would be found in similar drums within the house and buried on the property and in the nearby woods. Two of the bodies were of Bela’s wife, Marie, as well as her lover Bikari, both of who had been strangled to death, other corpses were of the missing women from Budapest, and still others could not be identified. All of the victims were nude, their cause of death strangulation, and most of them had puncture marks in their necks and had been almost entirely drained of blood, indicating Bela had been practicing vampirism, and these bodies had then been stuffed into the drums to be pickled.
Further adding to the surreal horror of it all was a secret room that was found locked, and which contained bookcases overflowing with texts on the occult, vampires, poisons, strangulation, and reams of letters from women. Many of these letters were found to have been from the missing, murdered women, and looking through them it became apparent that in 1903 he had started ripping off lonely middle-aged widows by placing ads in newspapers variously posing as a man looking for marriage, a matrimonial agent, or a fortune teller, calling himself the alias Hoffman, after which he would convince them to give him money and then he would seem to skip off to the next mark. It was also found that two of the women who had disappeared had been victims of his scam who had threatened legal action against him for defrauding them.
Considering all of this, police immediately went about trying to confirm if Bela Kiss had actually died in military service. They learned that he had not actually died, but had been injured and was at that time recovering in a hospital in Serbia. Authorities, thinking they had their man, arrived at the hospital to find that Bela had escaped, leaving the dead body of another soldier in his bed as a decoy. After that the trail went cold, but this was certainly not the end of the strange and grim story of Bela Kiss.
As authorities desperately searched for the man who was coming to be known as “The Hungarian Vampire” and “The Monster of Cinkota,” his legend only grew as sightings of the elusive killer began popping up all over the place. Over the years it was claimed that he had taken up a dead soldier’s identity and was living in Budapest, that he been part of the French Foreign Legion before going on the run again, that he had been imprisoned for burglary in Romania only to escape, and even that he had died of yellow fever, but he continued to be seen in disparate countries all over the world, always melting away like a ghost. In as recently as 1932, Bela Kiss was allegedly seen at New York City’s Times Square by homicide detective Henry Oswald, but he managed to lose his pursuer in a crowd. A few years later, in 1936, there was a pervasive rumor that the now elderly Kiss was working as a janitor at a 6th Avenue apartment complex, but he once again vanished before he could be apprehended.
In the end, Bela Kiss was never caught and his true number of victims that he most likely accrued over those years on the run is unknown. His story has become the stuff of legend, to the point that he is more like a kind of boogieman than an actual person, but he did really exist and he really was a true monster. Why did he do what he did and what really became of him? We will probably never know, and his story remains one of the greatest unsolved serial killer mysteries.