Transcript: 191. The Angel Makers of Nagyrév | Hungary

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In today's modern world, the right to leave an unhappy marriage and divorce your spouse is widely possible for both men and women – even though the laws differ from country to country and religious organisations oppose it. Throughout history, marriage has been considered a divine institution. Couples say their vows in front of God and a congregation of family and friends, promising to stay together. The phrase that echoes through wedding ceremonies around the world is ‘till death do us part."

Not so long ago, back in the 1900s, breaking free from their unhappy relationships – even if their husbands were abusive – was practically impossible for Hungarian women. That was until they discovered a way to ensure that the "till death do us part" bit happened at their soonest convenience.

>>Intro Music

Nagyrév is a tiny farming village on the banks of river Tisza in central Hungary, about 80 miles southeast of Budapest. In the early 1900s, this quiet town of just about 800 people did not consist of much other than a few muddy roads, single-story cottages, a church and a pub – the necessities. One rather important aspect, however, was missing. If a resident happened to get sick or otherwise needed immediate medical attention, it usually meant traveling or a long wait as there was no hospital or even one doctor in Nagyrév.

That all changed when a stranger arrived in the village in 1911. Interestingly, the name of the main character of this case varies depending on the source. Some call her Zsuzsanna Fazekas or Zsuzsanna Olah, others Julia Fazekas. Some even say Zsuzsanna Olah and Julia Fazekas were two different people and accomplices, when in reality, these were just two names of the same woman. Nevertheless, the woman's maiden name was Zsuzsanna Olah, and she apparently went by Madame Julius Fazekas or Julia Fazekas, the name borrowed from her husband, Julius Fazekas.

Besides her name, the villagers of Nagyrév did not get to know much more about Julia and her past. No one really knew where she came from, even though she did have several strong references from doctors praising her expertise as a midwife. Strangely, Julia was indeed married, but her husband did not arrive at the village with her, nor did anyone ever meet him. Julius Fazekas had apparently gone missing without explanation. A detail that did not seem to worry Julia.

Soon after she had settled into her new home at the far end of the main street, Julia became the much-needed source of medical help in Nagyrév. With her basic nursing skills and midwifery experience, Julia was the closest thing to a doctor that the villagers had. Eventually, she became invaluable, especially to the women of Nagyrév.

Back in the 1900s, being a woman did not come without its challenges. Women were regarded less important than men, the weaker sex who needed protection and support from their husbands. Independence was completely out of the question. As soon as a woman married, they lost the right to own property or sign legal documents, and even if the marriage was not happy, laws and religious beliefs made it nearly impossible to escape.

In 20th-century Hungarian society, marriages were arranged. Women had absolutely no way of affecting who their parents would select as a suitable husband. Unfortunately, it was not rare for the bride to be very young, even just 14-years-old and the husband much older. Needless to say, there were often no romantic feelings between betrothed couples, and harsh living conditions in the village did not make the situation any easier. Nagyrév was extremely poverty-stricken and living under constant stress often caused to problems, especially if drinking was involved. But even if their husband were alcoholic and/or abusive, women in Nagyrév could not divorce them, due to Hungary being a devout Catholic country.

These women confided in Julia Fazekas about their domestic concerns. Julia's advice was valued as much as her medical skills… The women of Nagyrév also had the possibility to terminate unwanted pregnancies, thanks to Julia’s discreet help.

In the village, newborns were not always seen as a blessing but rather a burden. The families simply could not afford more than one child when there was barely enough food to feed anyone. The one-child practice also guaranteed that when the parents would eventually die, their land would not be divided between several children. So if a woman in Nagyrév found herself unwantedly pregnant, Julia Fazekas was called in, even though abortion was illegal. Before long, the villagers began to call Julia "Angel Maker." The name was initially an innocent and gentle euphemism for Julia's profession, but in time a whole other meaning was attached to it.

Julia's expertise became even more needed when men were sent off to fight at the front for Austria-Hungary as the First World War began in 1914. During that time, Nagyrév served as a base for a holding camp for the Allied prisoners of war. While Nagyrév women were almost solely responsible for all the work in the village and life was even more difficult, the women also enjoyed their freedom as "war widows." For the first time ever, they were able to have romantic affairs with men they actually had feelings for – and there were more than enough Russian prisoners for everyone. So much so that some women had several lovers at the same time.

Contraception was not yet very advanced, and the Catholic Church considered it intrinsically evil. So, some of these affairs inevitably resulted in unwanted pregnancies. Julia, however, was more than happy to help. She became such a busy woman performing clandestine abortions it was not that surprising she was eventually arrested more than once. Between 1911 to 1921, Julia stood before a judge at least ten times for performing illegal abortions, but each time, she was let go. Likely, the judges understood the challenges of wartime and, in addition, did not want to send the only medical caregiver of Nagyrév to prison. Their decisions allowed Julia to continue to help the women in the village, but in a far more sinister way than any judge could ever imagine.

Eventually, the men of Nagyrév returned from the battlefields—many of them wounded, crippled or out of their minds after seeing and experiencing the horrors of war. The reunion with their wives was far from happy or even warm. The men were estranged, and Nagyrév women had learnt to live without their husbands during the war years. For a long, long time, the women had made all the decisions by themselves and grown to love their independence. Without their husbands, the women remembered they were actually individuals too with their own ideas and needs. And after the war, they were supposed to get back together with their spouses and be under that man's control for the rest of their lives. Needless to say, Nagyrév women strongly resented the idea of losing their freedom again. They had been having fun with the POWs knowing they were never bound to them. If there only was a way to keep things that way…

As they had done so many times before, the women of Nagyrév lined up outside Julia Fazekas’ door. They poured out their feelings about the situation to her, and how unfair it was they could not divorce their violent, alcoholic or crippled husbands. Much to the Nagyrév women's surprise, Julia said:

"Why put up with them? I have a solution."

It all began one cold night in 1914 when a woman by the name of Mrs. Takacs came to Julia seeking help after her husband had once again been drinking and hitting her in a drunken rage. While Mrs. Takacs sat there with her arms wrapped around herself, Julia stewed something on the stove. As the liquid inside the pot began to boil, Julia removed it from the flame. She then filled a small vial with the odorless liquid before placing it on the kitchen table. Mrs. Takacs stared at the tiny vial without saying a word. But as soon as Julia turned back to her stove, she heard a rustle of cloth and a door opening. Both Mrs. Takacs and the vial were gone.

Two days later, news of Mr. Takacs suddenly dying of a heart attack saddened the village. Julia watched his funeral from the porch of her home at the end of the main street. She knew the word would spread quickly and so she returned inside and put another pot of water on the stove.

The night Mrs. Takacs had come to her, Julia had been boiling pieces of flypaper, which back then were saturated with metallic arsenic – a toxic chemical dangerous to both humans and animals. By soaking the paper in the water, Julia extracted the arsenic for other uses – where she had originally gotten the idea, nobody knows.

As Julia predicted, more women began to appear at her door seeking the magical potion that would set them free from their unhappy marriages. Before long, the demand was so high Julia started selling arsenic for money – the price was different for everyone, and each woman paid just what they could afford. To each of her clients, Julia told them they could tip the tasteless poison into soup or coffee, and their husbands would not know a thing. She also assured the women that the arsenic was untraceable in the body – not that there was initially anyone examining the bodies. Nevertheless, Julia's claim was not exactly true.

A person needs to ingest or inhale high levels of arsenic for poisoning to occur, which can easily happen as it doesn't have a taste or odour. The symptoms include headache, red or swollen skin, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, abnormal heart rhythm and muscle cramps. Long-term exposure can cause things like darkening of the skin and persistent digestive issues. In high dosages, around 70 to 200 mg at once, or after no treatment in severe cases, arsenic poisoning will result in coma and eventually death.

Throughout history, arsenic has been a popular choice of weapon. A Greek physician in the court of the Roman Emperor Nero, Dioscorides [Dee-os-corri-dees], mentioned arsenic as a poison in the first century. Since then, there have been legends saying there was a period when poisoning was so common that few believed kings, princes and cardinals died of natural causes – even though the stories were likely exaggerated. Nevertheless, due to its lack of colour, odour and taste, arsenic was ideal for sinister purposes, especially due to its availability. In addition, the symptoms of arsenic can mimic food poisoning and other common illnesses, so nobody necessarily questioned if a person suddenly died after violent abdominal cramping and vomiting.

It says a lot that Julia Fazekas was not even the first one initiating mass husband-killings with arsenic poisoning. In the 1600s, a woman named Giulia Tofana developed the Aqua Tofana, a mixture of arsenic and lead that she sold to unhappy wives. It's believed to be responsible for the deaths of 600 men in Rome, but in the end, she was caught and executed. In 1882, there were two separate cases of Hungarian women getting rid of husbands. One of them, Lyukas Kathi, sold little cakes saturated with arsenic to women and killed two of her own husbands—in the end, she was accused of 26 murders and sentenced to death by hanging. The fates of the women poisoning their husbands do not sound promising, but Julia Fazekas’ clients trusted her. They fully believed her when she promised that the arsenic would not traceable after death—which explains why the men of Nagyrév began dropping like flies.

It was hard not to notice that all of a sudden, healthy men were dying one after the other, suffering frightfully similar symptoms. Having no other explanation for what was going on, some of the villagers began whispering about evil spirits and witchcraft, wondering if they were punished for something. Unknowingly to them, they were not haunted by demons but simply humans. There had been as many as fifty women knocking on Julia Fazeka's door and purchasing a small vial from her. Together, these women formed a group called the ‘Angel Makers of Nagyrév.’

In the beginning, there were a few rules the Angel Makers had to abide by. First of all, only unhappily married women were allowed to know about the group and join. Single women and women in happy marriages were not told about their activities. Men obviously could not be part of the Angel Makers of Nagyrév and get help to kill their wives – overall, poisoning women and children was forbidden. But as time passed, the rules became murkier.

There was one thing that made the Angel Makers' mission even easier. Apparently, Julia knew the only coroner of the village. Some accounts say the coroner was her son-in-law or cousin, but this is one of those points of the story where details are a bit unclear. Others say that Julia had an accomplice, a woman called Susi Oláh, whose husband Julia helped to poison and whose son-in-law was the coroner. But again, Julia's maiden name was Zsuzsanna Olah – or Susi Olah—they were one and the same person.

Nevertheless, the coroner was helping the Angel Makers by writing and signing all the death certificates. Even though the husbands were dying of arsenic poisoning, the causes of death were marked as heart attacks, common diseases and alcoholism. As there were no other medical professionals around, nobody questioned the findings or even paid attention to what was going on in the tiny village of Nagyrév. But that would change as soon as the killings spiralled out of control.

Eventually – likely because they felt poisoning someone without getting into trouble was so easy – the widows in the village began to hunt new prey. As their husbands were already gone, the women targeted anyone else who was considered a burden. Elderly parents began to die, and then other relatives, even children, if the women felt they could not afford to feed them. Also, anyone who was disabled or otherwise could not take care of themselves had to go. To these women, murder was the answer to everything, whether the motive was greed, convenience or simply boredom. They utterly forgot about the rules of the Angel Makers of Nagyrév.

A woman named Marie Kardos poisoned her husband, then her lover and sickly 23-year-old son. Marie showed a flicker of motherly love to his son in his last moments. She moved his bed outside so he could enjoy the warm autumn day while Marie fed him soup. At some point, she remembered how her boy had sung so splendidly in church and asked him to sing her favourite song. For a while, he did – until he suddenly gripped his stomach and died.

Another woman named Palinka had gone to Julia like so many others just to get help to kill her husband. But when Palinka realised poisoning was so easy and effective, she got rid of her parents, two brothers, sister-in-law, and aunt just to get a house and two and a half acres of land for herself. Palinka had a particular way of killing her victims: she would give them just enough arsenic so their stomachs would cramp. Palinka then headed out to get medicine, and as she returned, she gave generous spoonsful of that medicine to the victim. Of course, the bottle was actually filled with arsenic and quickly sent the victims to their graves instead of curing them.

One time, there were earwitnesses who heard the victim's cries. Neighbors of Lydia Csery and her family later said Lydia's father had screamed:

"May the Devil take Lydia! She had brewed us tea which has killed us!"

Then there was Maria Vagra, who poisoned her blind war veteran husband after he had complained about his wife having sex with her lover in their home. It took 24 hours for Maria's husband to die after consuming arsenic, and every second must have been agony. Five years later, Maria killed her lover. There was no such a thing as ending a relationship in a normal way, even if you were not married.

Julia Lipka poisoned seven of her family members, including her husband and stepmother, before instructing the woman next door how to do it too:

"I was so sorry for the wretched woman. I gave her a bottle of poison and told her that if nothing else helped her marriage to try that."

In addition, there was Balint Czordas, who poisoned some of her children because there were too many mouths to feed. And Maria Szendi, who killed her husband because "he always had his way." In turn, Rosalie Sebestyen and Rose Hoyba said the men simply bored them.

People were dying left, right, and center. Nobody really knows the actual number of victims in the village, but it was dozens or even hundreds. Eventually, the sudden deaths began to spread to the neighbouring town of Tiszakurt, and by 1929, Nagyrév was labelled as "the murder district."

At this point, the Angel Makers had been in operation for more than a decade. While frightened villagers had tried to inform authorities of their suspicions of women poisoning people, there was no other evidence to support their claims. Even if the police did sometimes take a closer look at the deaths in Nagyrév, all the death certificates stated a clear and seemingly truthful cause of death. However, when the police chief at Szolnok received one of the anonymous letters in 1929 informing him of the mysterious deaths of men, he thought it was better to investigate. And so, the chief sent detectives Bartok and Frieska to Nagyrév.

As they arrived at the village, the detectives went straight to the local inn. There sat four men, who Bartok and Frieska now tried to question—but only one was willing to say a few words:

"See the padre. He'll tell you."

Padre seemed as frightened as everybody else as he rushed the detectives inside and pulled down the blinds. Just then, he told Bartok and Frieska they had come none too soon, saying the villagers lived in the constant fear of death. Nobody understood why healthy and robust men kept getting sick and dying. However, Padre had heard a rumour that midwife Julia Fazekas had poisoned Frau Szabo's father in the spring. When Padre went to question Frau Szabo, she denied the rumour, but alarmingly, just an hour after drinking the tea she had offered, Padre himself had become terribly ill.

Bartok and Frieska could not believe what they were hearing, especially as Padre continued telling them about Julia's relationship with the coroner. As the detectives realised Julia was the woman whose name was mentioned in the anonymous letter, Padre warned them by saying:

"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."

As it became more and more evident the crazy story had at least some truth in it, the detectives wanted to know if Padre had any idea why Julia and the women were doing these horrible things. He explained how the murders were likely initially caused by the poverty of their unfortunate peasantry—there had simply been too many mouths to feed. Then there were the men who drank too much and beat up their wives, who gradually disappeared. Everybody's lives were controlled by the women, as Padre said:

"These villages, gentlemen, are utterly dominated by women. And the men are all afraid for their lives!"

Bartok and Frieska had just enough time to say nobody needed to be afraid now as long as they were there before they heard a terrible scream. As they ran outside back towards the inn, Frieska suddenly tripped. He had fallen over a body of a man who the detectives recognised as the same person who had told them to visit the priest—the uncle of Frau Szabo. That was all the evidence the detectives needed – they were now convinced people of Nagyrév were hunted down one by one. Detective Frieska knew they had to act quickly, and so he decided to try a risky move.

Right then and there, Detective Frieska walked to Frau Szabo's house and, without giving her a moment to think, accused her of killing her uncle. The bold move worked better than Frieska had even dared to hope: Frau Szabo broke down and confessed not only to poisoning her uncle but to the murder of her father as well. And she did not stop there. She continued naming several other women who had murdered their husbands and the head of the whole operation, Julia Fazekas.

The confession resulted in Julia and six others being arrested and questioned – all of them maintained their innocence. Meanwhile, Frau Szabo suddenly retracted her confession claiming she had been forced to do so. What would the detectives do with a false admission made by a frightened old lady? They did not have other evidence to prove their case, even after searching the women's houses. In the end, the police did not have any other option than to let Julia and all the other women go – except for Frau Szabo.

It seemed like a victory to the Angel Makers – but Julia would make a huge mistake straight after her release. While she appeared to be untouchable to the villagers, she did not feel like it anymore. She was scared. And so, as soon as she returned to Nagyrév, she began to knock on the doors of her former clients, warning them and telling them not to say a word about their mission. What Julia did not know was that the detectives were now shadowing her. At each house, Bartok noted the name of each family, feeling sure they would have a list of every woman involved in the poisonings.

Meanwhile, Balint Czordas, who was one of the leading figures of the Angel Makers, decided to visit a chemist in Budapest. She likely wanted to hear reassuring words that arsenic indeed could not be traced in the bodies of the victims. Instead, the chemist told her traces of the poison could be found even years after the death when there is no longer flesh left on the bones as arsenic accumulates in the hair and nails. Julia had been terribly wrong with her assumption.

After learning the shocking truth, Balint rushed back to Nagyrév and told Julia what she had just found out. The cemetery of the village was full of evidence that could ruin them all. Panicking, thirteen widows decided to fool the detectives—they would go to the cemetery and remove headstones from the graves of their victims and replace them with headstones of those they had not killed. That way, no poison would be found even if the police examined the bodies.

But the very same night the widows headed to the cemetery, so did Detective Bartok, who had already thought about exhuming bodies. As he approached the graveyard, Bartok saw a dim light and then the heads of a group of women. He slunk behind a massive headstone and observed what was going on. Bartok could not hear the conversation as he was too far, but he saw Julia, who picked up a spade and began to pry up a small headstone. Four women then moved the loose headstone to another grave before doing the same again. At that point, Bartok understood what they were up to—the women were not digging up bodies but shuffling up the headstones. It was almost unbelievable, but Detective Bartok saw it with his own eyes. If he had not been there at that moment, the toxicology reports of the remains could have been all wrong, showing no traces of poison whatsoever. But Bartok was, and now, he emerged behind the stone holding his revolver and blowing a police whistle. On hearing the noise, the women froze as Bartok summoned other officers to come and arrest them.

The following day the gravedigger and ten men began exhuming the bodies. Soon, the cemetery was turned into a morgue where doctors and lab techs from Szolnok worked for hours testing the remains for traces of arsenic. The results were terrifying. Dozens of bodies were found to contain arsenic—not just men but women and even children. In addition, investigators found dried up arsenic within bottles inside the coffins. Apparently, that was the Angel Makers' way of getting rid of the evidence.

As a result of the horrible discoveries, around 80 widows were arrested – but not Julia Fazekas. She chose to go the same way all the victims had gone before her. When Julia saw the officers walking towards her house, she took her own poison. By the time police god inside, Julia was already dead.

There are many different accounts of Julia's life before she arrived in Nagyrév and how it all started. But one thing seems to be sure—she also poisoned her own husband. Some say Julia even had two husbands, and both of them died the same way. Whichever account holds the truest, there was no doubt it was not Julia's first time boiling flypaper soup when Mrs. Takacs came for help that one night.

Dutch filmmaker, Astrid Bussink – who created a documentary called The Angelmakers in 2005 – described Julia by saying:

"In my opinion this midwife, Zsuzanna Fazekas, was very important. All the village women talked to her. She encouraged the women to do it. In fact she had a little business going. She told them, if you feel oppressed, you can get out of that situation. She had the power to convince people. They didn't see what they were doing as murder. And if your husband died, you inherited the property. And then you would be in a better position to marry someone else."

Following Julia's death, the police questioned the remaining ‘Angel Makers’. Balint Czordas confessed to helping poison some twenty men and a few of her own children. Soon after, Balint also committed suicide by hanging herself with a rope inside her cell in prison. Three other widows who were held in the same cell did not interfere.

In the end, around 26 women were put on trial. Some of them showed open hostility at court – Rose Glyba, for example, shouted to the judge she had never heard about the Ten Commandments and especially the 'Thou shalt not kill'-part.

Juliane Lipka, the woman who had poisoned her whole family, kept asking when she could go home. Somehow, Julia genuinely believed she would eventually be set free and was more concerned about her land being auctioned than anything else.

During the trial, a grocer from a nearby town testified as to the supplier of the flypaper. According to them, more flypaper had been sold in Nagyrév than in the rest of Hungary during the preceding decade.

Allegedly, one of the women cried out at her trial, implying that killing someone with poison is not a real murder:

"We are not assassins! We did not stab our husbands. We did not hang them or drown them either! They died from poison, and this was a pleasant death for them!"

No matter the way of killing, the Angel Makers of Nagyrév still ended the lives of anywhere between 40 and 300 people. To pay for their sins, five of the widows were hanged, ten went to jail for life.

Finally, the fear that had held the people of Nagyrév in its tight grip for such a long time began to subside. Still, the police also exhumed bodies in the nearby town of Tiszakurt and found traces of arsenic, but nobody was arrested. There was no way of knowing how many women exactly had been involved in the Angel Makers and how many of them remained at large. Those who were not arrested surely tried to continue their lives as quietly as possible.

Today, historians are still puzzled about how the women of Nagyrév turned to murder so easily. In the end, they did not just get rid of their husbands but anyone who was even a slight burden. It seems like the ease of use of arsenic and the extreme poverty, boredom, and greed created the optimal circumstances for the women to turn into mass murderers. As Astrid Bussink said:

"For centuries, the village women had been told that they could not live without men. Then the war came, and they found they were fine without men, in fact, better than before because they were no longer abused."

If they had kept following the original rules of the Angel Makers, who knows how much longer the sinister mission of the women of Nagyrév could have continued.

But while the murders stopped, the effect of the Angel Makers of Nagyrév remained for quite some time – as an 83-year-old inhabitant of the village, Maria Gunya said in 2004. After the poisonings started: “The men's behaviour improved markedly.”

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