The Angel Makers of Nagyrév

Aug 1, 2022 0 comments

About sixty miles southeast of Budapest, on the River Tisza, lies a quiet little village with a horrible past. It was here in Nagyrev, a century ago, the womenfolk began killing off their husbands en masse. They have been called “the Angel Makers.”

It all began with the arrival of a woman named Zsuzsanna Fazekas in 1911. Fazekas presented herself as a midwife. Some sources claim that she brought with her notes of recommendations from several doctors that praised her of her nursing duties. If Fazekas’ murky past did raise a few eyebrows (her husband had apparently gone missing under mysterious circumstances), nobody said anything. Nagyrév did not have a doctor at that time, and so Fazekas was readily accepted as their village midwife and “wise woman”.

The Angel Makers of Nagyrév during their trial in 1929. Photo by Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Fazekas treated the villagers with their health problems. The women of Nagyrév liked her because she would patiently listen to their intimate problems, including domestic ones, and offer advice. Soon Fazekas gained a reputation for helping women get rid of unwanted babies. Between 1911 and 1921, she allegedly performed as many as ten illegal abortions.

In those times in Hungarian society, arranged marriages were common. Teenage girls were married off with older men chosen for them by their families. Divorce was not allowed socially, even if the husband was an alcoholic or abusive. Many women, as was the case in Nagyrév, were left in loveless and fraught marriages with men who they were often afraid of. So when World War 1 came and the men were sent off to fight, the women breathed a collective sigh of relief. At the same time, an Allied prisoners of war camp was set up outside the town. The POWs were drafted to work in the fields in the absence of the men. With their husbands away, many women got romantically involved with the young soldiers.

After the war, some of Nagyrév’s men returned to the village and this made the women unhappy. They had gotten used to their sexual freedom and no longer willed to return to a life of subservience. They turned towards Fazekas for help.

Fazekas persuaded the beleaguered women to get rid of their burdensome husbands. She took strips of flypaper and boiled them in a vessel filled with water, until the paper gave off its active ingredient, arsenic, which collected in a thin film on top of the water. Fazekas skimmed off the toxic residue and bottled them in small vials. Fazekas instructed the women to add the poison to their husband’s dinner or coffee.

Soon healthy men began to drop dead like flies.

As the years rolled by, more and more women came to Fazekas for her service, and it wasn’t just insufferable husbands who died. Parents, children and relatives too fell victim. Some even poisoned one another. The figures for how many people died in Nagyrév from arsenic poisonings vary wildly. It is claimed that other villages in the area were also up to the same thing, and that in all 300 people may have been killed.

The murders went undetected for nearly two decades because Fazekas was the only doctor in the village. Nobody questioned when Fazekas said this one died from cholera and this one from diarrhea. Fazekas' accomplice, Susi Oláh, filed the death certificates that indicated natural causes of death.

The plot came to light in 1929 when an anonymous letter to the editor of a small local newspaper accused women from the Tiszazug region of the country of poisoning family members. Authorities exhumed over 50 bodies from the village cemetery; 46 of them contained arsenic.

Thirty four women and one man were arrested. In the end, eight were sentenced to death but only two were executed. Another twelve received prison sentences. Fazekas committed suicide before she could be arrested.

In the nearby town of Tiszakurt, other exhumed bodies were found to contain arsenic, but no-one was convicted of their deaths. In the 1950s, historian Ferenc Gyorgyev met an old villager while in prison under the communists. The peasant claimed that the women of Nagyrev “had been murdering their menfolk since time immemorial”.

The story of Nagyrév’s killings is a shameful part of Hungary’s history. But the village pastor wants to turn the unhappy history to their advantage by opening an arsenic museum in the village so people can live with their past instead of hiding. In 2004, BBC went to Nagyrév to open up some old wounds. They met with Maria Gunya, who was a little girl when her father, a local official, was asked by the police to help investigate the crimes. When she grew up and moved out of her village, she denied where she belonged to out of shame.

Nagyrev came to prominence in 2005 when a documentary directed by the young Dutch film-maker Astrid Bussink, premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The director spent four months in the village talking to residents, collecting facts and anecdotes.

“We had a hard time getting people to talk. They are not supposed to talk about it and they hadn't talked about it for a long time, so we went about it very carefully,” Bussink said. “What struck us was that the older women were very easy about the crimes; they did not talk about them as if they were serious. The men were in the way.”

Bussink discovered that there was no one single motive behind the murders. “There were a lot of different circumstances: poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, the First World War. Lots of men came home after being prisoners-of-war, some were crippled, they were unable to work.”

Nagyrev's mayor, Istvan Burka, added: “The injured soldiers came home to a severe economic depression. It was a hard life. The circumstances were extreme, and feeding another mouth that couldn't contribute anything was too much of a burden on the family.”

“Women back then were not treated that well - but that is not a justification for what they did,” Bussink said.

For a while, however, murdering their husbands did seem to work. The murders struck fears in the heart of Nagyrév’s men. And as Maria Gunya puts it, “after this the men's behavior to their wives improved markedly.”


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