In the early 20th century, it was a tough time to be a lady in Hungary. Teenagers were often married off to men chosen for them. The women, of course, had no say. Divorce was not an option, even if the marriage was a bad and/or abusive one. However, a fascinating shift came with the appearance of a new midwife to the village and the dawn of World War I.
Nagyrév was a small village in Hungary, and the medical expertise available to the citizens was limited at best. Things started looking up around 1911 when Zsuzsanna Fazekas made her way to the village. Sources say that her arrival was the source of much chatter thanks to the mysterious disappearance of her husband prior to her move to the village. However, she had great references, and a midwife would come in pretty handy.
Many of us think of midwives as helping with births, but there were midwives who would also help end pregnancies. Zsuzsanna Fazekas was arrested at least ten times, according to reports, for performing illegal abortions. She was acquitted each time because she argued she was performing a service for impoverished and damaged families.
When World War I started, many of the village’s men went off to fight. It was a difficult and lonely time. However, Nagyrév became the site for a Russian POW camp. Many of the captured soldiers were sent to work on farms that had been abandoned by village citizens who had gone to fight. Loneliness and proximity led to a number of romantic relationships between the “war widows” and the prisoners.
When the war ended and Nagyrév’s men returned, quite a few women had no interest in going back to the way things were before. Some wanted to stay with their new partners. What’s a gal to do? That bring us to the Angel Makers of Nagyrév.
Zsuzsanna Fazekas became a friend and confidant for the village’s women. When approached with tales of pain and unhappiness, Fazekas is believed to have said “If there’s a problem with him, I have a simple solution.” Any guesses what the solution was? If you guessed arsenic, you’d be right. Sorry, I don’t have any prizes to give out.
Fazekas, the first of many Angel Makers, boiled flypaper and turned the poisonous residue into the product for her clients. At this time in Nagyrév, arsenic was a pretty good choice for these nefarious deeds. It could be subtly used in food or drink, it was difficult to detect, and the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were similar to other common ailments at the time. Fazekas had a friend, Susi Oláh, to file falsified death certificates.
After Angel Makers were caught, 40-50 bodies were exhumed and found to have high levels of arsenic poisoning in their systems. The poison became a popular solution to dealing with unwanted people, and it didn’t stop with the husbands. Relatives, frenemies, and rivals also fell to arsenic poisoning. Some sources claim that the number of victims ultimately climbed as high as 100-300.
How were they caught? Well, there’s some debate there. Some sources claim that a medical student in a neighboring town launched an investigation following the discovery of a body. Others claim an anonymous letter to authorities was the end of the Angel Makers. When police went to Zsuzsanna Fazekas’s home, they found her already dead. She would be the final victim of her product. Twenty members of the group would be convicted. Eight would be sentenced to death (though only two were executed) and twelve would be sentenced to prison terms.
While this isn’t a new story, it certainly is intriguing. My faithful readers might recall a post a while ago about Guilia Tofana, a woman whose story has a lot in common with the Angel Makers of Nagyrév. This makes me want to find more stories similar to this to compare and contrast. I’m also curious about the motives here—especially the Angel Makers’. Was it greed? Genuine, albeit misplaced altruism? Perhaps we’ll never know.
*Photo credit: SyFy.com and Getty Images