Two self-made widows were hanged at dawn today in the prison at Szolnok for the murders of their husbands… people came from miles around to witness the executions. The condemned women bade tearful farewells last night to their friends and relatives.
--The Associated Press, June 18, 1931
For years, devotees of old true crime paperbacks and newspapers were tantalized by very brief references to the amazing story of a murder epidemic that took place in Hungary between the wars. Finally, someone has written a book in English about the remarkable case.
Tiszazug: A Social History of a Murder Epidemic by Béla Bodó (East European Monographs, 2002) is a scholarly examination of the systematic murder of no less than fifty people in small Hungarian villages in the Tiszazug region, most notably the village of Nagyrev.
The murders went on unchecked and undiscovered for decades before they were finally made public in 1929 when an anonymous letter to the editor of a small local newspaper accused the women of Tiszazug of poisoning their family members. The authorites swept down upon the region and dug up dozens of corpses from the local cemetery. Thirty-four peasant women and one man were indicted. Many of this large group of murderesses—headed by a midwife and the local undertaker—were put on trial for using fly poison to rid themselves of abusive husbands and other nuisances. Some were sentenced to death and some to long prison terms.
This book is deeply impressive for many reasons. It was written by a Hungarian-American historian who grew up in the region, heard some of the gossip, has read the Hungarian sources about the crimes and trials, and has written a masterful account of them. The book is replete with photographs of the women involved; trial transcript excerpts; extensive footnotes; and the author's personal account of the violence and poverty that marked Hungarian village life. He puts the crimes in their historical and social context, and he provides some explanation for why they occurred, as perhaps no other author could. This is far more than an impressive piece of scholarship - it's a fascinating exploration of an stunning true case.
It is such a definitive book about the case, there is unlikely to be another, though I thought there was plenty of room for further exploration of the individual motives of the women involved. But as the author remarks, the resources available today “made the drawing of individual portraits difficult and the reconstruction of individual motives all but impossible.” The author invites scholars of other disciplines to examine this case. A fictional treatment would suit me fine.
UPDATE -- November 2005: A fictional treatment is in fact on the way! See my new post "Nagyrev Redux" for details.