“The Angel Makers, The True Story of the Most Astonishing Murder Ring in History” by Patti McCracken (published by Mudlark)
Extrapolation mars a strong enough tale
Well, perhaps serial killing isn’t the sort of thing a country deserves to be remembered for when it can claim world attention for having invented the ballpoint pen, carbonated water, vitamin C, fire extinguishers, the safety match, the telephone exchange and Rubik’s Cube, among a few others. There is a gap there, and Ms McCracken has made a 300-page book out of these lesser-known, peculiar goings-on in Nagyrév.
Here, then, is the tale of a group of women in the early 1900s in a farming village beside the River Tisza who began a poisoning ring led by the local midwife. Suzannah Fazekas, known as “Auntie Suzy”. She relished her position as it brought her not only material benefits such as a home supplied by the village council and a healthy salary, but also an authority over life and death seldom questioned. This is why, and how, Fazekas and her group of serial killers were able to kill with impunity for more than 15 years.
Auntie Suzy was fond of her pipe and brandy, and called herself an “Angel Maker”. These were problematic times for many women in such a Hungarian village. They were born enslaved first to their fathers and then to their husbands. As well as giving birth to more children than they could feed, they often suffered abuse from the men in their families.
Living conditions brought new meaning to the term “dirt poor”, so many turned to the only woman they knew who could help. Auntie Suzy concocted her poison of choice, arsenic extracted from flypaper, to assist the women of Nagyrév and further afield to dispose of bad husbands, inconvenient relatives and troublesome babies who couldn’t be fed due to the mothers’ poverty and lack of breast milk.
Arsenic was put in soup, wine, coffee and brandy. The murder tally was likely more than 160, the author says. This put the midwife in a position of power as it would be a death sentence for the women to reveal their complicity.
It’s an astonishing tale of hubris, greed and narcissism on Auntie Suzy’s part. Unbelievably this went unchecked until a prosecutor began to put clues together. Ultimately, indictments were brought against 66 women and seven men (as accomplices) from Nagyrév, Tiszakürt and Cibakháza. Twenty-nine women and two men went to trial for the murder of 42 men. Sixteen women, and both men, were convicted.
One hundred and sixty two bodies were exhumed. The trials are said to have been sensational and were reported the world over, including nearly every major European, British and American newspaper. There followed hangings, suicides and jail terms. The suicides included Auntie Suzy.
Unfortunately, at least for this reader, the author has chosen a format that sees her story written like a fictional novel. She takes the framework of what happened and then her imagination takes over, fleshing out “details”. Call it extrapolation or speculation. Or adding colour. But if you like your true crime to be straightforward and absolutely factual, then this is probably not the book for you.
The narrative should be interesting enough – and long enough – without the author rising to flights of fancy. A random example: “When her name was called, Auntie Suzie stood up. She waddled to the witness stand, lifting lightly the skirt of her dress as she made her way, as if she were outdoors and might have to dodge a puddle or cross over a ditch. She stepped up onto the stand uneasily, careful not to catch her boot on her hem. She tugged at her dress to adjust the waistband. She stood with her head bowed, her hands clasped at her waist. She looked like a fat tick.”
“ She eyed Ébner. He was as hearty an eater as Michael was, she she could see he took his food far more seriously than most other matters in his life. Auntie Suzy watched as he lifted a forkful over his lip, where the mustache hovered like a hairy guard. Yet he talked still, forcing his words through the heavy terrain of meat on his tongue.”
This style may not be to everyone’s liking. McCracken doesn’t seem to have suffered a paucity of source material, and her descriptive writing is a matter of choice rather than necessity. She points out in an “Author’s Note” that “All events happened as recorded here, or as I believed them to have happened, based on years of research, interviews, trial transcripts, and piecing together the volumes of archival data.
“However, to fill in the gaps, I have had to imagine or assume certain scenarios. I’ve done this with deep respect for the integrity of this case.
“Any dialogue in quotes was taken directly from archival materials.”
Her “Selected Bibliography” is shorter than normal for a book of research such as this, but she does point out that only her primary sources are listed and this is by no means a complete record of all her sources and interviews
She says her list is for those readers who wish to further explore the “arsenic trials” and the circumstances under which they occurred. Sources include the Hungarian National Archives and publications Kis Hirlap, Kis Újság, the New York Times, Pesti Napló, Szolnok Újság and the Magyar Telegráfiai Hirügynökségmti (Hungarian Telegraphic News Agency).
“Proper Peasants: Traditional Life in a Hungarian Village” no doubt helped supply descriptive material for her picture of life in 1920s Nagyrév. McCracken evokes an authentic sense of place and time.
Two contemporary full-page photo spreads are reproduced, undated, one from Kis Hirlap and one from Pesti Napló, showing curious onlookers from other Plains villages peering into the graveyard caretaker’s hut to watch an autopsy being performed, prosecuting attorney John Kronberg, Auntie Suzy, her pantry, gendarmes in the graveyard and rounding up suspects, and women exercising in the prison yard while guards keep watch.
The lyrics to “a Hungarian folk song” are printed: “If your husband has you seething/Belladonna you must feed him/Add some pepper, make it pleasing/He’ll be laid out by the evening.”
Nagyrév was named in 1901, meaning “Big Port”. It’s due east of Kecskemét and due south of Szolnok. In the 1930s there were just under 500 houses. McCracken says some would argue that Nagyrév today is as desolute as it was 100 years ago.
The first-time author is described as an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in the Smithsonian magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and many other publications. She has worked in various newsrooms, including the Chicago Tribune, and was twice a Knight International Press Fellow.