Nagyrev is a small village south-east of Budapest. With a line of modest single-storey
houses it looks like any other village in Hungary, but Nagyrev hides a dark secret. Nearly a century
ago, during World War I, the place was the scene of horrible crimes. According to some estimates,
as many as 300 men died there. They weren’t killed in the war though, but by their own wives.
What were the motives behind the murders? It is said that when the men returned from the front,
they couldn’t work effectively because of the wounds they had received in battles against the
Russians. Disabled husbands were too much of a burden. Some reports also say that the women
had taken lovers from among the Russian prisoners of war who worked on the farms in the
absence of the men. However, most historians believe that when the husbands returned, the
women disliked their sudden loss of freedom and, one by one, decided to act.
This is when Mrs. Fazekas, a local midwife, began secretly persuading the women to poison
their husbands using arsenic made by boiling flypaper. For a small fee, it was possible for women
to get rid of their husbands without any questions asked. On some occasions, the midwife would
murder men for free. There was just one restriction: this remarkable murder service was for
married women only. No unmarried woman could have an unfaithful lover punished by death.
The poisoning soon became a fashion. There was such a great demand for the service that
Mrs. Fazekas didn’t have time to camouflage her activity. She just put the bottles of arsenic-contaminated medicine in the victims’ coffins, never thinking that the bodies would be exhumed.
So why did it take over 18 years to discover the killings? Well, in Nagyrev, like in many parts of
Hungary after the war, there was extreme poverty. There were neither doctors nor police officers
in the region, so death certificates were not checked properly. In fact, all of them were signed by
a local coroner who happened to be Mrs. Fazekas’s son-in-law. This made the murder service
Only once was Mrs. Fazekas’s business under threat. It was when another midwife moved
to the village. Convinced that the woman wanted to steal her livelihood, Mrs. Fazekas poisoned her.
The neighbours and the victim’s grown-up son were certain that Mrs. Fazekas was behind the
killing. However, the son failed to prove the midwife’s role in the death of his mother. The villagers
were too scared to testify as Mrs. Fazekas threatened to burn down the house of anyone who gave
evidence against her. Driven by desperation, the man tried to shoot her but he missed. He was
imprisoned for the attempted murder. This allowed Mrs. Fazekas to continue her business.
There are several conflicting accounts of how the crimes were finally detected. Some
people claim that two men managed to survive poisoning attempts and they informed the police. In
another account, a medical student in a neighbouring town found high arsenic levels in a body that
washed up on the riverbank, leading to an investigation. However, according to Bela Bodo,
a Hungarian-American historian, the murders were made public in 1929 when an anonymous
letter to a local newspaper accused women from Nagyrev of poisoning family members.
At first, the police thought it was just a practical joke. Nevertheless, a formal investigation
started. The women involved in the crimes didn’t panic however, even when exhumations started.
Certain that the poison couldn’t be traced after such a long time, they calmly continued their
everyday duties. However, the widows lost their confidence after a conversation with a local
chemist. He told one of them that arsenic could be easily traced in the hair and finger nails long
after the body had been buried. When the news spread, some of the women tried to escape from
the village. Some attempted to bribe police officers, but it was too late - the detectives had already
discovered the shocking truth. As a result of these horrible findings, over 80 widows were arrested.
Most of them received a long prison sentence or went to jail for life. Only five were hanged. As for
Mrs. Fazekas, she escaped the punishment by taking some of her own “medicine”. By the time the
police reached her house to arrest her, she was already dead.