Between 1914 and 1929, a group of women known as the Angel Makers of Nagyrév poisoned an estimated 300 people to death in the rural town of Nagyrév, Hungary. By the end of the poisoning spree, the town had earned the fitting nickname of “The Murder District”.
The mastermind behind it all, Júlia Fazekas, arrived to the town in 1911. She worked as a midwife and had already been imprisoned on ten separate occasions for performing illegal abortions. She was acquitted each time by judges who were in favor of abortion.
Being a widow, she arrived to Nagyrév, Hungary without her husband, but offered no explanation of his death.
In Hungary, women rarely, if ever, married for love during this time. It was customary that parents chose the future husband of their teenage daughters, pushing young women into marriage whether they agreed to it or not. To make the situation even more difficult, divorce was not an option at the time—even in cases of alcohol abuse or violence.
During World War I, Hungary began sending off its young men to fight in the war. At the same time, due to its rural location, Nagyrév, Hungary became a major encampment for Prisoners of War. The Prisoners of War had limited freedoms throughout the town and, as a result, many of the town’s women entered into affairs with these foreign soldiers.
At the end of the war, the foreign soldiers returned home, hoping to continue their lives as they were before the war. Many of them even knew about their wives affairs and only wished to leave the past in the past and continue on with their marriage.
For many women, the thought of returning to a forced or unhappy marriage was unbearable. This is when Júlia Fazekas, along with her accomplice Susi Oláh, saw the opportunity to launch a local business of sorts. They began selling arsenic, created by boiling flypaper and scraping off the toxic substance, and encouraging women to poison their husbands.
Júlia Fazekas’s cousin allegedly worked as the town clerk responsible for issuing death certificates, which helped prevent gossip and investigations into the unusually high death rates.
Many women took advantage of the opportunity, disguising the arsenic in jams and other foods. Although many of the men were innocent, they died an agonizing death. And the poisoning didn’t stop there. People began poisoning their parents as well, either as a way of relieving themselves from the burden of being a caretaker or as a way of accessing their inheritance money.
Some women even began to poison their children, supported by Júlia’s encouragement. She told them, “why put up with them?”
After nearly 25 years, the murders came to light—though exactly how they came to light is unknown. There are three distinct theories.
The first one is that a local woman, Mrs. Szabó, was about to poison two of her guests. The guests found out her intentions before the incident and reported her to the authorities. She put the blame on Mrs. Bukenoveski, another local woman, who pointed the authorities in the direction of Júlia Fazekas.
Another theory suggests that the body of one of the victims washed up in a neighboring town and a medical student there found high levels of arsenic in the corpse. Perhaps the most accepted theory is that an anonymous letter was sent to the editor of a local newspaper, blaming the women of the town for the abnormally high death rates in recent years.
Regardless of how the murders were found out, the bodies of those who had died within the last 25 years or so were exhumed and autopsies were performed. Twenty-six women were put on trial for the deaths. Twelve served a prison sentence and eight were sentenced to death, but only two of the eight were actually executed.
It’s surprising in itself how long these women, and Júlia Fazekas, were able to get away with their crimes. Perhaps more mysterious still is why they committed the crimes in the first place. Was it the need to get out of a forced marriage? Simply to get rid of their bothersome husbands? Or some other reason that may never be known?