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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 01:15 GMT 02:15 UK
Unearthing Hungary husband murders
By Jim Fish
BBC World Affairs correspondent, Nagyrev, Hungary

A two-hour drive south-east of Budapest, the village of Nagyrev is like countless others dotted across the Danubian plain.

Modest single-storey homes line its few muddy streets. But beneath its pastoral exterior, Nagyrev nurses a dark secret.

Arrested women
Twenty six women from the village were put on trial
Nearly a century ago, with World War I raging, the womenfolk here began to poison their husbands.

Now aged 83, Maria Gunya was a little girl when her father, a local official, was asked by the police to help investigate a series of unexplained deaths in the village.

It turned out that the woman behind many of the deaths was the village midwife, Zsuzsanna Fazekas. At that time, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there was no resident doctor or health service.

The midwife enjoyed a monopoly of basic medical training.

By the time they reached the house, she was already dead - she took some of her own poison
Maria Gunya
"The women used to come to Mrs Fazekas with their problems," Mrs Gunya recalls.

She said that when they complained about their drunken or violent husbands, Mrs Fazekas told them: "If there's a problem with him, I have a simple solution".

That solution was arsenic, distilled by the midwife by soaking flypaper in water.

Over the years, with the village cemetery filling up, police suspicions grew. They started to exhume bodies.

Out of 50 bodies examined, 46 contained arsenic. Fingers pointed towards the midwife.

Trials

Mrs Fazekas lived in a typical single-storey house in the village, with a view from her covered porch down the full length of the street. It was here that she developed her murderous skills into a cottage industry of death. She saw the police coming.

Maria Gunya takes up the story: "When she saw the gendarmes approaching, she realised that it was all over for her. By the time they reached the house, she was already dead - she took some of her own poison."

Court archives
Archives survive of the court records from the women's trials
Ultimately, the woman who had held the power of life and death over the village could not bear to give it up to anyone.

But the midwife was far from the only culprit. At the nearby county seat of Szolnok, from 1929 onwards, 26 women stood trial. Eight received the death sentence, the rest went to prison, seven of them for life. Few admitted guilt, and their motives were never fully explained.

At the town archives, Doctor Geza Cseh has become used to pulling out the dusty court records of the trial for visitors to pore over.

"I'm sure there are still secrets to be unearthed, here or elsewhere," he said.

There are hundreds of yellowing pages, all painstakingly transcribed by hand, and some remarkable fading photos of the accused women, staring impassively at the camera.

Memorial
The killings are remembered but women do not bear the stigma
As for their motives, theories abound. Poverty, greed and boredom are just a few. Some reports say that the women had taken lovers from among the Russian prisoners of war drafted in to work the farms in the absence of their menfolk at the front.

When the husbands returned, the women resented their sudden loss of freedom, and, one by one, decided to act.

In the 1950s, historian Ferenc Gyorgyev met an old villager while in prison under the communists. The peasant claimed that the women of Nagyrev "had been murdering their menfolk since time immemorial".

Victims

Perhaps they were not the only ones. In the nearby town of Tiszakurt, other exhumed bodies were found to contain arsenic, but no-one was convicted of their deaths.

The total death toll in the area may, according to some estimates, have been as high as 300.

The years have erased most of the painful memories from Nagyrev. Its name no longer strikes fear among the men of the surrounding region.

And Maria Gunya points out wryly that after the poisonings the men's behaviour to their wives "improved markedly".




SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Hungary
16 Dec 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Hungary
24 Jan 04  |  Country profiles


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