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“Vampire of Cinkota”

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In 1932, an excited New York City detective named Henry Oswald said he was certain he had spotted one of the world’s most wanted men strolling out of the subway at Times Square. Oswald tried to follow, but the man quickly vanished into the crowd.

The detective was certain it was Bela Kiss, Hungary’s prince of love ’em and bleed ’em.

At that time, Kiss had been eluding justice for more than 15 years. He had killed at least 30 women and one man, preying on lonely women looking for love in the want ads.

Lovelorn men and women have always been an easy target for serial killers. Kiss had a singular technique for ridding himself of all those inconvenient corpses. He pickled them.

In 1914, Kiss, then 37, marched off to fight in World War I. He left his home — a cottage he rented for more than 15 years in Cinkota, near Budapest — in the care of an elderly housekeeper. Then he disappeared into the chaos that was Europe in those years.

He had lived in the town since around 1900, but no one knew much about him. Tall, blond, and handsome, Kiss had a prosperous tinsmith business and was known as a bon vivant who loved to throw parties. Cinkota’s most eligible bachelor or so many ladies thought.

His first attempt at wedded bliss had ended in disaster a year after the 1912 wedding. His wife, Marie, was 15 years younger than her husband. Her eye strayed to a suitor closer to her age, a handsome artist, Paul Bikari.

The pair disappeared shortly after the start of their affair. Kiss told anyone who asked that his wife and her paramour had run off to America to start a new life. Shortly after his wife’s disappearance, Kiss, as with many bachelors of his era, was known to have begun frequenting various brothels. Though unlike certain other serial killers, he did not target prostitutes in his murderous endeavours.

He was also regularly seen entertaining various ladies of better social repute, most of whom resided in nearby Budapest. As to this latter group, he used his charm, good looks, and classified ads in newspapers to court various women who were looking for a husband- targeting those who were particularly affluent and also who had few, if any relatives nearby. Most came from Budapest. None stayed for long.

Humans have long told stories about monsters. From the fantastic beasts of ancient mythology to the sometimes all too human monsters of modern cinema, lurid tales of death and violence have always entranced some facets of humanity. Why this is may always be a subject for debate, but in large part these stories allow us to play out very real fears in a safe manner, where the hero swoops in to save the day. Or, at the very least, we ourselves aren’t the ones being butchered.

Unfortunately, stories are not reality. The good guy does not always save the day, and the bad guy doesn’t always feel the sting of justice. Some murderous madmen ply their bloody trade and their identity is never discovered, passing into legend and becoming immortalised as a bogeyman of folklore. Some monsters are named, but manage to elude authorities just the same.

Such is the case of Bela Kiss (pronounced Kish). An amiable young bachelor, handsome with blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the darling of Cinkota, a small town outside of Budapest, Hungary in the early 1900s. A self-taught tinsmith, young Bela Kiss did well for himself and shared his good fortune with others. He married for a time, but his wife soon cheated on him with a young artist and the two eloped to America, or so Kiss said, leaving him Cinkota’s most eligible bachelor. Women wanted to be with him, married men in town envied him for the parade of beautiful women from Budapest who could be seen coming and going from his house. But Kiss, like many men of the time, was swept into the conflagration known as the Great War, his neighbours would learn a horrifying truth: Kiss was a killer of women, and a prolific one at that.

With Bela Kiss presumed dead in the war, his landlord began cleaning out his home and found a grisly surprise.

In Hungary in the early 1900s, young Bela Kiss moved into a house at 9 Kossuth Street that he rented on the outskirts of Cinkota, a quiet little town just of outside of Budapest.

Kiss was a rather handsome man with blond hair and remarkable, vibrant blue eyes.  He earned his living as a tinsmith and was 37 years old when he was called into the armed services in 1914.

Not only had Kiss taught himself his trade as a tinsmith, but he was a voracious reader and was highly conversant on art, literature and history. With no formal schooling at all, he was able to discuss virtually any subject with the most intelligent and educated of the town’s people.

He struck his fellow villagers as an amiable and hard-working fellow with a penchant for throwing parties at a local hotel. He was known as a generous person.  Everybody liked Bela Kiss and he was considered by the women of the town to be its most eligible bachelor.

So, to his fellow villagers, he was a self-educated, hard-working, amiable young man, which also made him one of the most eligible bachelors around.

However, he was in no hurry to tie the knot. In Mrs John Jakubec he had found an elderly, good-natured woman for a housekeeper to take care of the house and things like cleaning and food to perform the domestic duties that a wife would normally do.

Cinkota did not offer a lot in terms of women. So, Kiss brought out advertisements in newspapers in Budapest and also maintained an apartment there. Women started corresponding with Kiss and Town gossips noted that over the years a steady stream of lovelies from Budapest for short durations to Cinkota to spend time with Kiss. But none of the women were introduced to anybody from Cinkota including Mrs Jakubec.

When Kiss brought the metal drums, it raised suspicion and curiosity among the people and some suspected that Kiss could be illegally storing army liquor in those drums. The talk among the locals led to a Cinkota constable’s taking it up with Kiss, who assured the constable that the metal drums were not meant for storing stolen liquor, but were meant for stocking gasoline in view of the war. The matter was thus laid to rest.

Dr Charles Nagy, Detective Chief of the Budapest Police, received an alarming call in July of 1916 from a landlord in Cinkota who believed that he had discovered the evidence of a murder on his property.

The landlord explained that a soldier named Bela Kiss had rented the house he owned on Kossuth Street, but had let the lease lapse and was rumoured to be a prisoner of war or possibly even killed in battle.

His landlord figured that the reports of his tenant being dead were probably true. It was time to clean up the house for a new occupant. The landlord started with seven large metal barrels that had been left in the yard. Rumour had it that Kiss had been storing liquor, but he had insisted that he was stockpiling gasoline in anticipation of a fuel shortage.

No one ever asked him to open the barrels to prove what was in them. With Kiss gone, the landlord decided to look inside. He poked a little hole in one of the barrels and was overwhelmed by the scent of death.

The chemist next door told him that it was the unmistakable smell of human decomposition.  The landlord begged Dr Nagy to urgently investigate. He could not rent out the house again until this matter was resolved.

Nagy grabbed two of his best detectives and sped to the quiet little town of Cinkota. When they reached the house on Kossuth Street, the landlord rushed to greet them. However, the aged Mrs Jakubec, who had promised to safeguard the belongings of her employer, was furious and shouted at the policemen to leave her master’s property alone.

When the police opened them all, they found, inside each, a woman’s body preserved in wood alcohol. Eventually, there were a total of 24 barrels recovered, each holding a pickled corpse. Many were naked women with ropes around their necks. Puncture wounds in some of the victims’ necks suggested that they had been drained of blood, earning Kiss the sobriquet of Vampire of Cinkota. The wood alcohol in the drum was the preservative.

Details of Kiss’ secret life as a serial killer are, unsurprisingly, difficult to nail down, largely owing to the man himself never being brought to trial and few primary documents covering the case having survived to today.

Upon questioning, Mrs Jakubec said that she had been perplexed by the big metal canisters that Bela Kiss had brought to his house before the war. People had begun to talk.  He could be storing illegal liquor in them, some had speculated.  The Cinkota constable had gone to have a chat with Kiss on the subject of the metal drums. Calmly Kiss had reassured the constable that he was not keeping any illicit liquor.  War was on its way, he said, so he was stocking up on gasoline.

When the detectives examined the other six metal drums, they found that each contained the body of a naked young woman.  There was only one male victim, Bikari, the young artist who had won the heart of the killer’s wife. Marie Kiss met the same fate as her lover, turning up in a different barrel. All of the victims had been strangled.

After the detectives arranged for a mortician to collect the victims found in the metal drums, they began a search of Kiss’s home and the grounds around it, finding, even more, bodies that had been buried.  Each victim, even those that had been buried, had been preserved in alcohol.  The bodies were still recognisable and could be easily identified if they had some names with which to work.

Faced with the biggest case of his career, Det. Chief Charles Nagy took some immediate steps. First, he notified the military that Bela Kiss, if he were still on the front, was to be arrested immediately.  Within an hour, the orders for the manhunt had reached the army. Next, he detained and interrogated the terrified housekeeper. Then, concerned that Kiss might have had an accomplice, he notified postal and telegraph authorities in the surrounding area that they were to hold up any messages destined for Bela Kiss. News of the gruesome discovery was spreading rapidly throughout Cinkota and would soon hit the newspapers in Budapest.  Nagy wanted to be sure that any accomplice could not get a warning to Kiss.

Several facts made the investigation even harder than normal. Thousands of Hungarian soldiers were imprisoned and the army was scattered and disorganised. Worse, the names Bela and Kiss were extremely common Hungarian names.

When Bela Kiss’ landlord poked a little hole in one of his tenant’s barrels, he was overwhelmed by the smell of death.

It was likely that there were many, many men in the army named Bela Kiss.

Finally, Det Nagy focused on the identity of the victims. The clues from the metal containers were very sparse. Nagy was able to locate the embroidered initials K.V. on one piece of clothing and what he thought was a faint M.T. on a handkerchief.

Inside the house that Mrs Jakubec had kept immaculate for two years, he found her sitting in the kitchen almost paralysed with fear.  “Please, sir,” she begged him, “I know nothing of this terrible thing.  I knew Bela Kiss only as a man who was kind to me and paid me well.”

She showed Nagy and his detectives Bela Kiss’s bedroom which they thoroughly searched but found nothing of relevance to the investigation.  Nagy noticed another door that was locked.

“That is the secret room of Bela Kiss,” she told  Nagy. “He told me never to enter it and never to let anyone in.”

Mrs Jakubec reached in her apron and pulled out an old-fashioned key to open the locked door.  Nagy noticed immediately that the room was lined with bookcases filled with books. The only furniture was a large desk and desk chair.

Inside the desk,  Nagy found a huge volume of correspondence between Kiss and various women. He also found an album with photographs of more than a hundred ladies.

At this point,  Nagy began to worry that the victims might number more than the victims they had already uncovered.

Then  Nagy went back to the hundreds of letters, most of which were filed in some 74 packets so that mail from the same woman was kept together.  These women wrote to him after seeing his ad in the newspapers. All wanted marriage. Later it was revealed that Kiss had received 174 marriage proposals. To 74 of these women, he offered marriage and kept up his correspondence with them.

Something else became quite clear as he read the many letters. Bela Kiss was defrauding these women of their savings, in many cases their entire financial resources. Some of the letters went back as far as 1903.

Nagy took a break in his reading to examine the many books in the room. He was amazed to see how many related to poisons and methods of strangulation.

Nagy wondered how it was possible that Kiss could correspond with so many women and bring many of them to his home with nobody becoming suspicious about his intentions.

Surely someone had an inkling of what was going on.

Katherine Varga, victim.

Nagy began with Mrs Jakubec. He stared at her as she sat in the kitchen.  Then suddenly she screamed at him. “I’m just a simple old woman! Don’t send me to prison!”

When Nagy calmed her down, she told him that she had looked after Bela Kiss since 1900 when he came to Cinkota. “He was such a good-looking boy of twenty-three.  We were so fond of him. He was kind to everyone; he wouldn’t hurt a living thing. Once a dog had broken its leg, he made splints and nursed the animal to recovery.  I am sure it is a mistake — he did not kill those women! Someone else did it!”

She admitted seeing lots of different women who came to visit Bela Kiss over the years, but she claimed that she did not know their names.  “I scarcely ever said a word to them. I was only a servant and spent the nights in my own home.  What Bela Kiss did with these ladies was none of my business. They were all city ladies, not peasants like me. They would come for a day or two and then go away.”

The more Nagy pressed her for details, the more hysterical she became. “I am innocent!” she screamed at him.

Nagy pulled out a document from his pocket that he had found in Bela Kiss’s desk.  “Do you see this?” He showed her Kiss’s will. “He leaves you a very substantial sum of money.”

“I knew nothing of it,” she insisted and began to cry. Nagy and his colleagues questioned all of Kiss’s neighbours and everybody in the town who knew him.  How did nobody get suspicious of so many women coming to see Kiss? When Nagy talked to the people, he found that everybody liked Kiss and none found it unusual for a handsome, well-spoken man to entertain a good number of women at his residence.

Everybody liked Bela Kiss and didn’t think it was particularly unusual for a handsome, amiable bachelor to entertain a number of women. The married men of the town envied him.

Nagy got in touch with all such police departments under the jurisdiction of which fell the areas where the letters written to Kiss were sent from. And eventually, he managed to draw certain conclusions. When his carefully worded newspaper advertisements drew the attention of a woman living not too far away and she chose to respond, Kiss would pay her a visit and drench her in care, affection and expensive gifts. With faith in Kiss cemented by his charm and affection, a promise of marriage led to the woman lending a financial helping hand to build a home and life with Kiss. And the money would start coming in from the woman. Sooner or later a time would come when the woman would get to know the truth about the actual intentions of Kiss and as soon as she became something to fear for Kiss, he would arrange to eliminate her. He purposely chose the woman who did not have any close relative living close by, which ensured the lady would not be missed immediately after her disappearance.

Sweet talk persuaded them to turn over their savings. One of his victims, Katherine Varga, a widow living in Budapest, had sold her dressmaking business and was last seen heading off to Cinkota with a handsome stranger.

In all cases, it would seem Kiss would court various women with an eye towards stealing their money, though it’s isn’t clear whether he always killed the women he acquired money from or simply the ones who caused him legal troubles or that he couldn’t get the funds from without agreeing to marry them.  Whatever the case, at least in some instances this appears to have progressed to Kiss convincing said woman to marry him, at which point he’d kill her, presumably after she gave him access to her money.

As for why he was subsequently dubbed the “Vampire of Cinkota,” the police discovered that Kiss had strangled each victim to death, then punctured their necks to drain their blood. After this, he pickled and sealed them in the drums. Given the exsanguination, police opined that he may have been drinking the blood, despite no hard evidence to support this speculation.

Margaret Toth was killed in 1906 — but not before Bela Kiss forced her to write a bogus letter stating she was headed to America.

As Nagy had guessed, Kiss did not write any incriminating letters to his victims. Rather, he placed carefully worded advertisements in newspaper matrimonial columns, always requiring information about the woman’s financial resources.

When a letter arrived from a not-too-distant woman, Kiss would visit the prospective victim and lavish money and attention on her. At that same time, he would inquire about her relatives.  He only concentrated on women who did not have close relatives nearby and who would not be immediately missed if they disappeared.

Most of the letters that Kiss received after he had initiated a relationship indicated that the woman had sent him money, sometimes everything she had. If he thought there was any chance that she would contact the police, he immediately arranged to eliminate her.

Eventually, Dr Nagy traced the K.V. initials he had found on a victim’s clothing to Madame Katherine Varga, a good-looking, young Budapest widow with considerable means. She had a very profitable dressmaking business, which she sold when she went to be with her prospective husband, Bela Kiss, in Cinkota.

When Katherine Varga disappeared, she had no relatives who would miss her.

Then there was another breakthrough. Nagy had located in Kiss’s house some clothing with the name Julianne Paschak stitched in it.  One of Nagy’s detectives had gone through old court records and found that two women, Julianne Paschak and Elizabeth Komeromi had each sued Bela Kiss for taking their money on the promise of marriage.  The suits lapsed when neither woman appeared in court and could not be found.

By that time, Nagy had enough evidence to prove that Kiss had murdered 30 women, but there was still only one woman of the seven victims in the metal containers that had been identified.

Then one day, two women came to visit Dr Nagy: Mrs Stephen Toth and her daughter-in-law. Mrs Toth told the detective about her daughter Margaret, who had gone to Budapest to work. On one of her visits, Margaret introduced her mother to Bela Kiss who persuaded the mother to give him some money on the promise that he would marry Margaret.  But afterwards, Margaret accused Kiss of reneging on his promise. When Mrs Toth went to Cinkota to confront Kiss, he claimed that he just wanted to delay the marriage and that Margaret had become angry and left for America.

Eventually, Dr Nagy pieced together what had happened. In 1906, when Margaret Toth came to visit Bela Kiss at his home, he forced her to write a letter to her mother claiming that she could not bear the shame of rejection by Bela Kiss and that she was going to look for a new love in America.  After she had written the letter, Kiss strangled her, hid her body in the metal container and mailed the letter to her mother.

Hen-house in which a body was found.

On October 4, 1916, Dr Nagy received a message from a Serbian hospital claiming that a soldier named Bela Kiss died of typhoid in 1915. It was followed by another message that said that Kiss was alive and a patient at the hospital. Dr Nagy travelled immediately to the hospital, which was then in Hungarian hands.

“I think we have your man,” the military commander told Dr Nagy. Nagy was overcome with excitement.  They did not reach the hospital until dark and when the reached the ward where Bela Kiss was recuperating, they were in for a shock.  The man in Kiss’s bed was dead, but it was not Bela Kiss.

Somehow, Kiss had been warned and had substituted the body of another soldier in his bed.

Dr Nagy made sure that all of Hungary knew that the Monster of Cinkota was still alive. Tips poured in from every part of the country. Then followed many sightings of Bela Kiss in disparate places around the world.  Someone claimed to have seen the serial killer walking down a Budapest street in 1919.

Five years later, in 1920, a suspicious member of the French Foreign Legion went to a police station to report a fellow Legionnaire that he believed could be Kiss.  The man, who gave his name as Hoffman, an alias that Kiss used, bragged about how good he was with a garrote.  The police went to the unit to question Hoffman only to find that he had deserted without warning.

A Hungarian soldier claimed that Bela Kiss was imprisoned in Romania for burglary. Another said he died of yellow fever in Turkey.

A New York City homicide detective named Henry Oswald felt certain he saw Bela Kiss walking out of the Times Square subway station in 1932.  Oswald was nicknamed “Camera Eye” by other detectives for his extraordinary memory for faces, so many people gave credence to his report.  The enormous crowd in Times Square prevented Oswald from pursuing the suspect.  However, after the detective’s report, some people became convinced that Kiss, who would have been in his late 60s at the time, was living in New York.

In 1936, gossip had it that Kiss was working as an apartment building janitor.  The police went to the building to interview this janitor, but he had taken off and left no information behind.

Even with all this alleged globetrotting by Kiss, no other murders were ever attributed to him.  Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean that Bela Kiss stopped killing, only that, if he did, they were not traced to him.

Despite these sightings, Béla Kiss was never found again. No doubt, Bela Kiss is long dead now. While the long arm of the law sometimes falls short, death never fails to get its man eventually. Still, there is no way of knowing how many women fell prey to Bela Kiss’s deadly appetites in the years after the horrific discoveries in Cinkota in 1916.

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