The Terrifying Story of Bela Kiss, Hungary’s Most Murderous Bachelor

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Kiss, Kiss Home: Historic Images, Alamy. Map: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Kiss, Kiss Home: Historic Images, Alamy. Map: iStock.

For centuries, the vampire has captured imaginations and inspired nightmares in communities around the world. And while Romania’s Transylvania region has long dominated the vampire-related conversation, for a few decades in the early 20th century the most feared blood-drainer in the world was not Dracula, but a person from Romania’s neighbor to the west: Hungary.

A GHOUL IN DISGUISE

Bela Kiss seemed to have it all. By 1914, the handsome 37-year-old tinsmith was running a successful business, was well-liked by his neighbors in the town of Cinkota (outside Budapest), and never seemed to be without a girl on his arm. True, it was always a different girl, and none of them were local, and no one, not even his elderly housekeeper Mrs. Jakubec, knew their names. But he'd earned the loyalty of Mrs. Jakubec nonetheless, and she kept faithful watch over his home on Kossuth Street for two years after he was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian military to fight in World War I.

Still, handsome or not, well-liked or otherwise, when there’s a war on, no one can wait long to make a buck. In July 1916, after rumors began circulating that Kiss had been captured and possibly killed in Serbia, his landlord began preparing to lease the house on Kossuth Street again. Upon arriving at the property, he noticed seven large metal drums that had been left outside the house. It was widely assumed that these were storing oil or gas in the face of hostilities (though some neighbors thought it was more likely he was storing liquor). The landlord decided to open one of the drums, which had been soldered shut.

As soon as he punctured the lid, the landlord was hit with the putrid odor of death. A neighbor, who happened to be a chemist, confirmed that it was the scent of rotting flesh.

Kiss's landlord quickly informed the police in Budapest, who sent Dr. Charles Nagy, detective chief of the Budapest Police, out to investigate. When Nagy and two of his men arrived on the property, they immediately opened the first drum.

Submerged in a brine of methanol was the relatively well-preserved body of a young woman with long brown hair, along with the rope that had strangled her. The six other drums bore the same grisly contents: naked or partially clothed corpses of young women and the same murder weapon—a length of rope. The methanol, also known as wood alcohol, acted as a preservative, keeping decomposition to a minimum.

The seven drums were only the beginning. Nagy and his men continued to search the property at Kossuth Street, and soon discovered an entire cache of drums buried around the property. Each opened lid revealed another young corpse, until somewhere between 24 and 30 were logged into the police file (accounts differ). All the victims had been strangled. Some reportedly had dual puncture marks on their neck, as though Kiss had drained them of their blood. It's not clear whether he did so, but theorizing around the wounds has led some to dub Bela Kiss "the Vampire of Cinkota."

If the sight of two dozen pickled bodies was horrifying, what Nagy found inside Kiss’s home was downright bizarre. Most rooms yielded no clues that linked the former occupant to the brutal murder and meticulous preservation of so many young people. A distraught Mrs. Jakubec denied any knowledge of the bodies or their identities, and was adamant in her defense of Kiss, going so far as to describe a time when he tended to the injuries of one of the neighborhood dogs.

Then Nagy arrived at a locked door. Mrs. Jakubec explained that though she was in possession of the key, Kiss had instructed her to never enter—or let anyone else enter—the room. There was a good reason for that: When Nagy went inside, he found a room stuffed with evidence of Kiss’s misdeeds. Bookshelves filled with volumes on poisoning and strangulation lined the little office. A desk and chair stood in the center. It was inside that desk that Nagy hit the evidentiary jackpot.

JUST A LONELY MAN

A packet of vintage letters stuffed into an old handbag
iStock

Documents within the desk revealed that Kiss had spent more than a decade corresponding with dozens of women. He advertised in Budapest newspapers under the name Hofmann, claiming to be a lonely man in search of a wife—preferably one of no small fortune. When such a woman responded, as many did, he’d apparently visit her in the city, give her gifts, and generally romance her, all the while probing for information on whether or not she had close relatives nearby. Those who were more or less alone he continued to woo in letters, convincing them to send him large sums of money or, in some cases, their entire savings, in order to start a life together. One woman, Katherine Varga, sold her profitable dressmaking business and was last seen leaving her house in Budapest to join Kiss in Cinkota.

Kiss reportedly received a whopping 174 proposals of marriage through his advertising, and accepted marriage from no less than 74 women. At least 20 who came to Cinkota met their end—perhaps because they realized their error and threatened to reveal Kiss for what he was, or perhaps because he simply enjoyed gross acts of violence.

Each of the 74 had their own packet of correspondence in Kiss’s desk, and Nagy reached out to local police to trace the women. Several of the bodies were identified, though it is unclear just how many Nagy was able to put a name to. One woman, whose name was found stitched into clothing in Kiss’s house, was later identified as Julianne Paschak; her name appeared in court records in Budapest. She had sued Kiss for defrauding her of money on the promise of marriage. Her case was thrown out when she failed to show up to the hearing.

Upon discovering the first seven bodies, Nagy had notified the Hungarian army to arrest Bela Kiss, if he was still alive, and had frozen any postal or telegraphic correspondence that might be headed Kiss’s way. But in the summer of 1916, the Hungarian army was in the middle of a war—and to compound the difficulty, the names “Bela” and “Kiss” were very common among Hungarians.

Still, when word came in October that a man named Bela Kiss was hospitalized in Serbia, Nagy took off right away. While military authorities at the hospital believed they had the right man, Nagy would never find out for certain. Kiss or not, whoever the slippery soldier was, he found a way to escape before Nagy could arrive, throwing off hospital staff by placing a dead man in his bed.

A FACE IN THE CROWD

A policeman patrolling an empty New York subway station
Sherman/Getty Images

The hospital encounter would be the closest anyone would come to catching Hungary’s lonely-hearts slayer, although over the decades several people would claim to spot him—especially as news of his crimes spread throughout the world. One witness saw him in Budapest in 1919; another claimed Kiss was with the French Foreign Legion as “Hoffman” in 1920. Others put him in Romania and Turkey. Every time a sighting was investigated, the mysterious target would vanish. In 1932, a New York City detective with a famous memory for faces was sure he’d spotted Kiss exiting a subway station in Times Square, but lost him in the crowd. The last reported investigation into a sighting was in 1936, when rumors circulated that Kiss was working as a janitor at a New York City apartment building. When police stopped by to check it out, however, they found he’d disappeared.

We may never know how or when Kiss met his end, or whether he limited his killing to the brined bodies found at his home. What is for certain is that this prolific murderer cast a long, dark shadow across the early 20th century in the west—and somehow, whether through cunning, luck or accident, evaded the justice he deserved.

Additional Sources: "The Crimes of Bela Kiss"; The Lonely Hearts Vampire: The Bizarre and Horrifying True Account of Serial Killer Bela Kiss; The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers; "Probing the Soul-Secrets and Weird Methods of the World's Recent Mass-Murders," The Miami News, August 31, 1930.

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

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