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.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

Ohio Bill Aims to Make Animal Cruelty a Felony

RalchevDesign/iStock via Getty Images
RalchevDesign/iStock via Getty Images

In Ohio, animal cruelty may soon be punishable by a minimum of nine months in prison.

As ABC 6 reports, a new bill introduced in the Ohio Senate would increase penalties for individuals found guilty of inflicting “unnecessary or unjustifiable” harm to a companion animal (the bill defines a “companion animal” as any animal kept inside a home and any dog or cat, regardless of where it’s kept).

The bill comes three years after Ohio lawmakers passed a law making animal cruelty a fifth-degree felony for first-time offenders. Prior to 2016, a first offense of animal cruelty was classified as a first-degree misdemeanor, a charge punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine.

This new bill would make animal cruelty a third-degree felony, meaning jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. It’s a critical change, according to Cleveland.com; reporter Andrew J. Tobias, who says fifth-degree felony convictions in Ohio rarely result in any jail time.

“There are just some atrocious acts of violence against pets, companion animals, that are literally receiving slaps on the wrist,” Senator Jay Hottinger, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Cleveland.com.

In January, two Florida congressmen introduced the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) bill to classify animal cruelty as a felony under federal law. All 50 states have a “felony animal cruelty law on the books,” according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, but each state is responsible for defining animal cruelty. The proposed PACT law would identify and ban specific behaviors in all states.

[h/t ABC 6]

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