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
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
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.