Recoiling in horror, the terrified man ran to police station – believing a large tin drum in the yard of Béla Kiss’s house to contain gasoline, he had punctured it, but it hid a dark secret, one which were it not for the harsh realities of war, might never have come to light. As soon as he had pierced the tin, the overpowering stench of decaying flesh hit him and he recognised it at once as the scent of death.
Detective Chief Károly Nagy was the first senior police officer to arrive at the scene, and would take charge of the ensuing investigation. Tentatively, he removed the drum’s lid and his fears were realised as soon as he saw the partially preserved naked body of a young women, her long dark hair wrapped around her face as a shroud. There were six more drums – each one containing the corpse of another woman whose life had been violently ended. Forensic evidence showed that they had been strangled with a rope and, even more disturbingly, not only had their bodies been drained of blood, puncture wounds were found on their necks, a fact that evoked fears of vampirism.
A further search of the house and garden uncovered another seventeen bodies, all young women. For Nagy it was a now a question of finding out why and more importantly, who was responsible for these appalling murders. After alerting the military and issuing a warrant for an arrest, Nagy was told that Béla Kiss, had recently died of typhoid in a Serbian military hospital. Whether Kiss really had succumbed to the illness was the subject of much speculation and rumours of his true whereabouts continued for the next twenty years. What is certain is that he was never brought to justice for the shocking crimes of which he was accused.
Four years earlier in 1912, Kiss, a strikingly handsome man of about forty with piercing blue eyes that all those who recalled him commented upon, had moved to Cinkota then a separate town which eventually became a suburb of Budapest in the 1950s. Kiss worked as a tinsmith, and there are conflicting reports as to whether he arrived in Cinkota alone or accompanied by his much younger wife, Marie. Some say his wife soon left him, for a local man named Paul Bikari, and that Kiss reported her as missing in December 1912. Others claimed that he was a bachelor who enjoyed the company of a string of glamorous women, either way it seems that Kiss’s personal life remains as much a mystery as what finally became of him. By all accounts Kiss was a remarkably intelligent and cultured man who was well liked in Cinkota, yet gossips claimed that his frequent trips to Budapest were to visit the city’s brothels.
After war broke out in 1914, Kiss was called up to join the military. Beforehand he had been seen moving the large tin drums into the yard of his house, telling a curious neighbour that he was stocking up on gasoline in case of war shortages. Kiss left his housekeeper, Mrs Jakubec to look after his home; she later pleaded ignorance as to what had taken place in the house and of the corpses hidden about the property telling Nagy that she only knew Kiss as a kindly man and a generous employer. Nevertheless, she revealed that Kiss’s bedroom was the one room in the house she had always been forbidden to enter; presumably because it was there he committed the terrible murders.
With the news of Kiss’s death, Nagy turned his attention towards finding out the identities of his victims. Two of the bodies were believed to be those of Kiss’s wife and her lover. Delving into Kiss’s personal papers, it was discovered that he had been placing advertisements in newspapers and had been corresponding with a large number of women, most of whom had believed he was seeking marriage. In many cases Kiss had been receiving money from these women, most of whom lived in nearby, Budapest and had lured them to his house in Cinkota a journey from which they would never return. Damningly, books about poisons and strangulation were also found in Kiss’s room. Mrs Jakubec maintained that her employer was innocent, and must have been framed for the crimes he was accused of, but she admitted to having witnessed a great many female visitors to the house.
From the letters Kiss left behind, Nagy was able to determine who several of the murdered women were. One was a beautiful young widow named Katherine Varga, who had travelled to Cinkota for what she believed was her wedding. An elderly woman, Mrs Toth, also approached Nagy about the disappearance of her daughter Margit, who had introduced her to Kiss shortly before she went missing. Before he killed her, Kiss forced Margit to write to her mother, telling her that she was leaving to find work in America. When Mrs Toth confronted Kiss about her daughter whereabouts, he reiterated the story, but it was a tale she struggled to believe. Mrs Toth’s suspicions were to prove correct, Margit had never left Hungary and her body had been hidden inside one of Kiss’s tin drums.
Despite the reports of his death, Nagy remained unconvinced that Kiss had died and decided to travel to Serbia himself. It was there that an invalided soldier confessed to him that Kiss had swapped his identity with another patient and had managed to escape undetected. A nurse also told Nagy that the Béla Kiss who had died was in his 20s, whereas the Kiss he sought was in his 40s. This was the final piece of evidence needed to convince Nagy that Kiss was still alive, a conviction he stated publicly.
Over the coming years, there were frequent alleged sightings of Kiss. In 1920, a member of the French Foreign Legion contacted Nagy about a fellow legionnaire named Franz Hoffman, it was an alias Kiss had used when placing his newspaper adverts. The Hungarian Police arrived to find that Hoffman had deserted and had subsequently vanished. In 1932, Henry Oswald, a New York detective was certain that he saw Kiss in Times Square. The last reported sighting of Kiss was in 1936, when it was thought that he was working as a janitor in New York. Whatever became of the ‘Monster of Cinkota,’ his fate was surely preferable to the brutality he inflicted upon his unfortunate victims.