Romania’s Transylvania may be the birthplace of the fictional vampire, Count Dracula, but Hungary holds the distinction of harboring Bela Kiss. He was a real-life serial killer who murdered and drained the blood from at least 24 young women just before World War I. That puts London’s Jack the Ripper, at only seven victims, to shame. But like the Ripper, he was never apprehended, even though his identity was known.
Little is known about his childhood, but by 1901, Kiss was 23 years old. He was living in Cinkota, a town just outside of Budapest, where he rented a house at 9 Kossuth Street. There he ran a prosperous business as a tinsmith. He was well-liked by his neighbors, quite charming, intelligent, and well read, especially in astrology and the occult. Bela was also tall and handsome, with blond hair and striking blue eyes. Townspeople regarded him as a gregarious fellow and eligible bachelor. He would throw well-attended, lavish dinner parties at his house.
Eleven years later, in 1912, Kiss married a local teenage girl, 15 years younger, named Marie.
After only a year of marriage, young Marie began a tryst with a Cinkota artist named Paul Bikari. Soon after Bela discovered the affair, both she and Bikari mysteriously disappeared. Kiss claimed to his neighbors that the adulterous couple ran away together and immigrated to America. But in reality, he had strangled them both to death, becoming his first two known victims. Now alone again, he hired an elderly housekeeper by the name of Mrs. Jakubec.
It was also around this time that Kiss began plotting more horrific murders. He placed personal ads, under the alias of Hofmann, in Budapest newspapers, claiming to be a lonely widower looking for marriage. He then used his considerable charms and good looks, to court select women looking for a husband. He targeted those who were well-off and who had few, if any, nearby relatives. He was regularly seen entertaining various higher-class ladies, most of whom resided in Budapest. He managed to convince some of them to give him their money, and even sign over their assets to him.
Thus began a long list of lonely women his neighbors saw him with in town. Rarely the same one from one month to the next. Kiss continued corresponding with wealthy women, then, after defrauding them of their money, he would lure them to his house, where, like his wife and her lover, he’d strangle them to death with his bare hands or a length of rope. Although Mrs. Jakubec lived in the house, she never saw any of these women for very long.
Soon a neighbor noticed that Kiss was amassing a large collection of metal drums in his back yard.
This nosy neighbor thought he was secretly hiding alcohol and reported it to the police. When the constable arrived to investigate, Kiss simply smiled and laughed. He explained he was simply stockpiling gasoline in anticipation of the upcoming war (World War I) and the rationing that would undoubtedly occur. The policeman accepted this logical explanation and no one bothered to actually look inside the barrels.
In 1914, a teenage Serbian shot the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo and set off World War I – between Austro-Hungary and Germany against Russia, France and Britain. Like most younger men, Kiss was conscripted to fight for the Austro-Hungarian army in The Great War. He was assigned to the 40th Honved Infantry Brigade. Before leaving, he entrusted his rented house on 9 Kossuth Street to his loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Jakubec.
Two years transpire and rumors began to circulate in Cinkota that Bela had been either killed at the eastern front, or captured by the Russians. His brigade had seen heavy fighting in the Carpathian Mountains. Casualties were high at the eastern front and his landlord took these rumors as perfectly believable. He decided to clear out Kiss’s belongings from his rented house and put in a new tenant.
Upon inspecting the back yard, he noticed seven large drums that were soldered shut.
The landlord decided to check inside one of the large drums and cracked it open. He was immediately accosted by the smell of death and decomposition. Horrified, the landlord quickly ran to the house and called the local constable. The police chief remembered the “gasoline cache” at Kiss’ home and went to acquire it for the Hungarian war effort.
The police arrived in July of 1916 and, over the loud protests of Mrs. Jakubec, began to completely open the metal drum. The officers too were overwhelmed by the horrid stench that emanated from it. Rather than finding gasoline, they discovered the barrel contained the submerged, nude body of a woman with brown hair and a rope about her neck!
Submerged in a brine of methanol (wood alcohol) the corpse was only slightly decomposed and relatively well-preserved. Opening the six other drums revealed the same grisly contents: naked corpses of young strangled women submerged in methanol. Like many serial killers, Bela Kiss sought to keep, and even preserve, the bodies of his victims like trophies.
The seven drums were sadly only the beginning.
The constable quickly informed the central police in Budapest, who sent Dr. Karoly Nagy, detective chief of the Budapest Police, out to investigate. Upon seeing the multiple corpses, Nagy immediately notified the Hungarian Army to arrest Bela Kiss at once, if he was still alive. The discovery sparked a frantic search for Kiss throughout eastern Europe. But in the summer of 1916, the Hungarian Army was in the middle of a chaotic World War. And to compound matters, “Bela Kiss” was, believe it or not, a common name among Hungarian men of the time.
Nagy and his men conducted a detailed search the property at Kossuth Street. They soon discovered an entire cache of drums buried around the property. Each one bore another young female corpse pickled in methanol, until 24 in all were accounted for. Two were Marie Kiss and Paul Bikari. All the victims had been strangled like poor Marie. Some reportedly had puncture marks on their neck. Autopsies revealed that Kiss had first drained them of their blood before burial. As the blood was never found, Budapest buzzed with the rumor he had drank it all. That and his supposed ability to mesmerize women led to the nickname of The Vampire of Cinkota.
As Mrs. Jakubec had protested the opening of the barrels, she was immediately arrested as an assumed accomplice in the grisly murders. A distressed Mrs. Jakubec vehemently denied any knowledge of the bodies or of knowing the names of the dead women. She was in fact adamant in her defense of her employer, the charismatic Bela Kiss. They later learned that Kiss had left her a small amount of money in his will. She was later cleared of all suspicions.
Under questioning, the housekeeper stated that Kiss had told her to NEVER enter a certain room in the house, nor let anyone else enter it. Then Nagy arrived at the locked door, Mrs. Jakubec explained she was not in possession of the key. Police broke down the door, and the chief detective entered the room. Inside, he found found Bela Kiss’s murder den, a room stuffed with evidence of his crimes.
Bookshelves were filled with volumes of books on topics like poisoning and strangulation. Inside a desk were letters and documents revealing 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 with a small fortune. When such a woman responded, he’d visit her in the city, lavish her with gifts, and generally romance her – all the while learning if she had close relatives nearby. Those who were alone and wealthy he convinced some to send him large sums of money or their entire savings, in order to start a new life together.
It was inside the desk Nagy also found an album with photos of about 70 women.
The documents seemed to indicate Kiss had been murdering women all the way back to 1903 (eight years before he married Marie). Kiss reportedly received 174 marriage proposals of marriage through his advertising, and accepted marriage from no less than 74 women. At least 22 came to Cinkota and met their end pickled in a metal drum at 8 Kossuth Street.
Each of the 74 women had their own packet of correspondence in Kiss’s desk. Nagy reached out to local Budapest precinct police to trace the women. This allowed Nagy to identify several of the bodies as woman reported as missing. In some cases, the women had sued Kiss for defrauding them out of money on the promise of marriage. Their cases were thrown out when they mysteriously failed to show up in court.
Months passed searching for Kiss, when word came to Nagy in October that a soldier named Bela Kiss was hospitalized in Serbia, suffering from typhoid fever. Nagy took off right away and boarded a train for Belgrade. Military authorities at the hospital believed they had the right man and detained him. Poor Nagy would never find out for certain. The slippery Kiss found a way to escape before Nagy could arrive. He threw off the hospital guards by placing, of all things, a dead soldier in his bed as a decoy; perhaps in the hope he’d be pronounced dead.
That encounter would be the closest anyone would come to ever catching Kiss.
Over the decades that followed, several people would claim to spot him—especially as news of his notorious crime spread across Europe. One witness claimed they saw him right in Budapest in 1919. Others put him in nearby Romania and Turkey. Another man claimed Kiss was with him in the French Foreign Legion in 1920, under the name “Hofmann” again. Kiss supposedly bragged drunkenly one night about his skill at strangulation. When police came to investigate, Hofmann he had already fled and evaded capture again.
In 1932, a New York City detective named Henry Oswald, with a famous memory for faces, was absolutely positive he’d spotted Bela Kiss exiting a subway station in Times Square, but lost him in the crowd. The last reported investigation into a sighting was four years later in 1936. Rumors circulated that Kiss, by now in his late 60’s, was working as a janitor at a New York City apartment building on Sixth Avenue. When police stopped by to check it out, however, they found the janitor had vanished.
And that was the last anyone saw of Bela Kiss. We may never know how or when he met his end, or whether he limited his killing spree just to the brined bodies found at his rented home outside Budapest. What is for certain is that this prolific murderer somehow, whether through cunning or shear luck, evaded his entire life the justice he so richly deserved. The final fate of the infamous Vampire of Cinkota remains a mystery. Where did he go to next? Did he kill again? If so, how many … and who?