From The Economist:
When the people of Nagyrev had a problem, they went to Auntie Suzy. Though she had no formal training, she was the Hungarian village’s appointed midwife and the closest thing it had to a resident doctor. Men used her homemade tinctures for relief from the aches and pains they sustained toiling in the fields. Women, too, turned to her for help, and not just with the delivery of their babies. Alongside rubs and salves, Auntie Suzy produced another concoction: arsenic, made from boiling flypaper in vinegar.
Some women used the solution out of desperation—to avoid having another mouth to feed or to get rid of a violent spouse or relative. Others, however, dispensed it to deal with less urgent personal inconveniences. One woman had tired of her clingy husband, so fed him contaminated duck soup. Another, weary of her adult son, mixed some of the elixir into his goulash; later, when she suspected her third husband of having an affair, she reprised her technique. The arsenic was an open secret. If a woman complained of her partner’s behaviour, a friend would suggest a visit to the midwife.
Patti McCracken’s new book, “The Angel Makers”, is a detailed account of the killing spree in Nagyrev and other nearby villages in the early 20th century. It took prosecutors several years to grasp its scale. Eventually 29 women and two men were put on trial in 1929 for the murders of 42 men; 16 women were convicted. Scores of bodies were exhumed and examined for traces of arsenic. Some think as many as 300 people could have been killed. “The boldness and utter callousness with which they carried on their criminal activities seems to have been equalled only by the stupidity of the men who were their victims,” the New York Times reported.
The author weaves in character sketches that suggest the perpetrators’ various motives. Her portrait of Auntie Suzy, a buxom woman fond of her pipe and brandy, is particularly evocative. When questioned by the police about a pattern of infant deaths, she described her role in benevolent terms: she helped poor people with family planning. In fact, she was motivated by money and status.
She plundered goods from clients’ homes and charged exorbitant fees for her potions. (From Maria, the woman who killed her son and husband, she hoped to extract a house.) Occasionally Auntie Suzy or one of her helpers would bump someone off unprompted. A baby was killed without the mother’s say-so. A war veteran was dispatched so that Auntie Suzy’s son might marry his wealthy widow.
Ms McCracken also lays out the context in which these misdeeds took place. She describes regional customs and the effects on the village of the first world war and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Link to the rest at The Economist