Bela Kiss was a ladies man. Born in 1877, he was trained as a tinsmith and lived just outside of Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, what is today Hungary. Like many military age men in the empire, he was called up to serve the emperor during World War I, but after some time, his landlord hadn’t heard from him. He figured, like many military age men in the empire, Bela Kiss had been killed in combat.
When the landlord decided to re-rent Kiss’ house to another tenant, he entered the dwelling to clear out Kiss’ things. What he found shocked the landlord to the core, and tales of the gruesome sight are still told today – but Bela Kiss himself never resurfaced, even after the war’s end.
Bela Kiss lived an eccentric life. After his second wife left him for another lover, he started getting deeply interested in the occult and even began a second career as an amateur astrologer. He was known to love the ladies of his hometown of Cinkota, which is now a neighborhood in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
Eventually, he hired a housekeeper named Jakubec who took note of his many eccentricities. She noticed he took out many ads in the local newspaper, offering services as a matchmaker, a fortune teller or even what we would call a “life coach” today, to many of the women around town. Sometimes, he would bring those women back to his flat.
Kiss was likable enough, and got along with everyone, but mostly kept to himself. His neighbors were disturbed by the number of gasoline barrels he kept on his property, even calling the police to question him about them. His explanation was that he could see the war coming, and he was hoarding gasoline in preparation for rationing.
He was right about the war coming. In June 1914, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by anarchist Gavril Princip on the streets of Sarajevo. Tensions between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were already high, and the assassination provided the proper excuse for the Emperor to declare war on Serbia. One month to the day after the killing of the Archduke, the war began.
But it wasn’t just a war with Serbia. Russia began mobilizing for war against Austria-Hungary. Germany declared war on Russia, France and Belgium. Austria declared war on Russia. France declared war on Austria. Britain declared war on Austria. Japan, Montenegro, the Ottoman Empire, Italy… the Great War had begun.
To deal with the massive new war, Austria-Hungary called up a massive force of men. One of those men was Hungarian Bela Kiss. Kiss left his home in the care of his housekeeper and went off to war. For two years, no one heard a word from Kiss, not even his housekeeper. His landlord decided to go investigate the Kiss home, thinking of renting it out to a new tenant.
The first thing he decided to do was give the stockpile of gasoline to soldiers in need, but when they opened the barrels, they didn’t find gasoline. Instead they found the body of a strangled woman, along with the pickled remains of other bodies. When they searched the house, they found more of Kiss’ serial killer trophies, 24 bodies in all.
The police arrested his housekeeper and informed the military that Kiss should be arrested, but he could not be found. She showed them a secret room that held letters of 74 different women, books about poisoning and strangulations, and evidence that Kiss was fooling lonely women into marriage and defrauding them of money. Most went missing.
The closest police ever came to catching the killer was when he was recuperating in a field hospital, but they arrived too late. Kiss had fled. They believed he swapped identities with a dead soldier during the war, but never found evidence. Sightings of Kiss in various countries continued for years but the killer was never truly seen again.
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