Crimes at the turn of the century

Crime stories attract people’s attention; mysteries, thrill and scandals can always arouse great interest. It was not differently at the beginning of the 20th century either, as the great interest in the Elza Mágnás murder case shows – to mention a recently hyped case from the history of Hungarian criminalistics.

The documentations of some strange cases can be found in our database as well. Our current exhibition focuses on them, from the period of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The tragedy of Tiszaeszlár and the murder and robbery of Dános. These cases also revealed the serious social problems of the era. We are introducing the stories chronologically.

The Tiszaeszlár affair

tiszaeszlar_599720.jpg

In April 1882, the 14 year-old young handmaid Eszter Solymosi was missing from a village in Szabolcs County. Her mistress Mrs. András Huri expected her in vain from the shop. A few months later, a dead female body was found in the river at Tiszadada – without any lesions, but in Eszter Solymosi’s clothes.

According to the coroner’s report including the necropsy that was made on 20 June 1882, the experts who held the post-mortem and the forensic pathologist reached conflicting conclusions. When determining the age of the body, they suggested that the girl found in the water could be older, in her twenties. Besides that, she died much later and was thrown in water just a few days before. After the coroner’s inquest, where the villagers including her family also participated in, the medical opinion said that it was not Eszter Solymosi’s body, thus the unknown woman was buried.

emlekeim_tiszaeszlar_115929.jpg

The case stirred a national and even European-level scandal, and not just because of its mysteriousness. A Jewish blood libel developed from the trial of Tiszaeszlár. The blood libel means a charge of ritual murder; and the Jewish community of the village, who kept the slaughterer (“shohet”) election before Pesach, was accused of sacrificing Eszter Solymosi by cutting her neck. The increasing anti-Semite atmosphere of the period and the susceptibility of masses of people to superstitions resulted in the blood libel among others. Dr. Károly Eötvös, the best attorney in the country, undertook the defendants’ defence. He found the medieval witch-hunting story of the blood libel suspicious immediately. The case was not advanced by the fact that during the interrogations the gendarmes forced the witnesses to confess what they wanted to hear.

At the final trial in July and August of 1883, after Eötvös’s seven-hour-long pleading that got the “tradition” of blood libel over as well, defendants were acquitted, and the cause brought international fame to Eötvös. The body found in river Tisza was exhumed before the lawsuit, but not many examinations could be done on it anymore. We still do not know if it was Eszter Solymosi’s body. Anyway, the hypothesis of the slaughtered blood sacrifice was not proved. According to the defence, the girl jumped into the Tisza due to the cruelty of Mrs. Huri and a conflict, although some doubts emerged about this too, Eszter Solymosi’s death was put down as a suicide.

Even author Kálmán Mikszáth covered the trial in Nyíregyháza as a correspondent to the newspaper Pesti Hírlap. Later, Gyula Krúdy wrote a novel from the story with the title “A tiszaeszlári Solymosi Eszter” (Eszter Solymosi from Tiszaeszlár). The tragedy of Tiszaeszlár agitated the country that time; almost a mass hysteria developed with riots, further blood libels and formation of anti-Semite political parties. The topic can instigate anger even 130 years later, related to the painting “Vérvád” (Blood Libel) that is said to be Mihály Munkácsy’s work by certain opinions.

Murder and robbery of Dános

danosi_hires_csarda_619104.jpg

In 1907, a tavern situated on the border of village Dános in Maros County was attacked, its operators István Szarvas, his wife and his 18 year-old daughter Teréz and a coachman Pál Tabányi who was accidentally there were slaughtered; Teréz was raped, the found valuables were taken and the tavern was set on fire.

The case attracted a huge interest of the great public and the press, due to its cruelty. A large crowd gathered for the public necrotomy that was organised on the scene of the crime. The gendarmerie was not prepared for the affair either; they often got into the crossfire of the contemporary gutter press. In this atmosphere, wandering gypsies travelling across the surrounding region fell under suspicion – in addition, prejudices against gypsies were rather unfavourable among the population.

danosi_hires_csarda_619045.jpgTuta Kolompár Balog was the principle defendant, who gave an incriminating statement first, but withdrew it later. An objective investigation was not advanced by the widely known fact that gendarmes extracted confessions. Nevertheless, they needed results in the case that was hyped by the press and they had to satisfy people’s demand on scandals. The 15 year-old Róza Lina Lakatos, who was made the crown witness in the suit, confessed against Tuta. According to the press, she was not abused in order to speak, she overdrew the story proactively.

hodmezovasarhely_borton_431190.jpg

Finally, fourteen people were charged based on younger siblings’ and children’s confessions, the objects belonging to the family Szarvas found at the gypsies’, the gypsies’ belongings and a fingerprint found in the tavern. Tuta Kolompár Balog remained among the defendants. He was quite young; according to certain sources, he did not reach twenty – but without official documents, nobody knew it exactly. Anyway, due to the lack of official papers, the defendants’ names were mentioned in various versions as well. Besides him, the lawsuit had two other principle defendants, whom they wanted to sentence to death by hanging – although their young age raised doubts. Instead of the death penalty, the judge sentenced the presumed committers to imprisonment.

The judicial decision did not improve the prejudices and negative stereotypes against gypsies. The public opinion claimed the law of talion and wanted revenge. Many people questioned the rightfulness of the verdict and mentioned the Lombroso theory. The public opinion on ethnic groups, who were regarded as “criminaloid”, revealed an important social problem of the era. After the Dános affair, the government took out the wandering gypsies’ case and urged their settlement after counting them. Nevertheless, theory was not followed by practice, because solving the social problems of an ethnic group living on the social periphery was not put in the agenda.

TEJ

Translated by Zita Aknai

Sources

Did you like this virtual exhibition? Then go on reading!