Hungarian eastern – Stories of the outlaw
At the beginning of the 18th century, a new ’profession’ appeared on the Hungarian wasteland: the outlaw. They had a great influence on the culture history and the folk art of the period and later until today, inspiring folk art motives, folk songs and folk ballads. The role of footpads is still debated: were they Hungarian ‘Robin Hoods’, or just over-estimated criminals?
After Rákóczi’s War of Independence, because of the war mainly, many impoverished peasants, libertine shepherds, outcasts, discharged soldiers, and later during the Habsburg period, deserters became footpads. They gathered in gangs, pilfered and killed people mostly on the Great Plain, in the Bakony Mountain and in Somogy County.
Constant persecution was a part of their lives, thus they camped in the deep of forests and marshlands, but they often appeared in county-frontier rest-houses and taverns. Inn-owners usually did not have a choice, but sometimes they even sympathized with the outlaws. This kind of outlawry can be paralleled with the bandits of the Wild West, who also became legends that live on even today. The outlaws’ heydays were in the 19th century, when the anti-Habsburg moral mythicized perturbative figures who opposed the ruling power.
Outlaws like Sándor Rózsa or Jóska Sobri became folk heroes, owing to stories in which they did justice by vigilante methods, protecting cottiers against landowners and giving money to the poor. However, these stories are only legends, lacking evidences. The romantic stories inspired many literary works and fictions. Károly Eötvös wrote a love story about Jóska Sobri in ‘Utazás a Balaton körül’ and Zsigmond Móricz wrote a novel about Sándor Rózsa, whose biography was written by Gyula Krúdy.
Outlaws are so popular even nowadays that they are still a fashionable topic: András Cserna-Szabó’s Sándor Rózsa paraphrase ‘Sömmi’ was published in 2015. The ‘outlaw symbology’ was typical in the Hungarian film art during the 1960s and ‘70s. Miklós Jancsó’s film ‘Szegénylegények’ (1965) was about the afterlife of freedom fighter Sándor Rózsa’s outlaw gang. György Szomjas’s film ‘Talpunk alatt fütyül a szél’ (1976) was a ballad-like eastern European ‘Western’ telling the story of an outlaw.
The increased interest – almost idealism – in Sándor Rózsa’s life (1813-1878), who raided in the southern Great Plain of Hungary, can be explained by the fact that he took part in the War of Independence of 1848-49 with his franc-tireur group. Due to that, when he was captured in 1857, he was not sentenced to death, only life-imprisonment in the Castle of Kufstein, but received amnesty about a decade later. Rumour has it that he was shown for money during his captivity, but it is a fact that he had a lot of visitors in the prison. After his release, he tried heisting mail-coaches and railway carriages with Ferenc Csonka’s gang. Once they even picked up rail tracks ahead of the selected train. People sympathized with him, made up legends around him: he was supposed to be the leader of the combinations after the war of independence, a just rewarder who robs only the rich. Due to the lack of authentic sources, his real personality cannot be reconstructed from fictions and period news articles that were not detached by all means.
The other most famous Hungarian outlaw was Jóska Sobri (1810-1837). He was born as József Pap in Vas County, and he raided in the Bakony Mountain and the Transdanubian region mostly. As he was said to be a handsome lad, women idolized him according to the legend. While being in prison for two years, he seduced the provost’s wife as well. He was only 27, when his group was surrounded in a manhunt and he shot himself in the heart. People did not really believe that he had died and made up stories about Sobri hiding under a cover name. According to the most bizarre story, he immigrated to America and became a pharmacist.
Many famous rogues became popular and we still know their names. Another infamous outlaw from the Bakony Mountain was Jóska Savanyú (1841-1907) who spoke several foreign languages. He was feared for his cruel raids and had spent more than 20 years in prison before he committed suicide because of his rheumatic pains. Márton Vidróczki (1837-1873) was from the Mátra Mountain. Hungarian school singing books told us that he had a famous herd because he was a shepherd before becoming an outlaw, and he was ‘bullet-proof’ according the unwritten tradition. Imre Bogár (Szabó) (1842-1862) from the southern Great Plain was hung in Pest in front of a huge crowd; Marci Zöld (1790-1816) with noble origins from Berettyóújfalu was the most famous mounted bandit; and the earliest known outlaw was Bandi Angyal (cc. 1760-1806) from Upper Hungary; he had noble origins as well.
Their lives could not be far so romantic as their legends show. The story collection ‘Betyártörténetek Darányból, Somogyudvarhelyről’ (1966) gives descriptions about rather bloody stories of the period.
An interesting (almost) contemporary resource Keszthelyi Hírlap from 8 November 1896 reported in a sad article about the closing of the Millennium Expo, underlining that the event brought Hungary back to the cultural and touristic circulatory system of Europe, contrasting it against the sometimes outlaw conditions of the Hungarian wasteland.
Translated by Zita Aknai