The landlord knew something was wrong when he smelled the stench of rotten flesh coming from those big metal drums.
It was 1916, and the property owner had been investigating the home of his vanished lodger, a tinsmith named Béla Kiss. Kiss had gone off to fight in WWI two years previously and never returned to his rental in Cinkota, a village just outside Budapest. The strange drums – seven in total – were sealed shut. When he poked one with a rod, the putrid smell of death emerged.
Concerned, he contacted police.
Detective Chief Károly Nagy arrived on the scene. They called in a woman named Mrs. Jakubec, the matronly housecleaner Kiss hired to take care of his property. Against Jakubec’s wishes, Nagy cracked open a drum.
Stuffed inside was the body of a strangled woman, her long hair swaddling her face.
Hidden inside the remaining drums were six more bodies pickled in wood alcohol. A comprehensive search of the property revealed 24 additional barrels and corpses – nearly all of them women (save for one man) and many with puncture marks in their necks.
But where was Béla Kiss? No one knew.
Suspicion first turned to Mrs. Jakubec, who tended to the property and was the tinsmith’s sole beneficiary. But her cooperation proved she had nothing to do with the murders.
In fact, Jakubec helped crack the case. She led police to a sealed room in Kiss’ home, which she’d been instructed never to enter. Inside, they found strange books devoted to poison and folders full of letters addressed to 74 different women.
Reading through the letters, it became clear that Béla Kiss had been preying on the lonely hearts of Budapest since 1903. He placed classifieds in the paper announcing his search for a wife. Of the women who replied, Kiss targeted those with few friends and no family.
He then lured them out to his house of horrors – where the prospective brides were strangled and their bodies pickled in the metal drums.
Detective Nagy launched his investigation, scouring military records in search of the deadly soldier. He learned that Kiss was last seen in a Serbian military hospital, where he reportedly died of typhoid. Yet conflicting reports indicated that Kiss had faked his death, fled the hospital, and placed the body of another soldier in his place.
So Nagy boarded a train for the Serbia. It was there that he met a soldier who confessed to assisting in Kiss’ desertion.
Call it a detective’s instinct: in his gut, Nagy knew that Béla Kiss was alive and at-large.
Alas, the killer’s trail soon ran cold after that. Authorities followed various leads for decades. There were sightings of Béla Kiss in France, then in Times Square, and finally in 1936, when reports surfaced of a man who looked like Kiss working as a janitor in New York.
Despite these sightings Béla Kiss was never found again. His eventual fate – and the precise number of his victims – remains unknown.