We all love a good black widow story. You know the kind – “she mates and then she kills;” women, often poisoners, who chewed through a spate of rich husbands or young lovers, leaving a string of corpses in their wake but, often, little or no evidence to connect them to the crimes.
They’re fixtures of crime fiction, from movies to TV shows to historical dramas to novels, and they rarely fail to capture our attention. One of the most notorious—and possibly the most prolific—of all time was Vera Renczi, the so-called Chatelaine of Berkerekul, a Romanian serial killer who slew as many as 35 people, including two husbands, 32 lovers, and even her own son, and kept their bodies preserved in zinc-lined coffins in her basement.
When her ghastly crimes were found out in 1925, Renczi was sentenced to life in prison. There’s just one problem with all of this—there’s virtually no evidence that Renczi ever existed at all. Oh, to be sure, you can find plenty of information about her online. She is, after all, reputed to have been possibly the most prolific female serial killer of the 20th century.
So, there’s plenty to read about Renczi online. She’s even got a Wikipedia entry, which lists her alleged dates of birth and death, tells about her childhood in Bucharest, the whole deal. Pick at any of those details, however, and the whole story begins to unravel.
Related: 11 Chilling True Crime Books About Female Killers
Take that birth date, for example. Wikipedia alleges that Renczi was born in 1903. Given that she was married twice and was supposed to have knocked off more than 30 lovers in addition to her two husbands and a ten-year-old son all by 1925, well, she would have had to get an awfully early start, even for those days.
But wait, there are photos of Renczi online, as well. And they all seem to be the same person, which suggests that they aren’t just random images pulled from old photo archives. So, if she didn’t exist, who’s in those pictures?
Well, they are of a woman named Vera from around the right time, that much is true. It’s just that they’re actually Vera Fyodorovna Komissarzhevskaya, a famous Russian stage actress who lived from 1864 through 1910. A safe enough person to use for your Romanian femme fatale, after all, as she was famous enough that there would be plenty of photographs of her to choose from, but not so famous that everyone would immediately know what she looked like. And she lived before movies, so there’s not any risk of seeing her in an old moving picture and having it give the game away.
Related: The Bloody Reign of Countess Elizabeth Bathory
So, if Vera Renczi wasn’t real, where do the stories come from? The answer to that question presents some mysteries of its own. As near as we can tell, the story of Vera Renczi was first reported in the Danville Bee in May of 1925. It was picked up by plenty of other papers at the time, so tracing the original can be tricky. “Woman Held for Killing 35 Persons,” shouts one headline. “Another Lucretia Borgia Found,” screams another.
The original appears to have been by one O. B. Tolischus, cited, in the Danville Bee, as a “Universal Service Correspondent.” Is it possible that this is actually Otto David Tolischus, the “B” a typo? If so, that would certainly lend significant credence to the original reporting, given that Otto Tolischus—who was, indeed, working for the Universal Service in Berlin at the time—won a 1940 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the rise of Nazi Germany.
Like most things about Vera Renczi, we will probably never know the full facts. The original article—and all its various copycats and repetitions—certainly contains plenty of juicy details, though, even if the story they’re reporting on isn’t true. According to the article, Renczi is described as being “beautiful as a picture.”
She slew her 32 lovers plus two husbands and her son for coldly cynical reasons, too, according to the statement alleged in the original copy. “Out of jealousy,” she reportedly replied, when police asked her why she had done such a terrible thing, “for I know that tomorrow they would run after another woman. So I said to myself they had better sleep quietly in my cellar without having to excite themselves.”
Related: Historical True Crime Stories Every True Crime Lover Should Know
Her son, she supposedly killed when he stumbled upon her secret. And what a secret it was. Besides two dead husbands who had each vanished, she had the 32 other beaus all preserved in zinc—in large tins in the original article, which at least makes more sense than the zinc-lined coffins it morphed into over years of retelling, which would have been quite expensive and also probably fairly suspicious. On each tin was the name of the victim, as well as the date of their death and how long they had been Renczi’s lover—what a delightfully morbid detail!
Unfortunately for fans of deadly damsels, there’s precious little evidence outside of that one newspaper article to suggest that any of it actually happened at all. As the website The Dark Minds reported, there doesn’t seem to be any arrest records, newspaper accounts from the country where the crimes supposedly took place, or anything else to suggest that Vera Renczi actually lived at all, let alone that she committed the murders associated with her name. Indeed, had she been sentenced to life in prison, she should have been around for some time after 1925 and there should have been prison records to attest to her incarceration. Instead, there appears to be nothing.
Related: Amelia Dyer: Victorian England's Cruelest Baby Farmer
“In despair,” Alex of The Dark Minds writes, “I contacted a Professor of History in a University of London, a specialist in Yugoslavia and the Balkans. He wrote back stating that to his surprise and knowledge, he doesn’t know anything about this case; in fact, he has never heard of Vera Renczi before.”
Certainly, it seems that if a woman as notorious as Vera Renczi had actually lived and committed the many crimes for which she was apparently convicted, there would be more records available than a handful of basically identical duplications of a single news article from an American newspaper in 1925. Yet, if Renczi didn’t commit these gruesome deeds, where did the story come from in the first place?
Now that’s a mystery…