Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. That’s certainly the case for Béla Kiss, the Hungarian serial killer and–if you believe him–vampire.
We usually associate vampires with Transylvania, a region of Romania that is rumored to be the home of Vlad Dracula himself. However, this real-life vampire tale takes place in the neighboring country of Hungary.
Almost a hundred years ago, a tinsmith named Béla Kiss lived in the small town of Cinkota, near Budapest. Despite having a name that sounds like it came straight out of a cheesy vampire romance novel, “Kiss” means “little” in Hungarian. And it’s just a coincidence that he shares a first name with the original Dracula star….
He was married twice and had two children. To all his neighbors, he was nothing more than a charming, slightly eccentric neighbor whose good looks had the local girls swooning. Sure, he was a bit of a player, but after his second wife (allegedly) ran off with another man, could you really blame him? And look at that magnificent mustache!
But Kiss had a darker side. He was fascinated by the occult and considered himself to be an astrologer, able to read earthly secrets in the stars. He promoted himself to lonely women as a fortune-teller, luring them to his home with promises to reveal their future.
For at least 23 women, their future waited inside the sinister metal drums lined up behind Kiss’s house.
His crimes weren’t discovered until after he’d been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight in World War I. By 1916, no one had heard from him–not even the loyal housekeeper who had kept his place pristine while he was gone. Some people thought he’d been killed. Others had heard he was a prisoner of war. But it seemed clear that Kiss wasn’t coming back, and his landlord decided to have the house cleaned in order to rent it out to someone else.
That’s when they discovered the bodies.
Kiss had always told neighbors that the large metal drums were a stockpile of gasoline. When the landlord punctured one of the drums, however, he was greeted not by the scent of gas but the reek of rotting flesh.
The landlord called the police, and a detective named Charles Nagy was dispatched along with two officers. They found the bodies of young women, still with the ropes that killed them coiled around their necks, inside each of the seven drums outside the house.
Kiss had submerged the bodies methanol, a type of alcohol that kept them remarkably well preserved. After finding the first seven bodies, the detective continued searching the property. When it was all over, they dug up at least 17 more drums buried in the yard. And each one contained a body.
Records from the time are sketchy on the total number of victims. We know of at least 24–including one young man, an anomaly compared to Kiss’s other victims. However, some reports suggest there were upwards of 30 bodies hidden on the property.
The victims had all been strangled, that much was clear. But some of the bodies bore twin puncture wounds on their throats–as if Kiss had drained their blood. That detail earned him the nickname “The Vampire of Cinkota” in the press.
A good rule to live by is that if someone has a locked room that no one else is allowed to enter, then they are up to no good.
That proved true of Béla Kiss. His loyal housekeeper insisted that her employer was a good man–but she also claimed not to have a key to the locked room that Kiss had forbidden her to enter. The police eventually forced their way in and found records of his misdeeds.
It turned out that Kiss had been catfishing lonely women through newspaper advertisements. He claimed to be in search of a wife–preferably one who could bring some cash to the marriage. And he was very, very good at wooing these poor women.
Police found his letters and no less than 174 proposals of marriage. He had accepted 74 of them–presumably, the others were either too poor or too wary to be caught by the killer.
It is still not clear how many of them he lured to his home and murdered. Detective Nagy tried to put as many names to the victims as possible, but forensic science wasn’t exactly sophisticated in 1916.
Here’s where the story gets even stranger. Nagy wouldn’t rest until he confirmed that Béla Kiss had indeed died in the war. Months after the bodies were found, he received news of a wounded soldier in Serbia who matched Kiss’s description.
Nagy rushed to arrest him, but before he arrived, the soldier had escaped by putting a corpse in his hospital bed and vanishing into the night.
Sightings of Kiss continued until 1936. One detective claimed to have seen him at the Times Square subway station in New York City. Another man reported that Kiss was working as a janitor in a Manhattan apartment building.
Kiss was never caught. Did he die in the war, as originally rumored? Did he escape to America and vanish into the crowds of New York? Or–and this is just speculation–did he continue to prey upon lonely young women long after he escaped justice?
Could the Vampire of Cinkota still be stalking new victims even now?