Auntie Suzy, a Romany midwife and village “healer,” was not someone to be trifled with, as we learn in “The Angel Makers: Arsenic, a Midwife, and Modern History’s Most Astonishing Murder Ring.” Author Patti McCracken tells the harrowing, true-crime story about how an enormous murder ring in a small, early 20th century rustic Hungarian village grew to include 29 women and two men who went to trial for the murder of 42 men, with hundreds more suspected. “While Auntie Suzy wasn’t the only one doing it, she brought wholesale murder to Nagyrév,” McCracken says. “But for her, it was an absolute business, and she would go looking for a new client.”
The author, a seasonal Vineyard resident with a career in journalism, writes cinematographically throughout, giving the book the texture of a novel. McCracken opens her meticulously researched tale with Auntie Suzy attending the birth of what, with a little bit of urging, turns out to be an unwanted baby:
“Anna Cser lay on the floor of her living room.
“Her back was red and crawling with an itch. She had been lying for hours on the sackcloth the midwife had laid out for her … Maddening bits of the flax were clinging to her. She was cloaked in a thick hide of summer sweat, and all the impossible bits of filth she had failed to clean from the room had floated to her, freckling her with speckles of dirt and dust …
“Anna gasped. She gripped the sackcloth with both hands and pulled herself up on her haunches. Pain ripped through her. She could hear herself shrieking at it … and she could hear the midwife shouting hoarse instructions over to her.”
Living in oppressive poverty with too many existing children, a drunken, abusive husband, and no milk in her breasts to nurse the new arrival, Anna allows Auntie Suzy to “do something about the baby” when the midwife asks if that’s what Anna would like.
We quickly learn that Auntie Suzy does the deed with the arsenic she regularly draws from flypaper, always carrying a bottle around in her apron pocket, along with her putsi charm purse. We soon watch Auntie Suzy help her neighbor Petra rid herself of a sickly husband … with the ulterior motive that the woman would marry her son. In fact, Auntie Suzy helps many women conveniently kill off cruel and abusive spouses and seriously ill relatives, with some using the poison as “inheritance powder” to secure land and houses.
McCracken said in an interview, “It’s important to understand the circumstances. Most of the women sought Auntie Suzy out because they were desperate. I’m convinced they would not have done it unless they felt there was no other alternative. Women were second-, third-, and fourth-class citizens, not just because they were peasants but because they were women.” McCracken shared too about the many conditions that created the perfect storm. It wasn’t just that women weren’t listened to; men regularly kept a leather “obedience strap” by the door. Many also struggled with mental and physical health issues as a result of serving in World War I, and on top of this, there was a culture of drinking because there was no potable water.
Although the killing spree eventually becomes rampant, McCracken populates her book with distinct individuals, including Auntie Suzy’s sister and daughter, who are early supporters of the killing art, as well as a troubled relationship with an ultimately dangerous old friend. We also enter the world of a handful of specific families as their lives unfold, and we uncover the rivalry between Dr. Kalman Szegedy — the visiting physician who becomes suspicious of some of the deaths — and Auntie Suzy, who he believes is responsible. McCracken writes, “He had known his job would be more than tending to the sick once a week. He knew he was being called upon to uproot the midwife tradition in villages under his jurisdiction. But the morning’s revelations had left him stunned. He had come prepared to cope with old customs, not to investigate potential crimes.” In fact, because of the good doctor, Auntie Suzy is arrested and tried.
Without giving anything away, let’s just say that for more than 15 years, as the book description says, “The unlikely murderers aided death unfettered, and tended to it as if it were simply another chore — spooning doses of arsenic into soup and wine, stirring it into coffee and brandy. By the time their crimes were discovered, hundreds were feared dead.”
Eventually, anonymous notes bring the crimes to light in 1929. What follows is the complex unraveling of Auntie Suzy’s and the other women’s lives as the widespread crimes are uncovered, and how all those involved were brought to justice. The involvement of the media from around the world, including the New York Times, conveys the sensationalism caused by the story of this secret murder ring about a hundred years ago. McCracken includes a fascinating postscript that is sure to bring you up short, about how Auntie Suzy’s legacy even raised its head in 1986.
“The Angel Makers: Arsenic, a Midwife, and Modern History’s Most Astonishing Murder Ring,” by Patti McCracken. $32.99. Available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. McCracken will be reading from her book at the West Tisbury library on Sunday, April 16, at 2 pm.