By Caitlin Kelly
It’s an amazing story — and now a new book that took 14 years to produce: The Angel Makers tells the incredible and unlikely story of a tiny, remote Hungarian village where, in the early 1920s, a lot of men (and some babies) kept dying, even if previously young and healthy.
It was the work of Aunt Suzy, the village midwife, and her potion — arsenic derived from soaking flypaper — delivered to local women who wanted freedom from their drunk, abusive, unfaithful husbands or from trying to sustain an infant with no money to do so.
Patti, a much admired and highly adventurous friend of many years, and a career journalist, re-discovered the story and has written a terrific book.
“From seed to fruit, this book took 14 years,” she told me. “Eight of those years were full-on research and writing. It was just me and the story—just the two of us —and that was a somewhat lonely relationship. To finally have it completed and have others be able to read it is a thrill beyond measure.”
HERE’S A CHANCE TO WIN A FREE COPY — BEFORE FEBRUARY 27!
Tell us a bit about you and why/where/how you first became a journalist? What about it appealed to you?
I started at 19 as an obit writer at the St Pete Times (now Tampa Bay Times).
I got the bug much earlier than that, though. My older brother was an illustrator at the Virginian Pilot, and for my 13th birthday he gave me a tour of the paper— the newsroom, the pressroom—we went all over that building and I was enthralled with every square inch of it. I can still hear the teletype, the typewriters, the ringing telephones. I can still see the enormous vats of ink. From then on, I was hooked. When I think back, it really was life changing, even at such a young age. It had a profound effect on me. Thanks, Steve!
After working in the States, how and why did you end up living in an Austrian village?
A few years before I moved to Europe, I had gotten a Knight International Press Fellowship, which sends reporters to struggling or so-called emerging democracies to help fellow reporters improve their skills, working conditions, etc. It was like a journalism Peace Corps. My assignment was for Central and Eastern Europe. I loved the work and ended up moving abroad to do it full time in January 2000. I first lived in Bratislava, Slovakia, then moved across the border into Austria.
For how long?
I came back to the USA in 2016.
What sort of work were you doing then?
It was a range of duties, and after the Fellowship it was mostly contracted assignments with non-profits. I worked inside newsrooms with journalists, I taught university courses, I lead workshops. I did a lot of visual journalism, which included a lot of newspaper and magazine redesigns. I worked on free press issues in places like Ukraine and Moldova, and on occasion, worked with ambassadors, as well (one such meeting was with the ambassador to Macedonia: “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how to repair the tv tower that has been shot out by Albanian rebels”).
When I wasn’t doing such media training work, I was freelancing.
Tell us how you stumbled across this amazing story in the first place.
I was bumbling down the backroads of the Internet one afternoon and bumped into a short piece about this strange village in Hungary…
Did you know right away this was a good book topic? Why? How?
I had no intention of writing a book about it. I thought it would just be an article and I’d move on to the next article. But something stayed with me. I kept bringing it up to friends, and in my spare time rooting around for ever more info. After a few years, I thought, hmmm, maybe there is a book here…
Tell us about finding your agent/selling the book
In my case, it all came down to kismet.
Out of the blue, I got an email from an old colleague from my Washingon, DC days. We hadn’t been in contact in at least a dozen years. I was delighted to hear from him. We chatted back and forth (email), catching up, and I told him about the book idea—at that point I was putting finishing touches on the proposal. He took a look at my website and came back to me to ask why, in God’s name, had I not included any info about the book! Seemed like a no brainer to him, and of course he was right. I went straight to the site and added it. Not four hours later, what popped into my Inbox? An email from an agent. It turns out, he had just read a piece I had written for the Smithsonian—my first for them—which had come out the day before. He had gone to my website to find out more about me and saw the info about the book. “I’d love to take a look at your proposal.”
He turned out to be absolutely the right agent for me.
That 24 hours—It was an inexplicable alignment of stars.
What was the first step in getting started on it?
There were many steps being taken at the same time, but the most critical was to find an assistant. I found a fantastic man—a historian specializing in the region who was fluent in English. There were a few fails before I found him.
What were the most difficult/challenging things about researching it?
This wasn’t challenging, per se, but it took some time and work to understand Hungary. To fully learn, for example, about Hungary’s part in WWI and the disastrous aftermath—the Communist takeover and the Romanian war. That’s not something that can be skimmed over. You have to dig deep. In the book, the war, et. al., are just a backdrop, but that doesn’t mean you can cheat and get by with the minimum. The story will suffer.
It also took time, and patience, and study, and feet on Magyar ground to really understand—as best I could—and appreciate—as best I could—the soul of the Hungarian people. At least to the extent that I could as a non-Hungarian, and as someone who does not speak the language. My historian assistant helped me tremendously. And I also moved to Szolnok, the town where the trials took place, for several months. Having lived for so long in a small Austrian village (not far from the Hungarian border), and having spent so much time in other East European villages, also helped, I think.
About writing it?
Independent journalists —particularly those who report from abroad–are paid very poorly, and we get a lot of deadbeat clients who try not to pay at all. That’s hard on a person. I’m single. There is no secondary income to rely on. So I’d say the hardest thing about writing it was to always be scrambling. Always counting pennies. It’s difficult to work under those conditions. And hard on your health.
That final Canadian angle is a hoot! How did you find it?
After the original article came out, the victim contacted me!
Was there any resistance among Hungarians or locals to your dredging up a story that is pretty horrific?
There was, understandably, some resistance. Many are descended from either a victim or a perpetrator—in many cases both—and they would prefer to leave the past in the past, as you might imagine. They are also very protective of the women, compassionate about the circumstances that drove them to do what they did.
How were you able to recreate such specific details — Aunt Suzy’s love of brandy or her pipe or hobnail boots?
The archive was a trove of information. And the events were widely covered, not just by the press at the time, but also by well-known Hungarian writers, who went into more detail than the average reporter. There were sociologists who had gone before me, village monographs, village elders. And of course my historian assistant was amazing.
What is Szolnok like these days? Is there anything anywhere that’s still reminiscent of the period you wrote about? Or the town where it happened?
Szolnok is a bustling town, and still quite pretty. Sadly, the Communists destroyed a lot of the fabulous architecture, but much still remains. The artist colony is still there, and there are a lot of delightful cafes and eateries. It has a nice vibe.
Nagyrev did pretty well under Communism, and has struggled ever since its collapse. It is a tight-knit community. They host things like yoga classes, and the like. In a certain sense, it is not unlike other villages in that region of the country–or even hamlets in neighboring countries–in that there is not a lot of opportunity for folks. The difference is its utter remoteness. It still takes nearly as long to get there from Szolnok—a distance of 25 miles—as it did a hundred years ago.
Are there any local memorials, plaques, public formal recognition of this event?
A couple of years ago, the Szolnok newspaper ran a feature/commemoration of Kronberg on the 90th anniversary of “The Arsenic Trials.” But to my knowledge, there is no formal recognition.
Tell us/me anything you want to….
Finally, I’ll add that although this is a true crime story, there’s much more to it than that. That the Angel Makers happened at all has everything to do with women’s place in society. These were not deranged, bloodthirsty women out for the kill. In most cases, they were desperate to escape tortorous situations. They did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do.
In the hundred years since these crimes occurred, not a lot has changed for women. Sorry to say, but it’s true.
14 thoughts on “The Angel Makers, a tale of 100 murders in a tiny Hungarian village. Q and A with author Patti McCracken”
What a story. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks! I read it, of course. The level of detail she managed to recreate is amazing,
Sounds like a very interesting book. I hope the author does well on it.
I entered and hope to win, as this sounds right up my alley!
Did somebody say murders? Yes, I entered. I hope I win!
Thought this would appeal! Murders — exhumations — grisly slow deaths,,,
It practically screams, “Rami Ungar, go and read this book!”
Thanks for the interview, Caitlin! If anyone wants to learn more about the book, or get a”Behind the Scenes” look, it’s all on my website: http://www.pattimccracken.com . Happy Reading, Everyone 🙂
What an amazing! story – that she discovered it at all, and the process she went through to research it for years and turn it into a book. Patti McCracken sounds like she has had a fascinating, wonderful, varied career. I particularly admire that she stuck with it through all the challenges. Hmm, could this book be turned into a movie? I wish her much success!
I hope so!!! She is really something.