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Arsenic norms, collective secret, and double roles during the interrogations



    I would like to explain the connections between community norms and sin in the arsenic trieal of Panni the "Miserable". The case was among the most notable crimes of interwar Hungary. In this photo you can see three women, who poisoned their husbands with arsenic. This photo was made in the Tiszazug region in 1929, where Panni the "Miserable's" arsenic trial took place.
Before I interprete the case, I would like to put it into geographical context. Where can we identify such murders in contemporary Hungary?
I collected all known cases in the database of the Hungarian Central Statistical Offica (KSH) and the results of scholarly research between 1890 and 1960. From my trial database, i made a map, which shows the geographic locations of these arsenic trials. You can see on this map, that arsenic poisons took place all over the Country. For example, I found such murders in Pécs (Baranya County), Zalaegerszeg (Zala County), and in the region of Körös river (Szolnok County and Békés County). Panni the "MIserable" commited the crime in the Tiszazug area, which located in Szolnok County between river Tisza and Kőrös.






 On 25 November 1924, in a small Hungarian village, Nagyrév, a widow, Anna Sebők had lunch with her mother, András Antal's widow (Anna Németh). Her nickname was Panni the "Miserable". Panni the "Miserable" lived in a little Hungarian village near Nagyrév, called Cibakháza. She was a well-known old beggar in this village, and that's why became her name. In this November day, Anna put arsenic poison in the jam, and her mother ate it. After several hours András Antal's widow became ill, and died in the early evening. Anna Sebők wrapped in a beedsheet Panni's body, and the next day she took her mother to the river Tisza, and threw into the water. This was her biggest mistake. Few weeks later a man found Panni's decaying body near Csongrád (a little town in Csongrád County), and then begun the investigation.

For us, the two most important factors are Anna's first and second interrogation. My hypothesis based on the difference between these interrogations. I mean, that the first interrogation shows the real community norms of these women, like Anna Sebők, who poisoned their friends, parents or husbands. During the first interrogation there was no attorney for Anna, also she spoke freely and most likely she told the truth to the investigators. In what sense the second hearing is different from the first one? In the second case, the trith was manipulated, because Anna had an attorney. who told her what to say.

I believe, first Anna admitted the crime, but then she refused the charge. I think, that she played in this trial a double role: her first role was a killer, who poisoned Panni the "Miserable". So the first interrogation shoes us the community norms in the Tiszazug region. And her second role was a victim of juridistiction.

So, what were the community norms for the women of this region? Between 1915 and 1929 in several villages in the Tiszazug area, 99 women an 9 men poisoned their friends, relatives and spuses with arsenic. There were 110 victims and one person survived the poisoning attempt. These cases weren't random murders. These killings were premediated and the killers and their victims knew each other. The trial can be read as a representation of the area's community norms.

What were these community norms? And what is the definition of the community? 

A well-known Hungarian social-historian Gyula Benda described the community as culturally determined lifestyle and a system of social contacts. Another definiton was povided by the social psychologist György Csepeli, who described the community as social-relationships, which concentrated the sociability of the human being. I worked with these definitions of the community. So, I think, that we can accept the hypothesis about arsenic women's ethics, what gravitated aroiund the poisonings.

Of course I know, that there are lots of norms and ethics, for example: norms of friendships, ethics of the church, norms of pubs or other public spaces, and the arsenic women's ethics. I have not enough space to present all allocations of these norms, but I would like to explain the thesis of the "collective secret", which correlated with norms of the arsenic women.

I believe - my views are based on the current results of our historical demography, law-history, and oral history researches -, that collective secret was an important phenomenon among arsenic women, like Anna Sebők. This was a principle component of arsenic ethics.

What was these women's collective secret, and why was it so important for the arsenic poisonings?

The midwife of the village of Nagyrév was Mária Fazekas, who was an important person in the community. Seven other women (Including Mária Fazekas) distributed the arsenic poison to the murderers, who killed their relatives. There are multiple reasons, for example: heritage problems, material and financial problems, unwanted pregnany. For physically weak women, like Anna Sebők, the poisoning was the esiest way to handle the situation. There were also other women, in fact many women for whom the poisoning was the esiest way to solve their problems.

The comparison with other arsenic cases (for example the case of mrs. Mihály kardos, mrs. Pál Lipka or mrs. Gyula Varga) show a hidden system of collective secret. Every women knew about the poisonings, and perhaps - I think - their relatives knew about this phenomenon. Only the state institutions (the gendarmey, the court and the press) weren't informed about the poisonings.

To the outsiders these women did not talk about the murders. Maintaining of the secret wasn't difficult. The local midwife's husband was the dissector in the village of Nagyrév. Also the midwife and the dissector were able to hide this phenomenon. But in the outer World nobody have real information about this socially deep culture of the arsenic. This was a collective secret, which destroyed Panni's trial.

During the first interrogation Anna talked about the killings so freely, that she tod everything to the investigators. But, before the second interrogation Anna recieved an attorney, and so her behavior changed. She did not recognize her responsibility, and she emphasized of her neighbours.

In the second-version, Balázs Szabó and his wife wanted Anna's mother's death, and they gave arsenic poison to Anna. For example, in the first version, Anna wanted her mother's death. In the second version Balázs Szabó took Panni's body to the river Tisza, but in the first version, Anna took the body to the river.

The court didn't believe in this second interrogation, because this was a premeditated murder. The court told that Anna lied in the second version. I mean that Anna played a role, and behaved like her attorney told her to do so.

This phenomenon of roles during the interrogations, which were played so many another women as well, like Anna Sebők, were not unique. Too many women played a double role during the interrogations, so I think, these were not random cases. During the first interrogations many women, for example Anna Sebők, told the true story, but during the second interrogations many women lied about the killings, like Anna Sebők did. I think that based on the lawsuit papers, the reason was the attorney, who recommended these changes in the true stories, because this was a better ways to get aquitted. I think that the first interrogations show the community norms of the arsenic women, which played an important role in the collective secret. This was a phenomenon that produced the hidden culture of the killings.

And at the end: Anna Sebők got 16 years in a prison in Márianosztra. 


Írta: Jánoki Dávid

2012. November 23., Vác

































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