Patti McCracken’s “The Angel Makers”

Virginia Beach native and author Patti McCracken’s recently released book about Hungary’s notorious midwife-led murder ring was a 14-year “mental conversation”
Author Patti McCracken's "The Angel Makers"

Patti McCracken wandered around in the village of Nagyrev, Hungary, with her friend and neighbor Harald Leban, whom she’d invited on an adventure to take photos. Simple farmhouses lined the village streets. A church spire pierced the sky. Bikes leaned helter skelter in front of the village inn. Heads swiveled as she and Leban entered, he with a camera, McCracken with a pen.

“I know why you are here,” Leban recalls the barkeep saying, “but you won’t hear anything about the midwife from me!”

The midwife was Auntie Suzy, a squat, pipe-smoking woman who in the early 1900s boiled fly paper in vinegar and distributed the resulting arsenic to women who were tired of their abusive spouses and the sickly children they couldn’t afford to feed. The poison was nearly undetectable, the deaths explained away. The women grew brazen, sprinkling it into the brandy of their batterers, the goulash of their bothersome relative, the soup of the person who stood between them and a coveted piece of property. By the time the women were caught, at least 160 men were dead in a crime spree that made headlines around the world.

McCracken, a freelance writer who lived just over the border in Austria, had discovered the story while “trolling down the backroads of the internet.” She wrote a magazine piece about the women, but their story had buried its hooks into her. She had to know more.

Thus began a 14-year mental conversation with the village women that culminated in the recent release of McCracken’s historical true crime book The Angel Makers: Arsenic, a Midwife and Modern History’s Most Astonishing Murder Ring, published by William Morrow. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “compulsively readable.” Booklist called it “simply excellent.”

UNCOVERING HISTORY It took McCracken 14 years to research and write The Angel Makers, a true crime account of a group of women who brazenly poisoned at least 160 people in the early 1900s. Her process included collecting and sorting countless documents and creating a timeline of events on her bathroom wall.
UNCOVERING HISTORY It took McCracken 14 years to research and write The Angel Makers, a true crime account of a group of women who brazenly poisoned at least 160 people in the early 1900s. Her process included collecting and sorting countless documents and creating a timeline of events.

McCracken, a Virginia Beach native who has worked as a journalist around the world, dove into the archives in the county seat of Szolnok, Hungary. She even moved there for a few months so she wouldn’t waste time traveling. She hired locals to translate the trial transcripts and Hungarian newspaper articles.

She found Attila Tokay, a doctor of history who was fluent in English. “I told him, I want to reconstruct the DNA of what happened,” she remembers. “I want to rebuild these people, these events.”

She studied weather archives so she’d know when it was windy or raining or whether there was hail. She interviewed a Viennese criminal psychiatrist to understand the likely character of the women. She talked to gendarmes—the equivalent of county sheriffs—about how the women were arrested and to historians at the Semmelweis Medical Museum in Budapest about village doctors of the era. She tracked down the current prosecutor, who had been fascinated with the prosecution of the case. Each was delighted to tell her everything they knew.

“There are people who love every little piece of their thing,” she says, “and they love to talk about it because nobody ever asks them.”

She sorted the information into a two-foot stack of labeled files stuffed with print outs and newspaper articles, medical reports and military records. Birth, death and marriage certificates. Information about the women’s movement and the traditional role of midwives.

She taped a long sheet of butcher paper along one wall and around the corner in a huge shower room off her Austrian kitchen and drew a timeline of who appeared when, who died when. She fleshed out details on index cards and taped them beneath the timeline, then stood back over and over again, looking for the book’s narrative arc. When she got stuck, she’d wander the nearby fields with her Jack Russell, Remi, dictating into her phone as things became clear.

“At first I didn’t do the work of trying to find the arc,” she says. “I thought it would naturally fall into place, because it’s such an amazing story. As it turns out, it doesn’t. You have to mount the hand where the hand is supposed to be. You have to carve out the feet where the feet are supposed to be. It doesn’t just flow into place.”

In the midst of the writing, Austria withdrew her visa. She had nowhere to go. As a freelancer, she was perpetually broke and now homeless. She came back to the United States, where—through the magic of social media—a family offered her a house sitting opportunity on Martha’s Vineyard. She found a part-time job there teaching English to Brazilian immigrants, which earned her enough money to feed herself. Each morning she’d get up at around 5, pour a cup of coffee and write. No phone calls, no texts, no checking email. She couldn’t afford to be distracted.

“I had to learn to turn off the phone, to not answer when somebody’s at the door,” she says. “I’m at work. I’m in a meeting. I’m in surgery. I can’t answer you because I will easily lose my focus.”

She likens it to an actor on stage, interrupted by a fan asking for an autograph. “And you’re like, no!” she says. “How do you get back into the role? I had to immerse myself in these people’s lives so I could tell this story!”

For 14 years she worked, and on the day she finished she walked out into the yard, sat on a low limb of a scrub oak, and wept. “And I wept. And I wept,” she says. “I just kept sobbing and sobbing, and it was such a relief, and such a release. I’ve not had children, but my sister said, ‘Yep, I did that after every one of my babies.’

“I felt like I had the burden of these women in my life for so long. When I started writing the story I was just fascinated to put this puzzle together. But at some point, it felt like these women were calling me to tell their story. Even though they had been gone 100 years, I felt the responsibility to tell their story. And so, when I finally wrote ‘The End’ I thought, ‘OK, ladies, I’ve done it.’”

About the Writer
Janine Latus is a writer and public speaker living in North Carolina. She is also Patti McCracken’s friend and served as an advisor on The Angel Makers project. She and McCracken squealed happily when Patti first used the phrase “my agent.” They continue to celebrate.

Janine Latus Headshot
Janine Latus
+ posts and articles

Janine Latus is a freelance writer who spent a lovely decade in Coastal Virginia and now lives in Chapel Hill, NC. It’s her delight and job to talk to interesting people about fascinating things and then play with words. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister’s Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation.

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