As our regular readers know, I do like to bring you a mixture of the classic true crime stories and some that are distinctive, even singular. The case of former Hungarian Army officer, mass murderer and self-taught demolitions expert Sylvestre Matuschka has to rank as one of the strangest that I’ve ever heard of.
He was born in modern-day Serbia on January 29, 1892 in a town nowadays named Cantavir, formerly known as Csantaver. A mechanical engineer and later a mine owner, he also served in the Austro-Hungarian Army which explains his knowledge of and access to ready supplies of industrial explosives. What nobody has ever fully explained is his fetish. Was he addicted to killing? Was he specifically addicted to derailing trains? Or was it a combination of the two?
Matuschka started his bizarre crime spree in Austria, making several unsuccessful attempts to derail passenger trains between December, 1930 and January, 1931. Presumably his frustration at having failed to do so, coupled with large-scale police searches, led him to move to Germany and try his hand there.
It was in Germany that he made his first successful attack, derailing the Berlin to Basel express, south of the capital city of Berlin on August 8, 1931. Fortunately for the passengers and crew nobody was killed. Unfortunately for the European train network in general, Matuschka now knew that he had both the inclination and the practical skills to make his fetish into a full-time pursuit. A defaced Nazi newspaper was found near the train wreckage, leading many to suspect that this was some kind of political statement via terrorist means. The Weimar Republic (Germany’s democratic government prior to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the start of the Nazi era) promptly placed a 100,000 Reichsmark bounty on the so far-unidentified saboteur.
Unfortunately, Matuschka wasn’t satisfied and he didn’t stop there. His biggest, most destructive crime was yet to happen.
Only a month later, on September 13, 1931, the Budapest to Vienna express pulled out of Budapest’s main station en route for the Austrian capital. At 12:20am it began to cross the Biatorbagy bridge, not far out of Budapest itself. It would never make it across the bridge, let alone to Vienna.
Matuschka had laid his plans and his charges well. As the express began to cross the bridge it tripped a sizable charge of industrial dynamite, breaking the bridge and instantly derailing the express. Of the eleven coaches, nine plummeted from the shattered bridge into the 30-meter deep valley below. For the passengers and crew it was a catastrophe. 22 passengers were killed in the derailment. 170 were injured and, of the injured, 17 were seriously hurt.
Matuschka himself, bizarrely, was found at the crime scene, having chosen to stay and watch the full effect of his bizarre and lethal fetish. He tried to pass himself off as a train passenger lucky enough to have escaped the carnage unscathed. Unfortunately for Matuschka, his actions had left police from Austria, Germany and Hungary looking for him. He was unmasked, exposed and arrested. It was now only a question of which of the three countries would get to put him on trial first. The fact that all three countries at that time could apply the death penalty must have weighed heavily upon his twisted mind.
The legal proceedings began in Austria, where Matuschka was tried for his earlier unsuccessful attempts. Having been handed a life sentence in Austria (not known for its regular use of the headsman’s ax) he was extradited to Hungary. Fortunately for Matuschka and to the horror of some of survivors, Austria only agreed to extradite Matuschka if Hungary declined to execute him.
His trial in Hungary was, as expected, almost a foregone conclusion. He was convicted and condemned to die but, as per their agreement with the Austrians, the Hungarian authorities commuted his death sentence to one of life imprisonment. Matuschka would spend the rest of his life kept safely under lock and key and well away from either trains or explosives.
Or at least that was the plan.
What actually happened to him has never been established. We know he was sent to a prison in the Hungarian town of Vac for life. Unfortunately he escaped in 1945 and that’s where his case becomes even more curious. What exactly did happen to one of criminal history’s most bizarre individuals?
There are conflicting accounts, none of which have ever been fully substantiated and are unlikely to be. One version of events has Matuschka spirited away from Vac Prison by agents of the Soviet Union’s dreaded Committee for State Security, the KGB. Adherents of this theory suggest that, as the war was still months from ending, the KGB saw Matuschka as a useful saboteur and were prepared to arrange his escape in return for his skills. As the Red Army hadn’t yet fought its way through Hungary, Matuschka would have been behind the German lines and ideally placed to sabotage troop trains, munitions trains, supply trains and suchlike. It sounds bizarre, but the circumstances make it one potential escape route for a man otherwise destined to spend the remainder of his life behind bars.
Rumours also circulated during the 1950’s that Matuschka had been active in the Korean War of 1951-1953, allegedly still pursuing his particular hobby while being paid to enjoy himself by the KGB. Like the initial suggestion that they recruited him and arranged his escape, this is one possibility but has never been confirmed.
Other options are equally plausible. He could have arranged a false identity and vanished into obscurity amid the collapse of the Third Reich and chaos that followed the end of the Second World War. He could have been a casualty of Red Army’s push through occupied Hungary as they swept inexorably toward Berlin. Perhaps he did what so many criminals including, ironically many Germans who fought in the war, did and joined the French Foreign Legion to assume another identity and escape his past. At the time, the Legion still upheld its blanket policy of asking absolutely no questions about a recruit’s past while seldom offering them a long and healthy future. If that was the case, then Matuschka may have been deployed to colonial wars in Algeria and the former colony of French Indo-China (modern-day Vietnam).
We simply don’t know. On his escape from Vac Prison, Sylvestre Matuschka, one of the strangest criminals in the annals of crime, simply vanished.