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Outlaws in 19th Century Hungary
Outlaws in 19th Century Hungary

Music notes and lyrics: Esik eső szép csendesen csöpörög, Rózsa Sándor, Angyal Bandi, Savanyú Jóska, Züld Marci by Berki Viola (1932-2001)

By the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th, fear of the Turks had passed and the border fortresses dismissed the soldiers.  Having served many years, they couldn’t find their place in civil life, so they formed gangs and lived  by stealing. In addition, due to the economic and social situation at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the poor became poorer, and the poorer became even more poor.  Thus poor servants, shepherds, who couldn’t handle the burdens the landowners imposed, men who just got out prison, young men who didn’t want to serve for the Habsburgs became betyárok or zsiványok.  Some joined the outlaws for adventure.

These betyárs, were in a group of 6-8, mostly young men.  Their leader was an absolute ruler whom everyone had to obey.  Anyone who refused was dealt with immediately.  They had to keep the betyárbecsület (their own code of honor).  Many were the victims of that, and not many reached old age.

Public safety was shaky, the gendarmes were untrained, the outlaws were clever.  They kept not just the rich, but merchants, tradesmen, even some shepherds in fear.  They stole, looted, some killed if the victim resisted.  Because of all this, the public defenders were constantly after them.  Sometimes even the army was called out; and rewards were offered for capturing them.

The life of the betyárs was not an easy one.  The outlaws were always on the run, or in hiding.  When they were caught, they were sentenced to death without a trial.  In some years, 200 outlaw were hanged.

Yes, their eyes were often caught by the csaplárosné (tavern-owner’s wife), or the shepherd’s gorgeous daughters.  Famous love stories were born, but most of the time they didn’t come to anything.

The best known include Rózsa Sándor, Angyal Bandi, Bogár Imre, Sobri Jóska, Sisa Pista, Bajdor János, Bogár Imre, Weszelka Imre, Savanyú Jóska, Zöld Marci. 

As we lived by the foot of the Bakony Mountains, where many of the outlaws operated, we heard a lot about the betyárs.  During the long winter evenings, we listened to the stories that my father and godfather told about them.  According to them, the outlaws never robbed or hurt the poor.

The most famous betyár was Rózsa Sándor, son of a scoundrel.  He wanted to live a normal life, he got married; and sometimes, he did live the right way, but he always relapsed.  He couldn’t fit in, so he was always outside the law.  In 1848, with the permission of Kossuth Lajos he received a letter of safe conduct, and organized a free army composed of outlaws such as himself – poor young men, and deserters, and fought for freedom mostly against the Serbs. In Ezeres village, Krassó County, he robbed the townsfolk and killed 36 Romanians.

Later on he took to robbing trains. He and his band removed tracks to stop the  trains, then they robbed the travelers. Once some soldiers were on the train, and in the fight many were injured, including Rózsa Sándor.  He was arrested and sent to jail.  Because of his part in the Revolution, Kossuth asked for a reduction of his sentence. But Rózsa Sándor died in jail, of tuberculosis, in Szamosújvár jail in 1879.

Sobri Jóska was “our” outlaw.  He was almost as famous as Rózsa Sándor.  He was born Pap József, in a small town near Sárvár.

The story is told of how, as a lark, he took part in stealing a pig.  He was caught and imprisoned.  On his release, he became a betyár, and acquired the nickname Sobri, based on his father’s birthplace of Sobor, a small settlement between Tét and Csorna.  He spent his time and “worked” in the Bakony Mountain and its surrounding area.

The most famous robbery occurred on December 8th, 1836, perpetrated by Sobri Jóska.  They stole 6,800 forint, 16 firearms, 4 gold watches and much ladies’ jewelry.  The stolen items were sold through tavern owners, millers, and small landowners, who also supported the betyárs with food and sometimes with guns and ammunition.  His right-hand man, Milfajt Ferkó was caught and hanged on Christmas Day of 1836.

In 1837, nine Counties were after Sobri.  A reward of 100 gold pieces was offered for his capture.  He was surrounded near Lápafő, a town near the border of Somogy and Tolna Counties.  When a soldier moved in on him with a spear, Sobri shot himself in the heart.  Others say he was caught and hanged.  He was only 27 years young.

The poor didn’t believe he was dead.  He was their hero.  Here and there he was sighted, but it was only a wish.  A movie was made of his life.  He was likened to the famous Robin Hood of England.

Zöld Marci was a handsome devil, a heart throb.  Many girls and women dreamed about him.  He lived on his loot in Heves County.  That is where the saying comes from: Él mint Marci Hevesen (Lives like Marci in Heves). His life ended on a gibbet at the age of 26.

Angyal Bandi was was a cruel, mean, rough individual.  He was born into a noble family and was an educated fellow who spoke four languages.  He spent many years in prison, and died at the age of 46.

Many legends preserve the lives of the betyárs, and many songs, poems, ballads, novels are about the outlaws.  Móricz Zsigmond wrote about  the true life of Rózsa Sándor.

From the outlaws we inherited a delicious betyárleves, which contains a lot of meat.  There are many versions of this soup.

The Compromise of 1867 ended the era of the outlaws.  Ráday Gedeon, Government Commissioner, with absolute brutal force destroyed the betyár gangs, only a few poor young men were found wandering at the beginning of the 20th century.

Now we have only the legends.  Our folk literature would be certainly much poorer without these legends. Many betyár folksongs can be found on You Tube under Betyárnóták.

Adventure parks, taverns, roadside lodges are named after the “heroes of the poor”.  In some cases, we even recognize their lovers’ name here and there.

Dr. Dora Józsefné, née Tima Irma is a retired school principal enjoying her “Golden Days”.





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