"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Toths Walk Away

Andrew and Elizabeth Toth, "New York Daily News," August 17, 1952, via Newspapers.com


Most politics-related vanishings have obvious candidates: spies, agitators, office-holders, and other such public figures. A nondescript middle-class couple from New York would not be seen as a possible candidate for such a disappearance.

However, such an unlikely occurrence might--just might--have happened three-quarters of a century ago. And yet, this odd case is now largely forgotten.

Andrew Toth was born in Hungary in 1905. In 1930, he married an American named Julia Voda. The two relocated to New York, where they had a daughter, Margaret. As far as is known, they lived happily together until Julia died of blood poisoning in 1939. About a year later, Andrew met 26-year-old Elizabeth Fabian, and a romance soon developed--perhaps aided by the fact that Elizabeth bore a striking resemblance to the late Julia Toth. When the couple married, four-year-old Margaret was delighted. It was like having her mother back again. Fortunately, Elizabeth loved the child as much as if she had been Margaret's mother. She told her relatives that she wanted a baby of her own, but she and Andrew decided to wait until they had saved up enough money to buy a house.

On the morning of August 17, 1943, Elizabeth Yulling was a puzzled woman. Her friend, Elizabeth Toth, usually met her at the subway so that they could travel together to their jobs at a factory. However, on this day there was no sign of her. Mrs. Yulling went to the Manhattan apartment Mrs. Toth shared with Andrew and Margaret. No one was at home. After work, Mrs. Yulling again stopped at the Toth's. Still no response. Andrew had not been seen at his workplace, either.

This was all very odd. The Toths were careful, thrifty people--not the sort to leave town without informing anyone. Besides, the last time Mrs. Yulling had seen them, Andrew was so excited about passing his citizenship examination. It would be a strange time for him to go on vacation.

After nearly a week went by without anyone hearing from the couple, Mrs. Yulling and another friend, Elizabeth Varga, went to the Staten Island holiday camp where little Margaret Toth was spending the summer. (The Yulling daughter, Teresa, was also staying there.)  This was the first Margaret had heard that her parents were missing. She had no idea where they could be. Now the two women were seriously alarmed. They knew the Toths would never go away without taking their daughter with them. The police were notified.

The police sergeant Mrs. Yulling spoke to was indifferent to her concerns. "Aw, relax," he shrugged. "They could take a holiday without telling you. After all, you're not a relative, you're only a friend."

Mrs. Yulling continued to insist that something was very wrong. Her vehemence finally convinced two policemen to force an entry into the Toth apartment. They found no obvious signs of foul play. Clothes and other belongings all seemed accounted for. The icebox was full of food. There was one very important item missing: the Toths, like many people in those days, kept their cash savings hidden in their apartment. Although an account book was found, showing that the couple had $3,000 on hand, none of it was found in their home.

Mrs. Yulling saw something else that immediately raised alarm bells with her. There was a greasy frying pan in the kitchen sink, and three unwashed whisky glasses on the table. Elizabeth Toth was an immaculate housekeeper. There was no way she would voluntarily leave her house with dirty dishes lying around. And who was the third person who drank with the Toths? The couple seldom had visitors. The only possible clue to the identity of their guest was a scrap of paper on the dresser. It bore the name and address of a Mrs. Emma Fekete. Mrs. Yulling had never heard of the woman.

Mrs. Yulling persuaded the policemen--who were still unwilling to believe anything serious had happened--to go talk to this woman. Mrs. Fekete turned out to be a cousin of the Toths. She was surprised to learn the couple was missing. "Why don't you ask Andrew's boss where he is?" she suggested.

"Lady, this isn't our job," one of the policemen groaned. "If you want to know more about these people you'll have to report their disappearance to the Missing Persons bureau."

It obviously took quite a lot to catch the interest of a 1940s New York cop.

Mrs. Yulling did make a formal report. John McCoy, the detective assigned to the case, talked to Andrew's boss, painting contractor Louis Gervitz. Gervitz was seriously annoyed with his employee. Instead of turning up at the job on the previous Tuesday, Andrew left a note in the letter slot saying he was heading for New Jersey, as one of his sisters-in-law was about to undergo an operation. There had been no word from him since.

Mrs. Fekete scoffed at this news. If there had been any sickness in the family, she would have heard about it. If Andrew truly did write that note, he was, for God knows what reason, telling a lie. She was right. Detective McCoy contacted Mrs. Toth's two sisters. Neither of them had had any operation, and they professed to be as baffled as everyone else by Andrew and Elizabeth's disappearance. One of the sisters, Mary Fabian, said that she and a friend, Matilda Tominus, had spent the previous weekend with the Toths. That Sunday, August 15, the four of them visited Margaret on Staten Island. "They simply couldn't have gone away voluntarily without taking Margaret," she told McCoy. "They adored her."

Margaret Toth (left) and Teresa Yulling


Mrs. Tominus corroborated Fabian's story. She added that Andrew told her he was planning to buy a car, so he could teach his wife to drive. Mrs. Tominus had mentioned that she wanted to buy a tricycle for her son, but found they were scarce, due to the war. She recalled, "The last thing Andrew said, when he took Mary and me to the railroad station to go back to Jersey Sunday night, was that he thought he could get a tricycle for me. He said he'd see about it Monday."

These were hardly the words of a man who planned to disappear.

The last known sighting of the Toths was on the night of August 16. Around 9 p.m., a neighbor saw the couple outside their apartment building. They told her they were going shopping. A nearby butcher, Frank Lieb, saw them walk past his shop on Second Avenue. They exchange a few casual words, and the Toths continued on their way...into what turned out to be oblivion.

Mrs. Yulling told McCoy that of late, Elizabeth Toth "always seemed frightened and suspicious. She was always looking behind her on the street. She never entered or left a building without taking time to see who was around. She certainly lived in fear of something."

McCoy had learned that Andrew Toth had been very vocal about his hatred for the Nazis--perhaps not the safest thing to do when one lived near a large German settlement. He asked Mrs. Yulling if this might have been the reason for Elizabeth's fears.

"No," she replied. "I never heard Andrew or Elizabeth talk of anything like that. I remember one time Elizabeth told me she got home ahead of her husband. As she opened her apartment door she could see that her closet door was open. She was sure she had left it closed. She was so scared she wouldn't go into her own place until Andrew got there." Mrs. Yulling added that nothing had been taken from the apartment, but Mrs. Toth talked about the incident for days. Elizabeth seemed almost obsessively fearful of burglars.

All of this was odd enough for the police to start digging into Andrew Toth's past, where they found some unpleasant information. For one thing, his ex-inlaws, the Vodas, detested him. Julia's brother Andrew told investigators that when Julia was dying, her husband made her sign over all her savings to him. After Julia died, the widower refused to pay her hospital bill, pleading poverty. He had refused to even pay for extra nurses during Julia's illness. "He wasn't poor," Andrew Voda scoffed. "He had a $1,000 policy on Julia's life. But when he collected, he gave the cash to a friend to keep for him so he could still look poor. That way he didn't have to buy a tombstone to mark his wife's grave. So he's disappeared. Good riddance, I say!"

It turned out that a lot of people who knew Andrew Toth endorsed this sentiment. When Julia was hospitalized, Andrew put his daughter in the care of an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Hermann. Andrew had given them the impression that he was very poor, so the Hermanns charged him only $7 a week for Margaret's care. When they learned that Toth was, in fact, hoarding a large store of cash, they indignantly raised their fee to $10.

It's not every day you hear of a man sleeping with a hatchet under his pillow, but according to Joseph Farkas, who roomed with Andrew during Julia's hospitalization, that was precisely what the missing man did. Farkas commented, "He always had that hatchet with him and I kidded him about not trusting me."

That was far from the only peculiar thing Andrew did. Farkas said that for some unknown reason, Toth had all his savings changed into $1,000 bills, which he gave to a friend to put into a bank account. Farkas commented that when this friend wanted to rent an apartment in a city-owned development, he couldn't because Toth's money made his bank account seem bigger than it really was. So the friend withdrew the money and gave it back to Toth. Andrew then carried the cash around in a money belt. In the neighborhood taverns, Toth enjoyed boasting about his nest egg. Farkas added, "He told me that his ambition was to get about $7,000, even if he had to steal it. Then he wanted to return to Hungary, buy a farm, get the peasants to work it for him, and take it easy the rest of his life."

Carrying around large sums of cash--and broadcasting the fact to everyone you know--is usually tantamount to wearing a sign reading "Please rob me." Did this explain the couple's disappearance? Or, the police wondered, did Andrew murder his wife so he could return to Hungary and fulfill his dream of becoming lord of the manor? Or were both of them killed by one of the sizable number of people who couldn't stand Andrew Toth? Did Andrew's very vocal political opinions lead some Nazi sympathizers to shut him up for good?

Frank Lieb's wife Mary had another theory. She told police that soon after the Toths were married, Elizabeth had an abortion. Mrs. Toth had confided to her that she had not wanted the operation, but her husband insisted. He did not want another child. Mary Lieb added that soon before the Toths vanished, Elizabeth told her that she was again pregnant. "She was very nervous and uneasy the last night we saw them," Mrs. Lieb recalled. "I've often wondered whether Elizabeth was on her way to have another abortion." Mary speculated that Mrs. Toth died as the result of a second abortion. Then, did Andrew and the doctor (or whoever performed the procedure) conceal her body somewhere, after which Andrew chose to make himself scarce? Joseph Farkas endorsed this scenario. "I think that something happened to his wife during an abortion and Andrew ran away. My hunch is that he'll come back someday--alone."

Farkas was wrong about at least one thing: Andrew never did come back. The Toths disappeared for good, leaving behind a now-orphaned daughter and a ton of unanswered questions.

5 comments:

  1. A fascinating mystery. Of course the police woudldn't check the three glasses for fingerprints.

    Did poor Margaret get to stay with the Yullings?

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    1. Margaret was taken in by her mother's relatives.

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  2. That poor daughter. I hope she found kindness after that and grew up with good people.

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  3. It does seem as if the Toths - or at least Andrew - left of their own accord, taking their money with them. But as to why... Mary Lieb's solution seems plausible, though there is no way to prove it.

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  4. Andrew maybe walked away but he seems too cheap to have brought Elizabeth with him. I suspect her body will never be found and his is somewhere in Hungary.

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