Sylvestre Matuschka ranks among the most bizarre mass murderers in history. Way before World War II, he anticipated the great plane bombers of the 1950s and ’60s like Albert Guay and Jack Gilbert Graham, with a single-handed bombing campaign directed against the railways of Central Europe.
But the clichéd motives of transit saboteurs were not for him, the desire for petty revenge or petty financial gain via double indemnity. Matuschka himself variously gave his motives in disrupting the train schedules as to ignite a worker’s revolutions, appease the demands of the spirits haunting him, or draw attention to a railway safety device he’d invented. The psychiatrists who examined him in custody claimed to uncover a more basic, and baser motive: Matuschka blew up trains for erotic reasons.
Most sources have him being born on January 29, 1892 in a small Hungarian village near the Yugoslavian border. His youth was reportedly quite normal, save for one minor incident. Matuschka would later claim a teenage encounter with a carnival hypnotist left him obsessed with train wrecks and afflicted him with a bossy spirit named “Leo.”
He did attend a university and apparently was studying to be a teacher or an engineer. Sources disagree on whether he ever obtained his degree. His education was interrupted by World War I, where he served as a lieutenant.
He moved from Budapest to Vienna in 1919, got married, and started a business. By 1930, he was quite successful. He owned interests in several businesses, and was a director of a company in the construction-building supply industry.
On the surface, he was eminently respectable. He lived with his wife and small daughter in a pleasant residential quarter of Vienna. He was noted for being a devoted family man who “never went to sleep without having said prayers with his little Gaby.” (Oddly enough, he had given little Gaby a train set for Xmas—an unusual gift for a small girl in the 1920s.) For recreation, he played chess at a neighboring café, and fulfilled his community obligations by serving on the local parish council. He appeared to be a perfect example of the Austrian bourgeois.
But there were hints that all was not beer and schnitzel in Herr Direktor Matuschka’s life. Some sources claimed he was over-extended financially, and he was even charged (but cleared) of swindling some business partners in 1927. And a 1932 Literary Digest article described him as “openly a good citizen, he was secretly given to debauchery.” Sadly, the type of debauchery was not specified.
In December 1930, Matuschka spent the holidays with his family back in his native village. But Christmas Eve found him not opening presents under the tree with his wife and daughter, but wandering the railway tracks. It was then, according to the Literary Digest, that “he began to dream of the trains and in the manner of vicious little boys who wish to see an accident, he wished to be present at some catastrophe.”
Matuschka’s ascent to infamy began that New Year’s Eve near the small town of Aschbach, Austria. He loosened some bolts securing a section of rail to the track and placed a note proclaiming “Assault! Revolution! Victory!” nearby. Then he hid behind bushes, later recalling “This waiting was the most horrible moment of my entire life. I have never suffered as much or hoped as much.” Sadly, when the express appeared, it roared over the tampered rail without even slowing down. Matuschka left the scene crying tears of rage and frustration. The loose rail and note were found by puzzled rail workers the next day.
On January 30, Matuschka followed up with a second attempt. This time, he fixed a steel rail across the tracks. Unfortunately, the train engineer spotted the obstruction. Various accounts disagree about whether he was able to stop short of the obstruction, or merely slow down the train enough to avoid a major accident. What is known is that there were no injuries, and once more Matuschka went home seething with frustration.
He now realized that train wrecking was no simple task. He turned to technology. He purchased an old quarry, and obtained a permit to buy explosives. He devoted himself to study, practice, and experimentation for the next few months.
The first train to fall victim to Matuschka’s carefully honed skills was the Basel/Berlin express. On August 8, 1931 near the town of Jüterborg, 40 miles west of Berlin, he struck. A bomb exploded under the train as it crossed a viaduct. The engine, diner, and seven cars plunged some 30 feet down into a ravine. Although 109 people were injured, amazingly no one was killed. And Matuschka was satisfied; it had been spectacular.
But his ultimate achievement came just over a month later, on September 13. That day, the Budapest/Vienna Express was crossing a viaduct in Hungary between Bia and Torbagy shortly before midnight when a Matuschka-planted bomb detonated. The engine and six coaches fell more than 75 feet, and several caught fire. One source claimed police found evidence that Matuschka had an orgasm at the instant of the blast, although the details of just what this evidence was remain lost to history.
What is known is that Matuschka ran towards the results of his handiwork, laughing and shedding tears of joy. He posed as a survivor and worked side-by-side with the rescuers, clawing through wreckage with his bare hands. He even gave reporters a remarkably coherent account of the wreck. Ultimately, the death toll from his sabotage would reach 28.
It is unclear just how the police of Austria, Germany, and Hungary finally caught up with Matuschka. But his misstep was almost certainly posing as a survivor of the Bia/Torbagy wreck, especially since the coach he claimed to be riding in was reduced to kindling and had no other survivors. One account has an eagle-eyed detective spotting Matuschka’s name on both a list of wreck survivors and of recent explosive purchasers; another claims Matuschka pursued his “survivor” status to the point of suing the Hungarian railroad for his “lost” luggage. Whatever, he was caught, quickly confessed, and went on to put on an amazing show at the trial.
He was in fine form at his first trial in Austria for the two abortive attempts near Aschbach. The London Daily Express wrote that “grinning wildly, with staring eyes protruding tongue, bowed bodies and bent knees, Matuschka resembled an ape.” More demurely, the New York Times reported how he “wept, shouted, knelt before the court and muttered to himself of spirits which, he said, inspired his deeds.”
If this sounds like the insanity defense, it was just one of many tacks Matuschka was taking. He literally had more explanations than explosions. His major rationalization was the “Leo the Ghost” story. That evil spirit, which he had been afflicted with since his teen days (courtesy of that carnival hypnotist), had ordered him to attack the trains. Reportedly, “Leo the Ghost” became a bit of a celebrity himself during the trial.
Then there was Matuschka the fearless social revolutionary, striking blows on behalf of the working class. One Paris newspaper wrote, “the accused stated that he made the attempts to liberate the world.” Matuschka claimed he had modelled himself on Trotsky:
…who became the great leader of men as the result of his actions of violence…people had to be made to understand the nature and purpose of punishment. To teach them I had to become a wrecker of trains.
If nothing else, this explained his propensity to leave anarchist-style proclamations at the sites of his wrecks.
And finally, there was Matuschka the concerned public citizen. He claimed to have invented an elaborate set of improved train signals powered by a turbine in the Danube that would render train wrecks obsolete. He modestly described his brainchild as “the greatest invention in the world.” He had only embarked on his terror campaign to capture the attention of those obtuse railway executives. However, it’s unclear just how any set of train signals, Danube-powered or not, can protect a train from a determined nut with a bomb.
Needless to say, the courts found little merit in any of these claims. He was sentenced to six years in prison for the unsuccessful Austrian attempts, and death for his final bombing in Hungary. However, due to some obscure Central European legal loophole, his conviction in Austria precluded his execution in Hungary. After serving his six years in an Austrian prison, he was remanded to Hungary to finish out a life sentence.
As for his true motives, one of his most honest statements to the police was “I have to wreck trains because now it’s the only way I can find fulfillment.” He was the subject of considerable psychological interest in Europe both during and after his trial, which allegedly revealed that his primary motive was sexual. The famous German psychiatrist Theodore Reik many years later described Matuschka as, “A highly pathological individual who found sexual gratification in explosions and other catastrophes,” although it’s undetermined if Reik ever examined Matuschka personally.
Matuschka’s story may not have ended with the closing of some anonymous Hungarian’s prison doors. When asked at his trail if he had any plans for future train wrecking, he replied, “Yes. When I have completed my 30 years of prison which awaits me, I shall be 70 and I shall blow up newspapers to combat atheism.” Unconfirmed reports subsequently had him serving as a demolitions expert for the Axis in World War II, and one absurd account even claimed Americans had captured him in Korea during the Korean war as he served with a unit of Hungarian volunteers blowing up rail lines.
But whatever his fate, he undoubtedly remained true in heart to the occupation he gave at his first trial: “Train wrecker.”
John Marr is the former editor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun.
This article originally appeared in Murder Can Be Fun and has been republished with permission.