There is no other Hungarian ’betyár’ who has as many legends, ballads, folk tales, and folk songs about them as the infamous Sándor Rózsa. The dreaded outlaw leader of the Southern Great Plain was considered by the authorities to be a very dangerous man who deserved the gallows, but for the people, he was a vigilante, a kind of Hungarian Robin Hood.
According to Origo, during the Hungarian Revolution between 1848-49, he wreaked havoc and terror among the ranks of the Austrians with his 150-strong band of outlaws. He gained such a reputation that when he was imprisoned in Kufstein, Austria, they showed him around for money. The legendary outlaw leader, Sándor Rózsa, became part of the Hungarian folklore, and his actions were romanticised. He was born on July 10, 1813, a little over 207 years ago.
András Rózsa, the father of our famous highwayman, also had issues with the law. Sándor Rózsa was born on July 10, 1813, in Röszke in the Southern Great Plain, but he lost his father when he was a child. His poor family background had a serious impact on Sándor’s life. However, his first conflict with the law was at the age of 23 when he committed his first documented crime on the outskirts of Kiskunhalas stealing two heifers from a local farmer. Sándor Rózsa was caught and imprisoned in Szeged for theft.
During his imprisonment, he decided to become a ‘betyár’ upon his release. In the first half of the 19th century, the Hungarian Great Plain was much like the Wild West of the United States: a large, open area away from all kinds of authority, and as such, it was heaven for highwaymen. With his recklessness, cunning nature, and ruthlessness, Sándor Rózsa soon stood out from the rest of the outlaws, and thanks to his infamous adventures, his name soon became known throughout the country.
Due to his reputation, several other ‘betyárs’ from the Great Plain joined the gang of Sándor Rózsa. He and his band of outlaws robbed innumerable manors and a whole host of homesteads, drove away horses and herds, looted post carriages, and if anyone tried to stop them, they did not hesitate to use their weapons.
A total of sixty crimes and thirty murders were proved to be carried out by Sándor Rózsa, although it is very likely that his actual criminal record was significantly longer than that. A large number of nobles and wealthy farmers were among his victims, but many gendarmes who tried to capture him also met their maker by Sándor Rózsa’s weapons.
By the early 1840s, the infamous ‘betyár’ became one of the most wanted criminals on the royal gendarmerie’s list. However, Sándor Rózsa always outwitted his pursuers and vanished by the time they tried to capture him. Thanks to his agile horses, he was always on the run and never stayed in one place for too long. Interestingly, he even had supporters, such as the Veszelka family, who often hid the outlaw leader.
Because of the constant running and hiding, in 1845, he made someone write a draft for King Ferdinand V (Sándor Rózsa could neither read nor write), asking for a pardon for his crimes on the grounds that he henceforth wanted to live a calm and honest life. However, the king rejected his request.
The Revolution that broke out in Pest on 15 March in 1848 and the Hungarian War of Independence that followed it also had a great impact on the life of Sándor Rózsa. A resolution made on 13 October 1848 by the Defence Committee granted amnesty to the ‘betyár’ leader and authorised Sándor to organise a free military group. Sándor Rózsa gathered a 150-strong cavalry unit which he was the commander of.
The unusual appearance and fighting style of Sándor Rózsa’s cavalry unit wreaked havoc among the enemy ranks. They were dressed in baggy pants and vests and were armed with a plethora of somewhat unusual weapons. In addition to having pistols and rifles, they used special axes called ‘fokos’ and other tools such as ‘pányva’, which is a lasso-like rope, and ‘karikás ostor’, which is similar to a bullwhip. They utilised guerrilla tactics and usually ambushed the unsuspecting Austrian dragoons. They knocked the enemy out of their saddle with their ‘pányva’ and then ruthlessly cut them off. Sándor’s men vanished just as quickly as they attacked, and thanks to this hit and run tactic, they avoided long fights and were usually gone by the time the enemy backup could arrive.
Unfortunately, on November 17, 1848, the cavalry of Sándor Rózsa was assigned to disarm the village of Ezeres, but the outlaws attacked the village instead, slaughtered all 36 residents, and ransacked the village. Due to this brutal incident, the unit of Sándor Rózsa was disbanded.
After the disbanding of his unit, Sándor Rózsa became a ‘csikós’ (mounted horse-herdsman) near Szeged and got married. After Hungary’s defeat, the imperial authorities wanted to capture Sándor Rózsa, who, as so many times before, had managed to escape again but was forced to stay hidden for a long time.
The Austrian forces did not forget how much annoyance the ‘betyár’ leader caused them during the conflict with Hungary, and they offered an incredibly high bounty for Sándor Rózsa: 10,000 silver forints. Despite the outstandingly high bounty, no one turned him in for a long time, but in 1857, Pál Katona, an old friend whom Sándor Rózsa blindly trusted, betrayed him. This time, Sándor Rózsa’s luck abandoned him, and he was captured.
In 1859, the court sentenced him to death by hanging. Sándor Rózsa, who enjoyed great popularity among Hungarians thanks to the series of raids he led against the Austrians, was considered by many to be one of the symbols of the Hungarian resistance against the Habsburgs. Given the delicate political situation, the Viennese court wanted to avoid making a martyr for the Hungarians, so Emperor Franz Joseph changed the death sentence of Sándor Rózsa to life imprisonment. Sándor was taken to the infamous Kufstein castle prison.
The Hungarian ‘betyár’ had such a reputation in Austria as well that during his imprisonment, the guards showed him to people on Sundays for money, like a circus animal. After the Compromise in 1868, Emperor Franz Joseph granted mercy to Sándor Rózsa. After his release, he soon continued where he left off; he joined the ‘betyár’ gang of Ferenc Csonka. Csonka and his retinue specialised in robbing post carriages. Sándor Rózsa was the first to have the idea to loot trains instead of carriages. In contrast to the Wild West, train robbery had no tradition in Hungary. Unfortunately for them, stopping a train going at full speed is no easy task, and they failed to do so several times.
The change in domestic politics after the Compromise urged the restoration of public security, so the ‘betyár’ gangs of the Great Plain had to be caught once and for all. Count Gedeon Ráday, the counsellor of the Hungarian Royal Ministry of Interior, was entrusted with the difficult task. Count Ráday struck the outlaws with iron-fisted ruthlessness. With the help of his judge, Máté Laucsik, who had a dreaded reputation among the outlaws, and the small force directly under his command, he completed the task assigned to him. The count first scattered the band of Sándor Rózsa, and the count personally arrested the ‘betyár’ legend on 12 January 1869.
During his criminal trial, which began in 1872, Sándor Rózsa was found guilty on 21 accounts of robbery, 9 accounts of theft, and 1 account of murder. He was sentenced by the tribunal to life imprisonment. Sándor Rózsa went to the prison in Szamosújvár on May 5, 1873. At first, they made him work as a tailor, but his health began to rapidly deteriorate, and the most famous Hungarian ‘betyár’ leader died on November 22, 1878, at the age of 65. His memory is preserved in many ballads and folk tales, as well as in films and literary works.