In Pursuit of a Legend. Count Károly Vécsey's Hand-Kiss in the Shadow of the Gallows Tree Cover Image

Egy legenda nyomában. Vécsey Károly gróf kézcsókja az akasztófa árnyékában
In Pursuit of a Legend. Count Károly Vécsey's Hand-Kiss in the Shadow of the Gallows Tree

Author(s): István Pelyach
Subject(s): History
Published by: AETAS Könyv- és Lapkiadó Egyesület

Summary/Abstract: The history of the 1848-1849 Hungarian revolution, self-defensive war and war of independence became an organic part of our national mythology in the past 150 years. Several cults, myths and legends intertwine with the events, and it is often very difficult to separate reality from myth. This is a sign of how firmly a nation hangs on to this glorious chapter in its past, to relive it not only rationally, but also emotionally. Of course, we need to safeguard our legends but, for the sake of historical clarity, we also need to separate them from our factually verifiable image of the past. In most books, historical essays and publications, memorial TV and radio shows paying tribute to the martyrs executed in Arad on 6 October 1849, the following romantic episode has kept cropping up for decades. Being the last of the thirteen to appear under the gallows tree, count Károly Vécsey, as there was nobody left alive to say farewell to, stepped up to the dead body of János Damjanich, who was hanged just before him, and kissed his hands. This episode is peculiar as it was widely known that the two honvéd generals had not been on good terms. After the battle of Szolnok on 5 March 1849, they were quarreling so furiously that the revolutionary government decided to command Vécsey elsewhere. It also intensified the romantic overtones of the episode that Danjanich was of Serb origin, while Vécsey was the offspring of a Hungarian noble family. So the hand-kiss could hold a lot of connotations. The paper examines the authenticity of this scene, and through a systematic analysis of the sources, it tries to find out whether count Károly Vécsey actually kissed the hands of János Damjanich before he got executed. It is remarkable that the story did not come up in the accounts of those priests and ministers who accompanied the martyrs on their last journey. We have to see that the hand-kissing is first mentioned in 1895, that is forty seven years after the event, by a journalist of Budapesti Hírlap, who wrote the story on the basis of the recollections of a civilian. We do not even know if this person existed at all and, as far as we know, his memoirs did not survive, either. Yet, the story of the hand-kiss started to spread rapidly. In the fifth volume of György Gracza's work on the history of the war of independence we can even find a drawing illustrating the episode, then Ödön Hamvay's summary, which pays tribute to the martyrs, describes passionately the sublimity of the scene. These works were published in the second half of the 1890s. However, it is revealing that as early as 1899 a witness published an authentic refutation, clearly denying that Vécsey kissed Damjanich's hand. The paper examines source material from the second half of the 19th century (and some from the 20th), and comes to the conclusion that the hand-kiss episode is a fabrication of romantic past-construction and legend creation in the 1890s.

  • Issue Year: 2013
  • Issue No: 2
  • Page Range: 107-129
  • Page Count: 23
  • Language: Hungarian