"...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, August 8, 2016

The Hinterkaifeck Mystery

Hinterkaifeck in 1922

It is, of course, one of the commonest cliches that "truth is stranger than fiction." Less often mentioned is that fact that truth is far more frightening, as well. No writer of horror fiction, no matter how gifted, has ever been able to come up with anything more terrifying than things that happen on our strange world every day. If these happenings contain an unsolved, and likely unsolvable mystery, it becomes even more chilling. The scariest of all are events that take place, not in times of war or other societal upheaval, but in seemingly quiet, ordinary, safe surroundings.

Which is why Poe or H.P. Lovecraft could never equal the story of what happened to the household of the Bavarian farm known as Hinterkaifeck.

It was a quiet, isolated place located in modern-day Waidhofen, about 40 miles north of Munich. In 1922, much of Germany was still ravaged by WWI. However, the household at Hinterkaifeck was relatively prosperous. It was a one-story building with a small attic. The farm was in two sections: a residential area and barn, separated by a dividing wall. The barn, stable, and livestock areas could be accessed from inside the residential area, as well as through an outer door. The attic covered both sections, meaning that anyone up there could move over the entire building. Although life on the farm appeared stable and peaceful, the residents had a dark, sordid history that may--or may not--have directly led to their deaths.

Five people lived at Hinterkaifeck: 63-year-old Andreas Gruber, his 72-year-old wife Cazilia, their widowed 35-year-old daughter Viktoria and her two children, 7-year-old Cazilia and 2-year-old Josef. The questionable parentage of Viktoria's children was among this story's many grim undercurrents.

It was no secret among the farm's neighbors that from the time Viktoria was sixteen, her father had repeatedly raped her. In 1914, Viktoria attempted to escape her father's domination by marrying one Karl Gabriel. As the couple, at Andreas' insistence, continued to live at Hinterkaifeck, it can be assumed that this action was a complete failure. In August of that year, Gabriel joined the army, and in December news reached the farm that he was missing in action and presumed dead. His body was never recovered. In January 1915, Viktoria gave birth to a daughter. Although her late husband was officially the father, Andreas was named little Cazilia's legal guardian, and odds are good he was responsible for the child in every sense of the word.

In May 1915, a servant accidentally caught Andreas raping Viktoria, and the horrified woman went immediately to the police. Andreas and his daughter were charged with incest. The family patriarch was given a year in prison, with Viktoria serving one month. The scandal never really died out, leaving the family treated as virtual outcasts by their neighbors.

Andreas learned no lesson whatsoever from his jail sentence. After his release, life at Hinterkaifeck went on precisely as before. Viktoria made another attempt to flee life as her father's sexual slave by entering into a clandestine affair with a wealthy farmer from a neighboring village, Lorenz Schlittenbauer. After Schlittenbauer's wife died in the fall of 1918, he proposed marriage to Viktoria. Viktoria, feeling she had finally found the escape route she craved, instantly agreed.

There was, however, one fatal obstacle to their wedding bells: the ever-looming presence of Andreas Gruber. Schlittenbauer suspected--probably quite accurately--that Gruber was still molesting his daughter. When Viktoria announced that she was again pregnant, Schlittenbauer denied the child could be his, asserting that Andreas was responsible. The two men got into a heated argument over the paternity of the expected child, which ended with Andreas threatening Schlittenbauer with a scythe. Gruber vehemently forbade the marriage, and by this point, Schlittenbauer was more than happy to agree. He washed his hands of the Grubers, and poor Viktoria was again left trapped.

After she gave birth to Josef in July 1919, the Grubers insisted that Schlittenbauer acknowledge paternity of the child and pay them child support, but he refused. In September, Schlittenbauer went to the police. He made a formal statement declaring that Andreas was Josef's father. Gruber was arrested and held in custody for two weeks. He was released when Schlittenbauer withdrew his statement. It is not clear why Schlittenbauer made this retraction. He later said it was because Viktoria's family paid him to do so, but by the time he made this claim, the Grubers were not around to either confirm or deny the story. Schlittenbauer soon married another woman, and life at Hinterkaifeck returned to what passed as normal for the farm.

The next notable event came on March 25, 1922, when a little girl named Sophie Fuchs and her mother were walking in the woods near Hinterkaifeck. They were startled to see Viktoria Gabriel sitting on the side of the road, crying and shaking uncontrollably. They tried in vain to comfort the woman. Viktoria was clearly scared out of her mind by something, but she would not say by what. She only said repeatedly that she needed to run away. Not knowing what else she could do, they finally persuaded her to return home. Later, friends of Viktoria's recalled that a few days before this incident, she told them that she had seen a stranger in an army coat watching the farmhouse. When approached, he disappeared into the woods. Was this what was so frightening Viktoria? Or something even worse?

On March 30, things took an even more sinister turn. Andreas found a newspaper in the house, one that the family had never read or brought into the home. He found that the lock on the shed had been broken. Strangest of all, he found in the snow two sets of footprints leading from the adjoining woods to the farmhouse. There were no footprints going in the opposite direction. Several days before, a set of keys had gone missing. Could the household have an intruder? If so, why had nothing been stolen? That evening, the family thought they heard footsteps in the attic above them. They were definitely being haunted, and by something more tangible--and even more alarming--than a ghost.

The next morning, Andreas made a thorough search of the house. He found no one, but discovered that someone had spread straw all over the attic, presumably to muffle the sounds of the footsteps. Later that morning, Andreas and Viktoria went into town to do some shopping. They both told acquaintances about the eerie events at their house. While naturally disturbed by them, the pair did not seem particularly frightened, either. Curiously, they apparently did not consider it serious enough to warrant going to the police.

Around the time Andreas and his daughter arrived home, Hinterkaifeck saw the arrival of their newly-hired maid, Maria Baumgartner. (Their last maid had left the previous August.) Accompanying Maria was her sister, Franziska. Franziska remained for about an hour, helping her sister settle into her new abode, and then she set out for the long walk back to her home.

The following morning, April 1, it was noted that young Cazilia was absent from school. This was unusual for her, but her teacher assumed there was no cause for alarm. Around noon, two coffee salesmen arrived at Hinterkaifeck to deliver an order. The doors were all locked, and no one appeared to be at home. However, they saw nothing suspicious, so they left without feeling any particular concern.

That evening, a Michel Plockl passed Hinterkaifeck on his way home. The place was quiet. Smoke was coming from the chimney, and it had a strange odor of burning fabric. A figure lurking around the courtyard suddenly shined a flashlight into his eyes. Plockl found something so menacing about this sight that he hurried home without investigating any further.

April 2 was a Sunday. The Grubers were not at church, which attracted some notice. Viktoria sang in the choir, and rarely if ever failed to attend. That same day, the family's nearest neighbor, Michael Poell, noticed that Hinterkaifeck was oddly silent. He did not even hear the family dog or any of the farm animals. Monday morning, the postman made his usual visit to the Grubers. He did not see or hear anyone, but as the kitchen door was open, he assumed everyone was merely in another part of the farm.

On Tuesday, April 4, Albert Hofner arrived at Hinterkaifeck. Some days earlier, Andreas had arranged for him to repair an engine. As he approached the house, he heard a dog barking. The animal was shut up in the stables. Otherwise, all was silent. No one answered his knock on the front door. In the distance, he saw a man in the fields who he assumed was the head of the household.

Hofner spent the next few hours working on the engine. When he finished, he returned to the house. He saw that the barn door was now open, and the dog was tied up outside the home. The dog was obviously terribly upset, barking and growling angrily. Hofner noticed that the dog had a terrible gash across the face.

Hofner again fruitlessly knocked on the front door. The door was locked. He found it all extremely weird, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and left. He went to Schlittenbauer's home in nearby Grobern, where he commented on the family's odd absence. He told several other acquaintances of his inability to find any trace of the Grubers, but no one took the news very seriously.

This attitude of indifference was in sharp contrast to the reaction of Lorenz Schlittenbauer. When he arrived home that evening and learned what Hofner had said, he immediately ordered his two sons, Johann and Josef, to go to Hinterkaifeck and see if they could find anyone. They soon returned with the news that the farm was silent, locked up and in complete darkness.

Schlittenbauer went to two neighbors, Michel Poell and Josef Sigl, with a startling announcment. He said he was afraid that Andreas might have hanged himself. The men agreed to make a thorough search of the Gruber farm.

When they arrived at Hinterkaifeck, Schlittenbauer noticed that the barn door was wide open. He led them inside.

What the men saw in the illumination of their flashlights was even worse than a suicide. The barn had been turned into a human slaughterhouse. The bodies of Andreas Gruber, Viktoria, and the two Cazilias were sprawled on the ground, partly covered in straw. Their skulls had all been cleaved open by a heavy weapon such an an ax. Little Cazilia was the worst sight. Her hands were clutching tufts of her own hair. It was believed that she had survived the attack for some hours, lying there conscious and in unimaginable pain. In her agony, the child had fitfully pulled at the hair from her mangled head.

Schlittenbauer went to the back door, where he saw the formerly missing set of keys in the lock. He opened the door, and the stunned, apprehensive men went inside. Their worst fears for the rest of the household were soon realized. Young Josef was in his cot, where someone had hacked him to death. The equally mangled body of the new maid, Maria Baumgartner was in her room just off the kitchen. Her suitcase was still unpacked, suggesting that she had been killed not long after her arrival.

The house did not appear to be ransacked. Money and jewelry was left untouched. Oddly, the only items that may have been stolen were the contents of Viktoria's wallet, which was found lying empty on her bed.

Meat had recently been carved from a livestock carcass in the cellar, indicating that during the period between the murders and the discovery of the bodies, someone had felt secure enough to linger about the scene, eating meals and caring for the farm animals. Food scraps and human waste were in the attic, suggesting that the intruder had been lurking there for some time. There were loose tiles in the roof that would have enabled them to spy on the farm's courtyard and thus keep track of who was entering or exiting the house. It was speculated that the adult Grubers and young Cazilia were lured to the barn, where they were killed one by one. Then, the murderer(s) killed the maid and butchered little Josef in his cot.

Schlittenbauer sent the others to fetch the police. He stayed in this house of blood alone, where, with a curious stoicism, he calmly went to the basement to fetch food for the farm's pigs.

Officers soon reached the scene, with a further group of police from Munich arriving a few hours later. Word of the nightmarish fate of the Grubers had quickly spread through the community, causing a crowd of locals to gather at Hinterkaifeck. These ghoulish looky-loos tramped at will around and through the crime scene, very likely contaminating or destroying whatever evidence might have remained at the sight.

However, even if the spectators had been kept at bay, it is doubtful it would have helped. This proved to be one of those perplexing cases where the police investigation found itself stalled as soon as it began. Lacking a murder weapon, an obvious motive, or eyewitnesses, these peculiarly brutal killings seemed fated to remain a permanent mystery.

It must be said that the police did their best with what little they were given. For years to come, they conducted hundreds of interviews and obsessively analyzed whatever evidence they could uncover. The authorities grew so desperate they even removed the victims' heads and sent them to a clairvoyant in Munich. If they could not solve this crime, perhaps the spirit world could! This psychic (whose name is lost to history) stated that there had been two killers, and that the murder weapon was hidden somewhere on the property. As the spirits were not helpful enough to provide names and addresses of the guilty parties, this information was ultimately a waste of time. (The heads were sent to Nuremberg, where--in a final act of violence--they were destroyed by allied bombing in 1944.)

Researchers into the case have looked at several possible perpetrators, all of them unsatisfactory in one way or another. Heading the list was Lorenz Schlittenbauer. His unsavory and antagonistic links to the Grubers made him an obvious focus of suspicion. It was also felt that he took the discovery of this mass butchery--one where the victims included his ex-lover and a child he might have fathered--with an unnatural calm. And although he had visited Hinterkaifeck on only one or two occasions, after the murders he seemed to immediately know where everything was inside the house. Many of his neighbors felt his guilt was obvious. However, others saw Schlittenbauer as a mild-mannered, gentle man who was simply incapable of the depraved brutality of these murders. Solid evidence against him was completely lacking. And how could he linger around the crime scene for so long without being missed at his own home? For what it's worth, policemen who interviewed Schlittenbauer simply could not see him as a mass murderer.

A robbery that went strangely, horribly wrong? Then why did the thieves leave money and other valuable property behind? And why would they linger at the farmhouse for several days afterward?

An intriguing story was related by Hinterkaifeck's former maid, Kreszenz Rieger. She told police that during her time at the farm, a neighbor named Josef Thaler had repeatedly tried to seduce her. She stated that he showed a great familiarity with the layout of the house. Thaler also told her that Andreas Gruber hid a lot of money on the farm, and he, Thaler, knew exactly where it was. Thaler and his brother Andreas were known burglars. Some months before the murders, Andreas Gruber had caught them attempting to steal from the farm, and chased them off with a rifle. A year or two after the Grubers were killed, a relative of the Thaler brothers warned Rieger that if she continued to accuse them of the murders, they would kill her. Suggestive as all this may be, it was still not enough to tie them to the crime. And if they were the killers, why did they not rob the place as well?

The oddest theory pointed the finger at Viktoria's missing-in-action husband, Karl Gabriel. It was speculated that perhaps he was not killed in battle, after all. Could he have been the mysterious man Viktoria said she saw lurking about the farm, come to avenge his unhappy married life in the worst way possible? Alas for this Agatha Christie-like proposal, it was firmly established that although Gabriel's body was never recovered, several of his comrades had witnessed his death. Although the Gruber household was one where it seemed that virtually anything was possible, one can feel fairly confident in saying that at the time of the murders, Karl Gabriel had long been well and truly dead.

The "usual suspects"--a lunatic who escaped from a hospital some seventy miles from Hinterkaifeck, local petty criminals, various bad apples--were all considered by the police, but ultimately rejected for lack of evidence.

The (headless) bodies of the Grubers and Maria Baumgartner were buried in a ceremony attended by over 3,000 people, and life went on. Andreas Gruber's brother and sister entered into a nasty court fight with the surviving relatives of Viktoria's husband over the ownership of Hinterkaifeck. To make a long lawsuit short, if young Cazilia had died after her mother, the next heir would be the child's paternal grandfather, Karl Gabriel Sr. However, it was impossible to legally establish the order in which the victims had died. The dispute was eventually settled out of court, with the Gabriels gaining control over the farm in exchange for a cash settlement to the Grubers.

The following year, the Gabriels had Hinterkaifeck demolished. While this was being done, the murder weapon--a homemade mattock belonging to Andreas Gruber himself--was discovered hidden in a false floor by the fireplace. As significant as this find originally seemed, it did absolutely nothing to help find the killer.

Police continued interviewing witness and following possible leads as late as 1985. It was all fruitless. The deaths at Hinterkaifeck seem destined to remain not merely Germany's eeriest mass murder, but its most baffling.


  1. What a horrible event. And very frightening, with plenty of strange twists. Why such violence toward the family, and toward all members, even the children? Why hide the murder weapon in a false floor? Why did the murderer remain to feed the animals? Did he really live in the family's attic? This has all the makings of a movie story - and like most movies these days, any attempted explanation is full of plot-holes.

    1. It's hard to think of any other unsolved murder where there are so many details that make no sense. I can almost understand why some people have tried to suggest a paranormal element to the case.

  2. I would like to point out that your assertion that all police investigation has been fruitless is incorrect. In fact, an investigation that took place as recently as 2007, although it recognized that there were substantial difficulties solving the case due to the primitive nature of the original inquiry, singled out a prime suspect, whose identity they neglected to reveal.

    The full report on the investigation is online, albeit in german: http://www.hinterkaifeck.net/index.php?menuid=11&reporeid=77

    1. Well, fruitless in the sense that it's impossible to legally "solve" the case.

      I can't read German, but I've heard of that report. I assume this was the one made by Police Academy trainees? It sounded like Schlittenbauer was probably their unnamed suspect.

    2. You have a point - the assertion is more misleading that incorrect. These recent developments are still worth pointing out though.

      On an unrelated note, would you mind revealing wthe source of the report on the murder weapon? I had never heard about that detail before and it seems to be an highly interesting one.

    3. That came from "Footsteps in the Attic," a book about the case written by Edward Chilvers.

  3. When I read about the army coat that was worn by the person in the field, I immediately thought of Karl Gabriel, but he has the most iron-proof alibi of all possible suspects.

  4. This does remind me of HP Lovecraft, but naturally a true story like this one is most chilling. Karl Gabriel seems like the best suspect, even with his alibi.

  5. It may have been another soldiers, deranged by the war; there were probably many of them, the poor men. Perhaps an acquaintance of Gabriel's, who was told of his situation and concocted a demented plan to avenge him on the family.

    1. That theory has actually been suggested, but, as with every other proposed solution, any proof is lacking.


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