Day 4: Hinterkaifeck Murders
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most heinous and grotesque murders in German history. The Hinterkaifeck Murders.
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Hinterkaifeck was a modest Bavarian farmstead, located about an hour outside of Munich, Germany in the small farming town of Gröbern, Hinterkaifeck’s closest neighbor was over 500 yards away. The farmstead was extremely isolated.
In 1922, Hinterkaifeck was home to 63-year-old Andreas Gruber and his wife, Cäzilia Gruber. There, they lived with their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel and her two young children: seven-year-old Cäzilia, who was nicknamed Ceely, and 2-year-old Josef. Their maid, 44-year- old Maria Baumgartner, only lived a single day at Hinterkaifeck. The day she moved in, was the last day any member of the household would ever be seen alive.
On April 4th 1922, neighbors discovered the bloody, bludgeoned bodies of all seven residents. Andreas, Cäzilia, Viktoria, and seven-year-old Ceely were found dead in the barn. The bodies of Maria Baumgartner and 2-year-old Josef were discovered inside the living quarters. It was a terrifying scene.
In the weeks leading up to the murders, 63-year-old Andreas began to notice suspicious behavior around his property.
He confided to another farmer, Lorenz Schlittenbauer, that a pair of house keys had mysteriously disappeared. A Munich newspaper was discovered in the home – but no member of the household had traveled to Munich recently. When Andreas asked his postman about the strange newspaper, the postman claimed that he had never before seen it. So, how, then, did it get there?
Four days before the killings, Andreas went to the farmstead’s engine room to discover the padlock had been broken. When he opened the door, he noticed tracks of snow dusting the floor. Someone had been inside.
He then made a particularly eerie discovery. Two sets of footprints trailed from distant fields right up to the homestead. There were no footprints headed back.
Another time, Andreas arrived at the farmstead after a visit with a friend. Upon his return, he found one of his cows loose from the stables, roaming the yard.
Andreas, who had been arrested twice for indulging in an incestuous relationship with his daughter Viktoria, despised law enforcement. He did not report any of his suspicious findings to the police. Five days after Andreas discovered the broken padlock, on April 1, 1922, two coffee salesman stopped by Hinterkaifeck. They found the farmstead to be unusually still. Nobody answered their knocks. The only sign that someone was home was the gate to the engine room. It had been left open. The salesmen left when no one answered their calls.
That same day, 7-year-old Ceely failed to show up to her Saturday classes. This raised some concern among her teachers and peers, but they assumed she must be homesick and did not attempt to contact anyone at the property. Similarly, Ceely’s mom Viktoria was not present at her church choir performance the next day.
Bizarrely, there were signs that someone may have been home. A carpenter walking past Hinterkaifeck that weekend noticed smoke billowing up through the chimney. He also noticed the oven light was on in the kitchen. He was taking in the otherwise disturbing silence of the farmstead when he noticed a figure in the yard. The figure shined a flashlight into his eyes so he couldn’t see. Afraid, the neighbor ran away.
The following Monday, the postman stopped by with that day’s mail. He found that Saturday’s mail was still piled up in their mailbox, untouched. On Tuesday, April 4, a repairman arrived at Hinterkaifeck to service the farm’s food chopper. He waited an hour at the disturbingly vacant farmstead. The only noises were that of the cattle and the family dog. The dog was locked inside of the barn. The repairman took 4.5 hours to complete his repair. At no point during the hours-long repair did he hear or see a soul.
When he finished his work, the repairman checked the home one more time for the family. He noticed the dog, who had been previously inside the barn, was now tied to a post outside. Following the mechanic’s visit to the ghostly Hinterkaifeck, concerned neighbors finally decided to search the property. Lorenz Schlittenbauer, who Andreas had previously confided in, led the search with neighbors Jakob Sigl and Michael Pöll.
When the search team arrived, the doors around the property were locked. Except for one. The door to the engine room, the same room where the coffee sellers noticed an open gate just days before. Inside the engine room was another door – this one led directly into the barn. Something was budging it shut. The men pushed and pushed until the door finally swung open. A wooden beam had been positioned on the other side in an attempt to keep the door shut.
The barn was black with darkness. Only a shred of light reached inside from a small window. The men used flashlights to see, stumbling around in search of any sign of the family. Michael Poll was the first to discover the bodies – shocked to see a single foot emerging from a tangled mound of hay. Lorenz pulled the body by the foot, disturbing the straw that lay like a blanket over it. The men stared, shuddering, at the sight of Andreas Gruber’s limp, bloody body. His skull appeared to have been smashed. They quickly unearthed three more bodies from the hay – those of Cäzilia, Viktoria, and young Ceely. The heads of all three victims were bludgeoned.
Shaking with fear, Michael Poll and Jakob Sigl left the barn, distancing themselves from the grisly sight. Lorenz, however, stayed for some time alone with the bodies. When Jakob questioned Lorenz about this, he claimed to be searching for the body of his toddler son, Josef.
Viktoria Gabriel had been in a romantic relationship with Lorenz three years earlier. When she became pregnant with Josef, she asserted that Lorenz was the father – even putting “L.S.” Lorenz’s initials – on the newborn’s birth certificate.
Josef was nowhere to be found inside the barn. Lorenz searched the adjoining stables for the toddler, but only found the family dog, who was tied up inside. Strange, since the mechanic had seen the dog outside when he left the home earlier that same day. The dog acted unusually fearful, trembling, and his left eye was wounded.
There was a door inside the stables that connected to the family’s home. The door was unlocked.
Lorenz searched the house. In a bedroom, he found Josef’s stroller covered with a long skirt belonging to Viktoria. Cautiously, Lorenz lifted the skirt. Underneath, Josef’s body lay unrecognizable. His little head had been smashed to smithereens.
After uncovering his young son’s body, Lorenz unlocked the door of the bedroom to let Michael and Jakob inside. The two men wondered how Lorenz suddenly had a key to the house. Lorenz claimed the key was left inside the lock – but Michael and Jakob found that difficult to believe.
The three continued to search the living quarters. They made their way to the maid’s chamber, where they found that Maria’s mattress had been taken off of the bed and was lying on the floor. They lifted the bedspread to find Maria’s body – bloody and lifeless. Michael and Jakob left to get help. Lorenz, however, stayed at Hinterkaifeck. He told his friends he was going to tend to the livestock. While he was there, however, he invited friends to come gander at the bodies, disturbing the crime scene. One neighbor even went to the kitchen for a snack, rummaging around the cabinets and disturbing any potential clues inside. When a neighbor mentioned to Lorenz that the presence of onlookers could destroy critical evidence, Lorenz shrugged it off – saying that it was too late to do anything about it now.
The police had to travel far to reach the rural farming community and didn’t arrive in the town until close to 1:30 am. They stopped to sleep after the long journey and only arrived at Hinterkaifeck at 5:30 am the day after the bodies were discovered. Five days after the murders occurred.
The police searched the living quarters and found spots of blood on the threshold leading to the maid’s chambers. There was a bit more blood leading to the other bedrooms. While searching the house, investigators began to suspect that this crime was a personal attack against Viktora – the mother of Ceely and Josef. Viktoria’s bedroom was the only room in the house that was ransacked – her personal belongings, a purse, a watch, and some papers, were thrown about her bed. Perhaps even more telling, Viktoria sustained by far the most severe injuries, the only victim to have markings consistent with strangulation. Her head showed 9 star-shaped wounds.
In the attic of the house, police found bits of food and human excrement. There were piles of straw laid out across the floor as though someone had been sleeping up there. Police found loose tiles on the roof that, when moved, showed an expansive view of the home and the yard. Police wondered how the person sleeping there could have left the house since all the doors had been locked from the inside.
In the kitchen, investigators noticed that the entire bread supply was gone, along with many servings of meat. Between this and the report of the carpenter seeing the oven light on days earlier, it is believed that the perpetrator or perpetrators were living at the homestead for days following the brutal killings.
So many days had passed since the murders, and because of Lorenz’s open invitation to view the bodies, so much evidence had been tampered with, that it was impossible to tell the order in which the victims were killed. However, there are hints of the order from the victim’s clothing. Viktoria and Cäzilia were fully dressed, so they were likely the first victims. Andreas, who was found in an undershirt and trousers, seemed to be in the process of changing into his nightclothes, so he was probably killed next. Finally, little Ceely was found in her nightgown, indicating that she was already ready for bed by the time the perpetrator got to her.
Because of Andreas’s earlier report that he arrived home to find a cow loose in the yard, it is believed that the perpetrator may have let cattle loose to draw the family into the barn one by one, before proceeding to the rest of the killings in the living quarters. There, it is suspected that Maria was killed first so that there was no one left to save baby Josef.
The investigators did not do a thorough search of the crime scene. They failed to collect any fingerprints, even though doing so was no new method, and only took five photographs. There was very little blood splatter to be found, aside from some on the barn door and the few spots investigators noticed in the living quarters. The large amount of people that had interacted with the scene, along with a rainfall that had happened since the killings, made for a substantial lack of forensic evidence. This is one of the reasons that the case remains unsolved today, even with the massive leap in forensic technology.
Autopsies were performed at the crime scene, with many curious community members watching. The autopsies concluded that every victim was killed from blunt force trauma to the head – probably with a farm tool like an ax or a hoe. Ceely was the only victim not to die instantly. The tough seven-year-old suffered for up to three agonizing hours. It is possible that she may have survived if she had received immediate medical attention.
The victims’ heads were sent to The University of Munich for examination, but their bodies remained at home for burial.
When investigators were clearing out the bodies for the funeral, they noticed a rope hanging from the loft inside the barn that had not been there minutes earlier. They climbed into the loft where they found handprints, but still did not collect fingerprints. They never found a trace of whoever was up there.
A year later, in 1923, relatives of the family demolished Hinterkaifeck. During that time, carpenters came across loose floorboards in the attic. They removed them to find a blood-stained mattock, with a loose screw on the handle. Markings created by the screw were identical to the markings found on Viktoria’s head. Excavators also found a bloody penknife buried under straw in the barn – near where the bodies were found.
The police interviewed dozens of suspects over the years but never came to any firm conclusions. Many believe the leading suspect to be Josef’s father, Lorenz Schlittenbauer. Three days after Viktoria gave birth to Josef and claimed that Lorenz Schlittenbauer was the baby’s father, Lorenz reported Viktoria and her father Andreas to the authorities for engaging in incest. Lorenz was convinced that the baby was truly fathered by Andreas. Schlittenbauer eventually dropped the charges after Viktoria told him she would not make him pay child support. Lorenz continued to have a deeply strained relationship with Viktoria and Andreas, constantly changing his mind on whether Josef was his son or not, and even asking Andreas permission for Viktoria’s hand in marriage, under the condition that Andreas cut off sexual ties with his daughter. Andreas refused.
Further, Lorenz was disturbingly calm upon discovering the bodies – including the body of his supposed toddler son. Jakob Sigl, who had been in the search party with Lorenz when the bodies were found, told police about Lorenz’s suspicious possession of the house key. The police eventually crossed Lorenz off as a suspect due to a lack of evidence and no clear motive. Jakob, however, continued to insist that Lorenz had committed the heinous crime. In turn, Lorenz sued Jakob for defamation and threatened to do the same to anyone who dared to accuse him.
One intriguing suspect is actually Viktoria’s deceased husband, Karl Gabriel. Karl had supposedly died in World War One, but his body was never recovered. Some believe that he may have secretly returned home and, upon learning of Viktoria’s incestuous relationship with Andreas, murdered the family.
Other suspects were well-known thieves, a neighbor who had committed and bragged about a mass murder years earlier, and a pair of brothers whose mother gossiped about their involvement in the murder to a friend. Over the past century, the police have investigated 105 total suspects. In 2007, a group of students from the Bavarian Police Academy tried to solve the case using modern-day technology. They concluded that the lack of evidence and large passage of time made it impossible to ever conclusively solve these murders. They did come up with a prime suspect but were not able to release his name out of respect to living relatives.
Today, the murders at Hinterkaifeck remain one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in Germany and around the world. While we may not have enough evidence to come to a concrete conclusion right now, there are hundreds of theories out there. Maybe, one day, the answer will be known.
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