The Unsolved Hinterkaifeck Murders
In the year 1922, six people were brutally killed at a remote German farmstead. They were bludgeoned in their bed clothes. The question on everyone's mind was: were their deaths the result of a manic serial-killing, out of control family dispute or even at the order of Hitler and his henchmen? In this post, we look at the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murders of Hinterkaifeck.
The Hinterkaifeck Farm
It was Friday the 31st March, 1922. Snow covered the farmer's fields of Kaifeck, a remote hamlet bordering the small town of Wangen, South Germany. Being mainly pastoral, Hinterkaifeck Farm had good local trading links and was largely self-sufficient with foods of all kinds readily available. The farmstead itself comprised of one main house and the number of outbuildings and this looked picturesque against the snowy white backdrop.
On this fateful Friday, farmer Andreas Gruber was at home with his wife Cazillia, their daughter Viktoria Gabriel and her two children: a young girl also named Cazillia, aged 7, and the young boy named Josef who was just two years old. They also had a live-in maid by the name of Maria Baumgartner.
With the duties done for the day, all should have been well. However, Andreas was apparently troubled by the events of the previous week. The farmstead was bordered at the rear by thick woodland. And he had found footprints in the snow leading from the edge of the forest right up to the back of the house, despite none of the family having ventured out that way. He had noticed that there were no footprints leading away.
As you can imagine, the thought of a possible trespasser, who seemingly vanished without a trace would have left him puzzled, anxious and fearing for the safety of his family. Andreas had reportedly been plagued by other strange goings on around the farm during that time. He confided to a neighbor about strange noises coming from the attic, items being moved around and an unfamiliar newspaper arriving at the farm.
Nonetheless, he refused the offer of a gun for protection. Other reported worries included a set of keys disappearing, heightening existing concerns about a possible paranormal presence at the farm. Despite these potential warning signs, as they prepared for bed, the Grubers were oblivious to how cruelly they, along with their maid, would be slain in cold blood later that very same night. As we will learn, the murders themselves were extremely brutal. However, an initial delay in even reporting the incident would hamper the investigation and ultimately mean that an accurate time for their deaths could never be established.
The Crime Scene
Four whole days passed by before neighbors found the bodies, they were discovered on the 4th of April and they had been concealed under a pile of straw in the barn. Stripped and soaked in each other's blood, they had been piled one on top of the other. A messenger was sent to notify the Mayor of Wangen and on April 5th, police were finally able to collect their evidence. Co-ordinating police efforts was an inspector Georg Reingruber, who arrived by train from Munich. The on-site autopsy was conducted by Dr. Johanne Baptist Aumeller, who sent the heads of the deceased away for specialist examination, but ultimately this garnered no significant results.
Crime scene evidence showed how the killings were intended to be quick and precise. Each victim suffered appalling skull, head and facial wounds. In the cases of wife Cazillia and of the elder daughter Viktoria, strangulation was also noted as a factor. These strangulations suggest that either something had not gone as planned with the murders, that there could have been more than one killer, or that the killer was driven by more personal motives linked directly to the females in the house.
It is believed that the youngest child, Josef was killed in his basinette, whilst the rest of the family were somehow led to the barn outside before being killed therein. The Gruber family's maid Maria Baumgartner may have been spared in other circumstances, but like Josef, she too was killed in her bed. After the attack, all the bodies were then hidden from view under the straw.
Rather chillingly, there are reports to suggest that one of the children was not dead at this time. Viktoria's daughter Cazillia is believed to have lay bleeding under the straw next to the corpses of her family and records show how she had pulled clumps of her own hair out before her death, probably through pain, confusion and grief. The full horrors experienced by each family member are revealed within police reports, which detail multiple horrific injuries for each victim. To this day, nobody has been brought to justice for the Hinterkaifeck murders. Despite carrying out such slaughter, one has to wonder why the killer or killers were never caught by police.
Inspector Reingruber's investigation
Upon arriving at Hinterkaifeck, Inspector Reingruber and his detectives realized that the scene itself had been compromised. At the farmstead household, objects have been moved and a number of visitors had been and gone in the past four days. Nonetheless, in their quest for clues, the police were still able to record and collect some valuable evidence from the house.
Large sums of money were discovered, so they were soon able to rule out robbery as the primary motive and due to the lack of food in the Gruber household, Reingruber wondered whether the killer may have been eating meals there. The police could not be certain regarding this possibility, especially given the number of neighbors and professionals that had also visited the farm in the intervening days. There was evidence of recent disturbance and possible habitation in the attic space, though it was not clear whether these items had been moved by the Grubers themselves, or possibly small animals.
The police also discovered that the cows had been milked and other animals had been well fed since the time of the murders, suggesting that somebody had been staying in the house afterwards: may be intending to take over the farm. Accounts given to the police by neighbors support this idea. They had reported seeing smoke rising from the chimney in the days since the incident.
The police search also revealed evidence of an incestuous relationship between Andreas and his grown daughter Viktoria. The incest was already well known to the local community, and in fact, both had been jailed for incestuous offences some years before. The Gruber family and particularly Andreas were disliked by some of the locals, for the shame that the incest had brought upon the region. Mr. Gruber was apparently very outspoken on this matter and though inspector Reingruber could not draw upon a suspect based on speculation alone, Andreas clearly had more enemies than friends.
In spite of an extensive search, police initially failed in their attempts to locate and identify a murder weapon. It has been suggested that investigators were inefficient in these early stages, though it could be argued that farms are full of tools and blades that could be used as potential weapons and with this in mind, it is understandable that police found themselves at a loss. Even canine sniffer dogs could not pick up the required scent.
It was only when the site was being cleared more than a year after the murders had taken place that a farmhand by the name of George Siegl identified the weapon as a 'mattock', a type of long-handled pickaxe and one that Andreas Gruber had made himself. Siegl told police that this was normally kept with Gruber's other tools locked away in the tool shed. The mattock had been used to make precision cuts on each of the bodies and Siegl pointed out that it would require reasonable experience of agricultural tools to be used in this way. Georg Reingruber was yet to realize it, but he would work tirelessly on this case throughout the rest of his career. He was said to have been haunted by the murders and especially those of the children, though this only made him more determined to catch those responsible.
He and his detectives questioned over 100 people in relation to the murders, but still no one was charged. Reingruber discovered that visitors to the farm in the time since the murder included a postman who visited on the first and third of April, and a mechanic, who would come to repair the feeding machine in the barn on the fourth.
Through his interviews, Reingruber also gathered information from neighbors about the group of family and the maid in order to build up a profile and consider who would target them and why. Investigating reports of ghostly goings on, he discovered that even the Gruber family's former maid had left six months earlier with complaints that the farm was haunted. On this particular point, it is an especially sad twist in the tale that the new maid, Maria Baumgartner, had only arrived at the farm the day before, and was killed just hours later.
In the years that followed, stories told of how the Devil himself had visited the family on that cold night and left his footprints to prove it. Given the reports, the ideas of the murders having arisen from some paranormal event should not be discounted. But did something far more human have a vendetta against the Grubers?
The Suspects of the Case
Reingruber questioned a broad spectrum of people, from vagrants and travelers, to people in neighboring villages. However, with robbery ruled out as a motive, he began to narrow down his options and identify his prime suspects. One of Reingruber's first interviewees-and later to become a significant suspect himself- was neighbor, Lorenz Schlittenbauer. We only know about the footprints in the snow and noises in the attic because of Schlittenbauer's account. It was his recollection, which was reported to police, and we must treat his story with some scrutiny for a number of reasons, but mainly because they have not been corroborated by any of the witness.
Whilst it is possible that Andreas only confided in Schlittenbauer, Andreas did not report these concerns to the police personally. It is also known that both men had had some bitter neighborly disagreements, not least because Schlittenbauer ideally wished to marry Andreas' daughter Viktoria, but he had been refused point blank. Viktoria had admitted giving herself unto Schlittenbauer on five occasions and he truly believed young Josef was his son. That was until the incest allegations resurfaced. Despite this, Schlittenbauer was asked to pay maintenance (or alimony), even though he was denied access to the child.
Some believe this betrayal and continued incest provides real motive, whilst others feel it is the bitterness over alimony which is a factor. After all, Schlittenbauer had a wife and child of his own by this time. He therefore had more than one reason to be rid of the Grubers once and for all and as a neighbor, he would have known Hinterkaifeck well, including where Andreas kept his tools.
During the interview process, Schlittenbauer could have cleverly used fabrication to divert attention away from his negative relationship with Andreas and instead cast further doubt on Andreas' integrity. Schlittenbauer was also one of the first neighbors to arrive at Hinterkaifeck to greet police and had apparently been part of the group that discovered the bodies. Some reports even suggest that a dog, tied by its lead at the farmstead, barked and growled angrily at Schlittenbauer each time he passed.
Another suspect lies in that of Viktoria Gabriel's own husband: Karl Gabriel. Though it is thought Karl was struck by a mine in December of 1914 whilst away at war, his body was never recovered. Whilst tests confirming that Viktoria's father Andreas was also the biological father of her young son, this adulterous betrayal could have provided motive for Karl to return unannounced and kill Andreas, Viktoria and possibly even young Josef.
The Possible Political Connection
So did he go on to become the Hinterkaifeck killer? or is there yet more to this mystery? It is a strong possibility, albeit not widely reported, that there were political motivations behind the murders. The residents of Bavaria were traditionally Catholic and conservative politically. However, the Anif Declaration of 1918 had led to a period of constitutional instability and some extremist groups favored Bavaria as a hotbed for growth. Andreas Gruber was himself a Nazi sympathizer longing to bring about change to the status quo. Unafraid to openly air his views, Gruber stood out for his political differences, especially within a small community of more liberal voters.
In 1922, the town of Wangen was due for local and mayoral elections. Its total population stood at around 5,000. Some now wonder whether the Grubers were actually murdered in an attempt to thwart the growth of extremism in the region and ensure that votes went to mainstream candidates. A man by the name of Adolf Gump was listed as a suspect as early as April 9th due to concerns over his political activities with the Freikorps Oberland.
The Freikorps Oberland were a group initially intent on rooting out Communists and Polish insurgents, but many of its members, including Gump began to switch their attention to the Nazis. Unfortunately, Gump could not be traced and despite a deathbed confession to a priest 22 years after the murders, by relative Kreszentia Meyer-claiming that Adolf Gump may have acted with his brother Anton to carry out the Hinterkaifeck killings- neither were sentenced for the crime.
Interestingly though, another theory suggests that The Nazis themselves attacked Hinterkaifeck. Extremist groups such as the Nazis could have recognized the farmstead had value as an obscure remote hideaway. Similar rural Nazi hideouts have been discovered all over Germany, with many found in the Bavarian province. But why should a minority party in government choose to eliminate a family of their own supporters? Why not simply choose another location nearby?
If this line of inquiry is to be followed and The Nazis had a strong interest in the Hinterkaifeck property, the murders would have been planned in detail and it is likely that they found little interest or value in the Gruber family themselves. Initially, Andreas may have been seen as an asset. But any resistance from himself or members of his family would have brought about swift retribution and they would have been shown little mercy. The Nazi theory is also consistent with the belief that there was more than one killer at Hinterkaifeck.
After dealing with the messy business of ending the lives of six people, the perpetrators would have looked after the farm animals and taken meals, with the intention of discreetly taking over the farmstead: perhaps even telling locals at a later date that the family had moved away.
Nonetheless, aside from vengeful or tactical murderous plots, it is possible that the Grubers were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A man by the name of Joseph Bartle had escaped from a hospital in Gunzberg in 1921 where he was being treated for a mental illness. He is thought to have been in the area at the time of the murders and is believed to have been capable of mass homicide.
That said, the Hinterkaifeck murders have been linked with the notorious Friedrich Harmann who was prolific during the 1920s with his vampyrous sensibilities. Whilst he generally targeted male prostitutes, his potential involvement simply makes the task of solving this mystery yet more complicated.
So, alas, in spite of many suspects and plausible explanations, we are still left piecing together the puzzle of exactly what happened in Hinterkaifeck. This was not something inspector Reingruber could achieve in his lifetime. In fact, despite him working on the case for many years and subsequent re-investigations, the case is now in danger of running cold.
The latest police investigation in 2007, concluded that important evidence was now missing or not properly collected to begin with. They deemed it unlikely that the case will ever be solved. It does seem that Andreas may have been closer than you realized with his concerns about something in the attic. It seems very plausible that the killer or killers could have used this space to hide out and listen in on the daily personal lives of the family. We are left with many possible perpetrators and with common consensus shifting away from Andreas' anxieties about the paranormal, the key rests so much on the shortcomings of the original investigation and developments in the years following the murders.
For instance, the decision to send only the decapitated heads for analysis has become the subject of criticism, with concerns that vital evidence may have been left on the victims' torsos. The method used was quite medically primitive, though we should allow for the fact that the crime was in a rural area and decapitation was still occasionally used in wider medical practice in the 1920s. Even more sadly though, the heads of the victims were somehow lost.
Whilst the official narrative is that the heads were presumed destroyed following the outbreak of war, individuals investigating the case wonder whether this may have simply been negligence. Even so, the family were laid to rest headless. As the Grubers left no legal will, the buildings at the murder site itself were demolished and redeveloped in the years which passed. A drawing commissioned by a family member, just one police photograph and one police sketch is all that was on file before they were torn down. This has made it difficult for new researchers to look at the original farm's size and scale and would limit any new forensic or archaeological findings.
Since 1971, even the town of Wangen is but a memory. This now places the murder site within the larger town of Waidhofen, 43 miles north of Munich, within the modern-day Neuburg-Schobenhausen district. A little-known memorial does, however, remain. The English translation of the inscription is as follows: "Memorial for Hinterkaifeck in the immediate vicinity of the crime. Godless hand, the family Gabriel-Gruber fell victim here on the 31st of March 1922." This is followed by the names and years of birth of the victims.
Various books and songs released even in the past 20 years continue to pay tribute to the lost souls. With continued interest in the mystery and the speculation surrounding Hinterkaifeck, the events have also been dramatized in three films to date, released in 1981, 1991 and 2009. We're now around a century on and the awful truth is we now may never know who murdered those six people on that fateful night; an escaped mental patient, a jealous husband seeking revenge, or even an early Nazi genocide. As we have seen Hinterkaifeck literally translated "behind the woods"- has long since been erased from the map. We can only hope that someone will invest their time and energy into reinvestigating this challenging case before the Hinterkaifeck murders and more importantly the murderers themselves disappear from the pages of history forever.