The Chilling Story of the Hinterkaifeck Killings, Germany's Most Famous Unsolved Crime

A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
Wikimedia // Copyrighted free use

The Hinterkaifeck farmstead was a lonesome place. Located near the woods outside the Bavarian town of Gröbern, about an hour's drive from Munich and a half-mile behind, or "hinter," the town of Kaifeck, it was the home of 35-year-old Viktoria Gabriel and her two children, 7-year-old Cäzilia and 2-year-old Josef, as well as her elderly parents Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber.

The family was known for keeping to themselves. Still, neighbors grew concerned on April 1, 1922, when young Cäzilia missed school and the entire family failed to show up to the church where Viktoria was a member of the choir. Cäzilia missed school again on April 3, and by then, mail for the family had begun to pile up at the local post office. On April 4, the family's neighbors decided to investigate. Lorenz Schlittenbauer, a farmer who lived nearby, led the search party.

What they discovered likely haunted them for the rest of their days.

In the barn, the search party found four brutally battered bodies covered with hay. Inside the house, they discovered the bodies of 2-year-old Josef and the maid, Maria Baumgartner. It had been Baumgartner's first day on the job—the previous maid had abandoned her position due to a fervent belief that the house and farm were haunted.

Nearly 100 years later, dozens of people have been arrested as suspects in the crimes, though no one has ever been found guilty. The Hinterkaifeck murders remain one of Germany’s eeriest—and most famous—unsolved crimes.

FOOTSTEPS IN THE SNOW

The reports from the family's autopsies, conducted by court physician Dr. Johann Baptist Aumüller, paint a horrifying picture of their injuries. The elder Cäzilia showed signs of strangulation and seven blows to the head, which left her with a cracked skull. The face of her husband, Andreas, was caked with blood, and his cheek bones protruded from shredded flesh. Viktoria’s skull was also smashed; her head showed nine “star-shaped” wounds and the right side of her face had been hit with a blunt object. The younger Cäzilia's lower jaw had been shattered and her face and neck covered in gaping, circular wounds.

While the elder Cäzilia, Andreas, and Viktoria likely died instantly from expertly delivered blows from a mattock—a pickax-like tool used for digging and chopping—the autopsy found that the younger Cäzilia likely remained alive and in shock for several hours after her attack. She had ripped her own hair out in clumps.

Inside the farmhouse, little Josef and the maid Maria Baumgartner had met a similar fate. Maria was killed by crosswise blows to the head in her chambers, and Josef by a heavy blow to the face in his cot in Viktoria’s room. Like the bodies in the barn, theirs were also covered: Maria’s with her sheets, and Josef’s with one of his mother’s dresses. The farm animals and a Pomeranian watchdog remained unharmed. Chillingly, they had even been taken care of and fed in the several days that passed between the murders and their terrible discovery.

Police initially suspected vagrants or other traveling men of ill-repute, but tossed out this theory after large sums of money were found within the house. Besides the bodies and the hay and bedsheets used to cover them, nothing had been disturbed—though the killer clearly remained at the farm for several days, feeding the animals, eating meals, and lighting fires in the hearth. When the police questioned the former maid about her belief that the property was haunted, she said she had come to that conclusion after constantly hearing sounds in the attic and experiencing an unsettling feeling of being watched.

Though Andreas did not believe her, he too had confided in neighbors about some strange happenings in the days before the murder: A newspaper he did not buy was found in his home, and a set of footsteps was discovered leading from the forest to the farmstead. The footsteps were set in pristine and unmarked snow, leading in only one direction. Nobody at Hinterkaifeck knew whom they belonged to.

To make matters even stranger, one of the family’s two keys disappeared shortly before the murder. Combined with the footsteps from the woods, sounds in the attic, and a smoking chimney in the days following the crime, these odd details paint a horrifying picture of a ruthless intruder who may have taken up residence in the house.

PRIVATE MYSTERIES

A black-and-white photo of the Hinterkaifeck farm a few days after the murders
The Hinterkaifeck farm a few days after the murders
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Suspicion eventually settled on several men connected to the family, in part because of some domestic turbulence at the farm.

Viktoria was a widow whose husband had died in WWI, and the parentage of her son Josef remains a mystery to this day. She had had a relationship with Lorenz Schlittenbauer—the man who had led the search party that discovered the bodies—and both had publicly referred to Josef as their child. They planned to get married—until Andreas interfered, and their relationship ended. Lorenz eventually married someone else; though he and his wife welcomed a baby, it tragically died a few weeks later.

Police zeroed in on Lorenz as a suspect. They theorized that—traumatized by the death of his baby and unwilling to pay child support for Josef—he had come to the farm (located only a few hundred yards from his own) and murdered Viktoria and her family. The theory was bolstered by the fact that those with him during the initial investigation had found his behavior suspicious; they said that he acted nonchalant, viewing and handling the bodies without signs of repulsion. He also knew his way around the farm.

The police questioned Lorenz extensively, but were unable to conclusively place him at the crime scene. His behavior could be explained by shock, they reasoned, and his knowledge of the farm by his relationship with Viktoria.

With Lorenz eliminated, police considered Viktoria’s husband, Karl Gabriel, a suspect, theorizing that he came back from the war and killed them. That theory didn't last long: They soon discovered that Karl had been reported slain in France almost a decade before, with many of his fellow soldiers attesting to seeing his body.

Another theory floated at the time was that Josef was actually the child of Viktoria and her own father, Andreas, and that one of them had killed the entire family before turning the mattock on themselves. Andreas's proclivities for incest and abuse were frequently discussed in the neighboring town; supposedly, Andreas had had other children with Cäzilia besides Viktoria, but she was the only one to survive his violent hands into adulthood. But none of the injuries to the bodies could be explained as self-inflicted, so it wasn't possible that the crimes were a murder-suicide perpetrated by Viktoria or Andreas.

The murderer had to be someone who didn't live at the farm. But who?

Only one thing could be stated with any degree of certainty: The crimes had been committed by someone who knew their way around a farm, as evidenced by the continued upkeep after the murders and by the expert wielding of the mattock. The brutality of the murders suggested that they had been committed by someone with a personal vendetta against one or several of the Grubers.

But police at the time failed to come up with answers and eventually closed the case—though it would not remain closed.

SILENT SKULLS

The Hinterkaifeck case has been reopened several times in the last 95 years. Even clairvoyants have been given a chance at it—in his book Hinterkaifeck: Spuren eines mysteriösen Verbrechens, author Peter Leuschner details how the bodies of the Gruber family and the maid were beheaded not long after the original autopsies and the skulls sent on to Munich, where they were examined for metaphysical clues. Sadly, the skulls did not speak.

In 1923, the farm was demolished, and the family lays buried—without their heads—in a plot in Waidhofen; the skulls were lost during WWII and never returned. Initial evidence gathered at the crime scene is either also lost or too ancient to give up any secrets, though in 2007 the Fürstenfeldbruck Police Academy took the Hinterkaifeck Murders on as a cold case. Because of the relatively basic forensic techniques employed during the original investigation, as well as missing evidence and the later deaths of some suspects, they were unable to conclusively identify the murderer—though they did all agree on a theory.

Out of respect for surviving family members of people related to the crime, however, that theory remains a secret. At this point, it seems unlikely the public will ever know who committed the murders, or why. Whatever secrets the Gruber family kept in life and death, they now slumber alongside them in the grave.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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