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.

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. MAKING A MURDERER (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it's returning for a second season on October 19th.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. THE STAIRCASE (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's recent addition of new episodes earlier this year led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you'll want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. EVIL GENIUS (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck would detonate, as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

How Polygraphs Work—And Why They Aren't Admissible in Most Courts

iStock/Sproetniek
iStock/Sproetniek

The truth about lie detectors is that we all really want them to work. It would be much easier if, when police were faced with two contradictory versions of a single event, there was a machine that could identify which party was telling the truth. That’s what the innovators behind the modern-day polygraph set out to do—but the scientific community has its doubts about the polygraph, and all over the world, it remains controversial. Even its inventor was worried about calling it a "lie detector."

AN OFF-DUTY INVENTION

In 1921, John Larson was working as a part-time cop in Berkeley, California. A budding criminologist with a Ph.D. in physiology, Larson wanted to make police investigations more scientific and less reliant on gut instinct and information obtained from "third degree" interrogations.

Building on the work of William Moulton Marston, Larson believed that the act of deception was accompanied by physical tells. Lying, he thought, makes people nervous, and this could be identified by changes in breathing and blood pressure. Measuring these changes in real-time might serve as a reliable proxy for spotting lies.

Improving upon previously developed technologies, Larson created a device that simultaneously recorded changes in breathing patterns, blood pressure, and pulse. The device was further refined by his younger colleague, Leonarde Keeler, who made it faster, more reliable, and portable and added a perspiration test.

Within a few months, a local newspaper ​convinced Larson to publicly test his invention on a man suspected of killing a priest. Larson's machine, which he called a cardio-pneumo psychogram, indicated the suspect’s guilt; the press dubbed the invention a lie detector.

Despite the plaudits, Larson would become skeptical about his machine’s ability to reliably detect deception—especially in regards to Keeler’s methods which amounted to “a psychological third-degree." He was concerned that the polygraph had never matured into anything beyond a glorified stress-detector, and believed that American society had put too much faith in his device. Toward the end of his life, he would refer to it as “a Frankenstein’s monster, which I have spent over 40 years in combating.”

But Keeler, who patented the machine, was much more committed to the lie-detection project, and was eager to see the machine implemented widely to fight crime. In 1935, results of Keeler’s polygraph test were admitted for the first time as evidence in a jury trial—and secured a conviction.

HOW IT WORKS

In its current form, the polygraph test measures changes in respiration, perspiration, and heart rate. Sensors are strapped to the subject's fingers, arm, and chest to report on real-time reactions during interrogation. A spike on these parameters indicates nervousness, and potentially points to lying.

To try to eliminate false-positives, the test ​relies on "control questions."

In a murder investigation, for instance, a suspect may be asked relevant questions such as, "Did you know the victim?" or "Did you see her on the night of the murder?" But the suspect will also be asked broad, stress-inducing control questions about general wrongdoing: "Did you ever take something that doesn't belong to you?" or "Did you ever lie to a friend?" The purpose of the control questions is to be vague enough to make every innocent subject anxious (who hasn't ever lied to a friend?). Meanwhile, a guilty subject is likely to be more worried about answering the relevant questions.

This difference is what the polygraph test is about. According to the American Psychological Association, “A pattern of greater physiological response to relevant questions than to control questions leads to a diagnosis of ‘deception.’” They proclaim that, "Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies."

But a diagnosis of deception doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has actually lied. A polygraph test doesn’t actually detect deception directly; it only shows stress, which was why Larson fought so hard against it being categorized as a "lie detector." Testers have a variety of ways to infer deception (like by using control questions), but, according to the American Psychological Association, the inference process is “structured, but unstandardized” and should not be referred to as “lie detection.”

And so, the validity of the results remains a subject of debate. Depending on whom you ask, the reliability of the test ranges from near-certainty to a coin toss. The American Polygraph Association claims the test has an almost 90 percent accuracy rate. But many psychologists—and even some ​police officers—contend that the test is ​biased toward finding liars and has a 50 percent chance of hitting a false-positive for honest people.

NOT QUITE THE SAME AS FINGERPRINTS

Most countries have traditionally been skeptical about the polygraph test and only a handful have incorporated it into their legal system. The test remains most popular in the United States, where many police departments rely on it to extract confessions from suspects. (In 1978, former CIA director Richard Helms argued that that's because "Americans are not very good at" lying.)

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings on the question of whether polygraph tests should be admitted as evidence in criminal trials. Before Larson’s invention, courts treated lie-detection tests with suspicion. In a 1922 case, a judge prohibited the results of a pre-polygraph lie detector from being presented at trial, worrying that the test, despite its unreliability, could have an unwarranted sway on a jury’s opinion.

Then, after his polygraph results secured a conviction in a 1935 murder trial (through prior agreement between the defense and prosecution), Keeler—Larson’s protégé—asserted that “the findings of the lie detector are as acceptable in court as fingerprint testimony.”

But numerous court rulings have ensured that this won’t be the case. Though the technology of the polygraph has continued to improve and the questioning process has become more systematic and standardized, scientists and legal experts remained divided on the device's efficacy.

A 1998 Supreme Court ruling ​concluded that as long as that’s the case, the risk of false positives is too high. The polygraph test, the court concluded, enjoys a scientific “aura of infallibility,” despite the fact “there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable,” and ruled that passing the test cannot be seen as proof of innocence. Accordingly, taking the test must remain voluntary, and its results must never be presented as conclusive.

Most importantly: The court left it up to the states to decide whether the test can be presented in court at all. Today, 23 states allow polygraph tests to be admitted as evidence in a trial, and many of those states require the agreement of both parties.

Critics of the polygraph test claim that even in states where the test can't be used as evidence, law enforcers often use it as a tool to ​bully suspects into giving confessions that then can be admitted.

“It does tend to make people frightened, and it does make people confess, even though it cannot detect a lie,” Geoff Bunn, a psychology professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, told The Daily Beast.

But despite criticism—and despite an entire ​industry of former investigators offering to teach individuals how to beat the test—the polygraph is still used ​widely in the United States, mostly in the process of job applications and security checks.

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