The Bavarian Mass Murder
"the family ought to be dead."
In the small Bavarian farmstead of Hinterkaifeck, Andreas Gruber and his wife lived and tended to their land, along with their daughter and her small children. The isolated farm would become to scene of strange occurrences in the months leading up to the end of March 1922, when all six members of the household were found brutally slain, in what became known as the Hinterkaifeck Murders.
The bodies of four members of the Gruber family were found in the barn, beated to death with a an axe. Inside the house, the bodies of the family maid and the youngest child were found in separate bedrooms. Detectives believe the killer had remained in the house for three days with bodies of the victims, and despite a thorough investigation, this gruesome crime remains unsolved to this day.
The farm at Hinterkaifeck was built around 1863, and had been owned by the Gruber family. Located approximately 43 miles north of Munich in Germany, it was situated in the state of Bavaria, the founding region of the future Nazi Party, which grew significantly in the years 1921 to 1922, owing to the backlash against the socialist and liberal politicians in the region, as Germany’s economic problems escalated as a result of the weakness of the Weimar Republic.
The patriarch of the Gruber family, 63-year-old Andreas, lived at Hinterkaifeck with his wife Cäzilia, aged 72, and their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel. The 35-year-old had moved to live with her parents, who brought with her the two small children from her marriage, Cäzilia, aged 7, and 2-year-old Josef. Together the family lived with their maid.
The elderly Andreas Gruber was to neighbours and others for the extremely aggressive and brutal treatment he showed to his wife, children, and neighbours. If displeased, the aging Gruber was often quick to attack people with dangerous objects such as a scythe, pitchfork, or shotgun. He was known to lock his children in the cold cellar for many days during winter, and one of his daughters, Sophie, died as a result of the abuse.
In the weeks and months leading up to the end of March 1922, several strange occurences happened in and around Hinterkaifeck. Six months previously, Kreszenz Rieger, the family maid abruptly quit. It was later claimed that she left her position owing to strange noises coming from the attic, and that she firmly believed the farmhouse to be haunted.
In March 1922, Andreas Gruber came across a strange newspaper from Munich on the property. He could not remember buying it and initially believed that the postman had lost the newspaper. However, as no one in the vicinity subscribed to the paper, its appearance was puzzling. Equally as strange was the disappearance of a key to the farmhouse, that mysteriously vanished. Just days before the fateful night of March 31st, Gruber told neighbours he had discovered tracks in the fresh snow.
He said that these footprints led from the forest to a broken door lock in the farm’s machine room. Later, during that night, the family reportedly heard footsteps in the attic, but when Gruber went to investigate, he found no one when upon searched the building. He went on to tell several people about these unnerving experiences, but refused any help and declined to inform the police.
Another strange incident was reported by a school friend of the younger Cäzilia Gabriel, who told the young girl that her mother Viktoria had fled the farm the night of the Thursday, March 30th, after a violent quarrel with her parents, and was only located hours later having been found in the surrounding forest.
The next day, on the afternoon of Friday March 31, 1922, a new maid arrived at the farm. Maria Baumgartner had been escorted to Hinterkaifeck by her sister, who left the farm after a brief stay. It was likely that Baumgartner’s sister was the last person to see the Gruber family and her sister alive.
At some point during the late evening, Andreas and his wife Cäzilia, along with their daughter Viktoria and granddaughter Cäzilia, were lured away from the house one at a time to the farmstead barn through the stable, where they were attacked and murdered. The killer or killers, had used a mattock that belonged to the family farm, inflicting blows to the head.
The perpetrator then went into the living quarters, and using the same murder weapon, set upon and killed the young Josef, while he slept in his bassinet, as well as Baumgartner, who was found in her bedchamber. The bodies of the family and their maid would remain undiscovered over the next four day.
The day after the murders, on April 1st, two men arrived at Hinterkaifeck. When they knocked on the door with the intention of taking an order, coffee sellers Hans Schirovsky and Eduard Schirovsky received no reply. Similarly knocks on the window gained no response, and so the two men walked around the yard but found no one. The only thing they noticed was the gate to the machine house open, but suspected nothing, they decided to leave.
The school which seven-year-old Cäzilia Gabriel attended became aware of her absence from without excuse for the next few days, and people noticed that the family failed to show up at church for Sunday worship. On the morning of April 4, local mechanic Albert Hofner, went to Hinterkaifeck to repair an engine.
He later told police he had not seen anyone on the property, none of the family, and had heard nothing but the sounds of the farm animals and the howling of the family dog inside the barn. After waiting for an hour for Andreas to show, he decided to start his repairs, which were completed in roughly four and a half hours.
Later that same day at around 3:30pm, Lorenz Schlittenbauer sent his sixteen-year-old son Johann along with his stepson Josef, aged 9, to the Hinterkaifeck farmstead to see if they could find the whereabouts of the Gruber family. The boys eventually returned home and reported they had seen no-one at Hinterkaifeck.
Schlittenbauer headed to the farm the same day in the company of Michael Pöll and Jakob Sigl. The three men entered the barn and there found the bodies of Andreas Gruber, his wife Cäzilia Gruber, his daughter Viktoria Gabriel, and his granddaughter Cäzilia. Schlittenbauer then went into the farmhouse alone shortly afterwards, and there found the chambermaid, Maria Baumgartner, and the youngest family member, Josef, murdered inside the house.
The case was given to Inspector Georg Reingruber and his Department, who had the task of investigating the gruesome killings. The initial investigation was hampered, however, by the fact that someone, likely the killer, had entered the farmstead and interacted with the crime scene, moving bodies and items, and even cooking meals in the kitchen.
On a wall in the farmhouse, a calendar showed the date for April 1st, 1922. As it was determined the victims were all murdered the previous day, this meant that someone, again most likely the killer, had torn off the March 31st, 1922 page. This would have been something someone in the household would have done, usually the same individual.
The day after the discovery of the bodies, court physician Johann Baptist Aumüller performed autopsies on the victims inside the barn. He established that the most likely murder weapon was a mattock, a type of agricultural tool shaped like a pickaxe, with an adze-like arched blade and a chisel edge that served as the ends of the head.
The victims in the barn suffered horrendous injuries. The elderly Cäcilia Gruber was found to have eight holes in the right side of her skull, while her daughter Viktoria’s skull was found to have nine after being hit repeatedly on the right side of her head. Unusually there were also strangulation marks found on Viktoria’s neck. The young Cilli Gabriel had one hole from the mattock in the right side of the face.
She had also suffered a smashed jaw when the killer used an iron band, later found hidden in the hayloft, to silence her. However, the fatal injury against her was inflicted with a pocket knife that was used to slit her throat. The young girl was found half-naked, something likely done by the killer. In her death-throes, the young Cilli had pulled out clumps of her own hair before she succumbed to her wounds.
Both of these items belonged to Andreas Gruber, who suffered significantly different injuries to the other members of his family. He was found to have died from a fall onto the tip of the heavy pickaxe, which was found in the animal feeding trough. This wound tore open his carotid artery, causing him to bleed to death within a very short time. The flesh was torn open on the right side of his cheek and the cheekbone protruded. He only had this one injury.
The killer had partially hidden the bodies, covering them with hay and a wooden door. Inside the house, Maria Baumgartner suffered injuries to the face on the right side of the head, and was found to have died from at least one hole in the top of her skull. The young Josef Gabriel had been slaughtered inside his bascinet, and died from a single powerful blow to the right side of his skull.
During an initial search of the property, the weapon itself was not found at the scene. Evidence from the autopsy showed that the younger Cäzilia had been alive for several hours after the assault, having torn her hair out in tufts, presumably while lying in the straw. The skulls of the victims were removed and sent to Munich for further examination, and police set about questioning eye-witnesses who came forward with information.
Farmer and butcher, Simon Reißländer, claimed that when on his way home near Brunnen on April 1st at 3:00am, he saw two mysterious figures at the edge of the forest. When the strangers saw him, they turned around so that their faces could not be seen. Later, when he heard of the murders in Hinterkaifeck, he thought it possible that the strangers might be involved.
The motive for the crime was first suspected as robbery, and the police interrogated travelling craftsmen, vagrants, and several inhabitants from the surrounding villages. One such person questioned was artisan Michael Plöckl, who happened to pass by Hinterkaifeck on the night after the crime, three days before the bodies were discovered.
On the night Plöckl observed that the oven had been heated by someone. He went on to describe how someone had approached him with a lantern that blinded him, whereupon he hastily continued on his way. Plöckl said he also noticed that the smoke from the fireplace had a revolting smell that reminded him of burnt rags. Although reported to police, this incident was never followed up, and no subsequent investigation was conducted to determine what had been burned that night in the oven.
Detectives soon abandoned the burglary theory when a large amount of money was found in the house. From the evidence left at the farmhouse, it was clear that the killer had remained at the farm for several days. This was apparent because someone had fed the cattle, consumed the entire supply of bread from the kitchen, and had recently cut meat from the pantry.
A further search of the house eventually yielded the murder weapon. Found hidden in a cavity up above the kitchen in a false flooring space. Measuring 80cm long, the mattock had been a design of Gruber who fashioned it himself for use in killing cattle. The blade was mounted by clamps that were held together by a protruding 8mm threaded screw, which caused brain damage to the animals when struck with the back of the tool.
A search of the hayloft, where the iron band had been found, police discovered evidence that someone had been living there. Haystacks had been left behind, and whoever had been there had removed the roof tiles, presumably in order to keep a look out for visitors. There was carpet placed down, that would muffle the footsteps of someone should they hear police.
Ropes had been attached to various beams in the barn. It was theorized by police that this was done so the killer could lower himself to the ground quicker should anyone enter the house or barn so as to make their escape. Further evidence that someone had been living in the barn was supported by the fact that someone had defecated in the hayloft, as well as the remains of rinds of smoked mean found near the lookout.
At the time was believed the victims had been lured to the barn by restlessness in the stable resulting in noises from the animals. However, it was later determined that at least human screams from the barn could not be heard in the living area of the farmstead. With little to no evidence available at the crime scene that might offer police a clue to the killers identity, detectives began to draw up a list of suspects.
One of the first suspects put forward was Karl Gabriel, the husband of widowed Viktoria Gabriel. Although Gabriel had reportedly been killed by a shell attack in Arras, France, in December 1914, during the First World War, his body had never been recovered. Shortly after the murders, people began to speculate about whether he had in fact died in the war.
Viktoria had conceived and given birth to their son Josef in her husband’s absence, and the boy was rumoured to have been the product of an incestuous ‘relationship’ between Viktoria and her father Andreas. It had been documented in court and known in the village that Andreas had been raping his daughter, a crime of incest the town convicted them both, and for which Andreas served a year in prison.
At the time there was never any evidence that Gabriel had survived the First World War, however after the end of the Second World War, German captives from the Schrobenhausen region who were released prematurely from Soviet captivity claimed that they had been sent home by a German-speaking Soviet officer.
They went on to report this man claimed to be the Hinterkaifeck murderer. However, the credibility of some of the men was diminished when they later revised their statements. There was a strong theory that the German-speaking Soviet officer might have been Karl Gabriel, because those who claimed to have seen Gabriel after his reported death testified that he had wanted to go to Russia.
The question of the young Josef Gabriel’s paternity would also implicate another suspect in the Hinterkaifeck murders. Lorenz Schlittenbauer, the man who found the bodies of the Hinterkaifeck victims, was believed to have had a relationship with Viktoria Gabriel shortly after the death of his first wife in 1918, and fathered Josef.
Speculation of the involvement of Schlittenbauer began early in the investigation by locals, owing to his suspicious activities immediately after the discovery of the bodies. When Schlittenbauer arrived to investigate the whereabouts of the Grubers along with his friends Michael Pöll and Jakob Sigl, the three men had to break a gate to enter the barn because all of the doors were locked.
However, immediately after finding the four bodies in the barn, Schlittenbauer apparently unlocked the front door with a key and suspiciously entered the house alone. It was there he discovered the bodies of the maid Maria Baumgartner and Josef Gabriel. A key to the house had previously gone missing several days before the murders.
However, it is possible that because Schlittenbauer was a neighbor, as well as Viktoria’s potential lover, might have been given a key. When asked by his companions why he had chosen to go inside the house alone when it was unclear if the murderer might still be there, Schlittenbauer allegedly said he went to look for his son Josef.
While in the Gruber harmhouse, it is known that Schlittenbauer had disturbed the bodies at the crime scene, in a way that might potentially compromise the investigation. For many years after the crime, Schlittenbauer remained the center of local suspicion because of his strange comments, which were seen as proof that he knew specific details that only the killer would know.
Less than a year after the murders, and the murder investigation, the farm at Hinterkaifeck was completely demolished. In 1925, local teacher Hans Yblagger discovered Schlittenbauer visiting the remains of the demolished farmstead, and when asked why he was there, Schlittenbauer stated that the perpetrator’s attempt to bury the family’s remains in the barn had been hindered by the frozen ground.
This bizarre statement was considered evidence that Schlittenbauer had intimate knowledge of the conditions of the ground at the time of the murders, however as a neighbor and someone familiar with the local land, he may have been making an educated guess as the why the bodies were left stacked atop one another in the barn.
Fo many years people speculated that Schlittenbauer murdered the family after Viktoria demanded financial support for young Josef. Before his death in 1941, Schlittenbauer initiated and won several civil claims for slander against those people who described him as the “murderer of Hinterkaifeck”. If Schlittenbauer had knowledge of who committed the Hinterkaifeck murders, he took the secret with him to the grave.
The Testimony of Kreszenz Rieger
The former maid, Kreszenz Rieger, who worked for the Gruber family at Hinterkaifeck from November 1920 to around September 1921, gave the names of several suspects to police. She suspected Anton Bichler, a local man who had helped with the potato harvest at Hinterkaifeck and therefore knew the premises. She told police she believed Anton and his brother Karl Bichler might have committed the murders.
Rieger claimed that Anton Bichler often talked to her about the Gruber and Gabriel family, and reportedly suggested that “the family ought to be dead.” The former maid also said in her interrogation that the farm dog, who barked at everyone, never barked at Anton. She also reported speaking with a stranger through her window late one night.
The maid said she believed that it was Karl Bichler, the brother of Anton, who had no reason to be present at the Gruber property late at night. She told police she thought that Anton and Karl Bichler could have committed the murder together with Georg Siegl, who had worked at Hinterkaifeck and knew of the family fortune.
Siegl had supposedly had broken into the home in November 1920, and stolen a number of items, a crime which he denied. When questioned, Siegl stated that he had carved the handle of the murder weapon when he was working at Hinterkaifeck and knew that the tool would have been kept in the barn passage. When the farmstead was demolished shortly after the murders, a mattock was found hidden in the attic and a pen-knife found in the hay in the barn.
According to further statements made by the former maid, Kreszenz Rieger, the Thaler brothers were also suspected of the crime. It was known that the brothers had already committed several minor burglaries in the area before the murders, and Rieger said that Josef Thaler stood at her window at night and asked her questions about the family, to which she gave no answer.
In conversation with Rieger, Josef Thaler claimed to know which family member was sleeping in which room and stated that they had a lot of money hidden in the house. During this conversation, Rieger noted that there was another person nearby, but she could not identify who this person was. According to her statement, Josef Thaler and the stranger had looked at the machine house and turned their eyes upwards.
Several years after the murders, and sometime in the middle of May 1927, a stranger was said to have stopped a resident of Waidhofen at midnight, asking him questions about the Hinterkaifeck murders before shouting loudly that he was the murderer. The stranger then ran away into the woods, and was never identified.
The Real Murderer?
One theory puts forward the idea that Andreas Gruber, the patriarch of the Gruber/Gabriel family was the murderer, who cold-bloodedly beat his family members to death. This would account for the way in which the killer seemingly remained at the farmsteam for the next three days, with the elderly Gruber having nowhere else to go.
He continued to tend to the farm and animals, cooked meals and even tore off the new date on the calendar for April 1st, the day after the murders. The fact that someone was present on the farm was observed by several eye-witnesses, including coffee sellers Hans Schirovsky and Eduard Schirovsky who knocked the door but go no answer, and Michael Plöckl, who was approached by someone in the dark, most likely Andreas Gruber.
After April 1st, there were no other reports of someone living at the farmhouse, as no-one else visited the property until April 4th, so it was simply assumed that the killer had remained in the house for three days. What is more likely, is that Andreas Gruber met his fate inside the barn alongside the bodies of his family, killed by someone else, the day after he committed the gruesome crimes.
The identity of that person is unclear, but from the evidence and remarks made by Lorenz Schlittenbauer, he was most likely the father of Viktoria’s young son Josef, not her father Andreas, as had been assumed by everyone. Since Andreas Gruber was known to be violent to his daughter, he would have beaten her had he known the true paternity of his grandson.
Viktoria once told Lorenz Schlittenbauer, “That’s the better thing, that I’m pregnant by father, otherwise he would beat me to death.” It is suspected that Viktoria was only allowed to meet with other men such as Schlittenbauer because she was already pregnant. The fact that she was beaten to death, might indicate the Andreas Gruber learned the identity of Josef’s real father.
That is possibly why Viktoria and her parents had an argument, causing her to run away into the forest the night before the murders. When Andreas learned that he was not the father, he went into a rage and beat his family members to death, strangling Viktoria before beating her to death with the Mattock. His wife and the children were beaten as they attempted to intervene. After slitting the throat of his granddaughter, he either threw or lost his penknife in the straw.
The young Cäzilia was found half-naked, and it was assumed the killer was responsible for carrying out an attempted rape of the seven-year-old. Andreas Gruber was a known rapist, who abused his daughter, a crime for which he served time in prison. It is plausible to assume that the elderly Andreas had wanted to abuse his young granddaughter, but was prevented from doing so by either his wife or daughter, or even both while they were alive.
After initially attempting to bury the bodies and finding the ground frozen, Andreas Gruber spent the day of April 1st on his farm, tending to his duties but remaining inside the barn and out of sight whenever visitors arrived, such as mechanic Albert Hofner, who reported seeing no-one at the farm on the morning after the murders. He then removed the mattock from the barn and hid it in the attic space, where it was later found.
The fact that Schlittenbauer had known, from his own later admission, that the young Josef was his own child, he went to the farm to speak with Viktoria, as he had done many times in the past, and found no-one at the house. It can be surmised that he then went to the barn and found the bodies of the Gruber/Gabriel family, and in doing so, surprised Andreas Gruber, who was found wearing his night clothes when his body was found.
Knowing that his own son was likely also dead, Schlittenbauer went into the house and found the slain bodies of the maid and young Josef. What happened next can be guessed by the injuries suffered by Andreas Gruber. He either fell, or was pushed by someone onto a heavy pickaxe, which severed his carotid artery. If this was Schlittenbauer, he may have watched as he bled to death.
Returning home, Schlittenbauer waited several days before deciding what to do next. Knowing full well that Andreas Gruber, the killer of his family, was already dead by his hand, he sent his two young sons to investigate the farm, in the knowledge they would be safe from harm. When they returned with no news, he went himself, taking two friends as witnesses. He then entered the house, with a key he had taken from Andreas Gruber, and for the second time found the body of his young son.
Lorenz Schlittenbauer apparently kept his dark secret for many years after the Hinterkaifeck murders, telling no-one of his involvement, but merely hinting at knowing more than anyone about the crime. He knew that the killer had tried to bury the bodies, but was thwarted by the frozen conditions, as described to Hans Yblagger in 1925.
The Man from the Train
In recent years a new theory had emerged, albeit one that has less supporting evidence than the culpability of Lorenz Schlittenbauer as the murderer. Put forward by author Bill James in his book ‘The Man from the Train’, which attempts to solve a series of grisly murders that occurred during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in several different American states, all of which remain unsolved.
In his book, James alleges that the killer was a German migrant by the name of Paul Mueller, who was the only suspect in the 1898 murder of a Massachusetts family. During his research into several unsolved axe murders, James trawled through American newspaper archives, and came to the conclusion that the killer had used the train tracks as a method of travelling from one state to another in order to carry out the killings.
Mueller’s suspected crimes in the United States, share some similarities to the Hinterkaifek murders, such as the slaughter of an entire family in their isolated home, use of the blunt edge of a farm axe tool as a weapon, the moving and stacking bodies of the victims, and the apparent absence of robbery as a motive. The still unsolved Villisca Axe Murders were attributed to Mueller, in which a family were bludgeoned to death in their own home.
The axe murders in American, which were at that time a common occurrence owing to the fact that most homes contained an axe for chopping wood, stopped before the first quarter of the century had ended. James suspects that Mueller, described as a German immigrant in contemporary media, might have returned to his homeland by 1912, once the pattern of his crime shad been noticed by police and journalists.
Despite many suspects and a strong theory for the prime suspect, the Hinterkaifeck murders have so far remained unsolved. The investigation was closed in 1955, with no charges brought against any of those suspected in the gruesome crime. The last questioning of a person of interest occurred in 1986, shortly before the retirement of detective chief superintendent Konrad Müller. After this, the investigation was closed.