Murder in the Haunted Farmhouse: The Horror at Hinterkaifeck

Andreas Gruber looked uneasily at the line of footprints in the snow leading from the nearby wood to the isolated farm buildings. It just didn’t make sense! A single line of foot prints were clearly visible, leading to a small outbuilding. The lock on the door of the building was broken but, when the farmer looked inside, there was no-one there. Yet there were no footprints leading away from  the shed…

Gruber searched all the outbuildings and the farmhouse itself. Again. For more than six months the occupants of the house had been plagued by the sounds of someone (or something…) moving around in the windowless attic that ran the length of the house. Objects had been moved when no-one was there and the maid had left the previous Autumn because she claimed that the house was haunted. But when Gruber searched, he found nothing.

This is the story of what happened at an isolated Bavarian farm in the winter of 1921/22. It’s a tale of Lovecraftian brooding menace culminating in savage violence that left six people brutally murdered. The case is still unsolved and it is surpassingly odd, but everything detailed here really happened. Can you solve the strange and disturbing case of the horror at Hinterkaifeck?

The farmhouse at Hinterkaifeck in happier times. A visitor with a bicycle stands on the left, Viktoria Gabriel is to the left of the door, Andreas Gruber to the right. The open door on the right leads to the stable attached to the farmhouse and just visible on the extreme right is the roof of the barn.

Germany in 1921 was a country in the throes of enormous change. Rampant inflation was beginning to devalue the Mark, leaving savings and pensions virtually worthless. There was a severe shortage of workers, especially in rural areas; the First World War, which had ended three years before, had killed two million German soldiers and more than four million had returned home with crippling injuries. Radical new political parties appeared and then vanished with bewildering speed. Some were destined to last a little longer – news was spreading of new political party in nearby Munich, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, led by a charismatic demagogue and ex-soldier named Adolf Hitler.

But in the small village of Kaifeck, mid-way between the towns of Ingolstadt and Schrobenhausen and around forty miles north of the city of Munich, concerns were much more practical and focused on simply putting enough food on the table. Few people bothered much with the news from Munich and fewer still gave much thought to the increasingly hysterical claims of Krescence Rieger, the woman who had worked as a maid at the isolated farm of Hinterkaifeck (the name simply means “beyond Kaifeck”) until she quit in September 1921.     

She told anyone who would listen that the isolated farmhouse in which she worked as a maid was haunted by a malign presence. She explained that she had repeatedly heard someone, or something, moving around in the attic when the house was empty and, on more than one occasion, she had heard the sound of a disembodied voice and had a sudden overpowering feeling that she was being watched when she was alone in the house.

Hinterkaifeck lay around one mile outside the village, accessible only via a narrow dirt track through the forest. The farm was run by sixty-three-year-old Andreas Gruber assisted by his wife, seventy-two-year-old Cäzilia, and their widowed daughter Viktoria, whose husband Karl Gabriel had died in the early stages of the war. Also living in the house were Viktoria’s two children, seven-year-old Cäzilia and two-year-old Josef.. The single storey wooden farmhouse was topped by an attic that ran the length of the building and surrounded by barns and outbuildings. The dense, dark trees to the north and west were part of a small forest with the sinister name of Hexenholz (Witches Wood). To the south and east was open, rolling farmland.

From the left:

Unknown, Cäzilia Gruber, Viktoria Gabriel and Krescence Rieger holding Josef

Andreas seemed to have a very odd relationship with his daughter Viktoria which was the subject of salacious gossip in the village. He kept her under strict control and only reluctantly allowed her to attend church on Sundays where she sang in the choir. He forbade her from marrying again after her husband Karl was killed during the war and there were even dark rumours that Josef was his son as well as his grandson. The parentage of young Josef was certainly something of a mystery; he was born five years after Karl was killed.

Andreas Gruber visited the village of Kaifeck occasionally and a few particularly bold or curious people risked his anger by tentatively asking him about the maid’s stories about the farm being haunted. Nonsense, he told them, all complete rubbish. But, when pressed and perhaps after a few steins of beer, he did admit to having some odd experiences there himself.

On another occasion, he found a current edition of a Munich newspaper in the house. He assumed that the postman had left it by mistake and that another member of the family had brought it in to the house. However, no-one in the house admitted to having seen the newspaper and, when he later asked the postman, the man told him that no-one in the village took that particular newspaper and so he could not have delivered it in error to Hinterkaifeck.

Andreas Gruber

Gruber also, grudgingly admitted that perhaps he too had heard what might have been footsteps from the attic but, when he had checked, there was no-one there. So, he must simply have imagined it, mustn’t he? One more than one occasion he had found the farm animals out in the fields when he had left them in the barn. The final straw was that one of the sets of keys for the house and outbuildings had disappeared from the hook where they were usually kept. No-one in the house would admit to having moved them and their loss was clearly a source of irritation to Gruber.

Partly because of the frightening tales about Hinterkaifeck spread in the village by Krescence Rieger, the Grubers found it difficult to find a replacement maid; unsurprisingly no-one wanted to live and work in a haunted house deep in the forest. For several months they managed without help until, in March 1922, forty-five-year-old Maria Baumgartner, bolder or more desperate for money than the rest, agreed to take the job.

Baumgartner had a mild learning disability and a pronounced limp but, despite that, she walked twelve kilometres from Mühlried, the town in in which she lived, in heavy sleet, to Kaifeck where she stayed overnight with her sister, Franziska Schäfer. On Friday 31st March she left her sister’s house at around four o’clock in the afternoon to walk to Hinterkaifeck, ready to begin her new job the following day. Her sister walked with her and at around four-thirty, said goodbye in the yard of the Gruber’s farmhouse. That was the last time that any members of the Hinterkaifeck household were seen alive.

Andreas Gruber and Vitoria had gone shopping together to the nearby town of Schrobenhausen that morning. Later, shopkeepers would remember both complaining of strange noises from the attic that had kept them awake the night before and Andreas told one man how he had found some of his cattle mysteriously wandering that morning, as if someone had deliberately let them loose.

No-one saw Maria Baumgartner or any member of the Hinterkaifeck household over the following weekend, but that wasn’t particularly a matter for concern. The only route to the village was via a muddy track through the forest and it was assumed that the family had not chosen to make the trip through rain and sleet that weekend.

On Saturday afternoon, two brothers, coffee salesmen named Hans and Eduard Schirovsky, visited the farm, but no-one answered when they knocked on the door. That evening a local carpenter, Michael Plöckl, walked past the house on his way home. He noticed that the kitchen door was open and he could see a fire burning in the grate inside. As he passed, someone shone the light from a pocket lantern at him. It was, he thought, a man, but because of the bright light, he couldn’t see clearly and he assumed it was Andreas Gruber.

On Sunday, two friends of Viktoria called at the farmhouse to take her to church, but no-one answered when they knocked. Distant neighbours saw smoke rising from the chimney of the farmhouse more than once during the weekend, and that seemed to suggest that, despite no-one having seen the Grubers, everything was all right at Hinterkaifeck.

Then Monday came and seven-year-old Cäzilia did not turn up for school. She had not attended school on Saturday morning either, and that was very surprising as she was a bright and enthusiastic scholar. People began to wonder whether there was perhaps illness in the house? The postman dropped off the mail as usual on Monday morning and noticed that the back door was partly open though he didn’t see anyone. Nor did a workman who arrived that afternoon to mend some farm machinery, though he did hear a dog barking inside the house when he arrived. When he left after completing his repairs, he noticed that the dog, which was still barking, had been moved and was now tied up beside the front door showing that someone was in the house.

By Tuesday afternoon there was sufficient concern over the absence of the Grubers that a small group of local men nervously approached the house. When they arrived, everything looked normal. The animals were in no distress and had clearly been fed but, strangely, the post had not been collected from the post-box.  The visitors opened the door, which was unlocked, and peered inside, calling out. There was no reply, but everything looked normal inside except for some dirty dishes in the kitchen. Baffled, they went outside to check the outbuildings.

The horrific scene in the barn

In the barn they discovered what had happened to at least some of the members of the Gruber household. Under a thin layer of hay, they found the blood-spattered bodies of Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber, Viktoria and young Cäzilia. All had been killed by savage blows to the head. They went back inside the house and made a more thorough search. They discovered the bodies of Maria Baumgartner and Josef. Maria’s body was in the maid’s bedroom, off the kitchen, and Josef was in his cot. Both also had massive head injuries. Maria’s body had been covered with a bedsheet and Josef’s with one of his mother’s skirts.

The police were called and the first local officers arrived at Hinterkaifeck at around six o’clock that evening. Within an hour they were joined by a larger force of police from the town of Schrobenhausen and the area was declared a serious crime scene and cordoned off. By midnight the first detectives from the Munich Kripo (Kriminalpolizei, criminal investigation agency) arrived and took over the investigation.

Maria Baumgartner’s bedroom. Her body lies slumped at the far end of the bed.

Rather than making things clearer, the ensuing police investigation highlighted just how odd this case was. Autopsies were performed the following day on a makeshift table in the courtyard outside the farmhouse by the district court doctor, Dr. Johann Bapt. Aumüller. This confirmed that all six people had been killed some time during Friday evening or night.

Yet, witnesses had seen smoke coming from the chimney of the house during the weekend, the carpenter had seen someone with a flashlight at the farm on Saturday evening, the repair man claimed that someone had moved the dog while he was at the farm on Monday and it was clear that the farm animals and dog, a husky-like spitze, had been fed and looked after. The dog was found tied to a post in the stable; he was usually kept in the barn. He had a small injury over one eye and seemed very distressed but was otherwise unharmed. Unbelievably, this strongly suggested that whoever had savagely killed the family on Friday evening had afterwards spent a leisurely three days in the Gruber house.

The autopsies confirmed that all six victims had been killed by a single blow to the head, most likely with a mattock, a farming implement with a blade on one side and a chisel-like axe on the other. However, the bodies in the barn had not been taken there after death. Somehow, the killer had lured his victims out to the barn, presumably one by one, and there he had expertly despatched each with a single blow to the head. None showed any signs that they had been bound or restrained in any way and none displayed any defensive wounds. It was as if each victim had meekly followed the killer to the barn and there awaited the killing blow.

All had died instantly apart from poor young Cäzilia who, the autopsy showed, had remained alive for some time after being struck, thrashing in the hay next to the bodies of her mother and grandparents and pulling out handfuls of her own hair before she finally expired. Maria Baumgartner appeared to have been struck down as she stood next to her bed and Josef had been killed as he slept.

The bodies of Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber were wearing night-clothes, suggesting that they were in or preparing for bed when they were led out to the barn by the murderer. Viktoria and her daughter were still wearing their day clothes, which led the police to believe that the murders had most likely taken place in the late evening of Friday. The maid’s body was found to be fully clothed including lace-up outdoor shoes. Her backpack, the only piece of luggage she had brought with her to Hinterkaifeck, was found, still packed, on a bench outside the kitchen window. No-one was certain whether she was killed before she had a chance to unpack or if something had happened after her arrival to cause her to change her mind, re-pack and get ready to leave.

Police discovered that several meals had been prepared in the house after the murders, seemingly by the killer, and that one bed had been recently slept in, also presumably by the killer. These finds seemed to reinforce the notion that the killer had stayed in the house for several days after committing the murders.

Another view of the farm and outbuildings, taken by detectives a few days after the murders. The numbers indicate:

1, The windows of the living-bedroom of Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber.

2, The window of the bedroom of Viktoria Gabriel.

3, The stable.

4, The barn on which four bodies were found.

At first, detectives suspected robbery as the motive. The social dislocation that followed the war and the ensuing inflation had left large numbers of unemployed and homeless people in Germany and some took to the road as vagrants. The Grubers were believed to have been relatively wealthy and it was surmised that some passing opportunist had committed the murders and then fled with the loot. Some paper money certainly appeared to have been taken from the bodies, but a cursory search by police discovered a large quantity of gold coins and valuable jewellery in the house.

It seemed certain that a thief who had stayed in the house for several days would also have had time to search the house, and this rather undermined the robbery theory. One thing that the police search, which included the use of dogs, failed to find was the murder weapon. No mattock could be found in the house or outbuildings and as such an implement was to be found on virtually every German farm of the period, it was assumed that the killer must have taken it with him.

Next, detectives began looking at more personal motives. They discovered that Viktoria had told friends that the father of Josef was a local man, forty-six-year-old Lorenz Schlittenbauer. They also discovered that Viktoria had recently started proceedings to sue Schlittenbauer, who had since married another woman, for alimony payments for the boy. Schlittenbauer was one of the first group of villagers from Kaifeck who had gone to the farm on the Tuesday, and some people claimed that the Gruber’s dog had acted strangely towards him, barking and seeming to grow more distressed when he was near. Was it possible that Schlittenbauer had decided to kill the whole family in order to avoid paying alimony?

Lorenz Schlittenbauer

Police grilled Schlittenbauer several times over the following years (the last interview took place in 1931). His motive didn’t seem particularly strong but the truth was that detectives had no other leads. The farm on which Schlittenbauer lived with his wife was certainly less than one kilometre from Hinterkaifeck and he admitted to having had a relationship with Viktoria but he absolutely denied being the murderer and it seemed impossible that he could have spent time from Friday evening until the bodies were discovered on Tuesday afternoon at Hinterkaifeck without someone having noticed his absence. Reluctantly, the police dropped Schlittenbauer as a suspect. Schlittenbauer successfully sued several people who claimed that he was the Hinterkaifeck murderer before his death in 1941.

The bodies of the victims were buried a few days later, though in a macabre twist, they were buried without their heads; these were kept in case they were later needed as forensic evidence in a trial. The heads were later lost following the chaos and allied bombing during World War Two and the unfortunate Grubers remain buried without their heads. Despite the  Bavarian Ministry of the Interior offering a reward of 100,000 (later increased to 500,000) marks in April 1922 for information leading to an arrest, no useful new information was received.  

After some legal wrangling, the farmhouse became the property of Viktoria’s father-in-law, Gütler Karl Gabriel. Unsurprisingly, no-one wanted to live there and the location of what had become a notorious murder was attracting gawkers. In February 1923, less than one year after the murders, Karl Gabriel assisted by members of his family demolished the farmhouse and other buildings. During the demolition, a mattock was found hidden under floor-boards in the house. It was crusted with dried blood and hair and was undoubtably the murder weapon. No-one could explain why this hadn’t been found by police search dogs and when the mattock was examined, it was found to be free of finger-prints, suggesting that the murderer had either worn gloves or cleaned it after the murders.

Several other possible suspects were interrogated though none looked like strong prospects. Local brothers Karl and Anton Bichler were known to have committed several burglaries in the area and were interviewed but rejected by police as viable suspects. Two farm labourers were suggested as suspects by the former maid, Krescence Rieger, but police investigations led nowhere. Munich detectives interviewed more than one hundred potential suspects between 1921 and 1933, but failed to find sufficient evidence to charge any of them with murder.

In the village of Kaifeck however, rumours were spreading of a very different suspect. It was whispered that perhaps Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s dead husband wasn’t really dead at all and even that he was the murderer? Perhaps, the story went, he had not been killed during the war but horribly disfigured and had somehow and secretly made his way back to Hinterkaifeck where he was hidden by the Gruber family? Perhaps, driven insane by his injuries, he had killed his wife and all the other potential witnesses?

This is still often quoted as a possible solution to the murders at Hinterkaifeck, but police records show that Munich detectives investigated this potential lead very carefully. Karl Gabriel married Viktoria Gruber in April 1914, but the happy couple didn’t stay together for long. Karl soon returned to his family home where he complained bitterly that his new wife was continuing to have a sexual relationship with her father despite her husband’s presence. When war was declared in August 1914, Karl Gabriel volunteered for military service and was assigned to the 13th Infantry Regiment.

Karl Gabriel in the uniform of the 13th Infantry Regiment

He was posted to the western front, near Arras in France. Military records show that he was killed there on 12th December 1914 in a trench battle near Neuville. He was buried in a German war cemetery in St. Laurent-Blangy. Detectives interviewed two former soldiers who had served with Karl Gabriel, Josef Bichler and Nikolaus Haas, and both confirmed that they had seen and identified his body after the battle. There seems no doubt that Karl Gabriel died in 1914 and therefore cannot have been the Hinterkaifeck murderer.

There has also been an attempt to link the murders in Hinterkaifeck with a series of baffling axe-murders that took place in America around 1912 with a suggestion that a single murderer was responsible, but no hard evidence has been found to support this theory.

The active police investigation into these murders continued for twelve years, until 1933 but no-one was ever charged. After the Second World War, the Munich police carried out several cold-case reviews of the Hinterkaifeck murders, most recently in 2007, but concluded that the loss of vital evidence and records over the years meant that it was not possible to determine with certainty who the murderer might have been.

This simple memorial at the location of the farmhouse is the only visible reminder of the Hinterkaifeck murders.

This remains one of the most discussed murder cases in Germany, and one of the most baffling and disturbing. We are left with a number of unanswered questions and no obvious answers. The account of the former maid Krescence Rieger and the anecdotal evidence of people with who Andreas Gruber spoke suggests that someone was prowling round the farm (and perhaps even hiding in the attic and farm buildings) for up to six months before the murders were committed. However, though Gruber searched the house and outbuildings on several occasions he failed to find any trace of an intruder. The police investigation showed that the murderer certainly stayed in the house for several days after the murders and seemed to have made little attempt to conceal his presence or to steal any valuables. What murderer would take that risk and why?

Then there are the murders themselves. How were four members of the household lured out into the barn to be killed? They had not been tied-up or restrained in any way and none showed signs of defensive wounds. Even if, for example, they were threatened with a gun, it seems unlikely that none would have attempted to resist as they were killed one-by-one. They seem to have come meekly out to the barn and allowed the killer to strike them down with a single blow to the head. Why did the murderer take the trouble to hide the murder weapon? Why didn’t police using dogs find it when they searched the farmhouse in the days following the murder?

Above all, why were these murders committed? Were these the work of an early serial killer? That term was not in use in the early part of the twentieth century, but in other countries there had been killings that would now be classed as the work of a serial murderer. However, no-one has been able to find any other similar murders in that period in Germany or any other European country, so that seems unlikely. The fact that the killer appears to have been stalking the family for several months before the murders (if it was the killer who left the footprints in the snow and made the sounds in the attic) also seems to point to someone staying in the local area rather than a passing killer. However, the police carried out hundreds of interviews and were unable to find any local man who had been absent from his home from Friday evening to Monday afternoon when the killer was believed to have been living in the farmhouse.

Likewise, the notion of a vagrant, the first theory followed by police, seems unlikely. Such a person would have to have been in the area for some time, yet no-one else in the small, tight-knit community noticed the presence of a stranger and Andreas Gruber failed to find any evidence of someone living clandestinely in the attic or farm buildings. The only person who seemed to have any kind of motive at all was Lorenz Schlittenbauer but, after several interviews and intense investigation, detectives were unable to find any evidence to tie him to the murders.

The story of the murders at Hinterkaifeck farm and the strange circumstances surrounding them read like a story from the fertile imagination of H. P. Lovecraft, but the facts here are taken from the surviving files of the Munich police and this story is completely true. We have clues galore but no obvious motive or suspect. Unless some dramatic new information becomes available it seems likely that we will never really know what happened in that lonely farmhouse next to Witch’s Wood during the winter of 1921/22 or on Friday 31st March 1922. This remains one of the most disturbing, odd and baffling murder cases ever.

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