Ghosts, Incest and The Hinterkaifeck Homestead
We do not know if Maria Baumgartner had heard the scandalous secrets that surrounded her new employers, like the thick pine trees that enclosed the Hinterkaifeck homestead.
The forty-four year old was mentally and physically disabled. She had never married and since her death of her parents, had been forced to find work as a maid. But keeping work had not been easy. She had recently lost her job, working old woman in Unterwittelsbach. Allegedly this was because the mayor of the town had objected to a ‘crippled person’ entering their community.
Now her sister Franziska had found her this job with the Gruber family. Whatever Maria did or did not know about her new employers, everyone else in the small town of Kaifeck knew there was something deeply rotten at the heart of the Gruber family.
Their previous maid had fled six months earlier, claiming that ghosts were rattling around in the attic of the remote farmstead.
But spirits in the timbers were the least of the Gruber family’s problems.
Cäzilia Gruber, almost ten years her husband’s senior, would come to town covered in livid bruises and only one of the couples’ children had survived until adulthood. And it was no secret that Andreas Gruber still beat his elderly wife.
But that wasn’t the reason that the 63-year-old had served a year’s prison sentence some five previously.
In 1917 a court convicted Andreas, then in his mid-fifties, of engaging in an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter, Viktoria Gabriel.
Viktoria herself had served a month in jail. But now the whole family were back living under the same roof.
All In The Family
This cosy arrangement would have raised eyebrows even if it wasn’t for the fact that, since her father’s release from prison, Viktoria had given birth to a second child.
The 35-year-old widow would not publicly reveal the identity of the child’s father. But rumors were rife that there was a more than usually strong resemblance between two-year-old Josef and his incestuous grandfather.
Not that Viktoria had many other options at her disposal. Viktoria had returned to her parents’ homestead in 1914 when her husband went to war. That same year her father made her the titular owner of Hinterkaifeck, staying on contractor. Then her husband, Karl Gabriel had died in December, a victim of the trenches.
Just one month after her husband’s death, Viktoria gave birth to a daughter. Little Cäzilia Gabriel was named for her grandmother.
Despite the skeletons in the family’s closet, they were comfortably off.
This was the household into which Maria Baumgartner entered on Saturday 31st March 1922
The family’s previous maid had quit six months previously and they had been unable to find any willing replacement until now.
But Maria needed work. That morning she had packed up her small belongings and moved into the Gruber homestead.
By the following evening, she would be dead.
The Footsteps In The Snow
Kaifeck was a small hamlet, densely shrouded by pines some 70km north of Munich. These days it has vanished utterly from the map, as it was incorporated in the municipality Waidhofen in 1971.
Hinterkaifeck was even more remote. Nothing but a tiny farmstead at the edge of the dark, snowy woods.
So when Andreas Gruber had come into town some days earlier, with a strange story about unsettling events up at the farm, his neighbors had offered to loan him a riffle.
According to Andreas he had been out on morning and had seen fresh footsteps in snow, leading toward the property. This in itself was strange enough, given the remoteness of farm.
But what had so disturbed the farmer, was that while the footsteps leading to the property were clearly visible, there were no footsteps leading back towards the forest.
Whoever had come from the woods, had evidently not gone back that way.
Later the family heard strange noises coming from the attic. Then a set of keys had gone missing. Finally they found a newspaper on the porch, that no-one in the family subscribed to.
Andreas searched his property, but found no trace of an intruder. Although he did see scratch marks around the lock of one of the out buildings, as if someone had tried to break in.
He declined to borrow a gun. No-one thought to alert the police. Out here, people had their own way of doing things.
Where Are The Grubers?
Viktoria Gabriel had a beautiful singing voice. So when she did not attend church that first Sunday in April 1922, people noticed her absence from the choir.
Then when seven-year-old Cäzilia failed to appear at school the following day neighbors became concerned.
Smoke has been seen coming from the chimney the farmhouse and the family’s livestock had been tended in their fields, but no-one had seen a single member of the Gruber household for several days.
By Tuesday, neighbors went to investigate.
What they found at the Hinterkaifeck farmstead was so truly horrific that the crime still resonates today as one of Germany’s most shocking unsolved mysteries.
The Horror of the Hinterkaifeck Barn
No-one knows exactly what went down that night 31st March 1922 at Hinterkaifeck.
Almost 100 years on, the only person who could have told that story has taken it to his grave. But investigators pieced together what they could from the crime scene.
They found the first body in the bedroom.
Poor disabled Maria Baumgartner, who had arrived at Hinterkaifeck just hours earlier, was dead in her bed.
She had been sleeping when her attacker brutally bludgeoned her. He’d then covered up her corpse with bed sheets.
Two-year-old Josef Gabriel was in his crib in his mother’s bedroom. His killer had struck him, with blunt force to the head. Once the boy was dead, the intruder concealed the tiny corpse beneath one of Viktoria’s dresses.
The remaining members of the household were in the barn.
From the state of the crime scene investigators surmised what had happened within.
The intruder had emerged on the property at some point during the hours of darkness.
He lured Andreas Gruber, his wife the older Cäzilia and their daughter Viktoria, one by one into the barn. The Hinterkaifeck killer had then used a mattock, a farming tool similar to a pickax, to hack each victim to death.
Once he was through he piled up their bodies and covered them with hay.
Little Cäzilia, Viktoria’s seven-year-old daughter, was also found dead in barn. The intruder attacked her with the matttock, but did not complete the job.
Unlike the older victims, the child remained alive for some time in the barn surrounded by the bodies of her murdered family. When investigators discovered the victims, they were horrified to find that as she lay dying the younger Cäzilia had torn out clumps of her own hair.
Who Lit The Chimney In The Gruber House?
In a horrifying twist on Goldilocks, the murderer seems to have made himself right at home in the Hinterkaifeck horror house.
Neighbors had seen smoke coming from the chimney in the days after the murders and investigators found the remains of meals, that the killer had prepared for himself in the house.
Even the livestock had been tended too and the dog let off its chain. As a result several days before neighbors raised the alarm.
The brutality and senselessness of the massacre sent shockwaves into the local community and beyond.
But although the police pursued several possible leads, no-one ever stood trial for the shocking crime.
And without any credible leads some unorthodox solutions were suggested.
Missing Skulls And A Killer From Beyond The Grave
According to some sources, the skulls of the murdered family were sent to Munich. In a last-ditch attempt to breathe new life into the investigation from beyond the grave, clairvoyants there examined the skulls but to no avail.
The skulls subsequently went missing and have never been recovered.
Even if the clairvoyant didn’t turn up any answers, others believe that the crimes were carried out by a dead man.
Viktoria’s late-husband Karl had been reported dead in WW1, but his body was never found. Some amateur sleuths suggest that Karl faked his own death and then returned to kill his former family. However, there is no evidence that Karl survived the war and several of his comrades report witnessing his death on the battlefield in 1914. It was sadly not uncommon for remains to go unidentified during WW1, with many war-dead interred in mass graves.
A more credible suspect was Lorenz Schlittenbauer, a neighbor who had been among the first to find the bodies. Although he was not named on the birth certificate, Viktoria had identified him as Josef’s father and had sued him for child support. In 1919 he had brought new allegations of incest against Viktoria’s father, claiming that she had told him little Josef was either his child or her fathers. But although Andreas was arrested, the charges were dropped when Schlittenbauer told the court he had made the accusation falsely.
Despite this soap-operatic backstory however, there was nothing of substance linking Schlittenbauer to the atrocious crimes. There is also nothing in Schlittenbauer’s background or subsequent life, that would suggest he was capable of such sickening violence against an entire family.
Modern Investigators Name Hinterkaifeck Killer
In 2007, students at a German police academy, attempted to use modern forensic techniques to solve the crime. They eliminated all of the prime suspects from the initial 1920s investigation with the exception of one. But the students refused to publicly name their suspect out of respect for his living descendants.
The case seemed set to remain a tantalizing unsolved mystery. Until now.
In their 2017 book The Man from the Train, writer Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James, have speculated that there may be a possible link to a previously unidentified American serial murderer.
In their exhaustively researched account of a many eerily similar murders in America, the pair believe they have finally identified a previously unknown serial axe murderer.
Paul Mueller: The Man From The Train
Paul Mueller was a German, or possibly Austrian immigrant to America, who seems to have been responsible for a string of previously unsolved murders in the first two decades of the 20th century.
In these murders entire households were killed with an axe or similar implement, after which the killer spent some time at the crime scene, before moving on to the next town. He typically targeted households with a prepubescent daughter, as in the Hinterkaifeck murders.
The murderer at Hinterkaifeck used the same modus operandi as Man From The Train in the killings and arranged the crime scene in the same ritualistic manner. Because the details of American crimes were not reported internationally, the killer could not have been a copycat. But the similarities in the Hinterkaifeck murders and the American crimes, are so striking that they go far beyond coincidence.
The string of axe murders in the USA abruptly ceased in 1912, leaving the authors to speculate that the culprit either died, was imprisoned or went elsewhere. Mueller was under suspicion by 1912, but vanished not long along. Given what happened at Hinterkaifeck it seems most likely that he returned to his homeland to escape capture. After lying low for a while, he resumed his murder spree in his usual style.
If the James father and daughter are correct, then Paul Mueller is the best suspect yet in the Hinterkaifeck slayings.
Of course, with almost a century now passed the mystery of exactly what happened at Hinterkaifeck on that terrible night in March 1922 may never be known.
However, the naming of Paul Mueller – or the Man From The Train – may be the closest we’ve come yet come to understanding this horrific crime.