Posted on: November 7, 2014

I find it impossible to write about this horribly strange case without thinking of one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes quotes: “It’s my belief, Watson, founded from my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside”.  The great man could have been talking about the Hinterkaifeck Farm murders.

One Friday night in 1922 the inhabitants of a remote farm in the Bavarian countryside were brutally slain.  The case remains unsolved to this day.  As you’ve probably already guessed, this is no simple tale of country-folk, and the Gruber family had their fair share of dark secrets.  The more you delve into this case the more complicated and intriguing it gets.

The Hinterkaifeck Farm (translated as “the farm behind the woods”) lay a few miles from Ingolstadt in southern Bavaria.  The occupants were the Gruber family.  Andreas (62), his wife Cazilia (72), their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel (32), her two children Cazilia (7), and Josef (2), and the family maid, Maria Baumgartner.  The Grubers were quite well-off, but lived in a relatively reclusive way.

The farm was actually owned by Viktoria.  Her husband, Karl, had been killed in the Trenches in 1914, although his body had never been found.  There was considerable debate about who the father of little Josef was.  Viktoria was reputed to have had a number of affairs in the neighbourhood, most significantly with Lorenz Schlittenbauer, their nearest neighbour.  It is thought that Viktoria may have wanted to marry Schlittenbauer, and a few weeks before the tragedy, she had drawn all her money out of her bank account.  The affair had led to a longstanding feud with Andreas Gruber.  Schlittenbauer had previously accused Gruber of having incest with his daughter, and being the true father of little Josef.  The charge had led Andreas to being sent to prison for a year.  By all accounts Gruber was a difficult man, described as brutish, morose, and subject to beating his children.  Viktoria was the only one to survive to adulthood.

In the months running up to the murders a number of strange things had happened at the farm.  A previous maid had quit, claiming that the house was haunted.  Strange noises had been heard in the attic, an unfamiliar newspaper was found, and a set of house-keys had gone missing.  A few days before the tragedy Andreas told a neighbour that somebody had tried to break into his garage, and that he had seen footprints in the snow leading from the woods to the house, but not going back again.

On the day of Friday 31 March 1922, little Cazilia had fallen asleep in school.  She told the teachers that she hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night, as there had been a big family argument, ending in her grandmother storming out of the house, saying that she wanted to kill herself.  (Some reports claim it was Viktoria who had done the storming out).  Sometime that day the new maid turned up for work for the very first time.  Her time at the troubled farm was to be very short.

It is thought that at 7:30 that evening, Andreas, Viktoria and both Cazilia’s had been summoned out to the barn, one-by-one, and slain with a mattock, a kind of pickaxe.  The bodies of Andreas, the older Cazilia and Viktoria had then been arranged in a pile and covered with straw.  Little Cazilia is said to have stayed alive for several hours afterwards, laying in the straw, and pulling out her hair.  The murderer had then gone into the farmhouse, killed the maid in her new bedroom, and then little Josef in his cot.  The culprit had then covered the bodies of Maria and Josef with their clothes.

What happens next is equally weird and extraordinary.  The murderer is thought to have stayed in the house over the weekend.  Neighbours reported seeing smoke coming from the chimney, the cattle were fed, and meals were eaten in the kitchen.  The killer seems to have been remarkably unfazed by any prospect of discovery.  By Tuesday the neighbours were getting suspicious.  Little Cazilia hadn’t turned up for school, and none of the rest of the family had been seen out and about doing errands.

Lorenz Schlittenbauer was the first to go to the farm.  He found the family dog tied up outside the barn, barking hysterically.  And just as if this case couldn’t get any more odd, he didn’t seem terribly fazed by the butchered corpses, and it is rumoured that he may even have sat down and helped himself to a meal in the kitchen (it would seem to have been open-house in the Gruber’s kitchen!).  The Munich Police Department were called in.  They carried out an extensive investigation, interviewing over 100 suspects, taking the bodies away to be analysed, even hiring clairvoyants.  It is said that people were still being interviewed about the case as recently as 1986.  Their inquiries drew a blank.   Robbery was ruled out as a motive, as there was a large cache of money at the farm, left untouched.

There are two possibly obvious suspects in this case.  One was Lorenz Schlittenbauer, who had every reason to hate Andreas Gruber.  His behaviour on the day the bodies were discovered was remarkably cool, although some have reasoned that he may well have been in a state of shock.  I can quite see why he might want to kill Andreas, and perhaps even grandmother Cazilia, who was said to have turned a blind eye to her husband’s faults.  Several years later he was said to have remarked that the murders were the Lord’s work, and that the Grubers were “bad”.  Perhaps he felt he may have been doing the Lord’s work, wiping out this incest-ridden family? That is pure speculation on my part.

Another possible suspect is Viktoria’s late husband, Karl.  Rumours sprang up that he may not have been killed in the Trenches after all.  A former friend claimed to have met him in the 1920s.  Had he made his way to the farm and wiped out the whole family?  Reports of Viktoria’s promiscuousness, and her son born out of incest with her father may possibly have pushed him to commit this terrible crime?  Again, it can be nothing but speculation.  The years immediately after World War One were a very strange time.  Whole nations were suffering from grief and trauma.  Germany was in the grip of extreme poverty, crippled by the reparations it had been ordered to pay after the Treaty of Versailles.  At the time of the murders Germany was heading for it’s notorious hyper-inflation, when money would be pushed around in wheelbarrows, and one loaf of bread would cost 1 billion marks.  Wounded soldiers were begging in the streets.  Would anyone have particularly noticed a vagrant veteran making his way through the Bavarian countryside?

The farm was pulled down a year later in 1923, on the orders of the neighbours, who didn’t want it to stand as a monument to death.  The bodies of the families are buried in a local cemetery, headless, as their heads had been removed for the autopsy.  This is a case for armchair detectives everywhere, and I suspect it may even have given the great Holmes a run for his money.



[…] investigation revealed that Viktoria was actually the owner of the farmstead, and the land was in her name. But, this revelation just scratches the surface of […]

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