The Hinterkaifeck Horror
Deep within the German state of Bavaria near the border of Austria there lies the small isolated community of Waidhofen. It is a beautiful place, a picturesque town that along with the plains that surround it look like something out of a Van Gogh painting. Travelers there will certainly find a cozy spot with great food, refreshing beer, and some relaxation. However, Waidhofen and its surrounding villages have a darker past that no doubt has some travelers showing up asking for directions. The place they’re looking for is a former farm about a mile outside of Waidhofen called “Hinterkaifeck” and in 1922 it was the site of one of Germany’s most famous unsolved murder cases.
It was Friday afternoon on March 31, 1922 when 45- year-old Maria Baumgartner arrived at Hinterkaifeck as the new live-in maid for the Gruber family that owned and operated the farm. The Gruber family consisted of five people, elderly Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber, their daughter, Viktoria Gabriel, and Viktoria’s two children, a 7- year-old daughter also named Cäzilia, and a son, Josef who was only a toddler at the time. Viktoria’s husband, Karl Gabriel had left Germany eight years earlier to fight in the First World War. Unfortunately, like so many others that went off to fight, Karl never came home.
What Maria may or may not have known when she arrived at the farm was why the Gruber family’s previous maid had left Hinterkaifeck. Six months earlier the Gruber’s maid, Kreszenz Rieger began complaining that she was hearing strange noises around the house particularly in the attic. She told them the noises sounded like footsteps and naturally, this was unnerving. The family however, did not believe her but Andreas Gruber investigated anyway and repeatedly found nothing. It is widely believed that Rieger left Hinterkaifeck because when the Grubers could not provide an explanation, she deduced that the house was haunted and wanted nothing more to do with it and bailed. However, in the days prior to the new maid’s arrival, Andreas Gruber also started to notice odd things around the farm. He complained to neighbors that he too was hearing noises, he found a newspaper on the property that had not been purchased by the family, and he complained that his house keys had gone missing. Probably the creepiest thing Andreas told his neighbors was that because it had recently snowed, he had found footprints in it leading from the woods behind the farm right up to the house but did not see any going back. Poor, unsuspecting Maria Baumgartner said goodbye to her sister who had taken her to Hinterkaifeck, and after what I’m sure was a relatively odd first day Maria settled in for the night in her new home and went to sleep. This was Maria’s first and only night at Hinterkaifeck.
Because the Gruber’s were on an isolated farm meant they were isolated people so it was not unusual to not see them in public except on Sundays when the family attended church and Viktoria’s daughter who attended school. While they may have had few visitors at Hinterkaifeck there were those that went to the farm regularly such as the postman who began to notice that the mail was piling up. A repair man arrived at farm fixed a broken food chopper but said he saw no one the entire time he was there nor did anyone answer the door. The school began to inquire as to Cäzilia’s whereabouts since she had failed to show up for class and it donned on others that the family had been strangely absent that week from Sunday services. This was all so strange though. Smoke had been seen coming from the chimney and the farm did not appear to be unattended. For anyone who happened to pass by Hinterkaifeck they would not have noticed anything out of place. The farm however, was eerily quiet.
On the afternoon of April 4th Lorenz Schlittenbauer who lived on a neighboring farm decided to visit Hinterkaifeck along with two other men to check on the Gruber family. When they arrived, they knocked on the door and called to the Grubers but when no one answered the men decided to move around the farm checking other areas where the family might be. It was in the barn where the bodies of Andreas Gruber, his wife Cäzilia, their daughter Viktoria, and their granddaughter were found piled on top of each other in a corner covered by a thin layer of hay. Their skulls had been battered and crushed by an object later determined to be a pickaxe. The bodies of Maria and Viktoria’s son Josef were found inside the house in their beds with their heads also bashed in by a pickaxe. There were six bodies in total, all five members of the Gruber Family, and the new maid, Maria Baumgartner. Even the family’s dog had been attacked found covered in blood and missing an eye.
Because of the severity of their injuries it was determined that everyone died instantly all except for the younger Cäzilia who’s autopsy showed she could have survived for several hours after the attack. She also had patches of hair missing where her hair had been pulled out. The autopsies of the victims were performed quickly and inside the barn on the Hinterkaifeck farmstead. The heads were removed and sent to Munich for further study and the bodies taken and prepared for burial. But who killed the Gruber family and Maria Baumgartner? And why?
The Munich police took over the investigation into the Hinterkaifeck murders and came up with what became a case that was almost as weird as the murders themselves and produced a number of suspects. Lorenz Schlittenbauer, the neighbor that found the family was named because supposedly, he was in love with Viktoria, had an affair with her, and could have fathered her son Josef. He also had a key to the house which he used when he went to check on the family. Police discovered that during Viktoria’s pregnancy she and her father were both arrested for incest in which it was suspected that Viktoria’s son was fathered by none other than her own father, Andreas Gruber. It was speculated that Viktoria had sought financial support for the child from Schlittenbauer who refused to pay because he too believed Andreas was the father and that this was his motive for murdering the family. Schlittenbauer however, was never charged with the crime nor was there enough evidence to suggest he was anything more than a lovesick neighbor.
Another woman claimed her brothers had committed the murders but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove this either. Another man claimed that before the murders his co-worker had told him about the Hinterkaifeck farm, and had heard that the elderly couple that lived there had money hidden on the farm suggesting it would be easy to kill the occupants and take the money. The former maid for the Grubers told investigators there were another pair of brothers in town that hated the Gruber’s and that one of them had told her he believed they should be dead. Even Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s late husband was named a suspect even though he had been dead for several years. Rather or not Karl was actually dead was questioned because his body was never recovered. It was suggested that Karl returned to Hinterkaifeck and killed the family when he found out about the relationship between Andreas and Viktoria. Naturally, there was no evidence to suggest this was true either. Interestingly, whoever killed the Gruber family didn’t take anything from Hinterkaifeck leaving robbery an unviable motive.
In 2017 true crime writers Bill James and his daughter, Rachel McCarthy published “The man from the Train” about serial killer Paul Mueller who committed eerily similar crimes in the United States to that of the killer at Hinterkaifeck.
Between 1898-1912 numerous families, like the Grubers had been violently murdered with an axe across the United States and Nova Scotia and the authors believe Mueller can be linked to at least fourteen of them. The authors suggest that it is possible that Mueller, a German immigrant could have fled the United States and returned to Germany and committed the murders at Hinterkaifeck.
To this day the Hinterkaifeck murders remain unsolved and the case is still just as chilling and mysterious today as it was in 1922. Hinterkaifeck is no longer there in its remote section of Bavaria as the farm was destroyed a year after the murders. Only a small monument to the victims stands as a reminder that a gruesome crime once took place there. Suspects and anyone that knew the Gruber family have since passed away leaving questions unanswerable. One of the questions I had reading about the story was why were four members of the Gruber family found in the barn and not in the house with Josef and the maid? The police believed the family had been lured to the barn and murdered there but also could have been moved to the barn after the fact. In 1925 a school teacher spotted the neighbor, Lorenz Schlittenbauer at the site where Hinterkaifeck farm had once stood. When asked why he was there Sclittenbauer oddly responded that the killer could not bury the Grubers due to the frozen ground and that this is why they were placed in a corner of the barn and covered with hay. It may never be known who killed the people at Hinterkaifeck but what we do know is that they were murdered on a chilly evening in the late spring of 1922. We know their bodies were crudely hidden in the barn, and we know the killer stayed at Hinterkaifeck and made themselves -at home.
Managing editor: The Moratorium