Hidden in the Woods: The Hinterkaifeck Murders
The Hinterkaifeck farm five days after the attack.

Very few mysteries stand the test of time. Inevitably, the rise of new technologies or a better understanding of variables at play will help most unsolvable phenomenon make sense. However, there are certain crimes and bizarre events that may never be resolved. For Germany, the murders at the Hinterkaifeck farm 60 miles north of Munich are just such a mystery. On a chilly March night in 1922, the entire Gruber family was brutally killed before the murderer took up residence in their home for several days, eating their food, feeding their livestock, and even taking care of their dog while their bodies rotted.

To this day, no suspect has been clearly identified, and the family’s mass slaughter remains one of Germany’s most chilling unsolved mysteries.

A Hidden Farm & Family

The quiet Hinterkaifeck seems an odd setting for such a brutal and perplexing crime. The farm’s title referred to its location, being hidden (“hinter”) in the woods just outside the main village of Kaifeck. It was situated between the Bavarian towns of Schrobenhausen and Ingolstadt, with an hour’s drive to reach Munich. The Grubers lived in relative isolation, with breath-taking views of alpine forests and majestic mountains.

At the time of the murder, the family consisted of patriarch Andreas Gruber (63 years old), matriarch Cazilia (72), their widowed daughter Veronika (35), and her two children Cazilia (7) and Josef (2), as well as their new maid (44). Their reputation was not very positive, with Andreas in particular seen as an unfriendly man who likely beat his wife and children. There were even rumors of incest between him and Veronika, with Josef seen as the result. Except for Veronika, who was well-regarded for her singing voice, the Gruber family was generally seen as sullen and lonesome.

A Series of Mysteries

The first bad omen for the family came six months before the events of that fateful March day. When their maid suddenly quit, she explained that she believed the farm to be haunted disembodied voices and footsteps. Although the family brushed off her concerns, things only got stranger from there.

  • In mid-March, Andreas notices footprints after a snowstorm that lead up to the farmhouse’s back door from the dark thickets of woods surrounding their property. Alarmed, he searches the house but finds nothing.
  • In the night, the patriarch hears noises in the attic, but finds nothing upon investigation.
  • The next morning, Andreas finds a mysterious newspaper on the porch that no family members have ever seen before.
  • On March 30th, a set of house keys is misplaced, despite no one having used them.
  • That same day, Andreas discovers that someone tried to pick the tool shed lock.

In the days leading up to his family’s murder, Andreas expressed concern to his neighbors, but few thought much of the odd occurrences. Unfortunately, they clearly should have.

The Sequence of Events

Early in the morning of May 31st, the new maid arrived and introduced herself to the family as Maria Baumgartner. Although that fateful Friday may have been an otherwise ordinary one for the most part, it was the last day that anyone saw Maria or the Gruber family alive.

At some point in the evening, the killer got to work. Starting with Viktoria and young Cazilia, who were found wearing day-time clothes, the killer lured the members of the Gruber household out to the barn one by one. Once there, the killer likely slaughtered them using a mattock, which is pickaxe-like, long-handled tool with an axe or pick and cutter. Both Viktoria and the elder Cazilia also showed signs of strangulation. Although autopsies revealed that the younger Cazilia survived the initial blow and lay in the barn for hours, her grandparents and mother did not. With most of the family murdered, the killer moved into the farmhouse for the remaining and likely sleeping members. Once inside, they bludgeoned the youngest child to death as he slept and then murdered Maria in her recently-adopted bedroom.

Most disturbing of all, the murderer then spent the weekend in the farmhouse afterwards. Neighbors reported seeing smoke rising from the chimney over the next 2 to 3 days. Later, investigators also found signs of recent meals and disturbed beds, while the cattle were fed and the dog had even been secured in the yard. In short, they’d taken good care of the place, right after they’d murdered the entire Gruber clan.

A Gruesome Discovery

Hidden in the Woods: The Hinterkaifeck Murders
Butchered in the barn; each family member were lured to their death one by one.

On April 4th, the Tuesday after the murders, locals noticed that the Gruber family seemed to be missing. Not only had Viktoria missed church on Sunday, but little Cazilia had missed school, and the postman noticed that the previous week’s mail had never been picked up. A group of townspeople including Viktoria’s suitor Lorenz Schlittenbauer, who was also rumored to be Josef’s father, headed out to the Hinterkaifeck farm to check on the family, not knowing what they would find. After initially finding only an eerie silence in that doomed place, the searchers soon discovered the gore left in the barn, with almost the entire family carefully stacked up in hay amid pools of blood. Shocked, they then searched the house and found the maid and little Josef before finally calling police to come in and investigate. It was only a year later, when the farm was eventually torn down, that the murder weapon was discovered – Andreas Gruber’s handmade mattock.

A Troublesome Investigation

From the start, Inspector Georg Reingruber and the Munich Police Department were confounded by the Hinterkaifeck murders. On the one hand, the killer would have needed experience with a mattock to kill people with such precise blows that would kill all but one victim in one clean motion. On the other hand, their motive in doing so was unclear, as money and jewelry had not taken from the house. However, the investigation drew up some possible theories:

  • A crime of passion was possible, especially given the presence of strangulation on Viktoria and her mother’s bodies. The daughter’s former suitor, Schlittenbauer, was a likely suspect, as he had been one of the first to arrive at the farm and had even disturbed the bodies in search of his supposed son, Josef. Although Viktoria had claimed that the boy was her suitor’s child, he might have lashed out to avoid alimony or in frustration after the death of his own child from a new marriage.
  • Much later, investigators would look into Viktoria’s seemingly dead ex-husband Karl Gabriel as a suspect. Although he had been reported deceased during World War I, his body had never been found, and a return was a distinct, if distant, possibility. Investigators proposed that he might have snapped upon hearing insinuations of Viktoria and her father’s incestuous relationship. In addition, two people in World War II reported being a Russian soldier who claimed responsibility for the Hinterkaifeck killings and matched Karl’s description.

However, without concrete evidence, the case was soon closed, albeit not before the entire families’ skulls were sent to clairvoyants to investigate some of the paranormal elements of the case. While some point to the strange noises, newspaper, and footprints, authorities see these as clearly connected to a human suspect. With little of even the supernatural to act upon, the case remains a disturbing entry in Germany’s history.

Since the original investigation, the case has been regularly reopened in order to reevaluate the evidence according to new methods and technologies. In the process, over 100 suspects have been interviewed about the Hinterkaifeck murders. However, the Munich Police Department are no closer to solving this gruesome crime, and the evidence and witnesses are increasingly lost to the ravages of time.

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