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The Hinterkaifeck Murders and the Devil’s Footprints

The Hinterkaifeck Murders and the Devil’s Footprints 1

by Martin J. Clemens

Six people – a family, well-to-do – murdered one-by-one in their own barn, at the hands of a monster unknown.

Sounds like the plot to a classic horror movie, but that’s actually the long-story-short for Germany’s most mysterious unsolved massacre; The Hinterkaifeck Murders.

It happened in 1922, in a rural area of southern Bavaria, on the farmstead known as Hinterkaifeck (which means farm beyond or hidden by the woods) in the small town of Wangen (now Weidhofen).  On the night of March 31, Andreas Gruber (63), his wife Cäzilia (72), their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel (35), along with her two children, Cäzilia (7) and Josef (2), and the new family maid Maria Baumgartner (44), were brutally murdered by persons unknown.  All but Josef and Maria were somehow lured to the barn, one-by-one, and bludgeoned to death with a mattock (similar to a pickaxe).  The killer or killers then entered the house and slaughtered the toddler and the maid in their beds.

It’s really not as cut and dried as that may suggest, though.

It turns out that Maria Baumgartner, the maid, was murdered on her first day on the job, in fact she may have been at the farm for only two to three hours before the first murder took place.  She had been hired as a replacement for the previous maid, who quit approximately six months earlier, claiming that the farm was haunted.

Crime Scene photo - the red numbers correspond to: (1) the living-bedroom of the couple Gruber - (2) the bedroom of Vikoria Gabriel - (3) the barn - (4) the location where four of the victims were found.
Crime Scene photo – the red numbers correspond to: (1) the living-bedroom of the couple Gruber – (2) the bedroom of Vikoria Gabriel – (3) the barn – (4) the location where four of the victims were found.

Some sources cite that a few days prior to the 31st, Gruber had found a trail of foot prints, leading from the edge of the dark forest to the rear of the family home, where they disappeared.  They then tell of Gruber and other members of the family hearing strange footsteps in the attic, finding an unfamiliar newspaper in the home, and one of the two sets of house keys going missing in the intervening days.[1]  Official sources however, claim that on the morning of March 30th, the day before the murders, Gruber had found that someone had tried to break into his ‘motor cottage’ (or garage), breaking the lock and disturbing the area outside the feed room.  After searching the farmstead for trespassers, he then found a single trail of footprints that led from the woods to the compound.[2]

As mentioned, around 7:30 on the evening of the 31st, all of the adult family members were somehow lured to the main barn and bludgeoned to death.  Later autopsies confirmed that a mattock, which was later recovered, had been the murder weapon, and the coroner at the time, noted that the wounds were precise, indicating that whomever had done this was at least familiar with the use of such a tool.  After then moving to the main house and using the same weapon on the toddler and maid, they then arranged the bodies in the barn, by stacking them on top of each other, piling hay over them and then covering them with a broken door.  They covered young Josef, in his bassinette, with one of his mother’s dresses and simply laid the maid on her own bed, covering her with a bed sheet.

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Whomever committed this heinous act was apparently quite comfortable with what he/she/they had done, as they stayed in the home for several days afterward, feeding the cattle and having meals in the kitchen, just steps from the corpse of Baumgartner.  Neighbours reported seeing smoke rising from the chimney on the following Sunday, and the family dog had been handled and tied up near the barn when the postman arrived on Saturday afternoon.  Unfortunately the dog was later brutalised and left for dead with the family in the barn, though it survived.

The gruesome nature of the crime is story enough, but there’s much weirdness that goes along with this.

It turns out that paternal responsibility for young Josef had long been in question.  Viktoria, who was the official owner of the farmstead, was a rather promiscuous young woman.  Several men later came forward, claiming to have known her intimately, but a veritable war went on between Andreas Gruber and their long time neighbour and widower Lorenz Schlittenbauer.  It seems Schlittenbauer had also been with Viktoria, and it was believed that Josef was his son.  Schlittenbauer was required to make an alimony payment to the family, and retired any rights he had in parentage.  However, during these events Viktoria had elected to marry Schlittenbauer, who was several years her elder, but Gruber objected, and in return allegations of incest were leveled at Gruber, and he was ultimately imprisoned for a year prior to the murders.  It’s now largely believed that Andreas Gruber was Josef’s real father (and grandfather).

Crime Scene photo - The Maid's room

Crime Scene photo – The Maid’s room

The bodies were finally found on Tuesday April 4th, by Lorenz Schlittenbauer and four other neighbours, who had been alerted to something gone wrong by Gruber’s absence at church that past Sunday, and the absence of the younger Cäzilia at school on the Monday.  They attended Hinterkaifeck late in the afternoon, and following a brief search, found the gruesome scene in the barn.

Subsequent investigation and autopsy saw the corpse’s heads removed for study, which were ultimately lost (most likely in the battle at Nuremberg during WWII), and the bodies were buried, headless, in a local cemetery.  The farmstead was leveled a few years later, and now a monument stands on the site in honour of the departed.

So who did it?

There have been several suspects in the years since, not the least of which was Lorenz Schlittenbauer.  His familiarity with the farmstead and the people involved, coupled with the controversy of his would-be son and almost-wife, gave plenty of room for motive.  In fact, on the morning of the 30th, Gruber had seen Schlittenbauer at the neighbour’s farm while he tracked the trail of footprints, wherein he warned his neighbour of a possible prowler in the area.  This could have given Schlittenbauer opportunity to commit an atrocious act, while leaving doubt about who may have done it.

Crime Scene photo - Viktoria's bedroom, showing Josef's bassinette

Crime Scene photo – Viktoria’s bedroom, showing Josef’s bassinette

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Of course, there’s those foot prints.  Someone attended the farm, approached on foot from the wood, and apparently never left.  Yet no strangers or trespassers were found.

An escaped mental patient was also among the suspects.  Joseph Bärtle had slipped away from an asylum at Günzburg in 1921, and was apparently at large, possibly in the area of south Bavaria at the time.

But what if the foot prints weren’t the trail of a man after all?  I give you the Devil’s Footprints.

Found in February of 1855, following a heavy snowfall in Devon, England, were a strange line of tracks of an apparently two-legged creature with cloven-hoof feet.  The strange foot prints were tracked from Exmouth, across the Exe Estuary, to Teignmouth some 40 miles away.  There were, at times, large gaps in the trail, where it appeared that the creature had taken flight and then landed further down-field, and it was said that they appeared on rooftops, in gardens and up walls.  At the time witnesses attributed the tracks to the devil, hence the name, and though the tracks were studied and diagramed, no one has ever come up with an acceptable explanation for what made them.

Now, the Hinterkaifeck foot prints were never photographed, and the description of the tracks doesn’t provide any detail about their appearance.  And the Devil’s Footprints were never associated with any known crimes or otherwise unexplainable events, but one can’t help but see a similarity between the footprints of the Hinterkaifeck Murders and the Devil’s Footprints.

Were the family of Andreas Gruber slaughtered by a disgruntled neighbour, a deranged lunatic, or an otherworldly creature who left its calling card in the form of mysterious footprints?

[1] Author not listed. Hinterkaifeck. Armchair Detective: http://armchairdetective.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/hinterkaifeck/

[2] Elfriede Weber Alte Landgerichtsstr. Hinterkaifeck-morde.de (German language): http://www.hinterkaifeck-mord.de/index.html

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