Footprints in the Snow: The Hinterkaifeck Murders

One of the most baffling unsolved cases in German history, the incident that became known as the Hinterkaifeck murders was the killing as six members of a poor farming household at their remote farmstead in 1922 Bavaria. All six had been hacked to death with a mattock. Despite a number of suspects being put forward, no-one was every arrested for the slayings.

Perhaps the details of the case that has made it so enduring are the observations the Gruber family and other residents of the Hinterkaifeck farm made before the attack took place. These began up to six months earlier, when the family’s maid quit her job, citing her fear that the home was haunted due to having heard strange noises in the attic and a feeling that she was being watched. Father Andreas Gruber later found a Munich newspaper that none of the family had purchased. None of the family had ever visited Munich, around 45 miles away, and none of their neighbours subscribed to that particular paper.

Members of the Gruber family

Perhaps the most famous detail was that Gruber told a neighbour, days before the attack, that had had found fresh footprints in the snow, leading towards his home and ending at the door to his machine room. The lock on the door was broken, and no second set of footprints left the farm. That night, the family heard footsteps in the attic, but found nothing after investigating. One of the children had told school friends that the family had also seen a man standing in the treeline, watching the house. For whatever reason, the family failed to inform police of their concerns.

The Attack

On March 31st 1922, replacement maid Maria Baumgartner arrived to begin her new job. Her sister had dropped her off at the farm, briefly meeting the members of the family; Andreas and his wife Cazilia, their adult daughter Viktoria and her two children, seven-year-old Cazilia and two-year-old Josef.

That evening, each of the adult members of the family seems to have been individually lured into the barn, before being struck in the head with a mattock and killed. The young Cazilia was killed the same way, before the intruder entered the home, killing Baumgartner and Josef while they slept.

Bodies of the family found in the barn

It would be four days after the attack was presumed to take place that the bodies were discovered. A number of people even visited the farmstead, including two coffee salesman and a machine repairman, as well as the postman who noticed that the mail he had delivered the day before had not moved. After Cazilia was absent from school and the family failed to attend Sunday prayers, neighbour Lorenz Schlittenbauer sent his son to look for the family. When he returned having failed to contact them, Schlittenbauer himself headed to Hinterkaifeck, accompanied by two other men. After a search, they found the bodies of the five family members and the maid.

Investigation

An autopsy concluded that the family had likely been killed with a mattock, although none could be found. Seven-year-old Cazilia appeared to have survived for some time after being attacked, having torn handfuls of her own hair out. A large amount of money was found in the farm, discounting robbery as the motive. There was also evidence that the attacker had remained at the farm for some time, perhaps even after the bodies had been discovered; cattle had been fed, food supplies had been eaten and meat had been recently sliced. Neighbours later confirmed that the chimney had continued to smoke in the days after the murders.

Inside the bedroom where Baumgartner was killed

Despite a number of arrests and over 100 suspects, nobody was ever charged with the murders. Questions have been raised regarding the quality of the investigation, that resulted in a number of assumptions and inconsistencies. Initial reports stated that the four older members of the family had been lured to the barn, likely to investigate unrest amongst the animals, however it was later found that anyone in the main house would not be able to hear anything from the barn.

Schlittenbauer emerged as a key suspect; Viktoria’s husband had been killed in the First World War, raising the question of who Josef’s father was, and Schlittenbauer has known to have conducted a relationship with her at one point. Some neighbours theorised that Schlittenbauer had killed the family to avoid paying child support, driven to such extremes after he and his wife lost their own child. Other rumours were that Viktoria’s father Andreas was the true father.

In 1923 the farmstead was torn down, a process that resulted in the discovery of the mattock believed to be the murder weapon in the attic, as well as a pocket knife amongst the hay in the barn. In 2007 the Furstenfeldbruck Police Academy opened up the killing as a cold case. Investigators failed to put forward a concrete suspect, however collectively agreed on a likely explanation. Having refused to make this theory public out of respect of other members of the family, their conclusion, as well as the true culprit, is likely to always remain a mystery.

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