The heart of a true chiller is mystery. This is why Jack the Ripper, the Texarkana Phantom Killer, and the Zodiac Killer have an enduring place in our culture as bogeymen, while Jeffrey Dahmer, whose crimes were more gruesome than any of them and whose (confirmed) body count outstrips all of them, is remembered as the damaged, inadequate person he was.
In the same way, all unsolved murders are creepy to some degree. Most murders are just squalid and stupid things: someone pulls out a gun during a drunken brawl, blows their neighbor away, then, stunned by what they’ve done, stumbles down to the bar to drink some more until the police scoop them up without resistance. Any murder that deviates from this pattern is interesting by default, but most of those turn out to be squalid and stupid as well: a robbery gone wrong, a dispute over an inheritance, a loser who gets his kicks by shooting at people from his car at night.
But then there are the weird ones.
Then there’s Hinterkaifeck.
Hinterkaifeck is the name of a small Bavarian farmstead that was the site of an unsolved mass murder that is still one of the most bizarre and puzzling cases in German history.
The known facts of the case are few and simple: on the evening of March 31, 1922, Andreas Gruber, his wife Cazilia, their widowed daughter Viktoria, Viktoria’s children Cazilia and Josef, and the family’s maid Maria Baumgartner were all killed with a mattock.
Nothing else is certain.
The police strongly suspect that the perpetrator somehow lured Andreas, Cazilia, Viktoria, and Cazilia the younger into the barn one by one to be killed. The killer then entered the house and killed Josef and Maria in their beds. An autopsy showed that the younger Cazilia survived for several hours after the initial attack, lying in the barn with the bodies of her family. She had pulled her hair out in clumps.
The police initially suspected robbery as a motive, but quickly dismissed it. A large amount of money was found in the house, and the killer had certainly had time to find it, since they had apparently lived in the house for several days. The cattle had been fed, food from the kitchen had been eaten, and neighbors had seen smoke from the chimney.
Those are things that are believed to be true, with strong amounts of evidence behind them.
Everything else is mist and shadows.
There was already a great deal of rumor and scandal swirling around Hinterkaifeck long before that night in the barn. For one thing, it was rumored that Andreas and Viktoria were in an incestuous relationship, and that Josef was Andreas’s son. For another, the Grubers’ previous maid had left them six months before, complaining that the house was “haunted”.
(In the darkest of coincidences – almost a kind of black serendipity – Maria Baumgartner arrived at Hinterkaifeck a mere few hours before her murder.)
A few days before the killings, Andreas told his neighbors that he’d found footprints in the snow leading from the edge of the woods to the farm, but none leading back. He also spoke of a missing set of house keys, the sound of footsteps in the attic (though nothing was found when they investigated), and an unfamiliar newspaper found on the farm. But he reported none of this to the police.
Who did it? More mist and shadows. The police interviewed more than 100 suspects to no avail. In 2007, a group of police academy students investigated the crime with modern techniques and came up with a primary suspect, but refused to disclose their name out of respect to surviving family members. The most chilling possibility of all suggests a ghost hiding in the mist and shadows: Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s husband, had supposedly been killed in the French trenches in 1914, but his body had never been found…
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