Dec 31, 2008

The Two Faces of Denke

Students of Ziębice's high school made a movie about Karl Denke. Far from being a masterpiece of documentary cinema, it deserves attention for at least 3 reasons:
- it has been made by very young people;
- it relates an uneasy part of the history of the town
- it was intended as mere practice in film editing

So here it is (Polish only; no subtitles - sorry):


Agnieszka Orłowska
Sara Duszak
Wojciech Hyla (as Karl Denke)
Piotr Pajestka (as the vagabond at the train station)
Grzegorz Skalski (as Vincenz Oliver)

Screenplay and directed by:

Agnieszka Orłowska
Sara Duszak

Edited by:

Krzysztof Kochanek


Grzegorz Noculak

Dec 5, 2008

He is part of our History

It was exactly a year ago, when the Hanover tourist board issued this Advent calendar for children. Nothing really special about it, if not one figure depicted behind a tree at the left of the image. 

Yes, it is Fritz Haarmann, the cannibal killer from Hanover, with a meat cleaver in his hand:

Haarmann had already appeared in a similar calendar the year before, but nobody took notice. 

The 2007 calendar sold very well - the whole run of 20 000 copies was out before Christmas.  

Hans-Christian Nolte, head of the Hanover tourist board defended the idea of including the mass murderer in the calendar, saying: "He is part of our history. Even on guided tours the serial killer's story is told". 


The killer disappeared from the 2008 version of the calendar. 


Frischfleisch (Fresh Meat) is - according to its designer Friedemann Friese - a vicious game for 2 - 6 hungry players at age 18+


From the official note: Each player represents a group of 6 persons, who are stranded in a wilderness. The sun is burning - the stomach hurts - food must be found. 

The basic idea of the game: Before I die I better eat my neighbor...

The game is out of print.

It was first published in 1999 at Spiel '99 in Essen in a print of 1200 copies

(BTW 'Essen' means 'food' in German)

Dec 3, 2008

Schlag du die Nägel ein!

Hammer in the nails! 

Michael Struck used Karl Denke's image as inspiration for his oil on burlap painting (ca. 90x100 cm). 

He explains: the picture is partly a collage. The rusty nails at the bottom right corner of the image are mounted into the burlap.
A major inspiration for this work was Dostoevsy's 'Crime and Punishment'. 


The implications of this statement are anyone's guess.

Nov 18, 2008

The Solution

Karl Denke's case puzzles many historians and psychiatrists who try to answer the basic questions: why was he murdering people and making food out of their flesh? And why his neighbors didn't notice the human slaughterhouse in his flat for at least 15 years?

Unlike Carl Großmann and Fritz Haarmann, Denke wasn't a sexual maniac, even if he was mentally retarded. His behavior seems rational to some extent. He killed only beggars and vagabonds. His acquaintances and neighbors knew he sold meat products and traded second hand clothes, they thought however, that as a farmer's brother he must have had easy access to pork and veal.

In order to understand Denke's motives at least partially, it is necessary to consider his acts from a broader perspective. The fact that he had been murdering beggars and vagabonds is in my opinion crucial. His later years coincide with the collapse of the old world order, symbolized by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That world perished in the trenches of the First World War. A new axiological, political and social paradigm was yet to be invented. The post-war period was marked by a tremendous turmoil, from which emerged such ideas as fascism, communism etc. This was also the time of a primitive positivism in science. The latter was meant to bring happiness, peace and wealth to all. The assumption that science can bring answers to all possible questions became a form of religion, but confronted with the prevailing ideology of the time - nationalism - it gave birth to a very dangerous "science": eugenics.

This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. Fellow Germans, that is your money too"

The idea of selective reproduction of people became popular among some scientists and politicians of many Western countries in the late XIXth and early XXth Century. Germany wasn't an exception. Eugenics were applied long before the Nazis seized power in 1933. It is worth noticing that Karl Binding's and Alfred Hoche's book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Release for Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Life) was first published already in 1920. Beggars and vagabonds became one of the first victims of eugenic policies in the Weimar Republic. However eugenics was not only a scientific theory of that time. It reflected the atmosphere of the time.

Karl Denke - a man of very limited intellectual capacity - couldn't obviously understand the scientific language and philosophical or social implications of eugenics, but he could understand that beggars and vagabonds were a threat to a healthy society, they were a problem - he concluded - just like parasites. Some villages in Lower Silesia officially issued laws to expel them from the communities. Denke must have been aware of that, so he had found a simple solution to the problem: by killing the vagabonds, he would help the local authorities and make some money by selling their flesh. From a certain point of view, he wasn't even a cannibal, because he didn't consider his victims as humans.

Nov 2, 2008

The Butcher of Brno

I owe this one to Petr Janeček, the Czech ethnologist and folklorist, author of the book Černá Sanitka about urban legends in Central Europe.

The story was spread around 1987 or 1988 in Brno (Czech Republic):

They say there was a soldier who came to town to meet his girlfriend. One day they went together for a walk, when she told him she has to go to the butcher to buy some meat. He was waiting for her outside. She wasn't coming back. After a longer while the soldier became worried and entered the store, but no one was there. He went to the backyard and discovered two butchers chopping [the girl].

Petr Janeček adds that this legend is quite common in Central Europe. Similar tales were told in Szczecin (Poland) in the 1950's about a butcher who used to kill people and make sausages of their flesh. Similar stories appeared in many versions and places in Poland throughout the years, especially during the economical crisis of the 1980's (in Kraków for instance).


Also Wojtek Kocołowski told me a story his father has heard: just before World War II, on Florianska street in Kraków, there was a famous Polish butcher, but after September 1939 he was replaced by a German owner. Already in 1940 food has become scarce in town, nevertheless the German butcher on Florianska street kept products in abundance and good quality, sausages in particular. One day, the butcher just disappeared and his business closed for no apparent reason. Wojtek's father was stepson of a magistrate counselor responsible for granting and extending licenses to restaurateurs, therefore he knew them all. One of the latter told him the story of a prostitute, who fled the German butcher in extremis: reportedly he wanted to stab her to death and fillet her. The butcher was said to lure the prostitutes to his premises and then slaughter them to make the so valued sausages. A friend of Wojtek's father also related that his wife used to bring the famous sausages home. One day she just stopped doing that but never told why. It happened precisely at the time the butcher shop was closed.

Trapdoor in the kitchen

Janina Szczepańska occupies the apartment that once belonged to Karl Denke.

She and her husband bought half of a small house in Ziębice in 1968, when the local authorities decided to sell this social building to particulars. The new owners came from a neighboring village and weren't familiar with the story of the Muensterberg (Ziębice) cannibal.

However some peculiarities of the house attracted their attention from the beginning: meat hooks in the pantry's ceiling and a trapdoor in the kitchen's floor in particular. The meat hooks weren't as unusual for a house in a small village, they told themselves. Maybe a former occupant used to butcher pigs. However the function of the trapdoor (linking directly the kitchen at first floor to the pantry at ground floor) seemed much more mysterious.

The couple renovated the house, bricked up the trapdoor and removed the hooks. Only afterwords they have learned about the infamous previous occupant of their house. Obviously they guessed Denke used to kill his victims in the living room (picture above), then drag them to the kitchen and drop them through the trapdoor. Once in the pantry, the corpses were slaughtered and made into Pökelfleisch.

Today there are no traces of trapdoor in the room once occupied by the Denke's kitchen:

When listening to Mrs. Szczepańska talking about Karl Denke I was surprised to hear how accurately she knew the facts. I would rather expect an amalgam of facts and legends, but there was no legend, just pure, accurate facts, as if taken directly from Dr. Pietrusky's report.

Historian Marek Czapliński, who researched on the region, told me, most of the old legends were lost after 1945 (when nearly all the former German inhabitants of the region were forced to move away). Those Germans who remained in Ziębice and assimilated with the new Polish community weren't eager to tell stories about a German cannibal killer from their village.

The Denke's case reemerged only in the 1950's when a local journalist came across it and wrote about in Tygodnik Ziębicki.

I asked Mrs. Szczepańska if she was comfortable living in the house previously occupied by a cannibal killer. She answered she's OK now but she would sell the house with pleasure. Armin Ruetters, the German researcher once offered to buy the property but never came back afterwords.

Nov 1, 2008

Blood turns (healing) water

Two things led me to a small forest about 2 km north of
Karl Denke's house.

First of all I was searching for the "Municipal Forest" mentioned by the forensic expert Friedrich Pietrusky in his report as the place of disposal of Denke's victims' bones. However there is no trace of such forest in the vicinity of the killer's house (this was also true in the 1920's as proves this old map). The closest one is located 2 km north. Probably too far for a killer to carry skeletal pieces, but still it intrigued me.

There was yet another reason to head towards this little forest. Friedrich Pietrusky mentioned in his report that the river Ohle (Oława) was about 150 m from Denke's house and suggested the killer might have poured the blood of his victims into its waters.

Denke's house is hidden just behind the trees at the left of the next picture.

And here's the same river photographed from the same spot but in opposite direction (towards the north):

One can notice in the background the municipal forest, mentioned in the beginning of this post.

By pure curiosity I followed the path of the river and entered the forest. Once there I made several pictures (e.g. the black & white above). Within minutes other people began to come to the forest. They carried empty jerry cans.

I followed one of them and discovered a water spring.

It is called Cyril's Spring and its water is believed to have special healing properties (although scientists didn't find anything to confirm that belief). Some come from as far as Wrocław (60 km) to stock up on that water.

It is unclear how the legend of the healing properties of Cyril's Spring started. The fountain was built in 1896 and soon became a sunday walk destination for the locals, as depicts this postcard:

Nevertheless the popularity of the spring before WWII was rather due to a nearby beer stall:

Oct 31, 2008

Jurassic Park

In search for Ziębice's Municipal Forest mentioned by Friedrich Pietrusky in his report.

The question remained unanswered: where did Karl Denke burry the bones of his victims? Pietrusky speaks of a "municipal forest" but there is no forest close to Denke's house. However if you take a look at Ziębice's satellite picture, you'll probably spot a grove at the south-east end of town. It is labelled "municipal park" on the map.

It is highly improbable that Denke would go so far to dump the human remains he was left with, as his house was located at the almost opposite part of town (top of the picture).

Nevertheless this little municipal park hides bones and carcasses as well... but all of them are fake. The local authorities decided to create a "Jurassic Park" here and placed half a dozen plaster dinosaurs. For some reason, most of them are painted green.

Two specimens are aquatic. Their red glowing eyes are made of LED lamps.

All this looks like a pathetic attempt to deviate the tourists' attraction from Karl Denke's.
However tourists remain unmoved and keep on photographing the cell in which the cannibal committed suicide in 1924. 
I did the same:

Sep 29, 2008

Mysterious pictures found at a dump in Wrocław

The neat picture of a saw, a pickaxe and some knives are part of a series of mysterious photographs found dumped at the Medical Academy of Wrocław in the mid 1980's.

A total of 1200 pictures (medium format glass negatives and positives) were dumped during a renovation at the medical college of Wrocław. They belonged most probably to the German Institute of Forensic Medicine in Breslau until 1945, when the city became Polish Wrocław.

Tadeusz Dobosz, the man who found them - then scientific employee, now professor of Molecular Techniques at the Department of Forensic Medicine of the Medical Academy of Wrocław - was able to interpret most of them, but a dozen frames remained quite a puzzle.

Four of them depicted human bones, one showed a table full of meat, human bones and a pair of suspenders (made of human skin, as we know today), then on another photograph one could see more suspenders with some rags and old shoes.

Two pictures showed jars and pots in some interiors.

With these came 3 single pictures: a house from the outside, a wooden shed and a portrait of a deadman (this particular glass negative was shattered and could not be scanned by prof. Dobosz but it is the same picture as we know as the only portrait of Karl Denke).

Prof. Dobosz suspected a cannibal story behind these pictures but couldn't find any trace of such a story. (Here is an article in Polish about the findings).


Only last spring - after meeting Marcin Tosz, a local journalist familiar with the Denke case - could prof. Dobosz link the pictures he had to a specific story - that of Karl Denke.

The wooden shed in Denke's garden was destroyed after World War II by the new Polish owners of the house. They soon unearthed a few skulls and some human bones. Thus the gory legend of the cannibal from Muensterberg soon became common knowledge in the village of Ziębice (as Muensterberg is called today).

Sep 24, 2008

Fritz Haarmann

Friedrich "Fritz" Haarmann (1879 - 1925) is the best known and most mythicized of the three most notorious German cannibal-killers of the 1920's: Georg Carl Grossmann and Karl Denke are the two others.

His deeds were rather well described on many occasions, so we can refer here to an article in the New Criminologist: here.


Just like Grossmann and Denke, Haarmann used to accost his potential victims at a train station. Just like the others, he was aiming at the feeblest and destitute. Like Grossmann but unlike Denke, he was a sexual deviant.


All three of them committed their worst crimes during the peak of recession in Germany - in the years after World War I. They all profited of the crimes. Although it has never been proved, they have all allegedly sold, eaten or offered meat of their victims to others (sometimes to their next victim as a prelude to another killing).


There have been a few movies based on Haarmann's story. Karmakar's Totmacher (1995) was a reconstruction of Haarmann's interrogation by a psychologist at the police station (it has been made made into a theatre piece by the Berliner Kriminal Theater just recently), while Lommel's Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973) focused on the last months of Haarmann's killing spree - a period when he was employed by the Hannover police as an informer (in reality he was both an informer and the main suspect in the case of the killings of boys).


The following scenes show Fritz Haarmann (played by Kurt Raab) in Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe as an undercover police officer, a gay pedophile killer and cannibal entrepreneur.

Sep 8, 2008

Carl Großmann

Georg Carl Großmann (known as Carl Großmann).

His story is often considered to be very similar to that of Karl Denke. He lived and died in the same time, same country. Just as Denke, he committed suicide in jail awaiting trail. He murdered people and there are prerequisites to think that he was using his victims' flesh to make sausages, he was later selling at the Silesian Station. And, just as in Denke's case, he has become a character of popular culture, inspiring songs, poems, movies and novels.

We have just one picture of him:

Information about him is extremely scarce. We know that he was born in Neuruppin in 1963 as a son of a ragman and was a trained butcher. Between 1879 and 1895 he lived as beggar in Berlin and his criminal career started around this period. In 1899 he was sentenced for 15 years imprisonment for sex crimes (one of his young victims - a 4 year old girl died soon after). In 1913 - after his release - he returned to Berlin to occupy a studio at Lange Straße 88/89 in Friedrichschain district - one of Berlin's poorest and most notorious for crime at that time (it was nicknamed "Chicago Berlin").
Großmann picked most of his victims (mostly prostitutes and unaccompanied women) in the area of Andreasplatz and took them home. Maybe he used to accost young women coming to Berlin's Silesian Station as well.

Andreasplatz in 1899

A total of 23 dismembered corpses of women were found in the area of Engelbecken, in the Luisenstraße municipal channel and around the Silesian Railway Station (now East Station) between 1918 and 1921.
On August 21, 1921 Carl Großmann was caught at his home beside the remnants of his last victim and evidence of two more girls being killed and dismembered in his studio during the last few weeks. He was accused of 3 murders, but the real figure would be more than 20 (some say, he could have killed more than 100 women). He was sentenced to death but hanged himself on July 5, 1922 before the due date of the execution.

The myth:

Carl Großmann had a sausage stall at the Silesian Station. When meat was in short supply after WWI, he would butcher cats and dogs to augment his wares. Although the taste of the Wursts was suspicious, nobody really made complaints about this. Within a few years however Großmann's sausages earned a much better reputation. It is said that to make them, he was using the flesh of his female victims (their bodies were usually dismembered and the one found in his home was mutilated as well).

These rumors - although highly plausible - were never entirely proved.


Großmann's legend has been linked to another myth of that time: that of Anastasia - the Russian grand duchess believed, by some, to have escaped the Bolshevik firing squad that killed nearly all her family. Wilson and Pitman state in their Encyclopedia of Murder: "At one point it was annouced that 'Anastasia' was really an imposter named Franziska Schamzkovski, a Polish girl from Bütow in Pomerania [today Bytów]. Franziska's family was told their daughter had been murder by Grossmann on 13 August 1920; an entry in his diary on that date bore the name 'Sasnovski'."

Aug 31, 2008

Münsterberg, du schönes Städtchen

Although Karl Denke is considered a "forgotten cannibal" today, he had a moment of fame in the mid 1920's. Here come the lyrics of a Moritat (murder ballad) about him:

Münsterberg, du schönes Städtchen,

Münsterberg, du schöne Stadt,

Drinnen wohnte Meister Denke,

Der so viel geschlachtet hat.

Schöne junge Handwerksburschen

Lud er sich zum Schreiben ein

Und in schöne neue Fässer

Pökelte er sie alle ein.

Jüngst da kam ein Handwerksbursche,

Bittet um ein Stückchen Brot,

Denke lud ihn ein zum Schreiben,

Schlagen wollte er ihn tot.

Doch der Ärmste, der durchschaute

Diesen frechen Mörderplan,

Und mit angehacktem Schädel

Griff er diese Bestie an.

Doch dem armen Handwerksburschen

Glaubt die Polizei kein Wort,

Sondern steckt den armen Sünder

An den wohlverdienten Ort.

Hätt´ sich Denke nicht erhangen,

Weiter ging die Pökelei,

So jedoch kam man dahinter,

Und der Schleier riß entzwei.


And here's a rough translation:


Münsterberg, beautiful little town

Münsterberg, beautiful town

Here lived master Denke,

Who who had so many butchered.

Nice young apprentices

Were invited to write letters

And then found themselves pickled

In nice new barrels.

Recently an apprentice went there,

Asked for a slice of bread,

Denke asked him to write a letter,

But wanted to knock him dead.

However the poor guy have foreseen

This bold murder plan

And with a severed head

Resisted the beast’s assault.

Police didn’t believe a word

Of the poor worker’s story

And put the sinner

In a place he deserved.

Had Denke not hang himself

The meat processing would still go on,

However some light went on

And the curtains opened wide.


The song's origin is uncertain. Its words were noted by Mark Benecke after a speech he had in Herbrechtingen monastery in 2003. An old woman stood up after the speech and sung the song to the surprise of the researcher and his audience. She said her mother used to sing this song.


Unfortunately I was unable to track down the song's tune but it's possible it was based on a very popular operetta song by Walter Kollo:

Warte, warte nur ein Weilchen,

bald kommt auch das Glück zu Dir...


Kollo's song has had multiple covers. The most famous one is made into a moritat about another famous serial killer / alleged cannibal of the 1920's Friedrich "Fritz" Haarmann

Warte, warte nur ein Weilchen,

Bald kommt Haarmann auch zu dir

Mit dem kleinen Hackebeilchen

Und macht er Leberwurst aus dir.


(Wait, oh wait a while,

Soon Haarmann will come to you

With his little chopper

And will make liver sausage out of you)


Some German metal and gothic bands cover this song (for instance G.I.E.Z), but there's a jazz version too:

It was used as well by Fritz Lang in his M (you can watch the whole movie online here):

Recently Armin Rütters - a researcher on Karl Denke's case - has emailed me this short poem, he was told by a lady who had met Karl Denke personally when she was 4:

Dort in Münsterberg der Denke, hat sich auch ans Werk gemacht,
dass man seiner oft gedenke, hat er Menschen umgebracht,
Menschen sind da oft verschwunden, meistens Handwerksburschen nur,
niemals hat man sie gefunden und entdeckt nicht eine Spur.
Und ich wette ohne Spaß, daß wohl keiner es vergaß, das er Menschen hat geschlachtet
und das Fleisch von ihnen frass.

(There in Münsterberg the Denke, he has got to work too,
he is much remembered for he slew people
People often disappeared, but mostly craftsmen
and nobody ever found a trace of them.
And I bet he will not be forgotten for the men he slaughtered
and the flesh he devoured.)