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: