The Cannibal of Münsterberg
In December 1924, a young homeless man reported to the German Police in Silesia that he had narrowly escaped from a madman who attempted to kill him with a pickaxe. When officers went to the address at No.10 Teichstrasse and arrested a 64-year-old butcher named Karl Denke, they believed they had the wrong man. Well-known to local residents, who knew him as “Papa Denke”, when questioned the suspect claimed he merely attacked Vincenz Olivier in self-defence. Denke was placed in a cell where two days later he inexplicably hanged himself. Now with concerning questions about why the respectable prisoner would commit suicide, detectives decided to search Denke’s apartment, where to their shock they discovered a large amount of human body parts and bones kept in storage. The murderer had also kept a detailed ledger containing the names of his victims, and it was strongly believed he had been eating the flesh of the people he murdered. Known as the Cannibal of Münsterberg or the Ziebic Cannibal, it was believed Denke had been responsible for the murders of upwards of 31 people and possibly even more abhorrent, that he had been selling the human meat at his butcher’s shop for decades to the unsuspecting people of Münsterberg.
Karl Denke was born on August 12, 1860 in Kunzendorf, Silesia in the Kingdom of Prussia. He was a difficult child to raise according to his parents, who had several children and ran a nursery, and would later say that as a small child Karl refused to speak to anyone until the age of seven. He was known as a soft and quietly spoken child but around the age of 12 he began to run away from the Denke farmhouse and was always brought back by police. Upon graduating from Elementary School, he became an apprentice gardener and made a comfortable life for himself by the age of 25. When his father died, his older brother inherited their childhood home and Denke received a portion of the money, which he used to purchase a piece of land. His attempt at farming failed, he sold the land. He then bought a house on what is now called Stawowa Street in Katowice, but inflation forced him to sell it. But Denke refused to move out and instead lived in a small apartment to the right of the house’s ground floor. He also ran a nearby shop from where he sold meat at the Wroclaw Weekly Market, the source of which would later be investigated by police. At the time, Denke always declared the meat to be goat flesh.
In 1880, he moved to the city of Münsterberg and began renting an apartment at No.10 Teichstrasse, which was owned jointly by the Voigt and Gabriel families. It was said that although he was well-liked in the community, he had little interaction with his co-tenants. He worked occasionally as an organ player at the local church, and was known affectionately by those within the community as “Vatter Denke/Papa Denke”. On February 21, 1903, a young German woman, Ida Launer, went missing. It would be Denke’s first recorded murder and he was never suspected of the crime, and went on to claim many more victims throughout the following years, mostly homeless vagrants or poor travelers. By 1906, Denke had quit his membership with the church. He would go on to murder 25-year-old Emma Sander on December 21, 1909, a crime for which another man was sentenced. Butcher Eduard Trautmann was arrested in 1910 on suspicion of Sander’s murder, because he had previously solicited the young woman, and had been seen in her company prior to her death. In 1911, he was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in Glatz Prison.
Denke’s murderous spree continued up until December 20, 1924, when he approached a young homeless man named Vincenz Olivier. He requested 35-year-old Olivier’s help in drafting a letter, for which he would pay him. When Olivier began to write the letter under Denke’s dictation, it began with the words, “Adolf, you fatty”, which caused Olivier to begin laughing. As he turned his head to the side, Denke suddenly hit him in the head with a pickaxe, wounding his scalp but not killing him. At that moment a coachman by the name of Gabriel heard cries for help which seemed to be coming from Denke’s lodgings. As Gabriel rushed down to help, he found Olivier staggering along the corridor with blood streaming from his open wound. Before falling unconscious on the ground, the young man blurted out “Vatter Denke” had attacked him with an ax. Gabriel soon alerted the authorities and Denke was arrested and questioned about the incident.
He admitted attacking Olivier, but claimed he was merely defending his proprty from what he believed was an unknown burglar. Officers placed him in a holding cell, where, according to police, just two days later he hanged himself with some type of ligature he fashioned. Detectives now wondered why such a respected member of the community would kill himself over what seemed to be a misunderstanding. When officers were dispatched to Denke’s house they found a gruesome collection of human body parts, which had been stored in his home. There appeared to be numerous victims along with evidence of cannibalism, such as jars of pickled meat as well as many blood stained clothing hung up in his closet, and it looked like Denke had been murdering transients and homeless people for many years.
The pickled meat was sent to chemists at Wroclaw who declared it human flesh. A ledger was found at his home which contained the names and details of his many crimes, with at least 31 victims recorded by Denke. The names of his many victims included Heinrich Bruchmann, a carpenter from Kammerswaldau killed on February 2, 1914, a Railroader from Reumen named Niebel murdered on January 8, 1919 and Kaspar Hubalek who was dispatched on April 20, 1924. Many more were listed such as, laborer Franz Neiss, tailors Johann Klose, Ewald Konig and Johann Groger, a butcher by the name of Robert Lorenz, farmers Karl Seidel and Emil Exner, weaver Josef Nierlich, confectioner Adolf Salisch, gardener Hermann Kuschinke and workers Paul Lux, Oskar Heinzel and Wilhelm Rathmann. Amongst the names were two bakers Julius Busch and Friedrich Lazina, as well as painter Karl Becker, a locksmith by the name of Hermann Muller and Max Heidenreich who had been a blacksmith. His youngest victim was just 16-year-old, and oldest at 76. The 31st and last known victim was named Rochus Pawlick, a Breslau fur dealer who was murdered on November 17, 1924.
Despite Denke’s detailed records, police came to believe there were even more victims unaccounted for, especially considering the large number of body parts found at his home, with estimates as high as 42 or even more. A detailed police report of the remains found at Denke’s house included, two shoulder blades, a pair of collar bones, sixteen femurs of which one pair of remarkably strong ones, two pairs of very thin ones, six pairs and two left femurs, fifteen medium-sized pieces of long bones, four pairs of elbow bones, seven heads of radii, nine lower parts of radii, eight lower parts of the elbow, a pair of upper shinbone, a pair of lower elbows and radii, of which extremities still remain well connected, a pair of upper arms and a pair of upper arm heads, eight heels and ankle bones, 120 toes and phalanx, 65 feet and metacarpal bones and five first ribs and 150 pieces of ribs. Police also found the pickaxe Denke had used to attack Olivier, as well as several knives that might have been murder weapons and a saw the killer used to dismember the bodies of his victims.
The subsequent police investigation found that Denke had obtained permission from city officials to sell shoelaces door to door, which had been made from the processed human hair of his victims. Detectives also discovered two previous victims had escaped, but never reported it to the authorities. Eduard Trautmann, the butcher imprisonment for the murder of Emma Sander had previously been released in 1922 for good behaviour, and was now, with the contents of Denke’s ledger revealing his victims, exonerated over the death of the young woman, and he later sued for damages in 1925. Some residents now remembered Denke operated a shop from where he sold meat, and soon people suspected it possible the killer may have sold human flesh to the unsuspecting patrons of the Wroclaw Weekly Market. The case of Karl Denke had been largely forgotten to history, until the wooden shed in Denke’s garden was destroyed after World War II, and several skulls and human hones were unearthed by the new Polish owners of the house. Although much of his life and the motive for his crimes remain a mystery, the residents of Ziebice, as the village is known today remember the case of Karl Denke, the Cannibal from Münsterberg.