Throughout the Second World War, the German city of Hamburg had been devastated by RAF bombing raids that reduced the once great industrial city to a rubble filled wasteland. In the aftermath of the war, the city was under British occupation and the inhabitants were forced to adjust to the realities of post-war life, in an attempt to rebuild the economy after the fall of the Third Reich. During the first two months of 1947, amidst the devastation of the city, a series of murders were committed by an unknown killer. The first murder was that of an unidentified young woman who was found naked and strangled. This was followed by three more murders, all committed several days apart and all discovered under similar circumstances, with their discarded bodies abandoned by the murderer in bombed out buildings and deserted factories. The investigation by the Hamburg police failed to identify any of the victims, or the motive for the murders. A subsequent confession by serial killer Rudolf Pleil was met with scepticism by police, because he only confessed to two of the murders, whilst detectives suspected the crimes were possibly all linked and that the motive may have been even more sinister.
The German city of Hamburg has a rich and cultural history, from it's origins under the Emperor Charlemagne, who was the first monarch to built a castle on the site, to the declaration made by Frederick I "Barbarossa" in 1189, granting Hamburg the status of Free Imperial City. During the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1942, almost a quarter of the city was destroyed, killing 51 people and leaving 20,000 homeless, whilst the reconstruction process took more than 40 years. The city would bare witness to even more devastation during World War II, when the RAF began a concentrated bombing campaign to deprive the Nazis of important industrial infrastructure. One series of bombing raids were code-named "Operation Gomorrah" by the RAF, and caused the deaths of roughly 42,000 civilians, most of whom perished in the densely populated working class boroughs such as Hammerbrook.
Surviving residents of Hamburg after an RAF bombing raid
Hamburg surrendered to the British Army on 3 May 1945, just three days after Adolf Hitler's death in the Berlin Führerbunker. The city then became part of the British Zone of Occupation, and the surviving inhabitants began the grim task of rebuilding the ruinous city. It was in the Hamburg curiohaus where the British would hold war crimes trials after the war, charging the SS staff of the Neuengamme concentration camp with the deaths of thousands of inmates. In December 1946, sixteen former SS personnel and prisoner functionaries were put on trial and charged with crimes committed at the Ravensbrück women's camp. The trial concluded on 3 February 1947, with eleven death sentences handed down. However just two weeks earlier, whilst the courtroom was being told harrowing testimony from witnesses of the abhorrent crimes committed by the Nazis, a killer was on the streets of Hamburg, committing a brutal series of murders.
On 20 January 1947, several children were out playing at the Baustrasse, near the Landwehr train station, when they came across the body of a young woman. When British troops and German police arrived on the scene, they found the body in a deserted factory lot, which appeared to be that of a young woman, aged between 18-20-years-old. The cause of death was determined from a millimetre-wide trace of dried skin on her neck, indicating the killer had strangled her using a thin piece of string. Because the victim was stripped naked, there was no identification documents, which made it almost impossible in determining who she was. The murder caused considerable panic amongst the citizens of post-war Hamburg, who were justifiably panicked about the prospect of a killer loose on the streets.
The Hamburg Police issued a statement on 21 January, about the young woman found murdered the previous day. "In St. Georg, the naked body of a young girl was found on Monday afternoon in the ruins of an industrial property on Baustraße. According to the homicide commission, the woman must have been strangled and thrown into the rubble on Monday night. She is a slender, medium-blonde, well-groomed woman with half-long hair, blue eyes and full teeth, who has undergone an appendectomy. The Hamburg police request anyone to immediately notify the nearest police station if a young girl of the type described is missing anywhere." In the chaos of post-war Europe, the prospect of refugees moving across Germany into other countries was a possibility, and the victim may not have been local to the Hamburg area.
Just five days later on 25 January, another body was found in Eimsbüttel. The body of an older man, between 65 and 70 years of age was found by scrap collectors at the top of House No.2 at the Lappenbergsallee. The victim was found in much the same circumstances as the young woman, unclothed and strangled. The pathologist determined the time of death had occurred sometime between 23 and 25 January. Once again there were no papers to determine the identity of the victim, who had been stripped and robbed. The old man was described as around six feet tall, with grey hair, a long moustache, a slightly curved nose and blue eyes. He had well-groomed hands and relatively good teeth. Police found a black-brown coloured bamboo stick with a curved crutch lying nearby, and suspected it may have been the victim's walking stick. The only clue that might offer some form of identification was the dentures the man was wearing, however, when police sent pictures along with the request "who remembers making such a prosthesis?", to all professional dentists, there was no match on record.
The investigation was being overseen by Chief Commissioner Ingwersen, of the Hamburg Police, who placed Inspector Hans Lühr, head of the "Homicide Division" in charge of inquiries. They issued warnings to the public, to be wary of strangers approaching them in homeless shelters and waiting rooms, believing this might be how the killer was selecting his victims. On 1 February 1947, a tragic sight greeted police at Billstrasse, near Billekanal. There the strangled body of a 6-year-old girl was found in an elevator shaft of a destroyed house near a bombed-out former mattress factory. She was also naked, strangled and discarded amongst the rubble. Police issued fresh warnings to the populace, advising that everyone should walk in the middle of the street, for their own protection, so they should not be ambushed by the killer jumping out of the rubble or cellar holes.
Bombed out Hamburg
A final murder was committed on 12 February 1947, in the Anckelmannstrasse area of bombed out Hammerbrook, where the body of a young woman, aged between 30-35-years-old was discovered, not far from the Berliner Tor station, naked and strangled in the same way as previous victims. There was one difference to this crime however, it was reported the woman's hands were tied behind her back. A Reuters dispatch the following day mentioned a reward announced by Hamburg radio of 1,000 cigarettes and 5,000 ($500) marks being offered for any information about the murders that would lead to the capture of the offender. The reward was later raised to 10,000 marks, and police continued to advise people to use the roads and not the underground for travelling throughout the city.
The identification of the victims was essential to solving the crimes, and detailed descriptions of the deceased were given to the civil registry in a bid to identify the four murdered people. Hamburg detectives searched the dispensaries, where ration stamps were used, in an effort to locate anyone who had not used their card lately. Meanwhile, police officers checked train station waiting rooms, restaurants and underground bunkers, which all served as an asylum for the displaced and homeless. According to police reports, over 1,000 people were interviewed, and police distributed around 50,000 posters with pictures of the murder victims in all four occupation territories.
Inspector Hans Lühr made numerous deductions about the crimes during the course of the investigation. The crimes were committed over the course of three weeks, with intervals of roughly seven days between each murder. The locality in which the victims were found was never the same, and they had all been strangled, robbed and stripped naked. Police searched buy and sell shops and black market traders, but were never able to identity any clothing as belonging to any of the victims. There was never any signs that a struggle had taken place, and each of the bodies were in a generally well-kept condition. The only unusual commonality found at each crime scene, was the detection of grinding marks on some pointed rubble stones. Police were unable to identify the victim, and it was assumed they were transients who had stopped over in Hamburg on their way somewhere else.
There was one possible lead on the male victim, when a landlady came forward and testified he may have been her tenant, but that lead was later disproved when the missing man contacted her. Police could find no missing person reports on any of the victims. One theory put forward by Inspector Lühr might explain the perpetrator's motive behind the murders. He believed the killer was murdering each member of the same family, possibly to gain the possession of the family inheritance. He suspected the little girl was the daughter of one of the two murdered women, whilst the old man was the grandfather and father to one or both of the two women, adding "I believe more and more that the murdered were a family and that the murderer is the fifth link in this chain."
In April 1947, German police apprehended 24-year-old Rudolf Pleil, a frontier worker in the Harz mountain range, who was held responsible for the murders of a salesman and nine women. Known as "Der Totmacher", which translates as "The Deadmaker", Pleil claimed he was responsible for as many as 25 murders with help from at least two accomplices. He was sentenced to 12 years for murder and held at the Celle penitentiary, where he would later confess to more murders. He was transferred to the Braunschweig remand prison, and that is when he came to the attention of Inspector Lühr, when he made further confessions, namely that he committed the murders of two women in Hamburg.
Under questioning by Hamburg detectives, Pleil made sketches of the crimes scenes as well as detailed descriptions of the crimes in two of the Hamburg cases. It was believed Pleil was admitting to the 20 January murder of the 18-20-year-old woman found in Baustrasse, and the 12 February slaying of the woman believed to be between 30-35-years-old in Hammerbrook. The women certainly fit the victim type Pleil would target, however his murders were committed out of both greed and sexual motivation. He was brought to the crime scene near the Berliner Tor station, but he had a credible alibi which ruled him out as the murderer. Pleil was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes, and later committed suicide in his cell at the age of 33 on 16 February 1958.
Pleil at trial
The Hamburg police made many attempts to solve the case, and even tried to make a connection between the rubble killings and a series of murders against taxi drivers which occurred at the same time, but no link could be established. Inspector Lühr remained convinced that the murders were committed by a single perpetrator, and that the sites where the bodies were found were not the crime scenes, meaning the bodies were probably brought to the ruins by car. The victims of the killer were never identified, and as a result, the murders amongst the rubble strewn streets of post-war Hamburg have never been solved. Lühr is convinced that "Identification is and remains the key to clarification." The investigative reports on the crimes, many bundles of yellowed paper in green file covers, remain available in the Hamburg State Archives.
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus