(August 12, 1870 – December 20, 1924) was a serial killer from Germany.
Denke was born in Münsterberg/Silesia in Germany,
today's Ziębice in Poland. There is not a great deal of information
about his early life, but in adulthood he was well liked in his
community, and worked as an organ player at the local church.
On December 20, 1924, Denke was arrested after
attacking a man at his house with an axe. Police searched Denke's home
and found human flesh in huge jars of curing salts. A ledger contained
the details of 40 people Denke had murdered and cannibalized over the
years. It is thought he even sold the flesh of his victims at the
Breslau (today's Wrocław) market.
The day after his arrest, Denke hanged himself in his
cell, meaning his exact motives can only be guessed at.
A native of Munsterberg, Silesia -- now Ziebice, Poland -- Denke operated a rooming house in his hometown between 1918 and 1924. His tenants affectionately called him "Papa," and Denke was also well-liked in the community at large, serving as the organ-blower for his local church. On the side, in three years time, he also murdered and devoured a minimum of thirty victims.
On December 21, 1924, one of Denke's tenants, a coachman by the name of Gabriel, heard cries for help which seemed to emanate from Denke's flat, downstairs. Afraid the landlord might be injured, Gabriel rushed down to help... and found a young man staggering along the corridor, blood streaming from his open scalp. Before he fell unconscious on the floor, the victim blurted out that "Papa" Denke had attacked him with an ax. Police were summoned and arrested Denke, scouring his flat for evidence.
They turned up identification papers for twelve traveling journeymen, plus assorted items of male clothing. In the kitchen, two large tubs held meat pickled in brine; with the assorted bones and pots of fat, detectives reckoned that it added up to thirty victims, more or less. In Denke's ledger, they found listed names and dates, with the respective weights of bodies he had pickled dating back to 1921.
According to the record, he had specialized in slaying beggars, tramps, and journeymen who seemed unlikely to be missed around the neighborhood. No evidence of sexual assault was ever publicized in Denke's case, and homicide investigators were unable to explain his actions. Shortly after his arrest, the killer hanged himself with his suspenders, in his cell, permitting generations of historians to speculate in vain about his motives.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia
of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
This one is
called the "unusual case" or "the forgotten cannibal". He wasn't a
paraphiliac, nor was he an alcoholic. Nothing spectacular about his
Karl Denke was
born on August 10, 1870 in Oberkunzendorf (today Kalinowice Górne) in
Lower Silesia and moved to Muensterberg (today Ziębice) ten years later.
He was a somewhat dull, if not retarded child. He quit school and left
home at the age of 12 to work as apprentice with a gardener. When he
turned 25, his father died. His brother took over the family farm while
Karl was given money to buy some land. Being an unsuccessful farmer, he
sold the land and bought a house in town (on present Stawowa Street).
However recession forced him to sell again this property. He was finally
left with a little apartment on first floor and a small shed in the
backyard of the house.
Denke's first victim was most probably
Emma Sander, a 25 year old girl killed in 1909, however this was
established only 15 years later, after Denke's death. The latter
occurred on a Sunday night of December 21st, 1924. That day, around 1
p.m. a man covered in blood ran into the local police station. He was
visibly terrified and told the officers that it was Karl Denke, who
tried to kill him with a pickaxe. The policemen could not believe the
stranger: Vincenz Oliver was a vagabond, while Karl Denke has had a
perfect reputation among inhabitants of Muensterberg - a town of nine
thousand where everyone knew each other. However a doctor confirmed that
Oliver must have been attacked with a heavy cutting tool. Finally Denke
was arrested. He confirmed attacking Oliver, but claimed he was just
defending his property from an unknown burglar. A few hours later
Denke's body was found dead in the police station's cell. The well
respected citizen hanged himself using a handkerchief.
A few days later - on December 24 - the
policemen went to Denke's house...
In order to describe what they saw there,
it is best to refer to the report given by Friedrich Pietrusky (then
acting head of the Institute of Legal Medicine in Breslau). The report
dates back to 1926 and was published in the Deutsche
gesamte gerichtliche Medizin (Band 8, S. 702-726), here quoted
after Mark Benecke:
first findings made in Denke’s house during the search were bones and
pieces of meat. The latter were in a salt solution found in a wooden
drum. There were altogether fifteen pieces with skin. Two parts of the
breast, which is strongly hairy. The torso is cut through the middle,
three fingers above the navel. Its lateral limit is the front shoulder
blade. In the piece of the anterior abdominal wall, the middle of the
navel is visible. The remaining pieces belong to the side and back
parts. The largest is about forty by twenty centimeters large.
Particularly striking was a very clean anus with hand large parts of
The meat is
brownish red and does not feel as if the body would have lost much
blood. On the back some soft-bluish discoloration is visible as well
as livor mortis, which leads to the conclusion that the disassembly of
the body took place several hours after death.
is no evidence of vital reaction of the bodies to the cuts made, which
means that the latter were not made while the victims were still alive.
Nevertheless some skin and muscles from the necks were missing, as
well as extremities [arms
and legs], head and
sexual organs. Lesions could not be determined, nor the nature of
death or the tool of crime.
In three medium-sized pots filled with
cream sauce, some cooked meat, partially covered with skin and human
hair was found. The meat was pink and soft. All pieces seemed cut from
the gluteal area [buttocks].
One pot had only half a portion. Denke must have eaten the other piece
short before being arrested".
The last assumption - though logical, as
it seems - is not proven by the facts. Police found some human meat and
one portion was visibly gone but there is nothing to confirm that it was
Denke who had eaten it. Equally possible was that he had sold that meat
or given it to his "guests" (although the latter would seem like an
unnecessary waste). However Pietrusky points out to other problems with
establishing who actually could have eaten that meat:
"I should like to mention here that
there is no evidence that Denke has ever sold the meat of his victims
evidence has obviously been eaten!].
However, it seems certain that his guests, that is the vagabonds, were
offered to eat it".
Again, this is only his assumption. Why
should Denke rather offer meat to his guests, than sell it on the market?
By the way, note the interesting fact that Pietrusky is writing the
report over a year after Denke's death. The legend of selling human meat
on the market must have been widespread since the discoveries made in
Münsterberg, as the forensic feels in duty to refer to it. Then
third pot were found numerous pieces of human skin and parts of the
aorta in a gelatinous mass. A bowl on the table in his room was filled
with amber colored fat, that appeared to be human. Biological test
gave a weak-positive result for the presence of human protein.
In the shed,
in which the meat pieces were found, was also a barrel full of bones
that were cleaned of tendons, muscles etc. that most probably have
been priorly cooked. The investigation initially revealed the
existence of six forearm bones, which means that they belonged to
three people at least. Another traces were found behind the shed. A
part of a leg remained in the pond that Denke had dug many years
before and also skeletal pieces were uncovered in the local forest.
Here is the full list of what has been sent to us for examination:
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;
pair of upper shinbone;
- a pair of lower elbows and radii, of which
extremities still remain well connected;
pair of upper arms and a pair of upper arm heads;
pair of collar bones;
eight heels and ankle bones;
hundred and twenty toes and phalanx;
sixty-five feet and metacarpal bones;
five first ribs and one hundred-fifty pieces of ribs.
with the exception of a few, were very light, porous and fatless.
municipal forest remained as well parts of a spine and four parts of a
clean, dissected male pelvis, which on one side showed traces of saw-cutting.
Only one piece of head-bone was found. This is a piece of the inferior
petrosal sinus area, jagged on the front side. It looks broken and
bears visible signs of sharp sawing on its top. This piece of bone is
cross-marked with ink.
the size and condition of the bones, we can assume, that there was one
particularly strong individual, two others were of delicate bone
structure, another suffered from coxa vara. [...]
surfaces of the bones are jagged, as if blunt force was applied, such
as the blunt end of an axe or a hammer. Some bones were visibly sawed.
Few spots show traces of a sharp tool - an axe most probably.
Similarly such traces were found on the articulations, which must have
been cut with a knife.
these findings, we were able to declare that the bones sent to us,
belonged to at least eight people".
other bones were yet to be uncovered over the years to come. The last
pieces (including head bones) were found in the late 1940's, just after
World War II, by now Polish inhabitants of the house.
more revealing was Denke’s dental collection. We received a total of
three hundred and fifty-one teeth.
found in a moneybag and in two tin boxes, on which "Pepper" and "Salt"
was written, as well as in three paper bags, which were destined to
keep pepper. They were partly sorted according to their size: the
molars were in the moneybag, while the others in the two boxes and in
the paper bag. In yet another paper bag were teeth that belonged
probably to a single person, and in a third bag three lower incisors
were found with strongly atrophic structure - this one came probably
from an old individual. All teeth, with the exception of six, were
investigation led us to very notable results. The remains of the bones
were definitely of a minimum of eight victims, however other
circumstances of the case make it likely that the number of victims
was much higher. The teeth that were found belonged certainly to at
least twenty people [...]. Professor Euler noted however that some
individual teeth appear more than twice as often than is statistically
expected (this concerns second premolars and incisors), which suggests
that there might have been even more victims.
that the majority of victims suffered from caries leads us to think
that the number of victims was higher. In addition, it must be stated
that people in old age lacked proper dental treatment. Professor Euler
estimates cautiously that the teeth belonged to at least twenty-five
extractions were done in different ways. Some teeth seem to have been
taken out quite easily due to senile atrophy, while others were rather
solidly rooted and extracted with force. In many cases we discerned
parts of the alveolar wand. Some specimens, especially the molars and
premolars show fractures in tooth enamel that couldn’t have occur
during victims’ lifetime. On some there are traces of claws with very
sharp edges. The appearance of some roots seems to justify the
assumption that the jaw had been cooked in advance. Individual teeth
have been broken - probably in the process of extraction. Again Denke
had no luck".
The last remark sounds a little odd...
"Especially interesting is the answer
to the question of the age [of the victims]. From the list later
mentioned we know nearly all victims. There are no young individuals
among them. Now, there are four wisdom teeth, that clearly came from
the same people [or
individual?], that have
peculiarities usually found on the teeth of the fifty year old. The
investigation of the other teeth showed that at least four-fifths of
the victims were seniors. Professor Euler summarized that among the
victims there was certainly one person who was not older than sixteen
he did not figure on the mentioned list],
while the majority were significantly older than forty years; two
individuals were probably twenty to thirty year old and one between
the thirtieth and fortieth year of his life.
did not give satisfactory results concerning the sex of the
individuals, nor their jobs. For obvious reasons, nothing specific can
be said about the time that elapsed after their death. What is certain
is only that some teeth have been extracted years ago. The pulling out
of the teeth of young people must have taken place many weeks ago.
any case, the study of the teeth brought much more information
regarding the number and age of the victims, than could be learned
from the bones, but it must be taken into consideration that the
latter were only partially recovered. [...]"
Next part of the report is concerned with
findings, that didn't seem to have anything in common with the
transforming of human tissue. Nevertheless further investigation
revealed that Denke experimented with human leather and soap making
based on human fat, although his methods remained utterly primitive.
Denke’s suspenders, three pairs were made of human skin. They are
about six centimeters wide and seventy centimeters long. The leather
is not smooth and at one spot broken. It seems not tanned but only
free of sub-skin tissue and dried. At one spot it is obvious, that he
made the cuts under the nipples, which are still clearly visible. Four
are patched with human skin taken from the pubic area. [...] Some
traces of louse nits were also discerned under microscope. All
suspenders show traces of use and one of them Denke was found on Denke
suspenders, Denke had also leather straps cut out of human skin, that
he treated with shoe polish and parts of which were sawn together with
pieces and rags of cloth. Many of these laces were made of human hair:
one sample was one centimeter long, grey-white and - according to
study - was taken from the head. From which area of the body came the
other pieces, this cannot be said.
In addition to various old clothes, which
were in the apartment, there were forty-one large and small bundles of
rags, bent together with straps. The investigation lead to no results
concerning these old, worn-out clothes. [...]
strange was Denke’s collection of coins. This consists of round flat
unfired clay pieces, size ranging from a Pfennig to fifty Pfennigs,
which have on just one side the image of a real coin.
large number of ID cards and private papers of several persons were
found in Denke’s room as well as account books on revenue from the
garden, on working hours and so on. They were relatively well managed
and clear. More attention was attached to some loose sheets of paper
on which names of thirty men and women appear. In front of every name
there is a date - probably the date of death of the person. At No. 31
there is only a date. The record is chronological. Numbering starts
only at number eleven. In case of women, only the first name is
indicated, the notes for men are much more detailed, usually with date
of birth, place of stay and status of the person concerned. The
assumption that this is the list of victims is justified by the fact,
that ID cards found in Denke's room belonged to people whose
whereabouts could not be identified otherwise [...]. By the appearance
of the sheets, we can assume, that the list has not been made in one
On one side
(of the sheets) are the initials of the name followed by a number,
which most likely indicates the weight of the person concerned. On
another slip of paper, next to a name stands what follows: 'dead, 122,
naked 107, disemboweled 83'. This last figure is then repeated next to
the name of the person concerned in the last table.
used for the killings and fragmentation of the bodies, these can be
large wood saw;
have been seized by us with the exception of the axes and the tree saw,
which are sent to be tested for traces of human blood. The saw is a
large tool, with which - as the microscopic examination revealed -
also wood have been sawn. The detection of human blood succeeded.
However we suppose that he used much finer tools - probably the tree
saw - to cut heads and the pelvic bones. The pickaxe was used for the
last assassination attempt and human blood can be stated on this tool
as well. It has a length of forty centimeters and is pointed forward.
As for the knives, we could not make things all clear".
Pietrusky's report continues with information about Denke himself, but
these are pretty scarce: the killer have had a reputation of good, if
somewhat recluse citizen. As a child he was believed to be dull. He
wasn't able to learn and he didn't speak (he only begun to speak at age
of six). Teachers declared him an idiot and often punished him. "He's
very obstinate and lacks respect for teachers" - they noted.
As adult he was treated with suspicion
but rather because of his solitary status and sexual indifference. He
was said to be "neither man nor woman".
stated that he never showed signs of fear or disgust, however he had no
violent temper - they thought. He had accepted their invitation only
once, but it was memorable anyhow: his brother recalled that Karl had
eaten 2 pounds of meat! He described him as Vielfraß
- the glutton. Nevertheless Karl's good manners, humble behavior and
occasional charity earned him the nickname of Vater Denke
- 'Father Denke'.
personality is far from established. All we know about him comes from
documents or sparse remarks of his relatives and co-citizens made only
after his death (little doubt people became biased by the shocking
revelations found in his apartment). His crimes were not motivated
sexually and his conduct seems rather rational. From all information
that we have, we can assume that he was an extremely selfish, retarded
man, unable to distinguish moral categories. Probably he didn't mean to
harm people but his need for food was primordial. After a series of
failures at school, farming, business, he found a simple and effective
means of procuring food (and probably income) by killing vagabonds he
met at the train station. He could gain their trust quite easily and
take them home virtually unnoticed (the train station was a short walk
from his place and both were on the outskirts of town).
At the end we shall also ask one
pertinent question: how could Denke's crimes be perpetrated for at least
fifteen years completely unnoticed by anyone in Münsterberg, including
And symptoms were abundant! Some time
before Vincenz Oliver escaped the killer in extremis,
at least two men managed the same (but they didn't report the fact to
police, as it seems):
- once an apprentice covered in blood ran
out of Denke's appartment; he was never heard of again;
- some time later a vagabond complained
to Denke's neighbors that he had been asked to write a letter and soon
after found himself with a chain on his neck. He was stronger than Denke
and made his way outside. Nobody reporter these to police.
Other facts occurred as well. For
instance repeated complaints of Denke's neighbors about a strong
penetrating smell from his apartment. The neighbors noticed as well he
always had plenty of meat, even in the worst period of inflation. They
assumed however it was dog meat, so gave little attention to it, even
though black market slaughter of dogs was illegal. Nor the buckets of
blood he poured into the courtyard made them think. He was often heard
hammering and sawing at night, but no neighbor would become suspicious:
after all he was preparing the dishes to be sold at the morning market...
It is quite remarkable as well that he
was probably often seen going out at night with large heavy bags and
returning home with empty hands some time later. What was he doing, what
was in the bags, why at night? Where did the old garments and shoes,
that he was selling come from?
It seems plausible that some neighbors
were suspicious about Denke, but as long as nobody from the town was
hurt, he remained safe.
An Infamous Denke
Born 8/12/1870, died 12/22/1924
The son of a wealthy farmer, Karl Denke was born in
Oberkunzendorf (near present Ziębice Poland).
Details on this serial killer are sketchy, but here is a
summary of the information I have:
Karl Denke lived in Munsterberg, Silesia, Germany (now Ziębice
Poland). He is believed to have killed between 30 and 40 people, primarily
journeymen and homeless persons. Reports state that he had been engaging in
cannibalism for several years prior to his capture. There are rumors that he
actually sold human meat. He killed all his victims in his house on Stawowa
Apparently, Karl Denke was well liked in the community
before his arrest. He is known to have been called "Vatter Denke"
(which translates to Father Denke or Papa Denke) by the locals. He also
served as the organ blower for his local church.
On December 21, 1924, a coachman by the name of Gabriel,
heard cries for help which seemed to emanate from Denke's room. Gabriel
rushed down to help and found a young man named Vincenz Olivier staggering
along the corridor, blood streaming from his open scalp. Before he fell
unconscious on the floor, the victim blurted out that "Vatter"
Denke had attacked him with an ax.
Police were summoned and arrested Denke, scouring his
apartment for evidence. They turned up identification papers for twelve
traveling journeymen, plus assorted items of male clothing. In the kitchen,
two large tubs held meat pickled in brine; with the assorted bones and pots
of fat, detectives reckoned that it added up to thirty victims, more or
less. In Denke's ledger, they found listed names and dates, with the
respective weights of bodies he had pickled dating back to 1921.
He killed himself in prison the night of his capture.
Reports state that he hung himself with a noose fashioned from a
handkerchief, leaving historians with no explanation or motive for his
His life was investigated by Lucyna Biały (the
custodian of Silesian Library of Wrocław University) in the summer of
1999. Mrs Biały based her research on the German press of twenties. Her
work was published by editor Tadeusz Dudź in "Gazeta
Wyborcza" and "Gazeta Wrocławska". This article is one
of the ones below.
The Household Equipment Museum in Ziębice held an
exhibition from July-August of 1999. The exhibit was entitled "An
ancient iconography of Ziębice" and featured tools used by Karl
Denke in his crimes.
The information in the
likely to be the most accurate information available currently on Karl
Denke. It is from a very reliable source, and is much closer to the
original sources than anything I have gotten my hands on yet.
For those interested in how rumors get started, there are
a few different versions of Karl Denke's story in print and on the Internet.
There are a couple of myths:
1. He was not an innkeeper - apparently this rumor was
started because of a bad German translation. No German sources that I have
found say that he was an innkeeper, but most English sources do.
2. He died in 1924, not 1942. At one point, someone
reversed the numbers and printed the information with 1942 as the year of
his death. This has been repeated by several others.
3. Many sources say that he hung himself with suspenders,
rather than a handkerchief. While that makes more sense, it is apparently
The Cannibal from Ziębice
He peddled human flesh as meat in Wrocław. He said it
The Polish Word
August 2nd, 1999
Karl Denke, a devout, peaceful, generally respected
citizen of Ziębice, turned out to be a cannibal who killed 40 people.
He pickled their flesh in jars and sold it on the Wrocław market as…
"pork." It all came to light after Christmas of 1924. In
Ziębice’s Museum of Household Goods, they decided it was quite an
appetizing story and dedicated a little corner of the museum to him. On the
table, are, among others things, bloody knives and axes, and a meat grinder
is attached to the table as well.
The story of the Cannibal of Ziębice was resurrected
by Lucyna Biały, the curator of the archive of old printed materials in
the University Library at Piasek in Wrocław. She came across the story
by accident while preparing a catalog of the Silesian press. She presented
it in Ziębice during a scientific conference. The title of her report
was Casus Denke- The Ziębice Cannibal. The first to mention the
cannibal from Ziębice was the Ząbkowice-Ziębice Journal Frankestein-
Murnsterberger Zeitung (for the less informed Frankestein was the name
of Silesian Ząbkowice before the war).
The information appeared on December
25, 1924. A more thorough account was provided by Ziębice’s
newspaper, published tri-weekly, Munsterberger Zeitung. From it, one
could infer that this person, who carried the cross at funerals of the
Evangelist commune, and helped beggars and people in need, was a monster. It
is hard to believe, but it happened…
Karl Denke was born August 12, 1870.
His family was quite wealthy; they were farmers. Karl was a hard child to
raise. He ran away from home at the young age of 12. When he graduated from
elementary school, he started apprenticing with a gardener. He started life
on his own at the age of 25. It was then that his father died, the farm was
taken over by his older brother, and he himself bought a piece of land with
the money from his inheritance. However, farming did not go well for him, so
he sold his land. He bought himself a little house on present Stawowa Street
in Ziębice. Unfortunately, his savings were devoured by the
uncontrollable inflation of his time. He had to sell his house, but he did
not move out. He still lived in a little apartment on the right side of the
ground floor of the house. And he still occupied the shop standing next to
It was Sunday, December 21st, 1924, when a man
covered in blood ran into a police station. He swore by all things holy that
it was Denke, who did this to him. The policemen could not believe it
possible that poor, nice Karl, enjoying unimpeachable opinion in a town of
eight thousand, would do such a thing to this bloodied wretch of a beggar.
However, Vincenz Olivier would not change his testimony.
Denke was arrested. The very same night, when a guard looked into his cell,
he was dead. He had hanged himself. How desperate he must have been to do it
with a noose made from… a handkerchief.
After the corpse was returned to the family, the policemen
went to his house. It was Christmas of 1924, the happy day, on which the
Lord of the Universe was born. But, the Christmas Eve of 1924 was a
sorrowful one. The economical crisis abound, money was losing its value from
one day to the next, and a regular family could not afford to put anything
decent on their table. The policemen were saddened even more. What they saw
in Denke’s shop, could have caused even the most formidable policeman, who
had served the longest in the law enforcement profession, to tremble in
In the closet hanged many blood stained clothes
including one skirt. On the window seal, lay various kinds
of documents with the names of people released from prisons or hospitals.
Jars of pickled meat (the laboratory analysis showed quickly, that it was of
human origin), human bones prepared for thermal processing, instruments for
the production of belts, leather straps, and other products from human skin
were found. Denke even processed human hair, using it to make shoe laces. He
would sell it all door to door, the permission for which he received from
city officials. The meat, with the permission of Wrocław butchers, he
sold in Wrocław. It was a time of crisis and every gram of meat would
find a buyer… The policemen were able to identify the names of 20 victims
of the Ziębice Cannibal. It is believed however, that he pickled in his
manufacturing shop about 40 residents.
For now, the local cannibal has only a small place in a
museum in Ziębice. However, it is not impossible that he will be
granted even a bigger exhibit. After all, not all towns can boast their own
The Cannibal of Ziębice
The Wrocław Gazette – 30 July, 1999
The head librarian of the University of Wrocław discovers
the dark history of a Silesia Minor town.
(ZIĘBICE, Silesian Ząbkowice county) Near the
end of December, 1924, despite the upcoming New Year’s, in the
markets of Wrocław the sale of pork drastically declined. One of
the vendors, by permission of the Wrocław Butchers, was a certain
Karl Denke – a peaceful, sober-minded, pedantic, and devout citizen
of Ziębice (at the time, German Muensterberg.) At the funerals of
members of the Evangelist commune, he carried the cross. He
refrained from alcohol and did not have relations with women… The
Christmas holiday of that year in Ziębice was not a joyous one. On
Dec. 25th the Ząbkowicki Journal Frankenstein –
Muensterberger Zeitung mentioned, for the first time, Karl Denke
as the Ziębice murderer, cannibal, and peddler of human flesh as
meat. On the 28th of Dec. that same year a more thorough
account of him appeared in the tri-weekly Muensterberger Zeitung.
Who, then, was Karl Denke, the Ziębice cannibal of
dual personalities, not unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? He was born
August 12th, 1870 into the family of a well-to-do farmer in
one of the small Silesia Minor villages, the name of which is not
mentioned in historical records. In school, he was one of the worst
students. He ran away from home for the first time at the age of 12.
A Benefactor of Beggars and Tramps
After finishing elementary
school Karl Denke began an apprenticeship with a gardener. He lost
his father at the age of 25. The farm was taken over by his older
brother, but Karl inherited a sum of money with which he purchased a
farm and garden in Ziębice. He turned out, however, to be a rather
poor farmer. He had to sell his land, and with the money he
purchased a two-story house with a shed by it, on today’s Stawowa
Street in Ziębice. After WWI he lost his saving due to inflation.
He sold his house, but continued to rent the same apartment on the
ground floor, on the right hand side.
Karl Denke enjoyed a decent
reputation in this town of 8 thousand. He led an honest, lower middle
class lifestyle. He helped beggars, and even allowed some of them to
stay overnight in his apartment. It was no wonder, then, that Ziębice
Police agreed to give him a vending license. The peddler sold leather
suspenders, belts, shoe laces, etc. In Wrocław, he also offered pickled
On Sunday, Dec. 21st of that same year,
around 1 p.m., a man covered in blood came to the Ziębice police station
and told how he had barely escaped death in Karl Denke’s apartment.
Police, at first, could not understand how this vagrant by the name of
Vincenz Olivier could be accusing such a decent citizen. Nevertheless,
he was given medical attention and the doctor confirmed that Olivier was
indeed seriously wounded. Finally, police decided to arrest Karl Denke.
During interrogation, Denke explained that he had attacked the vagrant
Olivier as he attempted to rob him after receiving a handout.
Consequently, Denke was locked up in a holding cell. That same night,
at about 11:30, when Sergeant Palke looked in on him, he found Karl
Denke dead. He had hanged himself on a noose made from a handkerchief.
Shoelaces Made From Human Skin
Only after turning over the corpse to Denke’s
relatives did the police – on Dec. 24th – go to his apartment
to secure the property of the suicide victim. What the constables saw
in his apartment and shed sent them into a state of terror.
They found several containers filled with pickled
human flesh, an apparatus for making soap, and human bones prepared for
processing. On the walls were hanging dozens of belts, suspenders, and
shoelaces made from human skin. The closet was filled with blood
stained clothing, among them one skirt. On the window seal and table
were various documents and receipts with the names of people that had
been released from prisons and hospitals.
Testing of the pickled flesh performed by chemists in
Wrocław confirmed that it was indeed human. Ultimately, the police were
able to identify 20 victims of the Ziębice cannibal. It is believed,
however, that Karl Denke killed, cut up, pickled, and processed more
than 40 people.
The Secrets of Madame Curator
These horrific facts from the
relatively recent history of Ziębice were brought to light by day
manager Lucyna Biały, curator of the archive of old printed materials in
the University Library at Piasek in Wrocław. While going over The
Catalog of the Silesian Press, Ms. Biały stumbled upon this macabre
story from Ziębice’s history. She shared her discoveries at a popular
science conference in Ziębice. It was on this report by the Madame
Curator: “Casus Denke – The Cannibal of Ziębice” that I based this
However, this was not really a
“cacus” (an isolated case.) Let us return to Lucyna Biały’s report.
The author writes, “It is necessary to emphasize that since the
beginning of the 20th Century, on German lands, there have
been even more perverse, mass murderers. Names such as Ludwik Tresnov
come to mind, who raped, killed, and dismembered four children in the
area of Osnabrueck. Friedrich Haarmann, called the “Butcher from
Hanover,” killed about 50 young people and sold their flesh as meat. He
was beheaded in 1926. A bank clerk, Freitz Angerstein from Haiger
killed probably 7 people. He was sentenced to death in 1925. Finally,
Peter Kuerten, called “The Vampire of Duesseldorf,” was accused of 9
murders and 7 attempted murders. He drank the blood of his victims. He
was beheaded on July 2nd, 1931.
But, to exploit Denke…?
The mayor of Ziębice, Tadeusz Wolski, was faced with
quite an issue. On the one hand, it was hard to imagine a persona more
despicable than Karl Denke, who does not exactly bring positive fame to
the town. But, this executioner’s coin has two sides. For do not
famous murderers, all kinds of torture chambers and other human
perversions lure the curious? A rhetorical question…
“Let us think how we can exploit our cannibal.” says
the mayor. “Perhaps in our Museum of Household Goods in the town hall
building, we could give him a little corner? Maybe we should mark the
place where he lived. Although, we wouldn’t want to disturb the current,
peaceful residents of Stawowa Street.” There are three new houses
standing there now, and no longer any trace of Denke’s shop.
“Karl Denke was a peaceful, sober-minded, pedantic,
and devout citizen of Ziębice.” claims Grzegorz Zając, the creator of
the Denke exhibit (pictured with the figure of a beggar, belonging to
the Ziębice artist Langer.) “– as is turns out, he was a murderer and
cannibal as well, who chose beggars as his victims.”
Lucyna Biały, curator of the archive of old printed
materials in the University Library at Piasek in Wrocław, after an
exhaustive analysis of the Pre-War Press published in Ząbkowice Śląskie
and Ziębice, brought Karl Denke, the Ziębice Cannibal, back to life.
The son of a wealthy
farmer, Karl Denke was born 12 August, 1870, in Oberkunzendorf (near
present Ziebice Poland).
Details on this serial
killer are sketchy, but here is a summary of the information I have:
Karl Denke lived in Munsterberg, Silesia, Germany (now Ziebice Poland).
He is believed to have killed between 30 and 40 people, primarily
journeymen and homeless persons.
Reports state that he
had been engaging in cannibalism for several years prior to his capture.
There are rumors that he actually sold human meat. He killed all his
victims in his house on Stawowa Street.
Apparently, Karl Denke
was well liked in the community before his arrest. He is known to have
been called “Vatter Denke” (which translates to Father Denke or Papa
Denke) by the locals. He also served as the organ blower for his local
On December 21, 1924, a
coachman by the name of Gabriel, heard cries for help which seemed to
emanate from Denke's room. Gabriel rushed down to help and found a young
man named Vincenz Olivier staggering along the corridor, blood streaming
from his open scalp.
Before he fell
unconscious on the floor, the victim blurted out that "Vatter" Denke had
attacked him with an ax. Police were summoned and arrested Denke,
scouring his apartment for evidence. They turned up identification
papers for twelve traveling journeymen, plus assorted items of male
In the kitchen, two
large tubs held meat pickled in brine; with the assorted bones and pots
of fat, detectives reckoned that it added up to thirty victims, more or
less. In Denke's ledger, they found listed names and dates, with the
respective weights of bodies he had pickled dating back to 1921. He
killed himself in prison the night of his capture.
Reports state that he
hung himself with a noose fashioned from a handkerchief, leaving
historians with no explanation or motive for his actions. His life was
investigated by Lucyna Bialy (the custodian of Silesian Library of
Wroclaw University) in the summer of 1999.
Mrs Bialy based her
research on the German press of twenties. Her work was published by
editor Tadeusz Dudz in “Gazeta Wyborcza” and "Gazeta Wroclawska". This
article is one of the ones below.
The Household Equipment
Museum in Ziebice held an exhibition from July-August of 1999. The
exhibit was entitled “An ancient iconography of Ziebice” and featured
tools used by Karl Denke in his crimes. Webmaster's note: the
information in the articles below is likely to be the most accurate
information available currently on Karl Denke. It is from a very
reliable source, and is much closer to the original sources than
anything I have gotten my hands on yet.
For those interested in
how rumors get started, there are a few different versions of Karl
Denke's story in print and on the Internet. There are a couple of myths:
1. He was not an innkeeper - apparently this rumor was started because
of a bad German translation. No German sources that I have found say
that he was an innkeeper, but most English sources do. 2. He died in
1924, not 1942.
At one point, someone
reversed the numbers and printed the information with 1942 as the year
of his death. This has been repeated by several others. 3. Many sources
say that he hung himself with suspenders, rather than a handkerchief.
While that makes more sense,
it is apparently untrue.