Karl Denke, Serial Killer

Karl Denke was born in Poland in 1870. By all accounts he was a somewhat dull child who quit school at the age of 12 to work as an apprentice with a gardener. When he turned 25, his father died. His brother took over the family farm, and Karl was given money to buy some land. Being an unsuccessful farmer, he sold the land and bought a house in the town of Ziebice.

Denke's home

Next door to the house he ran a small business selling jars of pickled pork and leather goods. However recession once more forced him to sell his property. He was finally left with a little apartment on the first floor and a small shed in the backyard of the house.

Denke continued to peddle his wares about town by going to door to door and supplying a small cadre of regular customers. His life was largely uneventful and few took too much notice of him, but for the most part he was well regarded in his community.

Only photo of Denke, taken after his death

That all changed on December 21st, 1924. That day, around 1 p.m., a man covered in blood ran into the local police station. He was clearly terrified and told the officers that Karl Denke had tried to kill him with a pickaxe. The policemen could not believe the stranger, Vincenz Oliver. He was a vagabond, while Karl Denke had a perfect reputation among the town’s 9,000 inhabitants. However a doctor confirmed that Oliver had clearly been attacked with a heavy cutting tool, and so Denke was arrested on suspicion of assault. In custody he confirmed that he had attacked 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 had hanged himself.

On December 24 policemen went to Denke’s house. There they found much more than they had suspected or bargained for. According to a contemporary report:

“The 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 both buttocks.

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.

There 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”.

There were also several jars of pickled meat which upon investigation were determined to be human. On the window sill, lay various kinds of documents with the names of people released from prisons or hospitals. Soap was found which had been rendered from human fat. Dozens of belts, leather straps, suspenders, and other products made from human skin were hanging on the walls. Denke even processed human hair, using it to make shoe laces. He sold these wares door to door. It is believed that he pickled about 40 people in his manufacturing shop.

Human flesh and bones from Denke's kitchen

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 had been cooked. The investigation initially revealed the existence of six forearm bones, which means that they belonged to at least three people. Other 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 was marked for examination by forensic pathologists of the day:
– sixteen 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;
– a pair of upper arms and a pair of upper arm heads;
– a pair of collar bones;
– two shoulder blades;
– eight heels and ankle bones;
– one hundred and twenty toes and phalanx;
– sixty-five feet and metacarpal bones;
– three hundred and fifty-one human teeth found in a money bag and two tin boxes;
– five first ribs and one hundred-fifty pieces of ribs.

In the municipal forest were found 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, which showed visible signs of sharp sawing on its top.

The laboratory found that the bones belonged to at least eight different people, though from the teeth evidence alone the number would have been at least twenty. After that time, more bones kept being uncovered on the property and the surrounding area for many years. The last such bones were found in the late 1940s.

Leather goods and shoelaces made by Denke

Denke’s crimes were likely perpetrated for at least fifteen years completely unnoticed by anyone in his town, including his nearest neighbors. This in spite of repeated complaints from 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. Not even 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.

A 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. There were also loose sheets of paper on which names of thirty men and women appeared. In front of every name there was a date – probably the date of death of the person. The record is chronological. 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 were all unknown.

On one side of the sheets were the initials of the name followed by a number, which most likely indicated the weight of the person concerned. On another slip of paper, next to a name is written: ‘dead, 122, naked 107, disemboweled 83’.

A few of Denke's tools

Tools found among Denke’s possessions that were used for the killings and fragmentation of the bodies, included:
– three axes;
– a large wood saw;
– a tree saw;
– a pickaxe;
– and three knives.


2 comments on “Karl Denke, Serial Killer

  1. Mr.White says:

    Karl Denke was born in GERMANY not in Poland ! In 1870 Münsterberg was in the Kingdom of Prussia. Now after Second World War old Münsterberg is in Poland and named Ziebice.

    • bhypes says:

      Thank you for clarifying this important issue of a fluid, changing border area which has been under the control of multiple states, nations, and duchies over the centuries. The point is, the region is now in Poland and was identified as such in my posting so that most readers could locate the area on a current map, rather than one which existed over a hundred years ago.

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