Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fritz Haarmann: The Butcher of Hannover

The First Finds

After the relative crime watershed of World War I, the 20th Century entered the "age of sex crime." Perhaps predictably, the country where this first became apparent was Germany, where the miseries and deprivation of hyperinflation and food shortage made their maximum impact. Hannover, an elegant municipality in the center of lower Saxony, was one of the cities most affected and it was in this sleepy hollow that Fritz Haarmann committed one of the most extraordinary series of crimes in modern times.

Fritz Haarmann (far left)
Fritz Haarmann (far left)

On 17th May 1924, some children playing at the edge of a river near the Herrenhausen Castle found a human skull and, on May 29th, another washed up on the riverbank. The town was sent in to frenzy on the 13th June when two more skulls were found included in the river's sediment. An autopsy proved the first two crania to be that of young people aged between 18 and 20 and the last skull found from a boy of approximately 12. In all cases, a sharp instrument had been used to separate the skulls from the torso and the flesh had been entirely removed.

It was initially thought that the human remains originated from the anatomical institute in Gottingen or that they had been flung into the river by grave-robbers fleeing from capture. Yet these theories remained unproven and the mystery gained further publicity when boys playing on a marshland unearthed a sack containing human bones. It had become impossible for the authorities to keep these grisly finds a secret and, whilst young boys continued to be reported missing (the number in 1923 grew to almost 600), the Hannoverian population was gripped by terror. The investigation highlighted that those missing were mostly aged between 14 and 18 and rumors were circulating that human flesh had been on sale at the public market.

On Whit Sunday in 1924, hundreds of people left Hannover and descended on the small paths and bridges of the Old Town, where they started searching for human remains. The vastness of this expedition was unprecedented in German criminal history and was spurred on primarily by the talk of a "werewolf" or "man-eater" at large. After a multitude of bones had been discovered, the city's central River Leine was dammed and inspected by policemen and municipal workers. The finds were horrific. More than 500 parts of corpses were detected, proved later to be the remains of at least 22 people, a third aged between 15 and 20. Approximately one half had been in the water for some time and the joints of many of the fresh bones had smoothly cut surfaces.

Every thief and sexual deviant in Hannover was questioned and, through dogged detective work and a series of strange coincidences, a suspect by the name of Friedrich (known as Fritz) Haarmann was taken to the court prison. The man was already known to the police as both a 'dealer' in clothing and meat and to the criminal investigation department due to his publicly homosexual status. His appearance and mannerisms in the ultra-reserved days of inter-war Germany redefined the conventional impression of murder and murderers.

Haarmann was certainly sympathetic in appearance, a simple man with a friendly, open expression and a courteous nature. Of average height, broad and well built, he had a rough 'full-moon' face and neat, cheerful eyes. His features were generally small and as unprepossessing as the rest of his appearance, the only notability a well-groomed, light brown moustache. Fritz's expression closed up completely as soon as the atmosphere became embarrassing and investigating officers soon realized that their suspect was a man of deep contrast. At times cagey and calculating, yet also talkative and hyperactive, desperately seeking sympathy and attention. His soft, white hands moved nervously, plucking and pulling constantly at his long fingers.

Whilst Haarmann's body was strong and coarse, it was also slightly feminine and his speech "was like the querulous voice of an old woman." The killer's almost constant defensiveness and embarrassment was reflected in his automatisms and stereotypes: the wiggling of his behind, the licking of his lips — even the constant blinking of his eyes. Haarmann loved 'feminine' pastimes, such as baking and cooking, but would smoke strong cigars at the same time. Although his appearance was, as the Hannover police stated, "far from evil," Fritz Haarmann entered the record books as Germany's most prolific killer.

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