Born August 12th 1870 in Silesia in the Kingdom of Prussia (now Ziębice, Poland), not much of Karl Denke’s early life has been recorded aside from the fact that he was a terrible student and ran away from home at age 12. When he was 25 his father died, and Karl used his inheritance to buy property in the small town of Münsterberg.
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In Münsterberg, Karl was known as a generous, caring and devout local citizen, even referred to by some as ‘Vater Denke’ or Father Denke. He carried the cross at Evangelist funerals and played the organ during church services. Despite living a lower middle-class lifestyle, he helped beggars and travellers, giving them a place to stay if they were in need. He didn’t drink alcohol and he wasn’t known to have relationships with women.
Like many in Germany after WWI, however, he lost his savings due to rampant inflation and was forced to also sell his house, though he continued to rent an apartment in the building on the ground floor. Well-liked and respected around town, Denke regularly sold suspenders, belts, shoelaces and other leather goods in the local market and sometimes even door to door. He also frequently travelled to Breslau (now Wrocław), where he was licensed by the Butchers Guild to sell pork in the city’s markets – all of it boneless, pickled and in jars.
It was a time of crisis and his goods were popular, allowing him to maintain a decent enough living. By now you can probably guess where this is going. Denke’s double life unravelled quickly when on December 21st, 1924 a vagrant appeared at the Münsterberg police station covered in blood, claiming he had barely escaped from Father Denke’s apartment with his life. Police were loath to believe the unknown beggar, but a brief medical examination revealed that he had sustained a serious head wound, corroborating his story that he had been attacked with an axe.
Police went to question Denke, who explained that he had indeed attacked the vagrant as the man was attempting to rob him after receiving a handout. Denke was taken to the police station and put in a holding cell for the night, only to be found dead when an officer went to look in on him later that same night. He had hung himself with a noose fashioned from a handkerchief, leaving people to speculate ever since as to his motives for the crimes he committed.
It was not until the corpse had been turned over to relatives and the police went to Denke’s apartment to secure his belongings on Christmas Eve that the people of Münsterberg discovered exactly what kind of man had been living among them. What authorities discovered inside was essentially a meat processing shop that lab tests would later confirm was full of human remains, including hundreds of bones, stretched and dehydrated human skin, tubs of fat, jars of meat pickling in brine, and a closet full of blood-stained clothing, as well as the tools for the work, including equipment for making soap.
Dozens of documents and identification papers were also found, including Denke’s own extensive ledger which contained the details of at least 42 people whom Denke had murdered and cannibalised between 1914 and 1918. It is thought he even sold the flesh of his victims at the Breslau market as pork. Needless to say, despite the holiday, there was a dip in pork sales in Breslau that Christmas.