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True crime. Casually done.

The Butcher of Berlin and his Bloody Bratwurst

Remember the horse meat scandal? Back in 2013, Britain was up in arms, because it was discovered that some of our favorite beef products actually contained hefty portions of equine goodness — 100% in the case of those Findus microwave lasagnes. Meanwhile, the French just looked on confused, thinking: “Yeah, horse lasagne, it’s delicious. What’s the problem?”

If you want a case of mistaken meat which would shock even our friends across the channel, you need only look to Germany. Back in the early 20th century, a brutal criminal sent a wave of panic through the city of Berlin, spawning an urban legend which will have you thinking twice whenever you go to munch on a currywurst. 

I’m talking about the case of the Berlin Butcher — not to be confused with The Butcher Berlin, which is a burger restaurant with a respectable 4.2 star Google rating. No, the butcher we’re covering today actually has some of the worst reviews in the history of the food and beverage industry, on account of the fact he may have turned hundreds of unwitting Berliners into accidental cannibals…

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The Hot Dog Man

If you had walked down the streets of Berlin in 1920, we might have spotted a strange little man running a hot dog cart outside the Silesian Train Station (now called Ostbahnhof). This was Carl Grossman, a local bratwurst slinger in his mid fifties, and a familiar face to the commuters who came and went through this crime-ridden district.

Carl Grossman The Butcher of Berlin
Carl Grossman, Source: https://criminalminds.fandom.com/

The hot dog man looked skinny in his oversized suit, with a menacing scowl seemingly permanently fixed on his mustached face. Whenever the sausage business was slow, he was also known to revert to his old profession: begging for change on the streets. Despite these humble career paths, Carl is actually relatively wealthy for this side of town.

He had held many jobs over the years, working in textile factories, butcher’s shops, farms, and even a brief stint in the military during World War One. After his medical discharge, it was rumored that he used his experience as a butcher to trade in black market meat well into the post-war period, when food was still strictly rationed.

By the 1920s, he had settled down in Berlin for a while, and was renting a tiny apartment in a building on Langestrasse. Carl wasn’t exactly popular among his neighbors, mostly on account of his sexual proclivities; he was well known for drunkenly bringing prostitutes back almost every night, and waking up the other tenants with the racket. 

Whenever he didn’t feel like paying his ladies in cash, he would go searching at Andreasplatz Park for young runaways and homeless women to coerce into coming home with him. He’d flash a fat stack of papiermarks, and offer them food, shelter, and employment as his housekeeper in exchange for sex.

His live-in maids mustn’t have been doing a very good job of cleaning up the place though, because the neighbors often noticed a horrific smell emanating from Grossman’s doorway. He usually explained its was down to some spoiled chicken, left out on the window sill by accident. 

Understandably, nobody really wanted to get any more involved in Grossman’s business than they had to, so they kind of just accepted his excuses and left him to it. The kinds of arrangements he was striking up with these women weren’t particularly strange in interwar Berlin, where unemployment and poverty were rife.

What was strange though, was the fact that more women seemed to enter Carl’s apartment than ever left…

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DISAPPEARANCES 

It was around the same time that the Berlin police were battling a spate of missing persons cases. From the spring of 1918, the brutally dismembered bodies of young women had been periodically discovered in the Luisenstadt Canal and Engelbecken Reservoir. Many were never identified.

Luisenstadt Canal and Engelbecken Reservoir

The killings continued over the next few years, and in October 1920 a woman named Freida Schubert wound up as the latest victim. She had been working as a prostitute at the time, and when the police interviewed witnesses at her usual haunts, they reported seeing her head off with a John on the evening of her disappearance.

A little more digging revealed this was none other than Carl Grossman, once again living up to his name. Police searched his apartment, and discovered Freida’s handbag. Grossman calmly explained that yes, he had hired her that night, but she had simply left in a hurry and forgotten her bag.

The cases continued to pile up for another 10 months, bringing the total number of bodies to over 20. Throughout this time, Mr Grossman became a familiar face at the local police station. Not because he was under suspicion or anything — he was just having the worst luck with his housekeepers. He filed report after report claiming that his live-in maids were robbing him then vanishing without a trace. Eventually, the police began to get sick of the sight of the guy.

By August 1921, the spate of disappearances and/or murders had reached epidemic levels. The death of 24-year-old Johanna Sonowski was the most recent, and it prompted the police to launch a renewed appeal for information in the area around the station, where it was believed the killer was based. 

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The Strange Sounds

The posters which they put up were spotted by several of Grossman’s suspicious neighbors, including husband and wife Helene and Mannheim Iztig. They were among the many residents who had heard sounds of violence erupting from Grossman’s room late at night, but nobody really complained unless it was keeping them up. 

That was the grim reality of being an impoverished woman back then — violence was seen as a plain fact of life. And even if the violence had been reported, the police weren’t exactly in the habit of rushing to the rescue of destitute runaways. After discovering that an infamous serial killer might be living in their neighborhood, however, the Iztigs started to take the plight of Grossman’s partners a bit more seriously. 

These top-tier busybodies drilled a hole in his door, and observed him hitting several women, but that’s as far as it ever went. They reported what they saw to the police, but like I said, domestic violence against ‘fallen women’ was barely even considered criminal back then. 

It would be another couple of weeks before the incident which finally brought the police back to Grossman’s door. On the 21st of August, while walking through Andreasplatz Park he happened across a young woman named Marie Nietsche. She had just been released from Moabit Prison after serving a month-long sentence, and she took him up on his offer of lunch and a few drinks. 

Late that night, the residents of 88/89 Langestrasse were once again awoken by the sounds of screaming on the 4th floor. But this time, it was so loud and tortured, that even that laissez-faire lot decided they had to intervene. Grossman’s landlady, who lived in the apartment above, fetched the police. 

When they kicked open the door to the apartment, they found Marie on the bed with her hands and feet tied. She had been bludgeoned to death. Grossman stood over the body, in the process of cutting it to pieces. 

Finally the neighbors understood that, for the past two years, they had been listening to the murder and dismemberment of innocent women, and none of them had done a damn thing about it…

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THE PAST ARRESTS

Perhaps if his neighbors had been offered a peek at Carl’s criminal record, they might not have been so chill about his late-night hobbies. His most recent charge was for first-degree murder, but the list of offenses went back over three decades.

It started with a short jail sentence for begging, and then took a bizarre turn when he was arrested for an… indecent act with a sheep in 1896. [I know you want me to make a joke about the Welsh here, but I’m better than that. And so should you be. / I could easily make a joke about the Welsh here, but I’ll take the high road instead. You’re welcome].

Things took an even darker turn the following year, when Grossman was convicted of the sexual assault of an underaged girl in Nuremberg. Following that was another case of sexual assault on two minors, which landed him a 15-year stint of penal servitude.

So how did he manage to go about his deadly business even with over 25 convictions hanging over his head? Well, throughout his youth, Grossman spent much of his time traveling around the country in search of agricultural work. It’s likely nobody in his neighborhood had any idea what he got up to in those distant rural districts.

Even if they did, some of them had a reason to keep their mouths shut. Like I mentioned before, Grossman was relatively wealthy in the slums of Berlin, and he had lent out money to a good few of his neighbors, including the Iztigs.

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REVELATIONS

And that wasn’t all this good Samaritan did to enrich his local community. Remember when I mentioned his stint as a black market meat dealer during the war? Well, as it turns out many of the people in the area had been buying from him.

When the media caught wind of this story, they gave Grossman his iconic nickname, The Berlin Butcher, and began to indulge in some macabre speculation. See, given the hacked-up state of the bodies, and Grossman’s past work experience, the police were entertaining the idea that he might have actually disposed of his victims by selling their meat to his customers.

This means that the bratwursts at his cart might have actually contained pieces of the women he murdered. Of course, 1920s forensics was pretty much still stuck in the dark ages, so there’s no way to know for sure, but the tabloids took this angle and ran with it, turning it into the most popular version of events.

What I will say is that it wouldn’t be completely unprecedented. Another German serial killer named Karl Denke had been killing and cannibalizing homeless people around the same time Grossman was active. Denke also ran a small meat shop in his town, and was strongly suspected of selling off the meat of his victims to turn a profit from his crimes.

Whether either of the men really sold their victims as food is lost to history, as is the true extent of their crimes. As for the Berlin Butcher, reports from the time vary as to how many women’s lives he claimed. What we know for sure is that the police found blood stains believed to be from three more victims, meaning four had died there in recent months. Grossman eventually admitted to that same total during interrogations.

A newspaper report from 1921, however, puts the number much higher. Based on police reports and the killer’s personal diary, this report claimed that Grossman was strongly suspected of more than twenty killings in as many years, some of them linked to the unidentified bodies found in the reservoir and canal. 

But without even a name for many of these victims, the police didn’t have much to build any additional charges on. The ones he had confessed to would just have to do. And so, in July 1922, almost one year after his arrest, Grossman was brought to trial.

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TRIAL AND DEATH

During the trial, the prosecution brought forward a parade of witnesses who testified to Grossman’s propensity for violence. These included several of the women who he had brought back to his apartment in the past. One woman named Erika reported being too creeped out by the guy and his strange-smelling bedsit, deciding to back out of the arrangement at the last minute.

Other survivors had less fortunate stories to tell, about how they had to endure Grossman’s sexual assaults and beatings after taking him up on his offers out of desperation.In his defence, Grossman just explained that he had killed the three women in a rage they tried to steal money from him. 

Crimes of passion were generally viewed with more leniency than cold-blooded killings, but Grossman must have sensed that his story wasn’t going to fly. On the 5th of July, just three days into the proceedings, he was found hanging dead in his jail cell. 

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Wrap Up

Whether dished out by the state or himself, death by hanging was an inevitability for the Berlin Butcher, so he had essentially just expedited the process. With him died the knowledge of just how many victims he claimed throughout his criminal career, and whether or not those train station hot dogs were really fit for human consumption.

It’s a pretty grim tale from start to finish, but I guess if we’re looking to take something away from it, it’d be this: if you ever find yourself in the same position as Grossman’s neighbors, do you really want to hold off on calling the police until it turns into some horrible story like this? 

That and the golden rule: never buy indiscriminate meat from shady guys down the pub, but I reckon you already knew that.

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Note

Going with this academic piece as the primary source as there’s a lot of fiction out there. It doesn’t push the cannibalism angle, so I just introduce that as media speculation. It also mentions that he killed himself before the trial concluded, whereas most true crime pages make it sound like he killed himself after the sentencing. 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt9qct7p.10.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A15b55609ccdca9d93a7901bc59aed4c8

We could change it to the more common version, in which he is sentenced to death and then kills himself, as the academic piece is admittedly brief on the matter.

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