History Thread: The Serienmörder Who Never Was

When Germans living the Weimar Republic weren’t battling unemployment, rampant inflation or dodging street battles between political extremists, they shuddered at stories of killers in their midst. German newspapers burst with accounts of monsters disguised as respected citizens. Peter Kürten, the union organizer who moonlighted as the “Vampire of Düsseldorf,” sexually assaulted, murdered and occasionally drank the blood of girls and women in that city throughout the late ’20s. In Hanover, insurance clerk Fritz Haarmann became a “Wolf Man” who killed 27 victims, many by biting their throats. Most chilling of all was Karl Denke, a mild-mannered Silesian butcher whose smoked pork and sausages turned out to be human flesh, turning ordinary Germans into unwitting accomplices.

To sociologists, it was easy to connect this eruption of murderes – motivated by perverse, inscrutable urges – with the country’s supposed sickness. Ernst Gennat of the Berlin Police noted that Germans responded with a “psychosis…something like a state of war”: fear of being killed by a diabolic fiend, hiding in plain sight dominated their thoughts and actions (manifesting in books, films, doggerrel and even nursery rhymes inspired by the killings). 1 That men might turn to crime in the desperate postwar climate shocked no one. That their crimes were driven not by poverty or politics but a sick impulse to kill, mutilate and even eat their fellow man was horrifying.

Gennat, who investigated most of these cases, coined a fresh term to describe multiple murderers: Serienmörder (serial killer). Though the term took decades to catch on, it aptly described the systematic psychoses of Germany’s new “vampires.” No ravening ghoul like Nosferatu, Weimar’s monster was more likely the man next door. And once they started to kill, it appeared, there was no stopping them short of arrest or death.

Peter Kürten

Even in such august company, one would expect that Harry Whitecliffe might rate a mention. This supposed serial killer was reputed by one book to have murdered thirty-one victims, mostly women, in the ’20s and ’30s while living a dual life as an acclaimed playwright. Yet the true story of “Harry Whitecliffe” doesn’t quite fit this pattern; a killer yes, but hardly a blood-drinking ghoul. And for another thing, Harry Whitecliffe wasn’t his name.

The story begins in London circa 1920. A first-time author, Harry Whitecliffe, issues a collection of stories and one-act plays, entitled Similia, that are an elaborate homage to the work of Oscar Wilde. The book generates widespread acclaim and excitement; yet no one knows the author’s identity. He carefully cultivates his anonymity; his agent reviews to provide information; interviewers turn away frustrated. Speculation buzzes around the press, suggesting that Whitecliffe was a practical joke by an established writer.

Then Whitecliffe appears. Just 23 years old, he is a literary wunderkind possessing looks, talent and wit. The press gushes over his eccentricities: he insists on stocking his home with roses of stems no longer than twenty centimeters, and insists his publishers pay him him ten pound notes, “the only ones he can stand.” He becomes a star of London’s literary scene; Similia goes into production on the West End, running for over a year. If Whitecliffe engages in some vices (whispers swirled that he was a ladies’ man, bedding London’s most eligible young women) and disappears for weeks a time, it only enhances his mystique.

Dresden in the ’20s

In 1924, Whitecliffe departs London on an ostensible vacation to the continent. Instead of vacationing, he relocates permanent to Dresden, translating his work into German and contracting with Berlin theater moguls to produce it. His German is impeccable, his charm undimmed, and he makes the same impression in Berlin as in London. Yet by all accounts he lives far differently in Germany; no longer a swinger, he inhabits a cozy Dresden apartment full of English literature, French art and German kitsch, rarely venturing out after dark.

Once a playboy, Whitecliffe begina courting the lovely Wally von Hammerstein. The daughter of a wealthy Bavarian family, Wally lovea horses and theater in equal measure. Unsurprisingly, then, she falls for Whitecliffe; the two are regularly seen riding together in the Saxon countryside. Harry and Wally are engaged to be married in October 1924. Then, just a few weeks before the wedding, Whitecliffe disappears without explanation. Police and detectives are unable to locate him; as days drag on to weeks, the von Hammersteins fear the worst.

Then, one day, Wally receives an extraordinary letter. It was found in the cell of a condemned murderer, Lovach Blume, languishing in a Berlin jail. The letter proves to be an extraordinary confession: Harry Whitecliffe, English literary wunderkind, was a gruesome German Serienmörder. Blume, the letter claims, was born to a German father and a Danish mother in Australia, where he learned fluent English. Then he relocated to London, where Blume the killer matured alongside Whitecliffe the writer.

Fritz Haarmann heading to trial

“Every ten days, I have to kill,” he confessed. “I am pushed by an irresistible force, and, until I have killed, I suffer atrociously.  But when I cut open my victims, I feel an indescribable pleasure…” Thirty-one victims in all, butchered with a Malaysian kriss; most were prostitutes, slain in the manner of Jack of the Ripper. He started his work in London, whose sex workers learned to become wary of “Uncle Harry,” who approached them with “his shoulders bent… [and] that vague look in his eyes that is peculiar to dope fiends.”

After his first few murders, Whitecliffe attracted the attention of Scotland Yard. He relocated, quickly finding a new crop of victims in Germany. When police in Berlin began investigating, he switched targets to postal workers, robbing them to disguise his motives. His downfall came by pure chance; police, confusing him with a drug kingpin, raided Blume’s apartment by mistake. They found him standing naked over a freshly-killled victim, bloody kriss in hand.

Having confessed all this, Blume assures Wally that his love for her was sincere. “Every time I saw you the obsession would gain possession of me,” he admitted. “I wanted to kill you and was afraid of myself.” But the lovestruck “Harry” restrained himself in her presence, hoping that marriage might kill his urges. He adds that he didn’t fear execution, so long as he was beheaded rather than hanged. As it happened, he had the opportunity for neither; guards found Blume in his cell one day, having committed suicide with a smuggled razor.

Karl Denke

This story appeared in the Hearst flagship San Francisco Examiner in June 1924, accompanied by imaginative illustrations. The penny dreadful narrative recounts further that Wally, shocked by her fiance’s true identity, secreted herself to a nunnery where she could pray for Harry’s soul. In the age of Düsseldorf vampires and Hanover wolfmen, of Spartakists and Freikorps killers, it’s possible few readers batted an eye at Whitecliffe’s crimes. To Americans whose memories of wartime propaganda remained fresh, even cultured, intellectual Germans were beasts, waiting for something – if not a madman’s impulse, than some kaiser, fuhrer or kommissar – to unleash their madness.

Too bad that, when other writers tried to investigate, none could verify that Harry Whitecliffe (or poor Wally) ever existed, or that a play called Similia had ever been performed or published, in London or anywhere. Most concluded that it was yet another concoction of the Hearst Empire, inventing news to boost sales. Like so many tabloid wonders, the Whitecliffe-Blum story faded from memory, until French occult writers Louis Pauwels and Guy Breton revived the story fifty years later.

Yet the Harry Whitecliffe story wasn’t a complete invention. Thelma Holland, Oscar Wilde’s daughter-in-law, was intrigued by the story’s connection to her relative and investigated. She discovered that Germany was indeed victimized by a killer named Blume in the interwar years…but that’s about all the Examiner got right. Lovach Blume, in fact, was Wilhelm Blume; he was not a depraved serial killer driven by animal urges, but a calculating confidence man who occasionally resorted to murder. Less Hans Beckert than a small-time Dr. Mabuse, in Fritz Lang terms. His tale provides a window into another bizarre Weimar crime wave.

A fatal postal order: found at one crime scene

In January 1919, a nobleman named Baron von Winterfeldt checked himself into Berlin’s Hotel Adlon. First built in 1907, the Adlon was one of Berlin’s largest luxury hotels, containing 305 rooms, with 391 beds and 140 bathrooms; among its original guests were Kaiser Wilhelm and his wife. It was a favorite of German nobles, foreign dignitaries (Tsar Nicholas stayed there during his final, prewar visit to Germany), businessmen (John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison) and movie stars (Greta Garbo, Josephine Baker and Charlie Chaplin) on business, vacation or both.

Baron Winterfeldt, however, had something more than relaxation in mind. Berlin was still a war-torn city, with the Communist Spartakus League in the midst of its failed revolution. Winterfeldt made the rounds of the city’s banks and financial centers posting self-printed leaflets. The Revolution was at hand, Winterfeldt warned, and the Spartakists planned to nationalize all money in the city’s banks. To avoid this, Winterfeldt advised, rich investors should withdraw their money and take it home at once. They could further contact him for information about future investments.

But Winterfeldt was an impatient man, and he arranged for a postal worker to visit his suite delivering a consignment of money…that Winterfeldt had sent himself. After finishing a lavish meal, Winterfeldt strangled the mailman with a hand-tied noose, hid the body and stole his cash. Police were quickly alerted to the crime, forcing Winterfeldt to abort his investment con and leave Berlin. With authorities busy mopping up after the failed Revolution, the conman-killer easily disappeared from the city, with thousands of Reichsmarks in hand.

Hotel Adlon

Winterfeldt’s bold caper briefly captured public attention, filling dozens of column inches in Berlin papers. But his case was soon overshadowed by an even more audacious crime at the rival Grand Hotel Alexanderplatz; in February, two men posing as soldiers shot and robbed a wealthy businessman of 20,000 marks in his hotel room. An attractive “female swindler” made her way through the city’s hotels soon after, taking money for orders of wine and other luxury goods from wealthy tourists before disappearing. Hotels, a reliable gathering place for the rich, proved irresistible for criminals; the Baron was one crook among many.

Then, six months later, a businessman in Dresden was attacked on his porch by a man wielding two revolvers. The robbery was botched when the robber’s guns misfired; the victim escaped and locked himself inside. Authorities found the would-be robber still stalking around the porch, pistols in hand. He opened fire on the officers, wounding one of them. A wild shootout erupted as the shooter fled into the street; eventually, a police marksman wounded him with a well-placed bullet. As officers closed in, the shooter tried to kill himself; his revolver misfired again, and police finally overpowered him.

Wilhelm Blume

The would-be robber was identified as Wilhelm Blume, a minor poet, writer and literary translator. Blume made a living translating English plays into German which he published in a small periodical, named Dorian Verlag in homage to Oscar Wilde. It’s unclear why this “man of wide culture and considerable literary gifts” had turned to crime; the most plausible explanation is that Blume’s magazine was failing to sell in postwar Germany. Possessing equal measures charm, intelligence and desperation, he became a conman and killer.

Under questioning, Blume readily confessed to the Hotel Adlon murder and his plan to trick, then rob Berliners out of their bank savings. He regularly used the Baron von Winterfeldt identity, both for crimes and to sell his own stories to other periodicals (one of them an unproduced play about a murderer). Although his robberies were meticulously planned, his weapons varied. He confessed to another murder where, instead of using a noose, he slit his victim’s throat with a razor. On other occasions, when expecting resistance, Blume resorted to firearms (though, as evidenced by his final job, he wasn’t very skilled with them).

Wilhelm Blume’s crime spree was reported in both domestic and international papers; soon after his arrest, he committed suicide while awaiting trial. Presumably, some Hearst columnist conflated his story and literary background with the proliferating tales of mass murder; they created a criminal Frankenstein embodying the debased kultur of Weimar Germany. The only mystery is why later writers repeated the story; except that, yet again, a good story easily outruns the truth.