Karl Denke developed a reputation as a devout Evangelical, and became a well-liked and respected member of his community. A friendly avuncular figure, always kind and helpful to people, he was nicknamed “Vatter Denke“, German for “Papa Denke“, by his admiring neighbors. His standing took a turn for the worse in 1924, when people discovered just who the real Papa Denke was.
On December 21st, 1924, a passerby heard cries for help coming from Denke’s house. Rushing in, he encountered a young man staggering in a corridor, and bleeding copiously from a head wound. Before collapsing on the floor, the victim blurted out that “Papa Denke” had attacked him with an ax. Police were called, and Denke was arrested. A search of his house turned up identification papers for a dozen men, plus various items of male clothing whose size precluded them from belonging to Denke.
What most shocked police about Karl Denke’s house was the kitchen. There, they found two large tubs, containing meat pickling in brine. The meat was attached to human bones, and by tallying the various bits, investigators estimated the Papa Denke had been in the process of pickling up to thirty victims. Police also found a notebook, in which Denke had listed the names of many more victims, with the dates of their murders going back to 1921, plus the weight of their pickled bodies.
Investigators did not get the opportunity to grill Denke about his motives: during his first night in prison, he used a handkerchief to hang himself in his cell. However, evidence gathered revealed that he ate his victims. He also disposed of their meat by feeding it to guests, jarring it and selling it as pickled pork, or giving jars of the “pickled pork” to his neighbors as gifts.
The inspiration behind Bluebeard, Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was an aristocrat from Brittany. De Rais was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc‘s chief captain and right-hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was an outright monster.
De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families in France. From an early age, de Rais seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age fifteen, he had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427.
When Joan of Arc emerged in 1429 to challenge the English, Gilles de Rais was one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to guard The Maid of Orleans, and fought in several battles at her side. De Rais particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
De Rais inherited significant estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon emerged that he was not as good at managing money as he was at managing men in battle. It did not take de Rais long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king.
Within a year of de Rais’ retirement, he lost most of his lands, and his family secured from the king a decree forbidding him from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, de Rais turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.
Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic de Rais got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation of Gilles, which unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once-celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.
The killer, Gilles de Rais’ modus operandi was to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candy, toys, or clothing. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, before leading them to a bedroom. There, de Rais and his accomplices would seize their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching the children’s fear, when he explained what was in store for them.
What was in store was not good. Suffice it to say that it that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothing would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After de Rais confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
Ancient China’s Prince Liu Pengli was a member of the ruling Han Dynasty. He was also the first serial killer in recorded history. In 144 BC, Emperor Jing, Liu Pengli’s cousin, appointed him king of the city of Jidong and the surrounding district. That was bad news for the good people of Jidong, who would be ruled by Pengli for the next 23 years.
The killer, Pengli preyed upon his subjects, killing them for kicks and giggles. He probably would have liked the Ramsey Bolton character from Game of Thrones, because, like that fictitious character, Pengli enjoyed hunting human beings for sport. At least 100 people were murdered by Pengli for his amusement, and the true number of his victims was probably higher. His reign of psychotic terror lasted for over two decades, during which his subjects were too scared to come out of their homes at night. It only came to an end after one of Pengli’s victims finally screwed up the courage to travel to the imperial capital, where he complained to the emperor.
Throughout most of history, justice has often been illusory, and usually unequal. Which explains why Prince Penglii got off light: he was not executed, but was simply stripped of his rank and banished. As described by Han historian Sima Qian:
“Liu Pengli was arrogant and cruel, and paid no attention to the etiquette demanded between ruler and subject. In the evenings he used to go out on marauding expeditions with twenty or thirty slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport. When the affair came to light … it was found he had murdered at least 100 or more persons. Everyone in the kingdom knew about his ways, so that the people were afraid to venture out of their houses at night. The son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the [Han Emperor], and the Han officials requested that he be executed. The emperor could not bear to carry out their recommendation, but made him a commoner and banished him to Shangyong“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading