Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Daughter-Dungeon of Joseph Fritzl


On August 28, 1984, the day that 18-year old Elisabeth Fritzl's father demanded that she help him carry a new door down to the basement, she could little have imagined the years of terror that would ensue from that simple chore. While such a mundane request would not ordinarily seem ominous, Josef Fritzl was no ordinary father. The imposing, stern man had allegedly first raped his daughter Elisabeth when she was just 11 years old. She had already tried to run away from home at 16, and she was again plotting an escape.

Map of Austria with Amstetten locator
Map of Austria with Amstetten locator

During the nearly 25 years that would follow no one — not Elisabeth's mother or six siblings, not her neighbors or the family's tenants, not the local or national authorities — imagined the horrors taking place just beneath their view in the tiny Austrian town of Amstetten. Or so we would like to think. We might like to think that nothing could have been done differently, that, regrettable as this was, it was unique and unavoidable, no one's fault. We might like to think that we are safe. We would like to think that kind hearts are watching out for us and that we do what we can for each other; we would like to think that, should unspeakable evil arise, simple decency and social safeguards will ward it off.

Elisabeth Fritzl
Elisabeth Fritzl

But were there no clues? Was there no way Elisabeth Fritzl might have been spared?

On that fateful day in 1984 Elisabeth Fritzl did as she was told. She followed her father into the basement. There he handcuffed her, drugged her, and kept her captive for 24 years. For 24 years, Josef Fritzl vented his most monstrous impulses on his own daughter; over the course of which she would bear him seven children. For 24 years, he got away with it. The torture took place just feet from his wife Rosemarie, just a few floors down from his tenants; just down the street from the butcher, the baker and the post office.

How did this happen? Was Josef Fritzl a criminal mastermind, as devious as he was deviant? Or is it simply that no one was paying attention, that no one picked up on the hints of something awry, those incongruous details that betray something vicious? The Fritzl story's beginnings testify to the mad man's planning skills, if nothing else.

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