Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Daughter-Dungeon of Joseph Fritzl

Building a Chamber of Horrors

House where Josef Fritzl kept his daughter captive
House where Josef Fritzl kept his daughter captive

Fritzl had apparently been planning his chamber of horrors for quite some time before finally luring his daughter downstairs. In 1978 — around the time of his first rape of his daughter, according to her later statement — he began working on a subterranean extension to his modest but comfortable three-story home in Lower Austria's Amstetten. Permits and building inspection records attest to a much smaller extension than Fritzl seems to have made even by 1983. Already, Fritzl knew he had something to conceal from the authorities: he built walls to hide the full size of his underground addition, hiding a smaller cellar behind the visible basement.

Elisabeth helped her father to position the hulking steel-and-concrete door that would hold her for years. For much of her first year there, she was tied up like a dog. Then Fritzl let her off the leash — to roam "freely" in the 15' x 15' cell that was her sunless home.

Soon they would need more room; Fritzl's unending incestuous abuse of his captive daughter would produce seven children. After the first two were born, he started to further expand the cellar. Or, rather, Elisabeth did, as he made her do the work herself. Her reward for this ten-year project? He would rape her in one of the new rooms, rather than right in front of their children.

An engineer and electrician, Fritzl proved himself adept at dungeon design. He installed electronic locks on each of the rooms' doors, and locked the main door with a remote code. Windowless and just five-and-a-half feet high, the wood-trimmed white rooms were surprisingly bright in their unnatural light, and Elisabeth kept them clean. There was a TV, a VCR, hotplates, a refrigerator. But this wasn't a comfortable place to spend a short time, much less decades: in the end, police investigators would find they could work in this stifling hole for only limited periods and that they needed to drill holes to increase the air flow in the rooms.

Neighbors report having heard noise from all the construction over the years, but they never pressed for an explanation, perhaps content to find that nothing was being built that would block their views. Nor did the lodgers who rented from the Fritzls complain; they knew that they would be evicted if they went down to the garden or the basement, where Fritzl told his wife he was working and was not to be disturbed. Once complete, the basement was nearly soundproof, and Fritzl could blame any sporadic noise the tenants might complain about on the heating system.

But what could motivate a father to make such elaborate efforts to imprison his own daughter?

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